The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

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Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

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De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

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Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.

 

Vive la revoluce! – Zdeněk Zeman, Foggia and the Serie A tactical rebellion.

“If you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.”

Zdeněk Zeman

 

Italy’s Serie A in the early 1990’s was dominated by defences, a time of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Jurgen Kohler. 1991/92 and 1992/93 champions, Milan, scored 74 and 65 goals during the 34 game campaign, their third successive title win in 1993/94 produced an astonishingly low 36 goals, however they only conceded 15 that year as defences tightened their grip on the best league in the world.

Meanwhile, in Apulia, southern Italy, something was starting which would forever change the way modern managers thought about attacking football. Foggia, were starting their rise up into Serie A and were about to threaten the established order at the top of the league as they became one of the 1990s cult teams. Their stay in the top division would only last four seasons but their aggressive attacking style earned them and in particular, their manager, Zdeněk Zeman, many admirers. Lead by the tactical maverick they finished as Serie B champions by six points in 1991/92 and went on to finish ninth, twice, 12th and 16th in Serie A.

Czech-born, Zeman, came from a sporting background, including volleyball and handball, although he never played football and is the nephew of Cestmir Vycpalek, a coach who lead Juventus to two championships in 1971/72 and 1972/73. In 1975 Zeman completed a degree in Sports Science; something which would heavily influence his future training methods and began coaching with the Palermo youth team. He joined Foggia in 1989.

Heralded as an innovator during his time at Foggia, his tactics are straight from a game of Football Manager and have their origins in the Dutch-born ‘total football’. He used a 4-3-3 formation which allowed the full backs and wingers to join the central striker to form a swarm of attacking players and resulted, more often than not, in goals. On the flip side his teams always played a very high defensive line, pressed the opposition midfield and as a result of the attacking full backs being caught out of position the team was very susceptible to the counter attack. In their Serie B championship season they conceded the most of the top six teams and the following season in Serie A, Foggia conceded the second most goals but also scored the second most too, this would become a very familiar statistic for Zeman’s teams. This tactical style of high pressing and overlapping full backs is widespread today however in the ultra-conservative Serie A in the early nineties it was a radical approach, much like ‘total football’ and ‘catenaccio’ before it.

Zeman’s training regimes were notoriously tough and centred around fitness and physical condition as he demanded his players fully buy in to his tactical revolution. Upon being questioned about the rigidity of his training methods he once replied sternly “no one has ever died from them.”

He never found major success with Foggia, their biggest achievements were just missing out on a UEFA Cup place by three, five and seven points in successive seasons as they continuously punched above their weight. His cavalier attacking approach was ultimately his downfall though as his defence was painfully exposed on occasions. During their first season in Serie A, Foggia drew 4-4, 3-3 (twice) and were defeated 5-2 and 8-2. The 8-2 defeat was after leading at half time, 2-1, away to eventual champions, Milan.

Zeman’s time at Foggia had reached a peak after just four seasons and although they continued to excite crowds across Italy the squad was in decline. The previously unknown players were now stars of the Italian game and were snapped up by bigger clubs. Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi all moved elsewhere in 1992. Future famous faces of European football such as Dan Petrescu, Igor Shalimov, Jose Antonio Chamot and Luigi Di Biagio all came and went during Zemen’s reign and as a result the team floundered and he left the club for Lazio in 1994. Foggia were relegated at the end of the 1994/95 season and have never returned to the top division since.

Lazio were undoubtedly a step up in his career and he is credited with allowing a young Alessandro Nesta to flourish in the first team as his elegant, ball playing abilities suited Zeman’s style and allowed the defence to turn into the attack at a moment’s notice. He experienced more trophy-less heartache though as they finished second and third in his two seasons managing the Biancocelesti. He stuck with his tactical philosophy and his first season included huge home victories over his old club, Foggia, and Fiorentina, 7-1 and 8-2, respectively. Zeman’s second season was mostly successful as their third place finish guaranteed UEFA Cup football again and his tactic of playing to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded was highlighted with successive wins over Sampdoria and Atalanta by a combined score of 11-4.

He was replaced by Dino Zoff in January 1997 after he was fired as a result of Lazio’s poor start to the season. It wasn’t until the season after that we saw him on the touchline again as he moved to the other end of the Olimpico and took charge of rivals, Roma. He guided them to fourth in 1997/98 as they scored 67 goals, a tally only matched by champions, Juventus. As we know that isn’t the full story with Zeman as the team conceded 42 goals (Atalanta, who were relegated, only conceded six more). The following season brought a fifth place finish and the team scored the most goals in Serie A. However, like being stuck on the set of a Bill Murray movie, this was all beginning to look a little familiar; lots of entertaining, high-scoring games, but no trophies. He was replaced by Fabio Capello at the end of the season as Zeman’s career and novelty value attraction had levelled out somewhat. One positive note which Roma fans can thank Zemen for is giving future Roma legend, Francesco Totti, his chance in the first team. Under his guidance he matured immeasurably and was awarded the captaincy in October 1998, he went on to score 27 goals in two seasons with Zeman as manager.

Zeman, despite his revolutionary style, is still virtually unknown outside of Italy, but his style of football has been replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern coaches such as Maurizio Sarri, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp and if Zeman had have been starting his managerial career today he would undoubtedly have been held in similar high regard across the world as his modern peers.

Today he would have been referred to as a type of hipster coach; passing triangles, sports medicine and high pressing. It can be argued if football in the 1990s was the global behemoth it is today Zeman would surely have had a chance to manage one of the top European clubs. As it is he was something of a 1990s version of today’s hipster; an under the radar, sharp dressing, chain-smoking revolutionary who changed the face of attacking football and didn’t mind ruffling a few of the bigger clubs’ feathers.

While at Roma in 1998 he accused the mid-nineties Juventus team of using performance enhancing drugs. His accusations which involved a number of then Juve players led to a long trial in which club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was given a suspended sentence for administering banned substances to players between 1994 and 1998, his sentence was overturned on appeal in 2005. Needless to say Zeman wouldn’t be getting a call from Turin asking him to manage the team anytime soon and his unwillingness to alter his tactics to stem the tide of goals conceded will certainly have tarnished his reputation with the bigger Italian and European clubs.

A lot of football is about timing and this era in Serie A of strong, impenetrable defences was waiting for an attacking revolution. Zeman had filled his Foggia team with unknown, young players and moulded them in his style to become a neutral’s favourite as they hugely overachieved in his managerial reign. This preference of younger players benefited his whole ethos as he was able to instil his own playing style on them rather than trying to change the ways of older, experienced players. This also attributed to his lack of genuine success on both sides of Rome as he took over squads full of expectant and trophy-hungry experienced professionals, not to mention directors with limited patience who didn’t have time for Zemen to bring in the players he wanted in order to continue his trophy quest.

The major trophies never found their way into his possession; just two Serie B titles and one Serie C2 title to show for over 40 years on the touchline. One cannot help but think if he had focused his efforts on improving the defence his teams may have won a trophy or two. However knowing Zeman’s stubborn insistence for entertainment over wins, changing his ways would’ve boarded on the blasphemous and would’ve detracted from the verve and flair with which his teams attacked. Nicknamed The Bohemian, Zeman is now 70 and was recently sacked from Serie B, Pescara. To see such an empty mantelpiece in the Zeman household is a tragedy for one of Italian football’s most influential and controversial characters.