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.