Our European guru educates and enlightens
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Though ostensibly concerned with Ireland’s struggle for independence, W.B. Yeats’ most famous poem The Second Coming also prophesies the degeneration of the football media and the passionate intensity of Chris Kamara, Alan Green and the callers on a zillion radio phone-ins.
To crowbar in another literary reference, Britain’s football media could be summed up by the title of Martin Ami’s most entertaining essay collection The Moronic Inferno.
In age where clichés are passed off as gospel truths, one of the many dubious truisms is that smaller Premier League clubs cannot afford to play attractive, enterprising football if they want to survive.
Alan Green: Passion, intensity, a face for radio...
There is only one flaw with this theory. It is utter, absolute b*ll*cks.
Any enterprising manager might want to consider the influential, if chequered career of Zdenek Zeman, Serie A’s great, iconoclastic coach.
True, the Czech maverick has never won the Scudetto, but he has shown a remarkable gift for squaring the circle that destroys many English coaches: creating successful entertaining teams without spending a fortune.
His sides have come second, third and fourth in Serie A and won three promotions.
The next issue of Champions carries a revealing interview with Zeman by Gabriele Marcotti in which, among other things, he declares: “I don’t think you need great players to play great football. What you do need is guys who are passionate, work hard and know how to execute.”
From Palermo’s youth teams to Roma, Zeman’s sides have played a brand of football defined by “movement, speed and execution”, a 4-3-3 formation and attack: “It’s not rocket science, it’s simple math: the more guys you have trying to score, the more you will score.”
Zeman loved it when a plan came together (yeah, we know it's not a cigar...)
So why, if he’s that good, isn’t Zeman in management today? The answer in part is that his ideas are too radical even for calcio, arguably the major league that is most receptive to new tactics.
His style demands a lot physically from players during a match and in training. And players, especially those arrogant enough to think they’ve already made it, aren’t always prepared to make that commitment. (Although they might think it worth the effort in the long run because, the Czech coach insists, they will get injured less.)
Zeman can’t understand why footballers are stressed by training. Indeed, his analysis of the physical demands on players raises one of Marcotti’s favourite themes: how good would footballers be if they trained as hard as other sportsmen? That question might be another aspect of Zdenek’s enigmatic legacy.
Yet as Marcotti points out, the results can be spectacular. Zeman took Foggia up two divisions as coach. In 1991/92, Foggia played some truly scintillating football as they finished ninth in Serie A in 1991/92.
That summer, Zeman did something that seemed like an act of professional suicide: he let most of his stars go and hired a bunch of players from the third division. His reward? Foggia finished a respectable 11th.
Zeman’s transformational genius as coach has unearthed or polished such gems as Alessandro Nesta, Dan Petrescu, Salvatore Schillaci, Giuseppe Signori and Francesco Totti.
"Oh sh*t, I forgot to sign substitutes!"
Could someone do a Zeman in England? It would be nice to think so. But new training methods can prove a tad controversial in the Premier League.
There are too many “one-dimensional footballers” (as Zeman calls them, referring to players who focus only on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses) in England for his football of movement, speed and execution to succeed easily.
Yet, for a chairman with courage, patience and vision – if indeed such paragons are to be found in the modern game – his brand of football could be worth the risk.
Unlike the best in Yeats’ classic poem, Zeman does not lack conviction. He is convinced his ideas are simply ahead of his time.
Now 63, he is living, if unemployed, proof that managing an unfashionable team successfully doesn’t have to be a matter of just keeping it tight at the back, getting stuck in and taking your chances.
That mantra may play well in the more conservative sectors of English football but the lingering popularity of the Monsieur Rosbif school probably explains why none of the 32 teams in this season’s UEFA Champions League had an English coach and why the only English manager to impress in Europe this season – Roy Hodgson – had to go abroad to make his name.
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I am genuinely quite ashamed at the mentality of the vast majority of British managers at the top end of the game. I am convinced that the style of play of such teams as Blackburn, Birmingham, even Aston Villa and Everton is out-dated and old-fashioned. Moreso it does not work, especially when you pit it up against the modern, continental style in Europe.
Just look at Everton, their a-typical blood and thunder 'English style' of football produced results such as their 5-0 destruction at the hands of Benfica or their 3-0 hammering by Sporting this season (deviating from the point slightly but has anyone else notice how Everton, Aston Villa et al seem to play without a midfield? Look at Hodgson's Fulham. There is a team that uses the centre of the park for intelligent, passing football, not the ultra-direct and brainless, low technique style prevalent in England, and of course it pays off which their results in Europe are testament to).
I am deviating from Mr. Simpson's point slightly, but it all comes back to British managers being stuck in their outdated ways and philosophy, when the rest of the world has moved on.
This is like a personal crusade of mine - to see an English football revolution, where our whole ugly and terminally unsuccessful style of today is consigned to the history books. Spain had a revolution during the 1980s, similarly France and Germany have also transformed their football more recently and it is about bloody time England did the same.
The evidence is so blatant it is laughable and infuriating we are not changing: one final since 1966.
The reason zeman is unemployed is because he criticised Italian football as corrupt as much as his coaching methods. If he was a great coach he would be able to inculcate his methods, maybe he isn't that great?
And as for claiming Hodgson's win over an abysmal Juve make him a supercoach, he didn't look that super against spurs did he? And his methods are as traditional english as it's possible to be.
Yes there's an arrogance and insularity about a lot of english coaching, but to proclaim everything foreign as automatically superior is as dumb as the obverse.
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