Coverciano – The Italian Job

Coverciano, also known as Casa Italia, located in Florence Italy, is the central training ground and technical headquarters of the Italian Football Federation.

Footballing nations all have their own styles and philosophies, so what makes Italian coaches more appealing, successful and coveted more than the others?

Italy has a coaching school called Coverciano, where trainee coaches are taught about a plethora of different tactical systems, and encouraged to bring their own ideas. Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello, Claudio Ranieri and Marcello Lippi are a few Coverciano graduates, and look at what they have achieved. Known for their intelligent and diverse tactics, Italian coaches have been credited for being the best in the business.

In Italy, tactics and organisation are paramount, thus, a great deal of importance is placed on the quality of managers. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that, when ranking European Cup and Champions League-winning managers by nationality, Italy comes out on top with 11 titles, ahead of Spain (10), Germany and England (both on 7). It is also not surprising to note, that out of over 70 managers /head coaches across Europe’s 4 major leagues, 27% of them — the highest proportion of any represented nationality — are Italians.

Producing great coaches is not a recent phenomenon with Italy, as there have been many of them in football history, Vittorio Pozzo, Nereo Rocco, Fulvio Bernardini and Arrigo Sacchi just to name a few. The likes of Arrigo Sacchi, Dino Zoff, Cesare Maldini, Enzo Bearzot, Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti Antonio Conte and recently Claudio Ranieri have led their respective teams to glory through their tactical ingenuity and man-management skills.

This leads us to the question ‘what is the Italian job’?

Truth be told, Italians are on a mission…win more trophies, play the best possible football, restore confidence in their football after the match fixing scandals, and last but not the least, become the league of choice for the best players & coaches in football. Italian teams seem to have gone through a transition recently, not only with their players, but most importantly their Managers as well.

Is it their minute attention to details, or by having a career as top level internationals, well the latter is generic now in football with ex- internationals accounting for about 80% of coaches. Now to think outside the box, maybe it comes down to their tactical knowledge and the ability to form a group dynamic, an atmosphere in the dressing room, genuine fighting spirits; gladiators and true affection in their teams.

Very clear regarding what needs to be done in order to win and not forgetting their adaptation levels in foreign countries is second to none. As taught in coverciano every game requires not only a plan A but a plan B and probably a good old plan C (miss the ball don’t miss the leg, defend with your lives, don’t leave the pitch without torn jerseys-just kidding). In years gone by we have always talked about the Italians being defensive-minded, but that has never been the case, simply put they are extremely well organised.

In order to drive this home like Nemanja Matic’s 25 yards howler against Spurs at Wembley in their FA cup semi–final match v Chelsea, let’s look at England- the best league in the world.

The English believe that a stellar playing career equals to a stellar coaching career… if only footie was mathematics, am sure players like Ronaldinho would never have graced our screens. Their players know the game so well they don’t need to be taught how to become the best coaches, so the players go straight into management, on retiring (Gerrard is now Liverpool’s U18s coach) and then decry their ineptness when their tactical limitations are inevitably revealed during competitions.

Since the Premier League was formed in 1992, not a single English manager has won the title. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the last Englishman to finish second in the top flight was Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United over 20 years ago. The ones that have done well were protégées to coaches of other nationalities.

Gary Neville’s sacking at Valencia is just the latest proof of the appalling state of English coaching. The whole footballing culture within England and its media must change, if they want to move forward. The state of English coaching at the highest level is quite frankly embarrassing. The FA and Premier League should be ashamed. Neville’s dismissal by Valencia means there are now no English coaches in La Liga (of course Tony Adams was just appointed by Granada, and has already lost his first four games), Serie A, Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga. The truth of the matter is that they are just not good enough. Whether the country wants to accept it or not, their inadequacies and shortcomings are not down to a lack of opportunity but are a by-product of the parochial footballing culture…old and outdated like Big Ben.

Neville’s dreadful four-month spell as coach of Valencia, took him 9 weeks, Yes! NINE to win a single league and left them 6 points staring at the relegation zone, is now the norm for English ‘gaffers’. Imagine if it was Conte or Jose or even Koeman – the English media would have verbally stripped them of their coaching badges and retired them. Recall how Bob Bradley was embarrassed. But the English as a whole, bluntly put, lacks footballing intellect when compared to their rivals- especially Italians.

One major reason for this is the notoriously biased, inward-looking British press which would have you believe that the only football being played in the world is in the Premier League, the “best league in the world.” As much as we all love the EPL, with its drama, no guts, no glory narratives, it’s far from the truth.

Language barrier is one impediment to young aspiring players and coaches in England as they are not granted the footballing education required for them to compete with their foreign peers. They can’t study abroad so to say. Imagine a Jose Mourinho that speaks 4 languages fluently, or is it Carlo Ancelotti who is fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and now German, even Conte now speaks audible and comprehensible English that enable him do pressers very comfortably. I recall an apt expression when Pep Guardiola was announced as the next Bayern Munich coach… ‘’he was learning German like a possessed man’’ said one article. England for most part make excuses with clichés and decades-old stereotypes via journalists and pundits, like Italy still plays ‘Catenaccio,’ ‘never write off the Germans’ ‘Spanish tiki-taka has been found out.’

Since we are on this page, what is this ‘Catenaccio’… if it’s so outdated why are Italians still winning with it?

Italian Catenaccio was influenced by the verrou (also “door bolt/chain” in French) system, invented by Austrian coach Karl Rappan. As coach of Switzerland in the 30s and 40s, he played a defensive sweeper called the verrouilleur, positioned just ahead of the goalkeeper. Rappan’s verrou system, proposed in 1932, when he was coach of Servette, was implemented with four fixed defenders, playing a strict man-to-man marking system, plus a playmaker in the middle of the field who played the ball together with two midfield wings (known as wing-backs today). The key component of Catenaccio was the introduction of the role of a libero (“free”) defender, also called “sweeper”, who was positioned behind a line of three defenders, with the job to recover loose balls, nullify the opponent’s striker and double-mark when necessary. Another important aspect of it was the ‘counter-attack’, mainly based on long passes from the defenders to attackers.

In Italy, the importance of this part of the game is drilled into children from a young age. Coaches study their next opponents meticulously; entire training sessions can be dedicated to planning, their football shows are tactical brainstorming sessions…analysis are forensic, not gossip, transfer fees and history of who’s the most successful.

Right now there’s a new wave of talented technicians that have moved away a bit from the catenaccio style of old and on to a new version/system that is more attack-minded but every bit as effective. Nobody typifies the ‘new kids on the block’’ more than Antonio Conte, Massimiliano Allegri, and the fresh-faced Andrea Stramaccioni.

Everyone at the top level now studies tactics and works hard on the training pitch to instil them into their players. But these men – now aged (47) Conte, Allegri (49), Stramaccioni (41) and Ranieri (65) – grew up in Italian football when a regime of two training sessions a day with great emphasis on punctuality, good nutrition, responsible lifestyles were considered sacrosanct to football business.

These tactical and technical deficiencies of English players were highlighted by Joe Cole on his return from South Africa, after the 2010 World Cup. The ex-Chelsea midfielder was asked where it went wrong for them after being knocked out, his response was this-

“We don’t keep the ball as well as other countries; that’s not a secret. Almost every team I have played for – including England – always want to hit the front players as early as possible. You won’t get away with that at international level. It’s about technique, keeping control of the ball, passing and moving.’’

Interesting statements we must say…succinctly put, England plays ‘’kick and follow’’ football, which is not so in Italy, not so in France, neither in Spain or Germany.

Antonio Conte will become the 4th Italian manager to win the Premier League title. Remarkably, that quartet – in which he would join Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri – will make it four EPL trophies in the past 8 seasons. No English-born manager of course, has won the title since Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92, the year before the Premier League was launched, No French man since 2003-04, no German, Spaniard or Dutchman ever.

During an interview, Trevor Francis had this to say about his time with Sampdoria in the 80s, on how it differs from an English perspective. “when you turn up for training in Italy, the coach isn’t expected to make you happy. It’s like you’re turning up at school, essentially” It sure sounds like a Conte idea. Just before the FA cup tie against Spurs he turned Cobham into a boot camp. Also recall Ranieri in one pressers before he was sacked at Leicester, calling for 11 warriors and gladiators to ensure they survive the drop. Now to burst your bubble, it’s not just in Europe’s traditional big leagues that Italian tacticians are dominating. Spartak Moscow is top of Russia league with Antonio Conte’s former assistant Massimo Carrera as their manager. Hahaha.., now you see even ‘’St. Petersburg’’ has caught the bug.

In giving honour to whom it’s due, I must state a few Italians and their achievements.

Giovanni Trapattoni – arguably the most successful Italian manager of all time, was the 1st Italian tactician to really make his mark abroad. He has won everything there is to win at club level; the Scudetto, the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1989 & 1991 respectively, the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich in 1997, and the Primeira Liga with Benfica in 2005. But, before all of that, he enjoyed an exceptional decade as Juventus head coach. Between 1976 and 1986, Trapattoni took a Bianconeri side with Paolo Rossi to six league titles, 2 Italian cups, 1 European Cup, 1 European Super Cup and 1 Intercontinental Cup.

Arrigo Sacchi – Regarded primarily for revolutionising Italian football tactics, Sacchi brought zonal defence to a country that had relied principally on either rigid man-marking for decades. Silvio Berlusconi appointed Sacchi as Milan coach in 1987 and changed the course of footballing history. Relatively unknown at the time due to his lack of a top-level playing career but, when questioned by the press as to his credentials, stated that: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse.” Combining a mean back four of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini with the elegance and inspiration of Dutch trio Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, Sacchi led Milan to consecutive European Cup victories in 1989 and 1990. No team since has retained the trophy.

Marcello Lippi – Managing Italy to their fourth World Cup in their history is no small feat but the legend has far more to add to his CV. five Serie A titles and a Champions League in 1996 all acquired with Juventus. He rose to the top after incredibly leading Napoli to a UEFA Cup spot despite their horrendous financial situation at the club, after that season he moved to Juventus and the rest, as they say, is history. Lippi will forever be remembered as that architect of Italy’s 2006 World Cup success in Germany.

Carlo Ancelotti- Ancelotti has managed some of the biggest clubs in the world, including Serie A sides Juventus and AC Milan, English Premier League leaders Chelsea FC, not forgetting Ligue 1’s Paris Saint-Germain before Real Madrid and German powerhouse Bayern Munich, football triple AAA-listers. He became just the second manager in history to win three European Cups, after Bob Paisley. “He has won everywhere Italy, Spain, England, France and now about to add Germany. The great thing about Carlo is that you won’t find any one of his players who will have something negative to say about him…”Carlo Ancelotti steered Chelsea to the Premier League double, in his first season, with the same group of players that had seemed unmanageable under his predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Fabio Capello won lots of trophies with AC Milan before moving to Spanish giants Real Madrid in 1996. He won a Spanish league title in his first spell with the Merengues and he added another La Liga title when he returned for the second time in 2006-07.

Massimiliano Allegri- He is very concrete, he is technically and tactically very sound, he can change things around in the course of a game…and he has plenty of courage. For example, not everyone would have dropped (Spaniard Alvaro) Morata to make way for the anger and drive in (Croat striker) Mario Mandzukic which have been fundamental to Juventus coming back to the top echelon of European football.

Roberto Di Matteo- After his sparkling playing career ended prematurely by a serious injury at the age of 31, he moved into management in 2008 and rejoined Chelsea in June 2011 as assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Nine months later, he became caretaker manager, charged with salvaging the Blues’ poor season. In just three months, and without any new signings, he effortlessly imposed a new tactical approach, won over the senior players, dressing room and led the side to FA Cup and Chelsea’s first ever UEFA Champions League trophy, not even the great Jose Mourinho achieved this at Chelsea after two spells.

Luciano Spalletti. He was appointed by Zenit St Petersburg in December 2009, with no titles to boast of as a player, and coaching achievements only 2 Coppa Italia titles with Roma. Their faith was duly rewarded, as he led Zenit to 2 league titles, a Russian Cup and a Russian Super Cup in the space of three years. His intense training sessions initially took the Zenit players by surprise, typical of catenaccio products

From September 2000 to June 2004, Claudio Ranieri managed Chelsea and guided them to a UEFA Champions League semi-finals and an FA Cup Final in his spell at Stamford Bridge. Spells in Italy with Parma, Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan preceded success in France with Monaco. He won the UEFA Intertoto Cup and Copa del Rey with Valencia in 1998/99, he guided Fiorentina back to top-flight Italian football, Serie A from Serie B and the won a Coppa Italia and Super-coppa before he left in 1997.

In his first season as the Foxes’ manager, he guided the pre-season relegation candidates to their first Premier League trophy – a feat that will not be surpassed in the nearest future- the Leicester miracle. A tactician with a quiet and friendly demeanour, who refused to give up after several runners-up trophy with several teams, is a testament to the tenacity, guile, style and effectiveness of the ‘Coverciano’.

We all know who Antonio Conte is and what he’s doing at Chelsea. Opinions might be divided about who produces the world’s best coaches, but the damning evidence says it all- there’s an Italian job on going, right before our noses…how much they will rob other nationalities of fame, success and trophies remains to be seen over time, as they march on in their quest to salvage Italian football from its match–fixing battered pasts!

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