Someone like Zdenek Zeman could probably never emerge in English football. An abrasive and confrontational yet quietly spoken man, puffing on cigarettes whenever he can, he cuts far too distint a figure to survive in English football’s sycophancy. One of his outbursts would be enough for him to be driven out of a country less cynical of its powers-that-be than Italy, no doubt labelled as being “borderline Aspergers” by a clueless BBC journalist.
It isn’t just his personality however. Although his ultra-attacking style of football shares characteristics with traditional English ideals, demanding endless running and that the ball is played forward as quickly as possible, it’s unlikely they would work unless he was at a big side, and he probably wouldn’t have done well enough at smaller sides to earn that move. In England, the emphasis tends to be on big clubs to break grittier small ones down – Zeman’s teams would be torn apart – yet in Italy he’s carved out a decent reputation. Serie A has a reputation has endured a reputation for ultra-defensive football, but, a period in the nineties aside, it isn’t true – it is just that most of the big teams, who outsiders see the most of, adopted catenaccio. Instead of being ground down by a superior team playing the same style as them, many smaller teams played a more attacking brand, resulting in the league with the most tactical variety in the world.
Zdenek Zeman is one of the most popular examples of this – his “Zemanlandia” Foggia side enjoying a cult following – yet he has rarely been given a chance at a big club, the capital clubs excepted (who, despite what should be a beneficial status, are about as provincially-minded as you can get). After taking Foggia to Serie A, he was given the Lazio job, taking them to impressive second and third place finishes before being sacked in January 1997. In the next season, he took over their rivals Roma, where he became popular with the fans for his style of football and controversial swipes at Juventus, laying some of the foundations for Fabio Capello’s success.
Now, years later, he’s back. Only Francesco Totti – then their next big thing – remains, but Zeman’s plan are the same. Rather than footballing influences, Zeman’s ideas came from hockey, resulting in a unique style only really comparable to Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. Everyone presses the opposition, often multiple players hounding the one opponent with the ball at a time, which can cause problems if that player manages to get the ball to an open teammate, with a large chunk of the team surrounding the other player, leaving lots of space.
Despite being set up in a 4-3-3 formation, the midfield doesn’t do a great job of covering the defence – the extremity of their pressing game meaning the trio get dragged about all over the pitch. On top of that, the centre-backs can often get isolated from their full-backs, because the front three stay high up the pitch and the pressing game means Zeman’s full-backs can get dragged out of the defence easily.Â When they manage to pressure the opposition into giving away the ball, the system works; when they don’t, it’s suicidal. With just one very fortunate clean sheet so far this season, it’s leaning to the latter – Nicolas Burdisso proving too slow for their high line, dropped this weekend so teenager Marquinhos could partner fellow Brazilian new signing and former Corinthians teammate Leandro Castan. Solid enough but not a great pairing considering they will see so much action.
Either side of them are Federico Balzaretti and either Ivan Piris or Rodrigo Taddei. The full-backs are the key men in Zeman’s system, however their ability to defend doesn’t really matter: they are simply attackers from deep. When they attack (which is all the time), the wingers tuck in to the centre, dragging the opposition full-backs with them. This gives them time and space to pick out a cross, often for one of the midfielders joining the attack from deep. Balzaretti was one of the stand-out players at Euro 2012, his lung-busting runs key to Italy’s otherwise narrow play, so he fits in easily down the left, while the versatile Rodrigo Taddei was formerly a winger, perfect for Zeman’s ideal full-back. Piris is less experienced, but is still pretty promising – joining in with passing triangles at Sao Paulo and Deportivo Maldonaldo. Regardless of their quality, if the opposition manages to shut down Roma’s full-backs, Zeman’s system doesn’t work: it is geared around them being the link, so, when they can’t, it breaks down.
Although the system is centred around the full-backs, the midfielders can act as a secondary link too. The three keep tight together and bomb forward as a trio, playing passing triangles around the opposition midfield and outnumbering them when joining the forwards. Daniele De Rossi’s future at Roma looks uncertain – he is the obvious man to sit at the base of the midfield, but it is Panagiotis Tachtsidis who has unspectacularly played there so far. De Rossi accepted his position to Tachtsidis’ right, having played there for Italy over the summer, yet he exploded after their mauling at the hands of Juventus, claiming “they knew all of our weaknesses”. After expressing concerns over their very heavy training regime, Zeman made it even more intense and dropped De Rossi for the game against Atalanta. Some have suggested that Zeman’s harsh responses are to force De Rossi out of the club – having lost money over the last year, they accepted a bid from Manchester City only for De Rossi to turn the move down.
Although De Rossi is world class, they do have some decent options to replace him. Michael Bradley returned from injury to take De Rossi’s place and scored a goal – his well-timed runs from midfield exactly what Zeman is looking for; Alessandro Florenzi has put in some solid performances; Miralem Pjanic can add some attacking class when he comes back from injury; and Marquinho offers some mazy runs. None are as good as De Rossi, but are more than capable of filling in if Zeman intends to marginalise him further.
Ahead of them things are pretty self-explanatory: the attackers’ jobs are to attack. Francesco Totti didn’t suit the wide role when he first played under Zeman and he doesn’t now, although, at 36, it is time Roma stopped basing their team around him, even if he is still the source of most of their magic. Pablo Osvaldo hasn’t impressed Zeman either, but Mattia Destro is a good option to fill in, and Erik Lamela is progressing nicely in the other wide position.
Much like Marcelo Bielsa, Zeman is a man you would rather watch managing someone else’s team than your own. It’s always fun to watch, but is rarely balanced enough between attack and defence to be held us a great example of how to play football. Still, he has been moderately successful in Rome before, and with Italian football yet to return to the head of the European football table after Calciopoli, there’s nothing to say he won’t do well.