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Zdenek Zeman: Romance at Roma

“It’s good to have enemies,” Winston Churchill once mused. “That means, at some point in your life, you have stood up for something.” Enemies may be putting it strongly, but the Roma manager Zdenek Zeman has had his fair share of critics since he began his professional coaching career in the early 1980s with Licata, a small Sicilian club currently competing in Italy’s fifth tier.

“Zeman really is a dreamer,” wrote the former Juventus midfielder turned pundit Massimo Mauro last month, after Lazio recorded a comfortable victory in the Rome derby. “Always the same football, always the same defeats, and yet he never takes a step back.” The sixty-five year old Czech is known throughout his adopted nation as a ‘beautiful loser’ and, whilst the synonymy of success with trophies represents an excessively narrow definition, it is accurate to proclaim that the greatest influence Zeman has had on a Scudetto race came when he accused the 1997/98 champions Juventus of taking steroids. Moreover, from November 2000 to June of this year – when Roma invited the former PE teacher to return for a second spell as manager – Zeman’s work as a Serie A manager constituted a solitary season at Lecce.

This, however, is only half of the story. In an age when owning a footballing philosophy and religiously adhering to its principles is considered a virtue – indeed, labelling a football team pragmatic has negative connotations, despite practicality and adaptability otherwise being valued characteristics – there is no-one as devoted to his beliefs as Zeman. An overt advocate of attacking football, Zeman’s approach has changed very little since those early days with Licata, who won Serie C2 under the Czech in 1985. Consistently employing a 4-3-3 formation with a high defensive line, Zeman places great emphasis on energetic movement and quick, sharp passing; most interesting of all, though, is his apathy towards ball retention. Tactical trends come and go, and the latest global fashion, largely inspired by Marcelo Bielsa’s work with Argentina, Chile and Athletic Bilbao, revolves around possession-based play, pressing high up the pitch and control of the game’s tempo. Pep Guardiola’s adoption of the strategy resulted in unprecedented triumphs for Barcelona, whilst Spain showcased the defensive aspect of tiki-taka during Euro 2012. Roma themselves experimented with the style last season: under former Spain midfielder Luis Enrique, the Gialloorossi were dubbed ‘Barceroma’ yet finished the season a disappointing eight points off Champions League qualification.

Zeman is different. “A horizontal pass, unless you are being closed down, is useless,” he contended shortly after signing a two-year contract with the capital club in the summer. “I prefer to get rid of useless things.” Roma are a very direct outfit this year, but not in the long-ball, Stoke City sense of the term, with Zeman insisting that his players’ first thought should always be to transfer the ball forward, believing recycling possession to be counterproductive as it allows the opposition to regroup. Predictably, this leads to extremely open games which yield multitudinous goals: in 2010/11, Zeman’s Foggia finished sixth in Serie C1 with both the best attacking and worst defensive record in the division, and Roma are currently top scorers in Serie A with 34 goals from 15 games. Only Pescara and Genoa, both in the relegation zone, have had their resistance breached more often.

Zeman has had three spells in charge of Foggia; the five year stint which began in 1989 was not only his most successful period in management, but also the period most quintessential of the Czech’s ideals and methods. The southern club achieved back-to-back promotions to Serie A in Zeman’s first two seasons, before regularly competing for UEFA Cup qualification with heavyweights such as Lazio, Juventus and Napoli in the nation’s top division. Their attacking 4-3-3 formation, chiefly based around young, unproven players, was regarded as particularly bold in the context of Catenaccio and Foggia’s position as a provincial, newly-promoted club. Indeed, Zeman’s aesthetic accomplishments induced much praise, yet the suggestion that Foggia was as good for Zeman as he was for them is comprehendible: the Roma manager admits himself that his football requires significant dedication and hard work on the training pitch, with players constantly drilled on the system and their coach’s expectations. It is substantially easier to mould a group by sheer force of personality at a club like Foggia when the bulk of the squad is made up of hungry, impressionable youngsters; it has been speculated that Zeman’s techniques are not as transferrable to established internationals, and the difficulties in the coach’s relationship with the influential Daniele de Rossi have hitherto manifested on various occasions.

Juventus remain strong favourites to lift the title again this campaign, with the traditional challengers all possessing discernible weaknesses: Napoli are over-reliant on their key players, Inter remain inconsistent and Milan are fourteen points off the pace after losing, amongst others, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano and Clarence Seedorf, in the summer. There is probably no manager in world football who could have arrived at the Stadio Olimpico in June and transformed last year’s seventh place side into Scudetto winners, but it is accurate to affirm that Roma remain some distance from lifting their fourth league championship. Twenty-one year-old Mattia Destro has excelled on the right of the front three in recent weeks, Erik Lamela is amongst the league’s top scorers despite injury and the pairing of Miralem Pjanic and Michael Bradley in the centre of midfield provides an excellent combination of technique and tenacity, yet Roma are suspect defensively and, looking forward, it is difficult to envisage the success of such a cavalier approach in European competition, a progression Zeman would be expected to oversee in the not too distant future.

Lying at the heart of the widespread reluctance to discuss Roma in the same breath as Juventus is the incontrovertible knowledge that Zeman will not change his principles and that, however beautiful it may be, his football is not conducive to victory at the highest level. Seeking to overwhelm each and every opponent indubitably produces open games filled with chances and goalmouth action, yet Roma continually fail to see results out: the lead has been surrendered on four occasions this term, most disappointingly in the home defeats to Udinese and Bologna, when the Gialloorossi lost 3-2 despite scoring the opening couple of goals. Notwithstanding the recognition that sport is ultimately about winning, there remains something admirable in Zeman’s stance: a commitment to fair play and providing the public with entertainment at all costs. ‘Old habits die hard’, it is often said. For Zdenek Zeman, his style is not a habit but a way of life.

Greg Lea

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