Sunday 4 December 2016

Managers on display for Chelsea's visit to Swansea shows demand for Italian tactical expertise

Paul MacInnes

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is one of four Italian managers in the Premier League. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is one of four Italian managers in the Premier League. Photo: Reuters

The third Italian derby of this formative Premier League season takes place today. In the white corner, Francesco Guidolin, managerial veteran of two decades in Serie A and now embarking on a second attempt to keep Swansea in the division. In the blue corner, Antonio Conte, the man with three Scudetti to his name and a successful spell as Italy's coach, now with a 100pc winning record with his new club, Chelsea, to defend.

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If form gives us any indication, then Conte should be confident of maintaining his record. Of the 10 occasions in which the pair faced off in Serie A, Guidolin won only once, a 2-0 victory in 2009 when in charge of Parma and while Conte was learning his trade at Bari. After Conte moved to Juventus and Guidolin to Udinese, the matches were rarely close. Then, in 2014, Conte beat Guidolin to the Italy job. "In the end Conte got it," said Guidolin, "but I was very, very close."

Guidolin v Conte is not the only intra-Italian rivalry we will see in the Premier League this season. Conte has already faced off against an old rival, Walter Mazzarri, who once threatened Juve's Serie A dominance with his thrilling Napoli side and is now at Watford. They, of course, are owned by the Italian Pozzo family, who also recruited Guidolin to Udinese and later hired him as an adviser.

Completing the quartet in the Premier League is Leicester's Claudio Ranieri, whose side narrowly beat Guidolin's last month. The former Chelsea manager and coach of the current champions, he is also a pioneering emigre manager who Guidolin and Conte turned to for advice before arrival in England. He is, if you will, the Godfather.

In an internationalist Premier League, there are now as many Italian coaches as there are English. And four times as many as there are Scots. Chuck in Roberto Di Matteo at Aston Villa and Walter Zenga at Wolves, and these are heady days for Italian imports and indicative of the changing tides in world football.

The first cause is obvious: Serie A is not in the best of health. Juventus may have reached the Champions League final two seasons ago but they, owned by the Agnelli dynasty, are the well-resourced exception. The current three-year television deal is valued at €2.82bn, nearly half that of the Premier League's €6bn arrangement with Sky and BT. Perhaps most importantly of all, the league has only three places in the Champions League.

As Gazzetta dello Sport put it in a recent article about the Italian coaching exodus: "The trend is clear: the highest Italian league has less and less appeal."

"I believe many coaches in Italy would like to work in England," says Antonio Finco, the assistant to the head coach at Watford. "Italian coaching at this moment is very up to date and the Premier League is the most important [league] in the world. So it attracts coaches to come here, not only for money but for experience that you can have in a different championship with a lot of important players.

"At the moment Italian players are not so talented, but Italian coaching is," he continues. "Just look at Euro 2016 and you can see this. In France, Antonio Conte's side were very well organised. Players like Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle are known in England as normal players, but in the Italian squad they seem very strong. This is because the team was very well organised in every moment. This is down to the coaching."

So the challenge and opportunity for Italian managers arriving in the Premier League is to blend their native rigour with English dynamism. "You have more fun in England than Italy," says Finco. "It's a very different experience. Players play with pace, they run a lot, it's very physical. In Italy it's different because the coaches think the tactical is very important, more important even than the physical training. The first thing an Italian coach will do on a training ground is tactical exercises."

In an increasingly competitive league, it is easy to see why club owners are turning to the tactical exactitude of Italian coaches in search of marginal gains. This is especially true for smaller clubs such as Watford and Swansea and, of course, it was Ranieri's tactical adjustments that allowed Leicester to steal a march to the title last season.

"The Italian championship may have been bad in the past few years," Finco adds, "but in the past it was always very difficult to win a title because the small club were tactically very difficult to take on. Now this applies in the Premier League.

"You have to be very careful to apply a lot of attention in every detail. It is the only way to win against a team with a stronger squad."

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