Roma's coach is a flawed romantic, a Quixotic idealist whose beliefs do not represent the modern game and which for Roma are destined to fail.
In August 2011 60% of AS Roma was purchased by an American investment group seeking to make Roma the next big global brand in world football. The new owners intentions was to change the nature of Italian football; seeking to change the defensive reputation that Serie A has to a more attacking style of play. After failing with Luis Enrique they turned to the famous Zdenek Zeman, the idealist of all out attack. After a few months, the owners may be regretting their decision already.
Intentions to make AS Roma one of Europe's best
Roma's new owners like many around the world could not fail to see the success that Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play had in the past several years. When they purchased AS Roma in 2011 they set about to attempt to replicate this style of play.
In order to achieve their aims, they went to Barcelona to find their man. Like Barcelona in 2008, Roma’s new owners went to Barca “B”. Luis Enrique, the former Barcelona midfielder now turned coach was given the role of changing Roma’s style and fortunes.
The aim of the owners was to purchase young talent such as Bojan Krkic, Erik Lamela, Mira Pjanic, Fernando Gago and Fabio Borini. The intention being that this infusion of youth could be moulded into the style of play sought to achieve by the new owners. A three year plan was put in place to bring in young players, mould them and ultimately make Roma one of Europe’s top teams by 2015.
Roma’s new owners sought to take the club back to lofty heights of Capello in 2000-2001 where they won Serie A. Since Capello left in 20004 the club has seen eight men manage the side. It has seen changes in tactics and style too, meaning the club has never been truly settled enough to challenge effectively. Although they finished runners up in 2010, they have never looked like winning the league since Capello.
After Ranieri came the new owners and their dreams of changing the culture of the club.Luis Enrique had a very difficult season last year; his remit to bring tiki-taka football to Roma was a flawed concept from the start. Unlike Guardiola, he was not inheriting players capable of this way of playing. It was never going to work and ultimately after finishing 7th and not qualifying for European competition, Enrique and the board decided to part ways.
Enter Zdenek Zeman
The owners, after failing in their first appointment, needed to find a man capable of playing football in the way they wished. They needed someone with experience and discipline to take this group of players forward. Enter Zdenek Zeman.
Zeman is almost an unknown outside of Italy. His style of play and reputation seem to have been limited to Italy’s borders. Yet in Italy he is famous.
Early in Zeman’s career as a manager he was hired by Foggia in 1989. He did not believe in the Italian style of play, he wanted attacking football from his sides, not a defensive one. For Italian football this was quite a shock.
Zeman idolised the 4-3-3 formation, his intentions was to always attack, always press and play on the front foot. And it worked. Foggia, a newly promoted side in Serie A finished the season in mid table, an amazing accomplishment for the club and manager. His style of play was so particular and unique that it was titled “Zemanlandia”.
For three seasons Foggia finished in the mid table of Serie A and continued to play Zeman’s way, all out attack. At this time remember that Serie A was arguably Europe’s strongest and so his accomplishments were even more pronounced. He took a side of what was considered weak players, from a club who were nothing more than a seaside team, and made them a genuine Serie A side.
A move to Rome, honesty and accusations
A move to a bigger club beckoned and Zeman left Foggia for the challenge of Lazio. He took them to a 2nd and 3rd place finish before being fired in 1997. The following season Zeman stayed in Rome and took over as coach of AS Roma.
After a promising 4th place finish Zeman would launch allegations which would have a detrimental effect on his managerial career. Zeman is a man who is known to speak his mind and this has led to controversy. He believes in a clean sport, he believes in honesty.
Zeman gave an interview to an Italian magazine accusing Juventus players of using pharmaceutical methods to boost performance. He accused Vialli and Del Piero in particular, who had come back from long term injuries of being very muscular and accused them of using steroids.
This outburst led to Zeman becoming ostracized from the big clubs in Italy. He was replaced at Roma by Capello who took the side to the top of Serie A. Zeman became an outcast for many years and plied his trade in the lower leagues. Opportunties began to dry up, his reputation had been tarnished.
There has been talk that the accusations led to a conspiracy against him, yet could it be that he was flawed idealist whose style of play was simply deemed too high risk for owners seeking to be successful? Many believe that his obsession with how he wants to play the game is too much of a risk for the top sides owners.
To neutrals and fans his style is entertaining, fascinating and enjoyable. Yet for sides wishing to win trophies, it is simply not conducive to success. In Zeman's style results are never a given, only goals are.
Zeman's style - a flawed way of playing?
Roma’s owners realised that the tiki-taka style wished by Enrique was not going to work, yet they still intended for attacking football. With Zeman’s vast experience in Italian football, he was certainly the man to bring about what they desired.
Zeman believes that football is to be played for the supporters. His belief is that the fans should be entertained. And entertaining Zeman’s are. For Italian football and it’s more defensive mentality, one can understand how fascinating Zeman is. Yet he is either seen as a genius or a fool, he splits opinion.
Zeman’s 4-3-3 is nothing like that of Barcelona’s, there is no instruction to keep possession, his goal is for his side to get the ball from front to back as quick as possible, to play vertically, not horizontally and to simply outscore the opposition.
Taking on from the philosophy of Dutch totalfootball created by Rinus Michels in the 60’s and 70’s. In the 80's and 90's Zeman showed a visionary approach to the game. As we know the 4-3-3 is back in vogue now due to the popularity and success of Barcelona in particular.
However, the modern version has evolved to be a more possession based style, abandoning the all-out attack mantra of Zeman. All-out attack will tend to mean losing possession and being countered. It will require much stamina to keep chasing and tracking. Thus, the modern use of the tiki-taka takes away the issue of being countered, it has become as much a defensive tactic as well as attacking one.
Much is spoken of the intense training methods that Zeman employs. His obsession with stamina makes sense when you see his sides play. It is like watching a giant game of basketball, high paced attack. His fitness sessions are gruelling, requiring runs through forests, sandy beaches and up and down stadium steps.
Zeman is the Quixotic romantic of attacking football. An idealist whose stubbornness fails to see that football is a game of two sides. A team must both attack and defend. To simply attack is not being an idealist but in fact being a poor coach. Scoring more than the other side is more like grassroots, playground stuff than elite level football.
Zeman plays the game like a child and in a world where tactics have become pronounced as the players have become faster and more skilful, a manager who neglects defending, who ignores a strong foundation, is doomed to failure.
Growing pains at Roma
After Enrique Roma needed to bring in a manager to galvanise the players the fans. Zeman certainly captivated the fans hearts and imaginations, yet was he the man Roma needed?
So far Zeman has struggled to impart his style on his new team. Danielle De Rossi came out after the loss to Juve, a 4-0 hammering, with the line "we are not a Scudetto-worthy team, anyone who talks about that is damaging Roma”. Apparently aimed at Zeman himself. De Rossi and Zeman were reported to have argued after the game over what Zeman is asking of his players. De Rossi made a very strong statement regarding Roma this season "Do I regret staying at Roma? No, but I didn't stay to put on this sort of spectacle either."
After that game against Juventus Zeman dropped De Rossi, Osvaldo and Burdisso. It was strong move by Zeman who is clearly feeling the need to prove to his players who is in charge. Roma came out 2-0 winners of the game. Yet all is not well at the club.
Currently Roma sit in 6th place, behind Fiorentina. It has not been a catastrophic start yet has not been captivating also. Some are even saying that Zeman’s style of football has lost it’s magic, has gone dead.
Are Roma preparing for a post-Totti era?
One wonders what this season will hold for Roma and the manager. Players like Totti and De Rossi are very influential members of the club and one wonders how Zeman can overcome such important and strong players.
As Roma’s owners seek to instil a new way of playing and vision for the club, they may need to make some very strong decisions regarding the future of players like Totti and De Rossi. A new era for Roma may require changes with certain players. The owners may think it is time for Roma to forge a new identity post-Totti. A new coach and new style may represent a new period for the club.
Zeman will more than likely have a greater chance of instilling his philosophy and way of playing on the younger players in the team. It may be important that in order for him to do this, then some senior members may need to be moved on. Yet, this will not happen until next summer, meaning Zeman will be in a difficult situation as this season progresses.
A flawed vision doomed to failure?
Growing pains are expected with a new manager yet right now Roma will be at the mercy of the top sides like Juve, who will continue to find holes and penetrate this weak Roma side.
Roma's owners and manager should learn from Juventus; a side whose balance of defence and attack, whose strong tactical discipline and team unity was the reason for their Scudetto success last season and why they have been unbeaten for so long. Yet Zeman’s record shows a man unwilling to change his style or beliefs.
Zeman and Roma’s owners want to make Roma one of the best in Europe yet are simply making them a mid table mockery. Neglecting defence for attacking principles is only creating a mediocre sides. Once again, American owners with no idea of “soccer” are ruining a club with the premise of making them one of the world’s best.
In all truth, Zeman at 65, is a man who has little time left in the game. His return was a failed attempt by the new owners to make a statement and to captivate the fans. However, their manager, like their vision for the club is a flawed ideal which is doomed to failure.
The Giallorossi fans expect to be finishing in the top four. They expect Champions League football. As they see Juve’s re-emergence, as they witness Napoli’s rise and bitterly witness their rivals Lazio challenge towards the top , Roma’s fans must look at their current state and have serious worries regarding their US owners.
As we have seen from these models and development plans from clubs who are seeking to replicate Barcelona’s success, there is much difficulty in changing a club’s culture and style. Wanting to improve a style of play and seeking to copy another way of playing is all very well on paper, yet practically it is just not plausible in a short amount of time. Barcelona have taken 20 years to be the team they are today. A three year plan from Roma’s owners is thus doomed to failure.
The current trend in European football appears to be the appeal of US investors buying and investing in European football clubs. England has seen the Glazers (Man Utd), Randy Lerner (Aston Villa) and Liverpool (Hick and Gillet and now Fenway Sports Group). In all these instances, even United, the owners have come in to the club professing investment and success. Yet these investors, who clearly have little knowledge and understanding of European football, culture and the fans, have ended up frustrating their fans.
As for Zeman; he is a coach of an earlier time, he is a purist of street football. He is a flawed romantic, a Quixotic idealist whose beliefs do not represent the modern game and which are deemed to fail.
"In my opinion, the great popularity that football in the world is not due to pharmacies or tax officials, but to the fact that in every street in every corner of the world there is a child playing and having fun with a ball between feet. But football today is more and more industry and less a game "
Based on the new owners decisions at the Stadio Olimpico since their arrival in 2011, Roma's fans must be worried and apprehensive about their club’s future.