WORDS: EMANUELE GIULIANELLI
Since taking his first managerial job in 1983, Zdenek Zeman has coached some incredibly talented players and enthralled legions of Italians with his adventurous style. This is one man’s attempt to pick the very best XI to have been coached by the man who created his own cult of attacking football…
When I picture Zdenek Zeman in my mind, I imagine him as we so often saw him in the Nineties: cigarette in hand, in the repetitive act of carrying it to his mouth, and back.
Zeman is considered the prophet of the 4-3-3 system in Italian football; a revolutionary trainer who tried to bring something very new to a largely conservative world.
He and his contemporary counterpart, Arrigo Sacchi, emerged in the late Eighties, like a blast of fresh air to a nation focused on a style of play still centered on man-to-man marking and the traditional Italian catenaccio style.
But, while the coach from Fusignano (near Parma) adopted a 4-4-2 with an aligned zonal defence, Zeman chose a more offensive arrangement, based on a high defence, keeping the three lines close together.
Lines closed, pressing from the front, attacking the spaces: these were (and are) the keywords of Zeman’s “fourfourthree” – said in precisely this way, like a single word – a mantra.
It’s not easy to put this style into practice because the 11 players have to be very coordinated in their movement, to keep the lines closed, to avoid counterattacks. Running is what they have to do, for 90 minutes. Running at the speed of light, to create the more possible goal chances: this is the sheet music. And Zdenek is the maestro.
Each role has its own tasks on the field. Each man has to play in a particular way to create the symphony, without a single wrong note. Just to get a round of applause. After all, the main aim of mister Zeman, and the football he teaches, is to amuse the audience – to entertain. And what makes people that come to the stadium to see a football match happiest? Goals, surely.
Zeman teams score a lot. But, with the mentality to go always forward, they concede a lot of goals too.
I tried to pick an Eleven with the best exponents of Zeman’s philosophy, and you can see the outcome below. But firstly, let me quickly explain the standards I adopted in putting down this selection of players. I’ve chosen between men who have had (or have) Zeman as trainer. For each role I didn’t consider who was the best footballer tout-court, but the one who suited that position best as Zdenek sees it. For example, in Zeman’s teams there have been some great goalkeepers, such as Luca Marchegiani or the Austrian, Miki Konsel. But, for this role, I chose Franco Mancini because he is the prototype of the number one for Zeman, who wanted him for a lot of the teams he managed.
I didn’t find it hard to assign the No1 shirt at all. Even if Zeman has had some great performers in this role, there is no doubt that the quintessence of the goalkeeper to him, was found in Francesco Mancini, more often called Franco. Very good with his feet, always ready and quick to react, he was a sort of sweeper, always ready to play outside the box, owing to the need to cover the space left behind a high defensive line. That’s what Zeman wants from a goalkeeper. That’s what Zeman wanted from Franco Mancini. After they met in Foggia, in 1989, they became an indissoluble pair. The trainer wanted Franco with him at Foggia, Lazio, Napoli and Salernitana. And, after his career between the posts ended, Zdenek employed as goalkeeper coach at Foggia and Pescara, a role he filled until he died at just 43.
The man whose face always had an almost-smile on it. Always chewing, always ready to run down the right wing with the ball between feet and overlapping with the right midfielder as a matter of course. AS Roma supporters called him Pendolino, which means both high-speed train and pendulum. And it perfectly summarized the attitude of the man whose full name is Marcos Evangelista de Moraes: a sort of piston in harmonic motion, throughout all 90 minutes of a match. Cafu was coached by Zeman in his first two Italian seasons, in Rome.
Right-back was a strong position in Zeman’s teams. I had to choose from a shortlist including such players as Cristiano Bergodi at Lazio, Dan Petrescu at Foggia, even Marco Cassetti at Lecce. But Cafu, in my mind, represents the ideal right back for Zeman’s system.
It was very hard to solve this puzzle: I had to choose two centre-backs and I did so thinking that they both could complement each other. With that in mind, I didn’t opt for the two best centre-backs that Zeman has ever trained, but I tried to assemble a well-matched pair and settled on two players who actually played together.
Chamot is the most aggressive and physical of the two. He began life under Zeman as a right-back at Foggia, in the 1993/94 season, after arriving from Pisa, becoming a central defender thanks to the Bohemian coach, who moved him into the role where he would go onto to receive a lot of praise during his forthcoming career. In the centre, he played his best seasons, with Foggia, Lazio, Atletico Madrid and Milan, helping the Rossoneri to win the Champions League in 2002/03.
I could have picked Aldair, of Roma, or Salvatore Matrecano, of Foggia, or even Angelo Consagra, who Zeman trained during his first experience, at Licata. But Alessandro Nesta is the perfect expression of the central defender – good feet, playing with his head high, always ready to sprint in order to make the whole defence push forward.
Yes, forward. In Zeman’s sides, the last line of the formation always has to play like a spring, working like an accordion with the midfield. This is the way to keep the three lines always close to each other.
Nesta was the perfect leader for all the defence. He was able to stop the opponents’ attacks and, immediately, to make his team start again – a sort of defensive director.
Codispoti represents how Zeman is able to mould raw metal, turning it into something precious. He was born as a midfielder in lower league teams from Sicily, such as Vibonese, Enna and Siracusa. But, when Zeman arrived at Foggia, he asked his reliable director, Peppino Pavone, to buy this young player, knowing Sicilian football very well. That was in 1986, the first appearance of mister Zeman on Foggia’s bench. He would come back in 1991 to build Zemanlandia, the wonderland of attacking football.
He never stopped selecting Maurizio in his Foggia side, first picking him at right-back and then, after the arrival of Dan Petrescu in that position, moving him to the opposite flank, always obtaining the same consistent performances from this loyal soldier, who worked so diligently on the field and was just one step away from being called up to the national team.
Character, running and capacity to move forward, into space: these are the skills that an inner midfielder must have to play in Zeman’s teams. And Giovanni Stroppa, all-round midfielder, had them.
In 1993, Zeman signed him for his Foggia in their second year in Serie A, to replace Oberdan Biagioni when he moved to Udinese. A special relationship blossomed between Stroppa and Zeman, made up of knowing glances that were enough to communicate on field. Stroppa played the role that his coach had thought up for him so well that, at the end of the season, he made his debut for the Italian national team.
His record in that memorable year with Foggia was impressive: 30 matches and 8 goals scored. Not bad for a midfielder! Stroppa worked once again with Zeman at Avellino, 10 years later.
Better known as Gigi Di Biagio, he was the midfield director par excellence in Zeman’s football. It’s clear from the fact that the Bohemian gave him the keys to his Foggia team, for two seasons after buying him from Monza, and then to his Roma team too.
This particular role requires the tendency to pass the ball forward as soon as possible, after two touches at most. He has to be the trait d’union between the defensive line and the two inner midfielders that are always ready to sprint forward into space – he is the first to start the attacking manoeuvre, with a forward pass.
Gigi was a perfect covering player and a great passer, like a metronome and for those reasons, he was the perfect middle man for Zeman.
Now for the other side of the midfield – more physical, faster and dynamic; always ready to have a go from long distance and always running. Pavel Nedved seemed to have a hundred lungs. With his long blonde hair flowing, he covered the whole field to support, alternately, the attack and the defence.
Zeman discovered Pavel in the Czech Republic, playing for Sparta Prague, and, when the whole of Europe knew him, after seeing his skills at Euro ’96, it was too late. Zeman had already taken this astonishing player for his Lazio.
I could have chosen several great players for this role, like Igor Shalimov, Roberto Di Matteo, Aron Winter, Eusebio Di Francesco or even Miralem Pjanic. But I think Pavel proved himself the best “Zemanian” player for this role.
Another inescapable choice: right-winger, for Zeman, rhymes with Roberto Rambaudi. Raised in the youth teams of Torino, he wandered Italian lower serie teams before arriving at Foggia in 1989. When Zeman arrived, he found in Rambaudi the perfect right-forward, who, in his scheme, had (and has) to be a tactical winger, a player more focused on giving assists than scoring. “Rambo” traveled up and down the wing during every match, interacting with the right-back and the right-inner midfielder in a continuous game of overlapping, penetration and “one-two” passing.
Roberto formed the most important attacking trio in all of Zeman’s history: Rambaudi, Baiano, Signori: the three well-matched forwards, who gave moments of great football to Foggia and to the whole Italy, who felt in love, in some way, with these three boys from the province.
This choice is the only liberty I’ve taken. Even if Totti has scored (until today) 217 goals in Serie A, Zeman didn’t ever line him up as a centre-forward, but as a flanking forward that starts from left and then comes inside, carrying the ball, in order to point to goal or to create the space for forward runs by midfielders or the left-back. But I couldn’t have excluded one of the most important Italian and European players of all-time simply because he is not an out-and-out centre-forward. So I decided to put him right in the middle of the attack.
Surely someone, now, is asking me: “But why didn’t you put him on the left side of the attack, if he is not a real centre-forward?” Well, good question. The answer is that the left side is another of the inevitable ones. Ladies and gentleman…
The perfect Zeman attacking player. Signori was a boy with blonde bob-shaped hair and only five goals to his name when he arrived at Foggia from Piacenza in 1989. One day, during the pre-season training camp, Zeman called him out: “Hey, bomber!” He turned his head towards the coach, thinking he was kidding him. He wasn’t kidding.
With Zdenek Zeman, “Beppe” Signori become a great goalscorer, the eighth highest all-time Serie A scorer with 188 goals, winning the title of top goalscorer in Italy three times. At Foggia, with Baiano and Rambaudi, and at Lazio, with Rambaudi and Boksic, he was a lethal weapon. And if you leave a weapon like this in Zeman’s hands, there is only one possible outcome: bags of goals.