An Italian Solution for Arsenal?

An Italian Solution for Arsenal?

While drawing up plans for the English FA’s £105 million national football centre, David Sheepshanks, the chairman of St. George’s Park, drew inspiration from a few other national football centres in Europe.  One that impressed him quite a bit was the Coverciano, the central training facility and technical headquarters of the Italian Football Federation.

It isn’t a facility that will find favour with many English players, who find St. George’s Park to be ‘boring’.  Steven Gerrard thought it wasn’t player friendly and that a golf course would be a good addition. Never mind the Wembley playing surface replica built to the exact dimensions, state-of- the-art hydrotherapy suites, video analysis amenities, altitude chamber, bio-mechanics labs, educational and sport science facilities, and a hotel managed by the Hilton group. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that the players found the training base selected by Fabio Capello in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup to be boring as well, away from any nightlife.

The Coverciano is a peaceful and secluded place outside Florence, which reminds one of a university where the pride of place is held by the library and museum. Opened in 1958, it was designed as a place of study and the nurturing of talent. The groundwork for Italy’s World Cup triumphs in 1982 and 2006 were laid here. In the library, one can find Roberto Mancini’s 2001 study examining the role of the attacking midfielder alongside Carlo Ancelotti’s thesis from 1997 titled, ‘The Future of Football – More Dynamism’. Massimiliano Allegri’s coaching thesis on the role of each midfielder in a 4-3-3 was submitted in 2005. Every Italian who has managed in the Premier League this season has submitted an original piece of work at the Coverciano. Ranieri in 1990, Guidolin in 1994, Mazzari in 2001, and Conte in 2006.

For a country which hasn’t produced many world class teams, the focus at the Coverciano has been to provide the ideal conditions for coaches to learn their craft. And Italy has produced many world class coaches like Arrigo Sacchi, Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti and Giovanni Trapattoni, to name just a few. The characteristics that many Italian managers share are tactical astuteness, intense passion and a focus on preparation, organisation and discipline.

These are not bad traits for a manager to have in a league where 1-0 score lines do more for your chances of winning the title than free flowing attacking football. As the Newcastle team of 1996-97 and Liverpool team of 2014 would testify.

What is surprising is that only 10 Italians have ever managed in the Premier League. Except for Attilio Lombardo, who was made player-manager of Crystal Palace midway through his first season in England, they have all tasted moderate to great success. Paolo Di Canio saved Sunderland from relegation in 2013, and Francesco Guidolin did the same with Swansea last season. Gianfranco Zola had a fantastic first season with West Ham in 2008-09, and Walter Mazzari is doing a good job at Watford this season. Gianluca Vialli won titles with Chelsea and Roberto Di Matteo won them the Champions League. Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri have all won the Premier League, and Antonio Conte seems to be on his way towards winning one this season.

Back to back Premier League titles delivered by Italian managers in their first season at a club, at Leicester and Chelsea, could open the floodgates in the near future. And Arsenal, where there is heavy speculation that this is Arsene Wenger’s last season at the club, could do much worse than Massimiliano Allegri.

The current Juventus boss won the Serie A title in his first season with the Old Lady in 2015, repeating his achievement at Milan in 2011, their first title after a long drought. Speaking of droughts, he also guided the Bianconeri to their first Champions League final in 12 years in that first season in charge. And a week later, their first Coppa Italia in 20 years.

A lot of people seem to think that Diego Simeone would be a better fit at Arsenal, but I disagree. While there is much to admire about the most hard working team in Europe, in Atletico Madrid, I struggle to see the current crop of Arsenal players adapt to his tactics. His teams tend to sit deep in a narrow and compact shape sacrificing flair for the sake of the system. I would imagine that to be anathema to anyone associated with Arsenal, however desperate they might be for success.

Allegri ticks a lot of boxes for Arsenal. He is tactically sound like most Italian managers are, confident enough in his own ability to release an app called Mr. Allegri Tactics for coaches around the world. At Milan, he used the 4-3-3 he elucidated about in his thesis and the 4-3-1-2, another formation he employed successfully in his title winning season. At Juventus this year, he is getting a lot of credit for introducing the 4-2-3-1 lately and moving beyond the 3-5-2 that you associate with them. Unlike Wenger, who can be rigid about how he sets up his team, Allegri shows enough tactical flexibility while putting out teams, changing things in-game when the situation demands. He got a lot of credit for tweaking his team’s formation against an all conquering Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2015, after going 1-0 down. Juventus ended up losing 3-1 in the end, but the score does not adequately reflect how much Juventus were in that game.

He is astute in the transfer market and works with what is made available to him, which should endear him to the Arsenal board, if not the fans. Mario Mandzukic, Dani Alves, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala have all been great buys. He also introduces young talent into his teams and develops them, Dybala and Stefano Sturaro being cases in point at Juventus. Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli have had their best seasons in recent years at Allegri’s Milan. Anyone who successfully managed the enigma that is Balotelli, something that has been beyond the best managers in the world, must know a thing or two about man-management.

But the biggest reason why I believe he would be a great fit at Arsenal is because while he is extremely passionate and demands organisation and discipline from his players, unlike a Mourinho, Simeone or even Conte, there is also a lightness of touch in his approach. His teams press, but only when necessary. His teams are defensively solid but there is an emphasis on pass and move. He does not restrict his creative players. Offensively, they are given the freedom to do damage and create magic. And he expects players to take responsibility on the pitch, something Arsenal has lacked for a very long time.

Drastic change is not the answer at Arsenal. Someone who can marry the best of Wenger’s philosophies and bring what they need additionally to push for more titles is. And Allegri has made a habit of bringing long overdue success to big clubs. He might just be the man for them.