When Luciano Spalletti first coached Roma between 2005 and 2009, Italian football was in turmoil. The game was rocked by both Calciopoli and the death of police officer Filippo Raciti following a Catania-Palermo derby game. The Serie A we all knew from watching Football Italia on Channel Four was long gone. If the 1990‘s were James Richardson sipping a Cappuccino in a sunny piazza, the mid-2000‘s were Jonny Vegas swigging Super Strength on a park bench. Italian football needed an image boost, and it came via an unusual source.
Perhaps a bald, lanky Tuscan isn’t the first thing you’d think of when you combine the words ‘stylish’ and ‘Italian’ together, but it was Luciano Spalletti who made Calcio exciting again, turning Roma from a post-Capello hangover into an aggressive running machine, playing the most exciting football Italy had seen since the turn of the century. He was famously forced to play a striker-less formation during an injury crisis early on during his time in the capital, but then stuck with it, giving Italy a 4-6-0 formation that became his trademark. Totti played the false nine role to perfection before Lionel Messi made it fashionable, while rampaging midfielders and wingers such as Simone Perrotta and Alberto Aquilani flooded the opposition’s box. Defenders never knew who to mark, and it lead to Roma scoring plenty of goals.
Yet Spalletti is perhaps as famous for his defeats as his victories; it was he who presided over Roma’s 7-1 mauling at Old Trafford in the Champions League quarter-finals, and in Italy his Roma are mostly remembered for finishing second behind Inter in 2007-08, eating up an 11 point gap and even sitting top for 60 minutes on the final day, only for a half-fit Zlatan Ibrahimovic to come off the bench and win the Scudetto for Inter. Just like Cruyff’s Holland, it was because they lost that they gained an air of mystique, almost adding to the romance of it all. Spectacular football on a budget, but in the end beaten at the last by the comparably rich Inter.
Spalletti eventually left in 2009 and went on to win two Russian titles and a cup with Zenit St.Petersburg, though not playing the spectacular football many expected his side to, and enduring a few very public fall-outs with Zenit’s star players, namely Roman Shirokov and Hulk. After a break of almost two years, the Italian returned to Roma in January and has embarked on an eight-game winning run in Serie A, sandwiching a Champions League knockout by Real Madrid. The return leg of the Madrid game gave the biggest tell-tale sign that Spalletti was back. Despite losing the home leg 2-0, Roma had numerous chances at the Bernabeu and played some high-tempo attacking football before eventually succumbing 2-0 again.
But what makes Spalletti great? Speaking to The Set Pieces, former Roma and Barcelona star Ludovic Giuly explained “Before joining in 2007, I spoke to my France team-mate Philippe Mexes, who had worked with Spalletti for a while. He told me only good things about him, which convinced me to join.” He continued “He had a clear formation in his head, and was very precise about it. We had to learn it by heart, with sequences of movements from the sides, with the midfield who joined the attackers, with the attackers doing different runs to often change formation.”
Someone else who worked with the Tuscan was Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who worked as Zenit’s international scout during Spalletti’s time in Russia. He told The Set Pieces that it’s an incredible work ethic that makes the tactician stand out. “He’ll be the first to arrive at the training ground and often the last to leave. Not only does he spend the hours outside the training pitch studying opposition, potential signings and digging into the latest trends in coaching, but he also gets involved in the academy, scouting and other parts of a football club which isn’t necessarily associated with the role of a head coach. In many ways he’s the current Italian head coach that appears closest to the description of an English manager”
Spalletti is an eccentric character; inside his apartment in St.Petersburg he has a giant canvas photo of his own head, as well as a painting of himself as a Roman gladiator. His personal website shows him driving a tractor, feeding ducks and chopping logs, whilst once when Russian TV visited his home outside Florence, he proceeded to almost flip his original Fiat 500 on a narrow lane. During his break from coaching, his activities ranged from modelling shoes to going clubbing in Miami with Christian Vieri. Yet though these activities all could point to a wild character, Spalletti is deadly serious when it comes to coaching. “His emphasis on collective movement and cohesion can be repetitive and mentally demanding,” explains Karlsen. “But for a player who wants to better himself, he’s perfect.” Giuly also agrees that Spalletti expects much from his players, saying “It wasn’t difficult to work for Spalletti, the only thing is that he is a perfectionist at work and sometimes he asked much of me in training whilst my body needed a rest from time to time.”
When Spalletti left Zenit, several players gave interviews praising the Italian’s coaching style, but criticised the way he dealt with his players. He famously stated that he wouldn’t learn Russian because he didn’t want to be mocked if he made mistakes. Portuguese player Danny, as well as Shirokov and Hulk, all insisted however that Spalletti improved them, something Karlsen attests to. “Many people assume that Zenit’s success under Spalletti was entirely down to heavy spending, but actually that’s far from the truth. If anything, the big signings often flattered to deceive, whereas the real difference was made by Spalletti improving practically each and every player in the squad he inherited. Therein lies the essence of a great coach, in my view.” When I asked Ludovic Giuly about the problems Spalletti had at Zenit, he shrugged “I have no problem to separate the coach and the person. He is someone who is very respectful as a human in everyday life. As a coach, he is a winner and a perfectionist.”
Now is the time to wait and see whether the 57-year-old can transform Roma into title contenders again. He’s already wasted little time in ruffling feathers: Francesco Totti released a statement last month condemning the lack of playing time he’s been getting under the new coach, even stating Spalletti doesn’t speak to him. Yet at 39, his lack of game time is understandable, plus the coach only has to point to the results he’s been getting since his return. The final word on the coach is left to his former colleague Karlsen, who states “He’s demanding but as he’s dealing with adults he expects them to see the reward in staying loyal to him and his methods. This approach is not for any player but it has worked well so far in Italy and Russia.”
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