“When people think of Italy, they think of two things: Pizza and Catenaccio.”
Renzo Ulivieri suggests, “Tactics are a part of an Italian’s character. It’s an art form for us.”
Having completed a full day of tutoring on a UEFA A course, Ulivieri has wandered over to sit on a pitchside bench and dissect the procedures in place at Coverciano, the central training ground and technical headquarters of the Italian Football Federation.
“When a coach arrives here and says, “My philosophy is this…”, the first thing I have to do is press the reset button, because you can only execute your game plan with the players you have at your disposal. There’s a few lucky coaches who can select players at their will, but at normal clubs you have to work with what you have.” He proceeds, “There’s an old Italian saying of ‘Arrangiarsi’ – it means to make do with what you’ve got.”
Nestled below the rolling Monte Ceceri hills where Leonardo da Vinci would test his flying machine in 1506, Coverciano is steeped in history and overlooked by the villa where Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio famously penned ‘The Decameron’ somewhere between the years of 1348 and 1353 – the book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in the secluded villa on the outskirts of Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.
The campus that houses the Italian National teams from the under-15 age-group upwards sports five pitches, including a ‘three-quarter sized pitch’, which is lined in each direction and shaped specifically for ‘intensive tactical work’.Ulivieri concedes: “We’ve made errors in recent times. Following the 2006 World Cup win, we thought we were the professors. Then Spain won in 2010 with their short, patient style and people tried to copy that. Four years later Germany were the best with quick, aggressive, and direct football, and that was imitated here.” He adds, “We lost our principles and so we put a stop to it. We said, ‘Let’s calm down. We can learn from others and mix it in with our character, but we are Italian and want to remain Italian!’”
The current Director of the Italian Coaching School leaps to his feet, ferociously flailing his arms and acting out his words on the pitch before us: “There is a time for each style of football.” Advancing, “If we have to sit in deep to defend with organisation then counter-attack, we are Italian. If we win the ball and have no immediate opportunity to counter, we are Spanish. And if the best solution is to go forwards in the fastest possible way, we’ll be German.”
He maintains his domineering tone: “We must always do what we do best though, and nobody can be Italian better than the Italians. Of course, there’s various forms of an Italian, and the culture drives the personality of the coach. For example, so many fantastic managers come from here in Tuscany. Maurizio Sarri, Max Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and many other Serie A managers came from this region.” He proceeds, “The Tuscans are raised to enjoy life and embrace the moment.”Now pacing around the technical area, the former Napoli boss pursues on culture with an anguished look as he alludes to the decrease in ‘free-spirits’ on the pitch: “There will be regions that won’t produce as many greats anymore, such as Veneto, and other north-eastern regions. You always find individuals from ‘outside the box’ in the poor areas. Now money has reached these parts, and it’s so rare that a top player comes from a rich family.” Ulivieri urges, “When a ball is the only form of entertainment you have, then you’re bound to become a better player.”
The likes of Marco Marchionni, Alessandro Gamberini and World Cup winner Mauro Camoranesi are still dawdling off the pitch, consumed in a tactical debate having completed a day of studying on the course beneath the sweltering Florence sun. They’ll soon be an addition to the already imposing figure of 2,804 UEFA A qualified coaches who studied at Coverciano (that was last counted on April 19th 2019). “These lads have to do eight hours a day for a seven-week period on this course, and the UEFA Pro course runs through a full season” says Ulivieri. “The A license students spend the majority of the course out on the pitch whilst the UEFA Pro is mostly classroom-based.”
“We send students out to do internships around Serie A. This season we had guys working with Allegri at Juventus and Manuel Pellegrini even opened his doors to allow one student to shadow him at West Ham.” He progresses, “The feedback was phenomenal, and they all comment on how tactically astute our students are. Italian coaches are so tactically inclined. If you watch Serie A games, the teams are so adept. Even Serie B and Serie C is of an extremely high level tactically.Through a boastful snigger, Ulivieri claims “Jose Mourinho was once asked about his stint in Italy and he referred to Serie A as the ‘Tactical League’, claiming his opponents ‘would change their system five times a game in order to adapt to us.’ By the end of his second season, Inter started off adopting one tactic and would change every 20 minutes. Mourinho declared ‘It was like chess. Every single week.’”
Beginning his professional managerial career at the tender age of 24, the now venerable Ulivieri went on to work with 18 different clubs before taking on his Head of Coaching position with the Italian FA in 2010. After embarking on a flavourful coaching pathway that has seen him work alongside the likes of Arrigo Sacchi and Marcello Lippi, as well as managing the extraordinary quality of Roberto Baggio, the 78-year-old maestro admits “The best coaches are the ones who read the game and think four or five steps ahead of the action.” Persisting, “We spend hours and hours watching videos here, analysing and picking apart games.”
“The UEFA A course is intense, but the Pro is of an extremely high level. It’s built around game preparation and we set up scenarios for coaches. Sometimes we’ll put them 1-0 up with 10 men and other times we’ll have them watch 15 minutes of a random game and I then ask them what they’d change if they were in charge.”
“We all watched the second-leg of Ajax and Tottenham together and when (Mauricio) Pochettino threw (Fernando) Llorente on, he abandoned his philosophy and the game changed dramatically. Spurs went direct and Ajax never reacted. The room laid into Ajax boss (Erik) ten Hag. He was getting slaughtered. I ended up feeling bad for him, but listen, I’m with Pochettino. He changed to win the game. It’s football!”As we look across the pitch, counting the ex-professionals now beginning their coaching career, Ulivieri asserts “A problem many of these guys have is they make the transition from the professional game into youth football and want to take the same methods with them. It’s a huge error.” He expands, “Kids need to be developed individually. They’re involved in a group, of course, but you must always work to their individual needs. Even the tactics need to be given out individually. As they get older, then you can work on the collective shapes and systems.”
“Things come with time in football. We tend to adapt to our surroundings and work out how to succeed. As I said before, the popular phrase here is ‘Arrangiarsi’. There is something we can definitely say about the Italian coaches; Whenever they go abroad, they win.”
By Alex Clapham