The season 2016-2017 will go down as an incredible campaign for Italian coaches.
Four major European Leagues were won by Italian managers last term, another contested the Champions League Final and domestically, three home-grown bosses duked it out at the top of Serie A.
In Serie A, and amidst a procession of positive notices for Massimiliano Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and Maurizio Sarri one name was notable for its absence. As Allegri’s team fell short in the final of the UEFA Champions League in Cardiff, Cesare Prandelli’s season was already long over having ended with a whimper five months early. Nonetheless, he has emerged as an interesting candidate for the Scotland job, vacated by Gordon Strachan last week.
At the top of their table last season, Juventus, A.S. Roma and Napoli were managed by Italian managers, Carlo Ancelotti claimed the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich in Germany, Antonio Conte won England’s Premier League with Chelsea. Meanwhile, the lesser-known Massimo Carrera claimed the Russian Premier League with Spartak Moscow.
Meanwhile, the 60-year-old Prandelli has had two short stints at clubs after leaving Italy after the 2014 World Cup. With Galatasaray in Turkey and Valencia in Spain. He currently finds himself languishing in the well-rewarded football backwaters of The United Arab Emirates with Al-Nasr. It is a poignant reminder that tastes are fickle and memories short in football where you’re only as good as your last success.
So it is great to see Prandelli, a manager with the perfect temperament and profile for international football, being linked with what could be an ideal role.
The ex-Fiorentina, Parma and Roma boss had been hailed as a potential saviour when he arrived in La Liga as Valencia’s ninth coach since 2012. But after just one win in just eight league matches the former Italy coach resigned, calling time on his Spanish adventure on 30th December 2017.
Prandelli’s tender at Galatasaray lasted a mere 147 days, due to a disastrous Champions League campaign that read six group games, one point and a -12 goal difference after home and away ties with Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Anderlecht.
And yet despite those flops at Galatasaray and Valencia there is no doubt that Cesare Prandelli is a coach that deserves better than his exile in the Arabian Gulf League.
Certainly, the current generation of high-flying Italian coaches have a lot to thank him for as his new broom approach to the national team job paved the way for a positive reappraisal of Italian football and its current coaches. And with the taste for change evident in the decision not to renew Gordon Strachan’s contract at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup campaign, but also a clear sense that a period of potentially positive transition needs very sensitive handling, Scotland are crying out for fresh eyes and steady hands.
And in both these respects, the Italian who won seven major trophies as a squad man midfielder with Juventus, took Italy to the final of the 2012 Euros perfectly corresponds to the brief at hand.
For all the talk of Conte, Allegri or Sarri, it is Cesare Prandelli that remains the most underrated Italian manager in the game alongside Pescara’s Zdenek Zeman when it comes to cultural impact.
As Italy boss between 2010–2014 Prandelli promoted a sea-change in Italian football. It was a root and branch move away from cynicism, from defensive, inflexible football and the ‘rugged’ approach to the stereotypical dark arts of gamesmanship that is historically synonymous with Serie A.
Going out on a limb, Prandelli, as a beloved Azzurri coach enjoyed a broad mandate amongst fans not always supportive of the national side. He challenged homophobia and racism. He took popular stands against match-fixing, media hysteria and supported misunderstood talents such as Cassano and Balotelli. One of his first moves as national team boss was to impose a new code of ethics. It meant that players would be dropped from the team if he felt they had set a bad example in club matches.
During Euro 2012 in particular, Prandelli summed up the new mood of national unity when he said: “At the end of the day, this is a simple game of football and football needs to bring happiness to people”.
It was a refreshingly apposite manifesto for the new Italian football. In the event, a tactically diverse Italy went on to reach the final, far surpassing expectations. It is a simple concept likely to appeal to Scottish hearts and minds rightly suspicious of coaching doublespeak and mediated responses from their men in charge.
The biggest impediment to a foreign coach with modern ideas at Hampden lies in the long shadow cast by Berti Vogts, Scotland’s only previous experiment with a foreign coach between 2002-2004.
The likeable German arrived in Scotland as self-styled Berti McVogts, a World Cup winner as a player and as a coach that had guided his country to Euro 96.
Vogts’ plan was essentially kill or cure: an attempt to get young legs into an ageing Scotland side and build an infrastructure around the team that would build a pathway to international football for players that could ally a Scottish mentality to the style of football commonplace in The Champions League and major international tournaments.
The press bemoaned Vogts lack of fluency in English and the fact his 2 ½ year reign saw 60 players utilised and 40 of them given debuts, with a zeal that was both personal and parochial. Yet Vogts’ fresh eyed approach was not without merit.
A Scotland Futures team remains a good idea and, despite some bum note results, Vogts also got nearer qualification, with a play-off defeat to The Netherlands, than any of the well tried Scots that have since replaced him in the national job hotseat.
Vogts can claim with some justification that his reign never received the support of a press that invariably sees progress only in terms of short-term results, as he sought to instigate a new way of playing appropriate to the times.
Cesare Prandelli of course, has been over the same course with Italy winning both the battle for hearts and minds and over-performing on the field with results that restored national pride and took his country to the final of Euro 2012 in some style.
In the present day, Cesare Prandelli is as important to the image of Italian football as Helenio Herrera and his La Grande Inter was in his 1960s pomp. And he deserves all the credit for bringing Italian football into the 21st Century in the era of the Champions League style. This means that Serie A is currently a very exciting viewing proposition, right up there with La Liga and the Premier League and far superior to Ligue 1 or The Bundesliga in terms of excitement and interest.
Briefly, The Champions League Style is a product of international coaching, the global movement of players and the free exchange of proven, successful tactical and technical ideas. And they dominate in almost every league.
At present these fashions mean typically: 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and variants, athletic players, short sprints, high tempo, pressing, fast transitions, high defensive lines and zonal marking at set pieces.
On any given day I can watch live games from most countries in the world at all sorts of levels – and so can every single coach, manager and player. But Enlightenment does not manifest itself in choice and variety. Instead, it always creates orthodoxies and consensus.
At the same time you have to consider that the decline of so-called street football in Western Europe has further led to the development of players alongside regimented, organised lines with coaching by people who are conversant in the same style and fashions. Prandelli brought Italian football ‘up to speed’ with the demands and expectations of modern football as played in an elite league in a style that revealed a refreshing common touch.
As it stands, the only thing that really varies nation to nation is the average number of goals per game and the extent to which teams circulate the ball or play more directly. This is often related to the quality of the playing surfaces in particular countries.
In Italy, you still find pragmatic ‘job’ managers whose embracing of the wider European trends is tempered by throwback quirks, such as for example the reinvention of 3–5–2 and also the creation of hybrid styles of play that are both possession/passing-based and also reliant on transitions and fast breaks. That local ‘seasoning’ means that Italian football is currently served ‘with a twist’ at its most interesting clubs.
But, saying all that, Luis Enrique, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone are just as ‘Italian’ as Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti, Massimiliano Allegri or Luciano Spalletti. At the top of the game Spain looks like Italy and both look like England (more or less).
I’d say that the one established football country that produces football that looks most different to the norm is Argentina. There, the games are a slower tempo in terms of build-up and lower scoring, the rhythm and tempo of the games is harder to read and it may be why Argentina is a county that can still produce game-changing, top level strikers in good number.
Uruguay also has a lot of those Argentinian characteristics in its football with a lower individual skills base and a more aggressive edge. And again, Uruguay is country notable for producing ‘specialist’ top strikers against the dominant trend for all-purpose forwards almost everywhere else.
Italy is still viewed in some quarters as a final rest home for fading stars who have lost a bit of pace but I think that’s more of a hangover legacy than an expression of realities. The way Serie A looks now simply does not bear that perception out.
Give me a choice of a random game from the top leagues to watch ‘blind’, I’d chose a La Liga game first, Serie A second, The Premier League third and The Bundesliga and Ligue 1 trailing in a long way back in fourth and fifth.
In terms of quality, diversity and entertainment Spain, Italy and England create football that is broadly similarly attractive. To my mind, German and French football is less compelling as a spectacle.
And for that we have, Cesare Prandelli, football’s forgotten man, to thank. In that context, you can see his potential as a very exciting hire for Scotland. Especially, if as is claimed, there is a genuine appetite for change that cannot be satisfied with a tried and tested appointment.