Zeman May Be a One Trick Pony, but Oh What a Trick!

Soccer Features
Zeman May Be a One Trick Pony, but Oh What a Trick!

Up until this past Sunday, Pescara had exactly one win in the 2016-17 Serie A season. Oddly enough, that game ended 2-1 to Sassuolo; Pescara were awarded a 3-0 victory after the league determined their opponents had fielded an ineligible player.

But this past weekend it took just five minutes for Pescara to force Genoa into an own goal. By the end of the match, the score line read 5-0. It was a miracle on the Adriatic, fashioned and formed by one Zdenek Zeman, who returned to the club last week after a five-year absence, replacing Massimo Oddo.

Unfortunately for Pescara fans, the club has not appointed the Messiah—for one, it’s unlikely that, should a Jesus figure return to earth, he’d come in the form of a chain-smoking, reticent, sweatpants-clad coach who enjoys strapping bags of sand to his players’ backs. Rescuing Pescara from relegation would take a miracle of the loaves and fishes variety. The club currently sit dead last in Serie A, eleven points from safety, with 13 games to play. Yet after just one match, the cult of “Zemanlandia” is back in full swing. Even if its leader is yet again unmasked as unsuited to Serie A, its followers will stay devoted.

Zemanlandia’s roots date to 1989, when the Czech returned to third-division Foggia. In just two years Zeman led the club to Serie A. The success was down to Zeman’s style of play, which, although technically a 4-3-3, might be better termed “offensive overload.” His players are tasked with constantly getting forward, pressuring their opponents until a goal becomes inevitable. It’s not uncommon for Zeman to arrange his players along the halfway line at kickoff. The strategy worked, and not only in the lower divisions: Foggia finished mid-table in each of the three Serie A seasons Zeman was at the helm, and even challenged for European qualification.

Foggia’s fans understandably loved Zeman, but his devotees spread across the peninsula. While Italian football had long moved on from Helenio Herrera’s catenaccio of the 1960s, the game still emphasized defense, relying on compact sides and players willing to track back. Here was a team with a radically different plan. Football was meant to entertain, after all—and Foggia did often. Calcio had been turned on its ear.

But while Italian football remains defensive today, Zeman’s offensive tactics no longer astound and confound. They’re thrilling yes, and, as evidenced by Genoa’s utter capitulation last weekend, still able to catch teams off-guard. The trouble is, Italian football tactics—and football tactics in general—have moved on since the early nineties. Rolando Maran will already have a plan for how Chievo, well-known for their discipline, will thwart Zeman’s Pescara in the next round. He’ll know to shift his normally narrow side into a 4-4-2, looking to counter the Dolphins’ wide men, particularly Gianluca Caprari, who was brilliant against Genoa. These days, even weaker Serie A sides are tactically flexible enough to execute a shift when they know what’s coming. And with Zeman, you always know what’s coming.

That’s why it’s a bit strange to see him back in Serie A. When he left Cagliari in 2015 for the second time—Cagliari brought him back for five matches, just a few months after he’d originally been sacked—most thought that would be the end of Zemanlandia. His record spoke for itself: he had 15 appointments in the 20 years since he’d left Foggia in 1994, including another stint at Foggia; this man really is the ex you can’t seem to leave. Few of his stints would last more than a few months. His last return to Roma, for the 2012-13 season, saw him leave with the team in 8th place after 23 matches, having conceded 42 goals.

Roma believed Zeman would be the man to catapult them back to their rightful place in Serie A, booking Champions League appearances and challenging for the title. He’d just won Serie B with Pescara in impressive fashion, his squad scoring 90 goals on the backs of the young Italian trio of Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti. But the warning signs were there: Pescara had also conceded 55 goals, 27 more than Torino, who finished with the same number of points. They’d lost 11 matches too, often succumbing to mid-table sides. But they won their final six games, outscoring their opponents 24-3.

That Pescara side was an undeniable joy to watch, prompting many to seek out Serie B streams to revel in the fun of it all. Now, many are hoping for another miracle Foggia, where Zeman keeps Pescara up while entertaining neutral supporters.

But the truth behind Zeman’s appointment is more cynical. His talents are far better suited to Serie B, and with relegation inevitable, Pescara will hope he’ll stick around for next season to help them bounce back to Serie A while giving themselves time to court a more tactically adept coach for 2018-19. Meanwhile, a few more results like the one against Genoa and the Pescara ultras just might fill the Curva Nord again, breaking off a strike they’d promised would last until the end of the season.

Even so, fans should be thrilled Zeman’s taking charge. Pescara has a young squad, and Zeman will be able to instill a physical discipline he’s mentioned the side lacks, and offer them positional flexibility as he did with Caprari, who he shifted to the left wing last weekend. He can also teach them how to best take advantage of their skills—note how the young Alberto Cerri used his size and strength to win balls for his onrushing teammates.

And while Serie A may not be the best fit for Zeman, it will benefit from his return. Caprari is on loan from Inter, Cerri from Juventus; Insigne’s display for Napoli at the weekend proved there’s nothing like a spell under Zeman to create a forward intent on finding the net. Pescara’s remaining opponents, who’d likely been looking forward to sipping espresso while the ball bounced into the net, will now have to press themselves to find the tactics that will stop a Zeman team. Meanwhile, neutrals will be reminded that football is meant to entertain.

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