Two games of football in a week does not sound like too much work to Vladimir Petkovic. The Lazio coach scoffed at the idea that he would have to rotate his team for their Europa League game against Tottenham this Thursday, stating it was too early in the season for players to be tired. This is a man, after all, who on used to work an eight hour day before even arriving at his night job as a football manager.
From May 2003 to August 2008, Petkovic’s day would begin at 7am, when he would leave his home in Locarno and set out for the local offices of the charity Caritas. There he was responsible for overseeing a group of 10-15 unemployed young men, with whom he would collect and value items donated to the charity’s shop, before delivering them to buyers where required.
During that stint he worked as manager of first Lugano, then Bellinzona, but at both clubs he would arrange training to start at 5pm, heading straight there as soon as he got off shift. “In his spare time he used to study for his coaching badges too,” noted his former manager at Caritas, Stefano Frisoli. “Then he would convince new players signed by Bellinzona to fill their houses with our furniture.”
In both jobs, Petkovic was achieving success. Frisoli describes him as both a great motivator and “the sort of person you hope to work with”. Under his charge Bellinzona would finish second in Switzerland’s Challenge League in 2007, missing out on a spot in the top-flight only after losing a two-legged play-off against Aarau. The next year they would make amends, winning promotion as well as reaching the final of the Swiss Cup.
If the club would nevertheless part ways with Petkovic in the summer, appointing the more experienced Marco Schaellibaum in his stead, then he would not have to wait long for his opportunity to make the step up. Six games into the season, Petkovic was invited to replace Martin Andermatt at Young Boys. Only then did he finally decide that he could no longer juggle football with his work for Caritas, resigning from the latter.
Yet while Petkovic would enjoy a respectable three-year tenure at Young Boys—he missed out on the Swiss title only on the final day of the season in 2009-10 and briefly threatened to upset Tottenham in their Champions League qualifier the following season—his eventual arrival at Lazio might have had as much do with that Caritas work. Certainly that was what the Lazio owner Claudio Lotito suggested on Sunday as he praised the manager’s “morality, character and determination”.
“It is unusual that a person who works in the world of football should have also worked for years at Caritas,” said Lotito. “I believe footballers should be judged not only as footballers but also as people who need to be nourished spiritually. I chose Petkovic for this reason. I think it would be ungenerous to only judge a manager on results, which don’t only depend on him but a long list of other things.“
The cynic, of course, might suggest that the only truly important factor in Lotito’s mind tends to be parsimony. Available for a basic wage of just €600,000 per year, Petkovic certainly represented a cheaper option. The manager had been paid more than that to coach Turkey’s Samsunspor through the 2011-12 season but was willing to accept less from Lazio in order to have a crack at Serie A.
Petkovic might also have been sufficiently self-assured to believe that he could trigger the additional performance-related payments written into his Lazio contract. He did not come across as a man harbouring too many doubts when he announced at his Lazio unveiling that “I am a winner: someone who cannot stand defeat”.
In Rome they weren’t sure what to expect. Although Lotito was understood to have been blown away by Petkovic during their first, clandestine, meeting in May, the manager’s record was hardly overwhelming. Three moderately successful years in the Swiss top-flight would not normally be sufficient to land a job as high-profile as that at Lazio. Petkovic had resigned from his post at Samsunspor in January with the team headed for relegation.
The manager had subsequently taken a short-term contract with Sion back in Switzerland, helping them to win a two-legged play-off to stay in the top-flight. Were it not for Lazio’s interest, that is likely where he would have wound up coaching this season.
So far, though, Petkovic is justifying his self-belief. The mood among supporters seemed to be tilting towards mutinous during a difficult preseason, but once the real games started Lazio were a team transformed. By winning their first three games of the Serie A season, Lazio have matched their best start since 1974-75. They also won both legs of their Europa League qualifier against Mura.
All this success despite a modest transfer campaign in which Lazio failed to bring in the key addition up front that Petkovic had stipulated as a No. 1 priority during his first meetings with Lotito. It is an omission which may come to the fore more at a later stage, should Miroslav Klose go down injured, but to date does not seem to have hindered a team which has scored 12 goals in five games across all competitions.
That is partly down to the form of Klose, who rejected a move to Tottenham over the summer, but also because Petkovic has arranged his team around its strengths, rather than dwelling on an area of potential weakness. A man who arrived with a reputation for attacking football and an apparent preference for 3-4-3 has instead been sending Lazio out in a modest 4-5-1 with Klose as its lone forward.
His masterstroke has been to withdraw Hernanes—another player unsuccessfully sought by Spurs in the most recent transfer window—into a deeper role. The Brazilian had enjoyed much success playing just behind the attack as a trequartista under previous manager Edy Reja, but previously in his career had played in a deeper role at Sao Paulo, back in the centre of midfield.
It was Hernanes who raised the subject with Petkovic, stating that he might be able to contribute more as a deep-lying playmaker, and the manager paid heed to his words. He has been rewarded with three goals and an assist from the Brazilian in his three league games so far.
Maintaining the team’s 100% record will be rather trickier away against a Tottenham team which Petkovic described as moving at “a thousand miles-per-hour”. Which is not to say that the manager is fazed by the prospect. “Fear? I am not afraid [of Tottenham]. We have to be Lazio, worry only about ourselves, go there and win the match.”
If that sounds a little blasé then the truth is that Petkovic will have spent countless hours poring over tapes of these latest opponents, studying their movements and searching for weaknesses. The manager became renowned at Young Boys as a meticulous game planner, one who would lose days and nights locked away studying game film and statistical analyses of players.
There are, after all, quite a lot of hours available for a football manager to devote to such things when they don’t have the distraction of a full-time job to fill their daylight hours.