America is about to elect the wrong man. Rather than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the next US head of state and commander-in-chief should instead be a 36-year-old Italian football coach. Or at least that was all you could assume Gazzetta dello Sport’s editors were getting at when they ran with the bold and bizarre English-language headline “Strama for president” on Monday morning.
If the words were nonsensical—and not referenced at all in the accompanying article—then they nevertheless captured the spirit of the moment. Andrea Stramaccioni was the man of the hour following his Inter team’s victory over Juventus in Turin. The Nerazzurri had not only ended their rivals’ 49-game unbeaten run but also extended their own sequence of consecutive victories to nine in all competitions.
And at least this headline had managed not to invoke José Mourinho. That alone was enough to make it a rare exception on a day when all others (including Gazzetta, on the previous page) were intent on drawing “Special” parallels.
Not that you could really blame the newspapers for taking such a tack. If comparisons between the Inter manager and his predecessor are inevitable it is not only because he is young, charismatic, and never played the game to a high level. It is also because Stramaccioni’s own employers persist in making them.
“When I decided to entrust the team to Stramaccioni it was because he had an intelligence that reminded me of Mourinho,” said the Inter president Massimo Moratti last month. The team’s then general manager Ernesto Paolilo had expressed similar sentiments immediately after the appointment was made in March, saying: “His meticulousness in studying opponents recalls Mourinho.”
Such sentiments sounded absurd to Stramaccioni, who pointed out repeatedly that he was a nobody, a man who had never even managed at senior level before, much less led a team to the treble and won domestic titles in four different countries. Whilst he had faith in his own abilities, the reality was that his management experience prior to getting this job extended to working with youth teams of various age categories for Zeta Sport, Romulea, Roma then Inter.
Stramaccioni’s appointment, initially made on an interim basis, came at the end of an impressive first season in charge of Inter’s Primavera. He had just led them to victory over Ajax in the final of the NextGen Series, yet he was still sufficiently far removed from the workings of the senior team that when he showed up for his first day of work at their Appiano Gentile training complex he confessed to not even knowing which way the front door opened.
At that stage he doubted very much that Mourinho even knew who he was. When he received a text from the Portuguese, Stramaccioni dismissed it as a prank. That was before a member of the team’s support staff, Andrea Butti, who had worked under Mourinho, told the manager that he had given out the number. Since then Stramaccioni and his predecessor have remained in regular contact.
“I’ve never told the players about it,” said Stramaccioni in an interview with Corriere dello Sport in May, cognizant that the shadow of Mourinho still looms large over this team. “But I have been listening to Mourinho’s advice and I thank him for it. We have never met in person, but it is a pleasure just to talk [over the phone] with one of the best managers in the world.”
Mourinho had made contact with other Inter managers since his departure, even exchanging messages with his former rival Claudio Ranieri, but perhaps he, too, recognised something familiar in this newcomer. “The greatest advice he gave me, after seeing my Inter play, was to not change a thing, to not let myself be ‘contaminated’,” said Stramaccioni. “I have no intention of doing so because the president chose me for that which I am.”
Herein the great contradiction of Stramaccioni, a man who is so publicly self-effacing yet at the same time utterly confident in his footballing beliefs. When he was first appointed the newspaper La Stampa colourfully likened him to a rookie gymnast who had “launched into a triple pike” which he might not be able to land. Yet at his inaugural press conference Stramaccioni had declared himself unafraid.
“I don’t even feel like I am running the risk of being burned by it,” he had said. “Coaching Inter, for whoever does my job, is a dream. I have been asked to bring back enthusiasm and get my ideas across. I only have one certainty, and that’s my work. I believe in it.”
Such confidence is founded in great part on the fastidiousness of his preparation, a trait carried over from the youth level. As Luigi Garlando noted in Gazzetta, Stramaccioni is a man “who can rattle off five nobodies from Vaslui because he has studied them as though they were Real Madrid”.
By knowing everything there is to know about an opponent, Stramaccioni is able to draw up precise schemes. On Saturday against Juventus his decision to line up with a bold 3-4-3 was read by many observers as a reckless act of bravado, yet in reality it was the most calculated of manoeuvres. Moratti would later claim that his manager had talked him through the decision and that the game—first-minute Juventus opener aside—had unfolded exactly as Stramaccioni described it.
But of course there was also an element of psychology at play here, of wanting his players to arrive at Juventus Stadium with the mindset that they were playing to win the game rather than merely survive it. It was an approach that could only have worked for a manager who had the trust of his players. Stramaccioni’s plan required tireless work from veteran forwards Diego Milito and Rodrigo Palacio, dropping back to close down the space around Andrea Pirlo.
Here too there were echoes of Mourinho, a man for whom Samuel Eto’o had been willing to sacrifice his usual game and play out wide, even when his role became that of a de facto full-back against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Yet in other ways Saturday’s game helped to illustrate how the two managers are also very different.
Mourinho’s time in Italy was characterized by constant battles with officials, the manager using perceived injustices against his team to create a siege mentality around the club. His infamous ‘handcuffs’ gesture during a game against Sampdoria was prompted by the same referee, Paolo Tagaliavento, whose blown calls in this weekend’s Juventus v Inter game had the away support howling with rage.
Stramaccioni is not immune to such frustrations. After seeing Tagliavento fail to dismiss Stephan Lichtsteiner for a second bookable offence on Saturday he hit the wall of his dugout so hard that he broke a bone in his hand. Yet he did not seek to make capital out of the situation as Mourinho might. At half-time he did not fuel the players’ anger over the decisions but instead told them he would not tolerate self-pity.
That is not to say that one method is better than the other, but only to illustrate a significant divergence in approach. Stramaccioni has refused all season to discuss referees’ performances and did so again after Saturday’s game. Moratti, by contrast, had been so strident in his criticism of the officials that a clarification was required on Monday saying he did not believe there was any malice involved.
Knowing how to best motivate players with seven and in some cases even eight-figure salaries is one of the great challenges facing all modern managers, and perhaps an especially daunting one for a young manager such as Stramaccioni, who is two-and-a-half years younger than his captain Javier Zanetti. He was candid in discussing the subject with La Repubblica last month.
“Here you are managing men,” he said. “In a youth team you are speaking with kids of the same age, with so much in common. With the seniors it is different, more complex. Above all for me: I need to have a human relationship with a player, I need to transmit the ideas that I have inside me to them in a way that allows them to transfer them onto the pitch. I need conversation. I keep the same character: I am direct, for better or worse.”
So far, it seems to be the former. “To be honest I don’t like to compare managers,” said Milito on Saturday, yet with a leading question or two the reporters were able to get the response they had sought. “But both Mourinho and Stramaccioni have the quality of knowing how to get each player to express themselves in the best way.”
That much, at least, seems to be true. Stramaccioni has long cited Luciano Spalletti among his managerial inspirations, noting in particular the impression left on him by the manager’s then record run of 11 consecutive Serie A wins in 2005-06. Yet he himself is now just two shy of that mark with Inter, albeit his run is in all competitions.
Gazzetta even claimed that Stramaccioni’s 70% winning rate in Serie A is the best of all-time. With a sample size of less than 30 games, is the sort of spurious statistic of which any presidential candidate’s spin doctors would be rightly proud. Stramaccioni is winning hearts and minds but, most importantly, also games of football.