It’s a regular feature of football history of course that when one club is successful, others try to replicate their success. Barcelona wanted to play the way Ajax did in the late `60s and so they brought in Rinus Michels in 1971 then later Johan Cruyff the player in 1973.
The two won La Liga only once together in their time at the Camp Nou but the cultural impact they had on the club and the legacy they left, which Cruyff would reinforce on his return as coach, showed that over the long-term a foreign style can become the adopter’s own and even stronger so if it coalesces organically with local identity.
Many, however, don’t take the long view or commit fully to change. They want a quick fix and follow like sheep whatever the latest fad or craze is. This approach can have disastrous effects.
In Italy, for instance, during the late `80s and early `90s, Juventus, feeling under pressure after a number of years without a league title, looked to go down the route Milan had taken.
Milan had appointed Arrigo Sacchi, a relative unknown with no background in football, and won the Scudetto, back-to-back European Cups and earned themselves a place in posterity for the style with which they played and the revolution they started.
In response, Juventus completely overhauled their structure. The Old Lady felt she had to get with the times. Long-standing president Giampiero Boniperti was gone. So too was coach Dino Zoff, even though he had just led the team to a UEFA Cup and a Coppa Italia.
It was decided Juventus needed to find their own Sacchi. Rather than looking for the best coach out there, they’d hire the most different, someone who fit the Sacchi profile of “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you had to have been a horse first.”
That coach was Gigi Maifredi.
A former champagne salesman, he wasn’t exactly the toast of Serie A but had guided Bologna to eighth place the previous season, playing a Sacchi-like 4-4-2 with zonal-marking. Imagine what he could achieve with more resources, including Roby Baggio, or so the thinking went.
It was a disaster. Juventus finished seventh. Maifredi was considered a failure and got the sack. Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach who’d won everything with the club through the late `70s to the mid `80s, was brought back.
That has always served as a lesson. Imitation might be the highest form of flattery but it can also be flawed.
When Barcelona won La Liga and the Champions League back in 2009, many looked at how they had promoted from within, handing the job to Pep Guardiola, a former player, someone who knew the club inside out, who understood what it meant to wear the shirt and how the team should play so as to honour its traditions.
Others tried to follow suit. Juventus replaced Claudio Ranieri with Ciro Ferrara. Leonardo succeeded Carlo Ancelotti at Milan. It was called the ‘Guardiola Effect’, although the appointment of Leonardo was more in the style of Fabio Capello, who’d been behind a desk like him before being offered the job.
Ultimately, Ferrara was out of his depth and was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni in the spring as Juve ended up in seventh place. Leonardo walked having grown disillusioned with Silvio Berlusconi, whom he likened to Narcissus, after producing some fantastic but flaky football.
Then there was the Barça-Roma project. By bringing in Luis Enrique, someone “uncontaminated by Italian football” and promising to do things differently – i.e play to entertain not just to get results – Roma’s was certainly a lofty and idealised ambition. It challenged attitudes and stereotypes, only few were convinced by it, not least Luis Enrique, who left of his own accord at the end of the season.
Good intentions, poor execution, you might say. Still, at least Juventus eventually did find their Guardiola in Antonio Conte. Not because his team play the same way as Barça – they don’t – but rather because in him they found someone who is the club’s absolute personification and knows what’s expected of a coach of Juventus.
Fascinatingly the knock-on effect from the rise of German football and Dortmund in particular is finance-related. A lot has been made of their wage bill, which amounts to £68m a year. Milan’s still stands at over £100m and is the highest in Serie A even after the significant cuts to the pay-roll last summer.
This is one of Berlusconi’s [silly] justifications for considering the dismissal of coach Max Allegri. The president is supposedly claiming he should have done better than finish third because of it. Dortmund have done more with less. Juventus have too. That argument however grossly underestimates the work Allegri has done and would be a smokescreen for sacking him.
Now if Berlusconi were to have Jürgen Klopp lined up to replace him, a confessed disciple of Sacchi (Klopp once declared, “My [Dortmund] team is 10% of the team of Arrigo Sacchi”), then maybe that would be acceptable. But he doesn’t. Instead he apparently has Clarence Seedorf who, though gifted and very intelligent, would, a bit like Ferrara at Juventus, you feel, be out of his depth. He doesn’t have the support of the Curva either.
To be fair to Berlusconi he has or at least did have some great intuition. He saw top management material in Sacchi and Capello which, at the time wasn’t discernible to others. But if you must change – and Milan really don’t need to – then doing so on the basis of a fad or a craze elsewhere or using the way another club operates while ignorant of the context as an excuse for an overhaul isn’t, in historical terms, the best course of action.