Gianluca Zambrotta was one of the world’s elite players for AC Milan, Juventus and Barcelona, but he’s cutting his managerial teeth in rather less glamorous surroundings…
It’s now 25 years since the brilliant Gazzetta Football Italia first aired on UK screens. It showed the British public that the Italian league was the place to be, with the top foreign players, historic clubs and the tactical nous of the most renowned coaches.
Nowadays, Serie A no longer has the same prestige as in the 1990s, but the managers are still admired across the world. In fact, Italian managers have won the Premier League in four out of the last seven years, with Antonio Conte joining Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri on the list last season.
Paolo Di Canio and Gianfranco Zola were both given their first managerial jobs in England, off the back of their successful playing days in the country, but other high-profile Italian players have had to take a more inventive route to learn the role.
On the pitch, Gianluca Zambrotta won three Serie A titles with Juventus and Milan, along with the World Cup in 2006. He won 98 caps for the Azzurri in total and also played with Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho in Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona side.
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However, despite his legendary status as a player, Zambrotta started his managerial career with Chiasso in the Swiss Challenge League, the second tier of football in Switzerland.
He had initially joined as a player-assistant coach as a 36-year-old in the summer of 2013, 12 months after leaving Milan, but was made player-manager as soon as November after Ryszart Komornicki was sacked with the club in bottom place.
Managing a second division team in Switzerland may sound like a peculiar choice as a first opportunity for a man who was once one of the greatest full-backs in the world, but it’s not a path that’s unfamiliar for Italians.
Former Juventus winger Attilio Lombardo took charge for a year at Chiasso, having been given his No.1 debut at Crystal Palace, while Baldo Ranieri managed them last term. Chiasso even played in the Italian league between 1914 and 1923 so the link is not as unusual as it first sounds.
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Zambrotta spent two years at the Stadio Comunale and successfully led the team to safety in his first season before eventually being sacked six weeks before the end of his second.
He had to wait over a year for his next opportunity, and once again it was somewhat unexpected territory, in the Indian Super League with Delhi Dynamos, where he had Florent Malouda among his squad.
Dynamos finished third in 2016, which was their best position since the club were formed three years ago. The competition is only two months long, but many new managers are using it as an opportunity to gain experience, and earlier this summer Zambrotta left his role to become assistant to Fabio Capello at Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League.
Capello won six league titles for Milan, Real Madrid, and Roma, along with two titles for Juventus which were later rescinded due to the ‘Calciopoli’ scandal. His time in charge of England is not remembered all that fondly, but he is clearly a man Zambrotta can learn from.
Which is exactly what the 40-year-old has been doing his whole career.
From Ancelotti, for example, Zambrotta learnt pragmatism. Ancelotti has managed some of the wealthiest clubs in world football, but his primary aim is to employ the characteristics he has at his disposal rather than to make wholesale adjustments.
“Each coach has a philosophy, but it depends on the players that you have available in your team,” Zambrotta says. “If you have a good defence, then you utilise more of a defensive team.
“If you have two good offensive midfielders, then you can never play with just two midfielders, it has to be a three. It’s all about the type of players you have in your squad.”
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The 58-year-old also has a great ability to build a personal connection with his squad, something else Zambrotta has been keen to do himself.
“I was lucky because I had two years at Juve and one in Milan with Ancelotti,” continues Zambrotta. “He is a good person, but also a very easy person to have a good relationship.
“He is brilliant with his players and his staff. He is good value as a coach because he’s so close to his players and he doesn’t keep any distance from them.”
Zambrotta believes that approach was a key factor for another of his former managers, Marcello Lippi, in Italy’s World Cup triumph in Germany. Lippi had worked with some of the players at Juventus, but he was able to merge the contingent and not allow any division between rival clubs.
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Chelsea boss Conte told Sky Sports Italia programme Mister Condo last year: “Lippi was excellent at motivating the squad and passing on his ideas. I think the most important thing for a coach is to have a clear vision and transmit that clearly to his players.
“Lippi always had that, as well as a great ability to motivate us, even when we played every three days. That Juventus had four consecutive European Finals and if you think back, that was an exceptional achievement.”
Lippi explains in his book II Gioco delle Idee: Pensieri e Passioni da Bordo Campo (A Game of Ideas: Thoughts and Passions from the Sidelines) the importance of team unity and spirit. This is perhaps more crucial at international level where there’s less time to work on tactical and strategic plans.
“There was never any difference between the cities when you played for your country, it always felt like one nation,” says Zambrotta. “We were altogether as a group and there was no difference between the players.”
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One senior source at the Dynamos says it was a message Zambrotta was keen to pass on to his players last season: “He always tells the players, if there was any divide then Italy wouldn’t have won.
“The most important thing that the coach conveys is unity. More so than tactics or anything else.”
Now Zambrotta will look to help Jiangsu win the Chinese Super League for the first time.
They finished second last season under Dan Petrescu and won the Chinese FA Cup in 2015 but had won just once in 12 league games when Capello took charge in June.
Upon their arrival, Capello and Zambrotta immediately switched to a three-man defence and although they failed to win any of their opening five matches, they have won three in their last six and suffered only one defeat.
Zambrotta is once again learning from one of the most renowned managers in the world. A managerial appointment for a team in one of Europe’s top leagues will certainly be on the agenda for the former full-back in the coming years.
By Paul Wilkes
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