It has been 20 years since Serie A experienced anything like it, with no fewer than four of last season’s top seven clubs changing coaches during a summer of intense activity in Italy.
Some of the new faces are already household names, not least former Serbia international Sinisa Mihajlovic, who has replaced Cesare Prandelli at Fiorentina, and Spaniard Rafa Benitez, who left Liverpool to follow in Jose Mourinho’s footsteps at Inter Milan. Others are still building their reputations, such as Massimiliano Allegri, Leonardo’s successor at AC Milan, and Juventus's Luigi Del Neri, brought in to deliver glory after the team’s travails under Ciro Ferrara and Alberto Zaccheroni.
"Fabio Capello and Claudio Ranieri both got going again at Juventus in their sixties, so why can’t I?” asked the 60-year-old Del Neri with a grin, before getting something more personal off his chest. “On my identity papers, my name Delneri is written as a single word, but I like to keep the ‘Del’ separate.”
However you choose to render his name, the Juve coach enjoyed nothing more than a modest playing career as a defensive midfielder from 1967 to 1985, but he wasted no time in making the transition to the dugout. In the quarter of a century since he hung up his boots, he has coached 18 clubs, learning the ropes at a number of lesser lights before securing stints with increasingly prestigious outfits such as Porto, Roma, Palermo, Atalanta and Sampdoria.
No player is indispensible. A great player must put himself at the service of the team. Whoever decides not to cooperate with me will be shown the door.
His rigorous approach and intransigence have not made Del Neri popular with everyone, however. “I think that no player is indispensible,” he said, his spectacles and trimmed moustache helping convey the image of a stern individual not overly keen on compromising his methods.
"“A great player must put himself at the service of the team. Whoever decides not to cooperate with me will be shown the door. 4-4-2 is the system that best corresponds to my vision of the game. There’s no need to change it.”
Del Neri’s confidence in his philosophy was no doubt reinforced by his achievement in leading Sampdoria to fourth in Serie A last term. He is nonetheless keenly aware that he will need to prove his worth all over again to convince his new employers that they have chosen the right man, with Juventus still smarting after coming in seventh in 2009/10. “It’s without doubt the biggest challenge of my career,” he said, placing the tests to come above his short stay at Porto in 2004, when he was tasked with replacing Jose Mourinho only to be sacked before the start of the Portuguese season.
Following in Sacchi’s footsteps
As for Allegri, one quick glance at the 43-year-old and you might be forgiven for thinking that Leonardo was still at the AC Milan helm. The Brazilian’s replacement is every bit as elegant as his predecessor, but he boasts nothing like the same list of honours, having struck just 19 Serie A goals as an attacking midfielder in his playing days. Overall, he found the net 63 times in 374 appearances, before first turning to coaching with fifth-tier Aglianese in 2003. Since then, his rise his been rapid, and after five years in the lower leagues he made his top-flight coaching debut with Cagliari in 2008.
The Sardinian side provided Allegri with an excellent platform to demonstrate his talents and, after making a searing first impression on Serie A, he was singled out as coach of the 2008/09 campaign by his peers. From that high he went on to be sacked by Cagliari the following season due to a disagreement with the club’s president, but he had already caught the eye of Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. Handed the keys to the side during the summer, he has in fact become only the second Rossoneri coach without previous links to the club, after Arrigo Sacchi.
Known for making slow starts to each season, Allegri realises he possesses precious little room for manoeuvre at the San Siro, where Milan are desperate to end Inter’s grip on the domestic game. Determination, discipline and education are the pillars of the Livorno native’s approach and he is also an adept of the 4-3-1-2 formation, in which Ronaldinho is expected to operate behind a pair of strikers. “It would be presumptuous on my part to want to completely overturn a team that still has a lot to give, even if there are lots of players over 30,” he reasoned, paying homage to the man who preceded him, even if he did last just one season.
The two coaches settling into their new roles clearly represent audacious gambles on the parts of Juventus and Milan, but similar punts have yielded spectacular results down the years. After all, no lesser a figure than Sacchi himself was an unknown quantity before the glorious era of Marco van Basten and Co – and how both Del Neri and Allegri would surely love to sample similar success.