Zeman hopes to find Roma formula
It may be the second time in little over year that Roma fans have seen something of a revolution at their club, but at least some will take solace that what is taking place is a little more familiar than the last.
The return of Zdenek Zeman, 15 years after he first walked through the door, marked the end of an unsuccessful season where Luis Enrique’s dream of turning i Giallorossi into Serie A’s Barcelona failed to materialise. The former Lazio and Fenerbahce coach arrives on the back of a triumph in Serie B with Pescara, having not managed in the Italian top flight since leaving Roma in 1999.
On being unveiled he seemed glad to be back in the big time, saying: "I would like to thank the club for the trust. I knew I would return sooner or later. I hope the club and I will collaborate to build something together. I feel this city as if it is my own. I am happy to have returned.
If the Czech coach maintains his own particular brand of attacking football it is unlikely the Stadio Olimpico will be seeing much tiki-taka from those sporting red and gold. Direct football, and goals, are something that can be guaranteed if form from Pescara arrives with the ex-teacher – they scored 90 goals, 27 more than any other team, but also conceded 14 more than any of the top six.
His commitment to a change from last season is evident, stating: “[Enrique] focuses on ball possession; I do not as I have no patience. It’s a question of character, but I want to always get to the goal.” This became clear following a 13-0 pre-season win over Austrian side Irdning, providing the response: “We could’ve done better, but I guess I’m happy.”
His reputation for playing exciting football dates back to the early 1990s, after he turned Foggia from third division also-rans to the darlings of Italy as they spectacularly rose into Serie A in three years, propelling the likes of Giuseppe Signori into the spotlight. That period and style came to be known as Zemanlandia.
Three years of near-European football with the minnows saw him step-up to the challenge of Lazio, but was sacked following a second and third finish. He then moved across town to join Roma at the start of the 1997/98 season.
Two years there saw plenty of attacking football – top scoring in both seasons, but after a fourth and fifth finish and some controversial allegations levelled by him, he was replaced. Whatever happens in his second spell though, he will always be the man who brought club legend Cafu to i Giallorossi.
The often outspoken coach has been quick to make his mark on the squad this time around, with club president Thomas DiBenedetto and his board seemingly keen to back him – only being outspent by champions Juventus during this transfer window.
The arrivals of Mattia Destro and Panagiotis Tachtsidis from Genoa provide variation going forward, while Federico Balzaretti from Palermo and the triple swoop of Corinthians defenders in Leandro Castan, Dodo and Marquinhos, among others, will hope to plug a leaky defence.
They are acquisitions Zeman seems pleased with too. “The new players we brought in can do a great deal for Roma, so I am very happy with the transfer strategy. I have a lot of faith in this squad and I am convinced we can challenge anyone.
"Personally I want to compete, battle with the everyone, such as Inter, AC Milan or Juventus, but also Pescara. At the beginning you are all equal."
Ahead of their opening game with Inter Milan on Sunday, Zeman already professes to have a line-up in mind, but his trademark unpredictable character also seems to have been factored into his outlook. “I already have a basic idea of my starting XI. I have a squad that covers every role with two players, then it depends on their fitness levels and my level of madness on which ones I use.”
The club’s current state of affairs is also one that is building confidence beyond the Eternal City. Former coach and current Monaco boss, Claudio Ranieri feels the side he left 18 months ago are in good shape, saying: “I see some good things, very good things, and the squad has been strengthened. Then, they also have Zeman. He’s a great Coach and I’m a big admirer of his work. His Roma deserve great faith.”
One difference to Enrique’s reign is Zeman is working hard to get the club’s core onside. He has publicly stated his desire to retain Danielle De Rossi, while relations with captain Francesco Totti seem good. Enrique’s understanding with the talisman notably began in a frayed fashion.
"Totti and I were together 13 years ago, and that is a long time. I've seen him grow, but Totti is always Totti to me,” Zeman said recently. “He may not be what he once was physically, but that is normal. For his position I have to see what we do as a team, not only with respect to him, I see what is best for the team.”
Arguably more importantly, Totti looks willing to accommodate and work with Zeman. After a recent friendly he said: "My role? We will see and I will adapt. The important thing is to play. Football is fun, I enjoy the sport and try to give the fans entertainment too. As long as I am physically able, I will try to give my contribution. I tried to put myself at the disposal of the coach and I did what I could.”
There seems a tangible optimism coursing through the side now, with all willing to adjust, try new things and progress, from the new arrivals and incumbents alike. “Zeman explains the movements to everyone and sometimes we don’t understand them straight away, but that’s only to be expected,” forward Erik Lamela said. “He wants us to play right in front of the opposition goal so we can create danger for them.”
Destro is another that is appreciating the Czech’s communication, saying: “I learned so much with Zeman and worked a lot too! He is a coach who teaches a great deal to forwards and I think we’re going to have a great season.”
Ultimately though, fellow new-signing Balzaretti – who rejected a move to Napoli to join Zeman at Roma – captures the mood on and off the pitch. “We are just thinking about winning and entertaining,” the Italian international said. “This is a place that easily gets excited and this enthusiasm is certainly a fine starting point for us to work.”