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Zdeněk Zeman: anarchic, chain-smoking and something entirely different

August 2, 2010



For many uneducated youngsters like myself, the small fuss made over the re-appointment of Zdeněk Zeman at Foggia was disconcerting, I had never heard of him, why didn’t I know of him?! There seemed to be a Zeman cult-like movement appearing on twitter with many writers/journalists coming out simultaneously over the admiration of Zdeněk Zeman. In fact, Gabriele Marcotti, after his Zeman-explosion exclamation has seemingly taken a twitter break, strikingly similar to having a post-coital cigarette.

His deity-like status amongst Italian football lovers stems from Zeman’s approach to the game, when Italian football was stereotyped as overly-defensive, where every fifth sentence about Calcio would usually contain the word ‘catenaccio’. His popularity coincided with British audiences getting to watch Italian football through television. As well as this, it was his individualistic approach to the game that caught people’s eyes, breaking the traditional view of defensive Italian football.

Zeman threw away ideas of a sweeper, the safety blanket that Italian football latched onto, and took hold of a 4-3-3 system. This system, he believed, allowed the most effective movement from players, most often in a game. The aim was to win the ball back quickly, and push players forward from deep positions. It was in Zeman’s Foggia side that Dan Petrescu made his name, one of just a handful of players who went on to play at better clubs.

Unfortunately, the only game I was able to get my hands on was not from his stints at Foggia, but from his time at Lecce during 2004 and 2005. This game was against Palermo and resulted in a 3-2 loss for Zeman’s side.

Pressure, pressure and more pressure
Without the ball, Zeman’s side press hard and in numbers. This pressing starts from the front too, with the central striker always looking to chase and harass.

The defensive problems that occurred throughout this game are linked to Zeman’s pressing instructions. By pressing hard and numbers, it takes many players out of position, losing all shape the team had. If an opposition player is able to release the ball when under this intense pressure, it usually results in danger for Zeman’s side as the defence and midfield are out of shape and easy to penetrate.

In this situation, there are seven players within a small area of the pitch, four of them all looking to close down pressurise the player in possession. The diagram below show the positions of the players in that screenshot (or thereabouts), if Palermo are able to get the ball free, they’re in a perfect position to overload the left hand-side of the pitch and create chances.

This persistent pressing lead to a penalty for Palermo (superbly saved, by the way). It came from Luca Toni taking up a deep position, dragging the Lecce centre-back out with him, attempting to stay tight to Toni. Toni stops, runs into the vacated space, leaving the centre-back trailing behind him as he runs into the space left by the on-rushing defender. Toni then gets a push as the corresponding centre-back rushes to him.

Palermo also found ways of using Lecce’s pressing game to their advantage, particularly in their full-back areas. Lecce’s full-backs, as with every one of their players, have a tendency to chase players even if it takes them way out of position. This is not a bad idea if there are numbers there to cover, but in the full-back area – where the centre-backs are trying to stay close together, you can find yourself isolated and without backup from players nearby.

So when a full-back tucks inside and chases their winger, it leaves a huge space to penetrate on that side of the pitch. The Palermo wingers realised this, cutting inside – taking the Lecce full-back with them (1), then laying the ball off to Luca Toni (2), who holds it up, then passes into the space for the winger to run onto (3).

Pressing in full-back positions tend to be dangerous because of this, centre-backs like to keep close – not being moved about from their position, making it harder for forwards and on-rushing midfielders to find space behind them, whilst traditional wingers in Zeman’s 4-3-3 play high up the pitch, not able to fill in if their full-backs are moved out of position. This leaves the full-backs in a very difficult position defensively.

However, people reading this possibly aren’t interested in how Zeman manages his defence. With Zeman, it’s all about his attacking philosophy. Even though his period at Lecce isn’t held in the same legendary status as his time at Foggia, nevertheless, this match showed glimpses of what made his teams so captivating and paradigm-shattering to watch on a weekly basis.

Going forward
The first point of distinction is Zeman’s three central midfielders, they all play tight and compact, this allows them to play triangles in the middle of the park, allowing for great movement forwards and back, helping to retain possession and keep the ball moving forward.

By sticking tight together, the Lecce midfield were able to have men over in middle, and move the ball forward using triangles.

In the same way that Chelsea under Mourinho kept a tight midfield to control, Zeman uses his central midfield to form a strong foundation to attack from. It is these triangles that allow midfielders to break away and find space between midfield and defence, usually outnumbering the opposition midfield. In Christian Ledesma and Samuel dalla Bonna, Lecce had technical and elegant players, whose passing could link the defence with attack very well.

They could also afford to push forward and find spaces further up the pitch.

The midfield three offered little protection for the back four, it was only Ledesma who really looked to track-back, as all of them liked to break forward together. By outnumbering opposition in central midfield, they were able to keep the ball and dominate midfield, as well as always having an extra man there.

However, Zeman’s midfield organisation is not aimed at being a tight defensive unit in the slightest, Palermo’s midfielders were able to find space behind them and the Lecce defence with relative ease. I’m sure Zeman doesn’t particularly care about this, but when the footballing zeitgeist at the moment necessitates one or two defensively thinking midfielders, it’s worthy of a distinction, furthering distinctions between your typical modern manager and Zdeněk Zeman.

Full-backs in a Zeman team have the most stirring role on the pitch. Lets get this out of the way –full-backs are not there to defend, not even their to support the midfield, they exist purely for a full-blown footballing blitzkrieg. The way he uses them demands them to be physically exceptional; quick and strong as well as having bags of stamina. As well as this, they need to be comfortable on the ball and be technically sound. In this Lecce side, these positions were filled by Erminio Rullo and Marco Cassetti.

The full-backs help form a fluid attacking regiment, when the full-backs push forward, the wingers move inside, the opposition full-backs follow, leaving the full-backs with time and space to play.

Here is Marco Cassetti, look at him prowling amongst the space he's been given.

The wingers cut inside, making a central three-pronged attack. Like a fork.

Against a four-man defence, when the wingers tuck-in, it leaves one spare centre-back, who usually does not have enough time to pick up an on-rushing midfielder, as Lecce move the ball around at such speed – this allows Lecce’s midfielders to find spaces just in front of the defence.

There is a predicament here, they could have the spare-man and stay compact, or they could push a full-back out to close down the Lecce full-back. The latter has different implications, it stretches the defence, leaving gaps that Lecce central midfielders can run into. When Palermo did this, Lecce, who pushed many men forward, had men over in dangerous areas. These midfielders who play under Zeman need to be very physically fit, they play in a role which requires quick bursts of energy to find spaces and gaps in the defence.

Nevertheless, when attacking, Lecce had this kind of shape when attacking. The full-backs provide the width, stretching the midfield as well having space to run forward, provided by the wingers moving centrally. The midfielders keep compact, moving together up the pitch, with one slightly dropping deeper. This leaves the two central defenders to hold the fort.

The typical positions that Lecce took when attacking.

The obvious caveat here is that with the full-backs such an integral part of attack, they rarely defend – leaving two defenders with all the defensive responsibilities. The central defenders of a Zeman team live a precarious life, often without support from their ‘supposed’ defensive partners.

The typical life of a Zeman centre-back, under-pressure and overworked.

How did Palermo deal with Lecce’s quick movement and slick passing? Easy, they just targeted the players who received the balls most – the full-backs. Through harassing and hard-work, they stifled the start Lecce’s attacks, stopping the origin of the threat before they could do nothing about it. The honest truth is, Lecce always try to score whenever they have the ball, no matter how many players it takes to push forward to do it, this leads to countless chances within a game (Mirko Vucinic, who, when young, looked remarkably like Georgio Chiellini, missed a few glorious chances in this game) – the solution is to stop them having the chance to start a move.

What this results in is heavy pressing (not heavy petting) of Zeman’s full-backs. As soon as any of them got the ball, no matter how deep in their own half, there was a player dressed in salmon pink sprinting towards him.

This not only causes sloppy passes and the chance of interceptions, it also makes the wingers drop deeper and deeper, to offer a safe option (diagram 1). The result of this is that the Palermo defence were free to push forward, closing down the space in the midfield, swarming the Lecce central midfielders when they had the ball, resulting in more chances of interceptions and slapdash passing (diagram 2). This strategy worked, Lecce were muted, their passing disjointed and lacked the fluidity showed in the first part of the match.

Diagram 1

Diagram 2

Zeman’s approach, when reduced, is fundamentally the only way to win at football – to score more goals than the opposition. The difference is that Zeman takes this to the extreme, looking to push men forward from all positions, giving several options to each player with the ball. The game is played at a phenomenal pace, even your ardent English Premier League viewer may find themselves persuaded by this ‘boring, defensive Italian football’.

If you do one thing next season, just try and catch a Foggia game – the type of football on display is dissimilar to the humdrum of football played in many countries. The value of someone who sees football different, in a period where football is getting more and more homogenous, is indispensable – catch a game, please.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Carlton permalink
    August 2, 2010 6:29 pm

    Brilliant, love the diagrams and annotations. I’ll remember to watch them this coming season.

  2. Kwolf permalink
    August 3, 2010 12:03 am

    Tim, nice article but you seem to mention Zeman playing wingers. The side I, perhaps incorrectly, associate with him most strongly is his Lazio side from the mid 90s that featured Signori, Casiraghi and Boksic upfront. Not a winger in the side, although Fuser may have been in this side as a more right sided member of the midfield 3.

    • August 3, 2010 8:01 am

      It would have been interested if I could have got hold of a Lazio game, unfortunately I could not. I can imagine, however, that playing those three forwards in the three front positions is plausible, as when in the final third, the front three always look to tuck inside, playing as central strikers.

  3. Lemi permalink
    August 3, 2010 10:08 pm

    This is a Zdenek Zeman typical style of play. Any decent pragmatic manager will read his game. He tried this tactics with my favorite team, Red Star Belgrade, and it sucked, especialy because of too harsh pre-season fitness training system. The players couldn’t walk at the final 15 minutes, and we were scoring a lot, but conseeding even more. They failed in agony by bad results… Soon, he was sacked, and under Cedomir Janevski, we played better, but we succeeded to be only 3th in the league.
    Zeman’s time passed by because he doesn’t want to change the style which celebrated him long time ago…

  4. TBone permalink
    August 6, 2010 3:21 am

    As a close follower of Zeman, I wouldn’t write off his methods and tactics so quickly. This analysis is of a single match and Zeman was/is capable of making small adjustments. That he hasn’t been successful outside of Italy doesn’t matter. He’s back there. now.
    Related to this, I believe that Kwolf is correct, the formation uses 3 out and out forwards and not wingers/midfielders as is more common now. It is possible that at times the two outside forwards started wider than at others, but in the final 3rd they almost always got into the 18.
    To dismiss what Zeman did at Lecce is a mistake. He got them to 11th which is a great finish for such a small club. They also consistently punched above their weight, drawing with both Roma twice and drawing and then defeating Lazio, the two clubs that sacked him. At Roma he did an equally good job with a chairman who was very conservative with transfer money.
    Lastly, Ralf Rangnick at Hoffenheim has been heavily influenced by Zeman and when he has Ibesevic, Ba and Obassi available to him they have all the qualities that Zeman a good Zeman side would.

  5. Mike permalink
    August 10, 2010 10:50 pm

    When looking at the positional diagrams describing how the fullbacks provide attacking width, it’s interesting to note similarities between Zemen’s formation and the system used by Mexico at the World Cup. If Zemen decided to utilise a modern centrehalf at the base of his midfield, his teams could potentially concede less goals. Then again, they wouldn’t be Zemen teams if they did that!

  6. August 12, 2010 4:10 pm

    I love this write-up. I have always been interested in Zeman’s tactics but could never watch a game anywhere. I remember hearing about this Lecce team with Bojinov and Vucinic and I think Koman playing upfront.
    For every team he has gotten to over-perform there is a disaster somewhere else (e.g. Red Star) so anything can happen.

    • TBone permalink
      August 13, 2010 4:50 pm

      Bojinov and Vucinic rarely played together. The former was sold at the mid-season transfer window and the latter took his place. What’s amazing is that Vucinic scored most of his goals in half of a season.

      By the second half of 04/05 Zeman preferred Valdes and Pinardi in the wide forward positions which would indicate a bit more of a counter attacking formation. I didn’t see enough of the matches on television to say for sure. Konan often played on the right.

      You can see the season breakdown here:

      Zeman has only become a “disaster” in his later years. I think that his eccentricity has begun to catch up with him. His new job at Foggia is his last chance I think. Not to worry though, Beppe Signori is entering coaching and is said to be a strong proponent of Zeman’s method.

      • August 16, 2010 9:14 am

        Thanks for the corrections.

        19 goals in half a season is ridiculous for Vucinic.

      • August 16, 2010 9:16 am

        Thanks for the corrections.

        19 goals in half a season is ridiculous for Vucinic.

        The Lecce team was very young and they finished 11th. Amazing

      • TBone permalink
        August 19, 2010 4:31 am

        13 of Vucinic’s 19 goals were in the 2nd half of the season, but 8 were in the final 5 matches. The 6 that he scored in the first half of the season were mostly as a substitute.

    • TBone permalink
      August 19, 2010 4:39 am

      The center mid in his system does tend to hold more than the right and left center mids. Those 2 seem to have more freedom to roam and attack. When Zeman managed Roma, Di Francesco often bombed forward with abandon. I think that the same can be said with Nedved at Lazio.

      In my estimation the center mid is Zeman’s system is a combination destroyer and playmaker and may be the key to making everything tick.

      Here’s a link to a quick video. I think that it gives insight into why his players give such a great effort for him.

      Could it be that at the clubs where he has struggled the players lacked the character to respond to being challenged? Just a though.

  7. appashido permalink
    March 4, 2011 8:02 am

    Diky za zajimave informace

  8. Diablo permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:22 pm

    hi, very nice to see this page about mr Z.
    i m a Foggia fan and this year we have seen some really amazing football, we didn’t qualify for the play-offs, we ve lost so many important points during the season, there s been a lot of weird episodes in which our players were misteriously denied fully regular goals…. but don’t wanna get into that.
    I think you know how Zeman when he was coaching Roma exposed the doping system of which Juventus was the main player, match fixing scandal and referee bribery. Because he exposed all this stuff he is been cut off from the big footbal powers in italy ( i remember b4 the scandal there were talks about giving him the national team)… Now he is in talks to renew his Foggia contract for the next season, everyone hopes that he decides to stay, but many are worried that Rome is calling him back. we ll see…
    anyway, i really appreciated your page about him, if you would like to come to Foggia to see some matches you re welcome in the Curva Sud !!!


  1. Mainz show the benefit of pressing opposition full-backs | Talking about Football

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