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