The king is dead, long live the king.
The short-lived search for Zola’s successor was an interesting one. For the first time, there seemed to be no real limits to who could be appointed as Head Coach. The Pozzos may run their clubs shrewdly and without unnecessary financial outlay but, unlike previous owners, they do actually have some reserves meaning that – for once – the club was not having to promote from within or shop around for an unpolished diamond in the rough dust of England’s lower coaching echelons.
Though there wasn’t much time to rev up the hype machine, several names were cast into contention including a freshly-dismissed Premier League manager in Steve Clarke and even a Champions League winning coach in Roberto di Matteo. Though the latter’s continuing pay-off from Chelsea made his appointment unlikely, the idea wasn’t so far fetched. How far Watford have come in such a short time.
Ultimately, though, we all knew deep down that the new name on the Head Coach’s door would be one completely foreign to all but the most Italophilic amongs us. And so, on Wednesday morning, it proved, as Giuseppe “Beppe” Sannino, was presented on an eighteen-month contract.
The initial response to the appointment amongst Watford fans was underwhelming. A quick perusal of Sannino’s Wikipedia page – the first that most will have heard of the 56 year-old Neapolitan – suggests that he has not had the most distinguished of coaching careers so far. Watford presents Sannino with his 15th head coaching job in 18 years. Not only does this paint him as some sort of Trevor Benjamin of the Italian coaching game, but the clubs on the list aren’t ones that immediately conjure up deep-residing memories of great football teams: Pergocrema sounds like a type of coffee, Cosenza is more famous for its crumbling museums than its semi-pro football team and Sudtirol is probably best known in these part for their 8-0 defeat to Watford this very summer.
But although Sannino has spent the majority of his managerial career travelling round Northern Italy taking control of semi-professional sides for a year and then moving on, he has one thing on his CV that should be of great interest to Watford fans. Promotion.
Sannino has many clubs in his little black book of coaching, but this seems to suggest a lack of sentiment rather than a lack of skill. He has never been out of work for long, and many of his moves have come after periods of success for another team. From 2005 to 2012, he experienced four promotions, and missed out on a fifth by a single goal in the Serie B playoffs. His record at Varese, whom he took from Serie C2 midtable no-hopers to Serie B playoff contenders, is Taylor-esque.
The upper management have made no secret of the fact that after overachieving last season, this year’s goal is promotion, and with more than half of the season still to go, that is still achievable. It will take a quick adaption on Sannino’s part, and no small amount of luck, but he has in the past immediately turned clubs into champions with no ‘transitional’ periods.
Another facet of Sannino’s potential impact is his tactical focus. In this week’s Watford Observer, Frank Smith wrote a worry-abating comment piece in which he pointed out that Gianfranco Zola’s tactical focus during the week building up to a match sometimes amounted to as little as an hour either side of technical training.
Sannino was making the transition into football management at the same time as Arrigo Sacchi was kicking off the trend of scholarly coaches rising through the ranks through deep understanding of the tactical element of the game.
He told Berlusconi’s Mediaset: “I stopped playing quite early, and when I started coaching it was the epoch of Sacchi: at the beginning of my career I was inspired by him, Trapattoni and Lippi. But I also say that I have always tried to take the best from everyone.”
One of the the problems that Watford have had this season is their inability to break down an eleven-man defence. The terrible home form that led to Zola’s departure was due mainly to teams coming to defend resolutely and to break when the side’s concetration levels dropped.
Under Zola – a terrific coach of players, if not maybe whole teams – we relied on individual technique to slice through the defensive wall; under Sannino, perhaps we will see a more thoughtful, considered approach. Too often, after a fourth move of short passes had gone astray the players could be seen to be exasperated and devoid of ideas. Smith says that already, on his first day, the new guy spent two and a half hours going through tactics.
There’s a vast difference between the Championship and the levels of Italian football that most of Sannino’s coaching career has taken place in, but football is a very basic game. As Beppe said, when questioned about the difference between Serie A and the lower reaches of Serie C: “The top level has visibility: there are great players, great interests. But I am a man of the field and for me, without it, it would be exactly the same as the other categories. What matters is the team as a whole, the harmonious movement of the players.”
Another criticism of Zola was that he had no Plan B. His 3-5-2 system wasn’t working this year to the same degree that it had last season, and although he did bring out a 4-3-3 on occasion, it wasn’t in any way convincing. As Smith says, Sannino has always adapted his team to the situation and has built sides around all manners of formation.
Aside from his prolific change of scenery, another issue that seemed to irk some fans was Sannino’s lack of Championship experience. There seems to be this vision of England’s second tier as some kind of footballing Narnia: an idiosyncratic world that really must be seen to be believed, and even then can only be truly understood by those talking badgers and fawns (your man Ian Holloway, for example) that have inhabited it for many hardworking years.
It is true that the Championship is probably the toughest second tier in European football, and is consistent only in its inconsistent results, and yes, there are cultures more compatible than that of England and Italy; but no two leagues are exactly the same and all will need certain amounts of adaptation.
Though knowledge of the league and, more importantly, the players and systems therein is a plus, Sannino is not going into this whole thing alone, he’s got scouting staff and that old hand Alec Chamberlain to give him a heads up. But while cultures differ, football is the same game the world over, and for a coach the bedding in period shouldn’t be too long.
When recruiting a coach, more important than their knowledge of your club is your knowledge of them. Watford are not in dire straits, but we’re in a situation that needs a certain type of coach. Our changing room is, allegedly, divided, and is full of technically adept but seemingly incompatible players from all over the world. We need somebody who can fuse together those players into a coherent system while keeping egos in check.
Though I am sure he does his homework, Gino Pozzo will be far more acquainted with the strengths of Giuseppe Sannino than those if Danny Wilson. And even then, do we want somebody who has a proven track record of getting sides promoted, or someone with a proven track record of living in Birmingham and watching the Football League Show?
When the Pozzos took over, they brought with them a lot of dodgy glances and raised eyebrows. Sacking a good man in Sean Dyche was viewed as incredibly harsh by most, and the import of hordes of Udinese-owned players was considered a violation of the spirit of football. One thing that held it all together in those first few months was Gianfranco Zola.
Not only was Zola considered the pinnacle of foreign footballing culture adapting to the English game during his playing career, not only was he a big name throughout Europe, but he was, and is, a famously nice guy, with strong personal values and integrity. He was a vital part of the Pozzo ownership bedding into Watford. We got bad press, sure, but with Zola as the front man there was never anything too damning.
Which is not to say that Zola’s appointment was a PR stunt. The reaction of the players to his resignation show what high esteem he was held in, and the job he did last season in moulding the hotch-potch of continental players into Championship contenders was fantastic; but there was no way they could have appointed someone like Sannino at the outset of the regime.
Now, a year on, Watford’s way of operating has been begrudgingly accepted, and Gino Pozzo can delve into his deep bag of tricks to produce a coach he believes can take Watford to the next level.
Sannino does not seem to be a man built for longevity and his contract, understood to be until the end of the season with an option for a year’s extension, could suggest that he is being brought in as a ‘fixer’ (probably not the best thing to call a footballing figure from Naples) to get Watford up before someone else is brought in to take over in the summer – perhaps somebody with continental pedigree, who’s currently making millions of pounds from sitting around gardening.
But his appointment is, to me, exciting. The Pozzos have taken two small, provincial clubs to the top level of domestic football – I trust their judgement, and in Sannino we have a coach who, though not superficially spectacular, seems to sum up the approach that the Udine-based family have previously used so successfully.
Sannino has also brought four assistant coaches in with him to replace the outgoing Bastiano Porcu and Dodo Surmani. Alfredo Sebastiani, Francesco Troise, Giovanni Cusatis and Paolo De Toffol all share Sannino’s background of lower league football. Information of them is scarce – check out the Watford Observer for what is known – but Sebastiani was apparently being sounded out a few weeks ago about possibly joining Zola’s staff.
The 48 year-old comes from FC Sudtirol, where he has spent the better part of two decades playing and coaching. Who knew when, before last Saturday’s defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, the big screen cut briefly to an advert for the wonderful skiing of the Sudtirol, we were seeing the future before our very eyes?