Guidolin finding right balance at Udinese
Despite a surge in managerial turmoil in the past two weeks - when Catania replaced Marco Giampaolo with Diego Simeone and Brescia recalled Beppe Iachini after an unsuccessful seven-match spell under Mario Beretta - Serie A chairmen, that notorious publicity-craving, trigger-happy bunch, have been more restrained than in the past.
An unwillingness to add other salaries to already bloated payrolls may have influenced some non-decisions, but financial considerations may have played second fiddle to a more responsible approach towards those managers who are doing the best they can with limited resources.
Patience has certainly paid off for Udinese, among others. Having swapped managers with Parma, the Zebrette (little zebras, definitely not the most belligerent of nicknames) took longer than expected to adjust from the well-oiled 3-4-3 (or 4-3-3) preferred by Pasquale Marino to the many different schemes adopted by Francesco Guidolin, and lost their first four Serie A matches, inculding a 0-4 home demolition by Juventus. In other times, in other places perhaps, this would have spelt trouble for Guidolin, but owner Giampaolo Pozzo refused to turn the heat up on his coach, perhaps remembering how, last year, he had sacked Marino only to recall him when his successor Gianni De Biasi fared even worse.
Long portrayed in the media as hard-working but dull, more likely to be seen on bike rides out in the country or up the hills than in a TV studio dispensing cliches, Guidolin's solid personality and penchant for substance over style seems a perfect fit for Udine and Udinese, who he led to a UEFA Cup place in 1999. In fact, he stated as much recently in the local papers, as the matter of big clubs coming calling was raised after his side's impressive recent run of results - culminating in their fifth win out of seven at Juventus on Sunday night.
Appearances can, though, be deceiving; as organized and efficient as Udinese may be on the training ground, it was only when the hard-running and high-energy players were given licence to let their talent loose that the turnaround really started.
Parma had agreed to let Guidolin go with an eye to providing better entertainment for their fans, as Marino's new band of short, quick midfielders-cum-trequartisti, among them Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Candreva, were supposed to represent a complete change of philosophy. But it seems Udinese, and their fans, are having the last laugh, although the season still has four months to run and form can of course change.
While Guidolin did not fit Parma's ideals of entertaining play - instead allowing opponents possession and relying on the quick counter-attack - his version of Udinese have been providing a much more enjoyable day out for fans. This is, in the most part, down to an eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of players who, in Udinese's recent tradition, were scouted in depth and hand-picked while still young. A successful formula if you're a provincial side whose livelihood depends on selling talent at a much bigger price than they were acquired.
Sometimes, though, you're just plain lucky. Left-sided Colombian wingback Pablo Armero, who has been in extravagant, impressive form, had all but signed for Parma - who else? - in the summer, before the sudden, ill-advised revision in the rules governing non-EU players in Serie A meant he would have been ineligible to play.
Enter Udinese, who had scouted him and had a slot for him in the squad, and Armero hasn't looked back since, making that wide position in left midfield of Guidolin's 3-5-2 his own after flip-flopping starting roles with incumbent Giovanni Pasquale throughout the first couple of months.
The 3-5-2 represents perhaps the final product of Guidolin's tactical tinkering with his side. He had started the season with a 3-4-3, then shifted to 3-4-1-2 then moved on to 3-5-2 late in the first half of the November 7 home match against Cagliari. Alexis Sanchez, who had started out in a slightly withdrawn position behind Antonio Di Natale and Antonio Floro Flores, left with a knee injury and his replacement, Giampaolo Pinzi, slotted on the right of Gokhan Inler. The Swiss international has become Udinese's midfield schemer in the former 'Gaetano D'Agostino' role and may well be on his way to Napoli in the summer.
Floro Flores, more of a traditional centre-forward type despite good mobility and an ability to play out wide - as he did in the latter part of last season - was phased out (he's now joined Genoa) in favour of what has now become Udinese's starting strike duo, Di Natale and Sanchez, with the pair supplemented at times by the physical presence of German Denis.
Udinese's attacking outlook then became obvious: bring the ball up quickly, let Di Natale and Sanchez roam in space with a purpose, pulling defenders out of position, and have the midfielders run into the channels, "invading" - the very word Guidolin used last month - the opposing half. By keeping pressure upfield when not in possession, Udinese also look to win possession near the opposing penalty area and use their speed to pounce. Similarly, they love springing forward when opponents give up the ball trying to find passing windows in what is at times an eight-man defensive front. The wide men track back to form a five-man defence while the central midfielders squeeze space around them.
Di Natale and Sanchez's pace and ability in one-on-one situations ensure that they excel in such an environment. Di Natale was Serie A's top scorer last season with 29 goals, and the Italy frontman has continued in the same vein, with 15 already under his belt despite a very slow start which saw him score just twice in the first 11 matches. A mercurial character, who was rebuked by Pozzo last year for his fondness of picking up silly bookings and suspensions, Di Natale endeared himself to Udinese fans even more last August when he turned down an approach by Juventus.
What could be perceived as lack of ambition and perhaps a fear that he would not play much if he made the move can also be attributed to a simple instance of a player finding his niche: despite coming from a very different part of the country, Di Natale has fit perfectly in Udine, and while he may become an afterthought in Italy coach Cesare Prandelli's plans, his international chances have not been hurt by playing for a provincial sides for so long (it was Empoli before Udinese).
As celebrated as 'Toto' is, though, his strike partner Sanchez has earned himself the biggest accolades this season. After a good World Cup with Chile reinforced his status as that country's true 'Nino Maravilla' (Boy Wonder), Sanchez seems to have further improved this season. Having scored six times, he will probably eclipse his combined goal tally for 2008-09 and 2009-10 of nine, and his transfer value has rocketed into the rarefied air - where eight-digit sums are apparently thrown around so carelessly you wonder what is exactly the difference between €38 million and €40 million (it's two million, I know, but you get the point). It's a safe assumption that Udinese, having discovered Sanchez and nurtured him through the growing pains, the misunderstandings and the cultural differences, will sell him on for a huge profit and start all over again, as is any provincial side's want.
But why exactly is Sanchez such a coveted player? First of all, he can boast impressive skills with the ball at his feet, which are enhanced by a low centre of gravity, an increased toughness and a forward-leaning running style which helps him go past opponents while maintaining momentum.
He often shifts the ball from one foot to another while at near full speed, which not only serves him well in setting up shots but also helps him put defenders off balance and earns him free-kicks in dangerous positions, although, as perhaps you would expect, he sometimes indulges in theatrical falls after contact. As Udinese and Chile left-back Mauricio Isla noted recently in an interview, Sanchez plays deeper for his club than he's used to with his country, where they both form a dangerous combination on the right side, and this versatility is another of the reasons for his increased market value.
Now they have kept Sanchez with them for at least another term, Udinese will rely on their forwards to help grab a Europa League place. They need to sustain their recent form, something which may be hard to do if their excellent physical intensity - one of the reasons for the effective marriage of tactics and skills - dips. What is certain is they'll have to keep scoring, as their defence sometimes loses concentration - Cristian Zapata and Mehdi Benatia in particular have been known to suffer from such lapses - which makes their matches entertaining shoot-outs rather than scrappy, 1-0 affairs.
What other side could score four goals at Milan and still not come away with a win, after all?