Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Inter turn to 'Gasperson'
When Genoa unmercifully sacked Gian Piero Gasperini last November, after a defeat at Palermo left them with just 11 points from ten matches, it marked the end of an era for what is now the city's only Serie A side.
Genoa had played arguably their best football in decades in getting promoted from the Serie B at the end of the 2006-07 season then finishing 2008-09 in fourth place, when only a worse head-to-head record to Fiorentina prevented them from gaining a place in the Champions League preliminary round. Their rapid, flamboyant rise had sent the red-and-blue half of town into rapture and inspired owner Enrico Preziosi to generate a nickname for Gasperini (who signed a two-year contract with Inter on Saturday) that spread like bushfire among the Genoa fans: "Gasperson".
In a nod to Sir Alex Ferguson, it was meant as a creative form of praise for a coach that seemed to have given Genoa a system which, for the first time in years, produced both brilliant play and consistent results. No one expected the side to challenge for trophies on the domestic and international front, but Gasperini had provided psychological components that had been missing for a while, pride and a different perspective for the future.
The system, though, did not survive the constant comings and goings that are part of the life of a selling club: after Preziosi sold Thiago Motta and top scorer Diego Milito to Inter, Genoa regressed to 9th place in 2009-10.
Interestingly for a side that had been praised for its attacking flair out of a 3-4-3 base formation, defensive frailties were at the root of Genoa's fall: they managed to score one more goal than in the previous season, 57, but shipped an enormous 61 at the other end - 22 more than in 2008-09. Part of the reason was that the defence was not getting enough help from midfielders and forwards, something which flew in the face of everything Gasperini had been preaching since he started his coaching career on the lowest rung of the ladder in the Juventus youth system.
Gasperini 's background is predominantly black-and-white, after all, and this has caused some discomfort to a few Inter fans, judging from their reactions on some social networking sites. He was born just outside Turin, is a self-confessed Juve supporter whose dream, as revealed to Gazzetta dello Sport in 2009, was to ''win the Champions League with Juve'' and started his playing career with the Bianconeri when he was nine years old, progressing through all the youth levels - he played alongside Paolo Rossi with the Primavera (the last stage before the first team).
Despite being given his full debut at 18 by Giovanni Trapattoni in an Italian Cup match in 1976, Gasperini failed to break into the great Juve side of the late 70s and left to start a 17-year path as a midfielder with good vision and an unselfish attitude. In the latter stages of his career he just missed being a team-mate of Milan coach Max Allegri at Pescara, which gave him an opportunity to play Serie A football at last, then returned to Juventus to begin his second life as a manager.
As a much-respected youth coach, he led the Primavera to success in the Viareggio Tournament, one of the world's best, in 2003 before surprising even himself by trekking all the way South to Serie C Crotone, which he first led to promotion to the Serie B then to safety, twice, before Genoa came calling in the summer of 2006.
Coaching players as young as 12 taught him patience and the virtues of good communication and role-defining, while blending the teaching of basic skills with tactical indoctrination also shaped his vision of how football should be played and, more importantly, how the players should respond to instructions.
This is why, while at Crotone and Genoa, he insisted members of the squad learn all positions on the pitch, so that they could readily replace a team-mate in the event of an injury. And whenever technology could help him, he utilised it extensively, whether it was filming, then reviewing, training sessions or monitoring the player's fitness through frequent in-season testing.
While none of this qualifies him as a genius or a standout innovator, it paints the picture of a man who strongly believes in what he does and is not afraid to take risks in order to accomplish his goals.
Taking the Serie A by storm with a formation that superficially looks weak at the rear was one of them, but his 3-4-3 was never a monolith he burns incense to in blind faith. Having left-back Mimmo Criscito at his disposal at Genoa for so long, a player whose morale he helped rebuild after a horrific game at Roma doomed his Juventus career at centre-back, meant Gasperini could constantly change the 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3 by drawing him back alongside the back three.
The same thing could be done on the right with captain Marco Rossi, the quintessential Gasperini player for his versatility and energy: Rossi could be seen - and still can - shifting from right centre-back to right-back to right winger to central midfielder in a single game, leading his teammates into chasing opponents in possession or overlapping to provide crosses.
The quality of ball movement and counter-attack once the ball was recovered was such that in 2008-09, according to an unofficial count, Genoa scored just two of their 51 goals from open play from outside the area. All the others came as a result of quick passing, one-twos and neat crosses provided by the likes of Rossi, Beppe Sculli - another player whose value and versatility improved under Gasperini - Raffaele Palladino, Andrea Gasbarroni, Giandomenico Mesto, yet another of the Gasperson boys who could be called upon to fill multiple positions.
The same qualities that Genoa showed in abundance before the squad lost quality and injuries undermined the start of the 2010-11 season were being put under the microscope by Inter insiders and fans as soon as word of Gasperini's potential arrival emerged last week, though.
At first and perhaps second sight, the current Inter squad does not look suited to the kind of football Gasperini prefers, but it may be too soon to draw conclusions, and there's still two months to go before the transfer window closes. One of the names that have been mentioned is Rodrigo Palacio's, the 30-year old forward who had an excellent season for Genoa in 2010-11 and can be seen as yet another typical Gasperini player for his versatility - he started on the right flank in the 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 before reverting to what had been his regular position at Boca Juniors under new coach Davide Ballardini as Antonio Floro Flores' partner in Genoa's 4-4-2 in the second half of the season.
While Palacio may not be the glamorous and forward-looking signing Inter fans are hoping for, his addition would give the new coach an added, versatile weapon in the strikers' rotation.
Much speculation has also centred over Wesley Sneijder, whose main contribution to Inter's cause has so far been in the trequartista role which does not seem to be part of the coach's philosophy.
However, it was not uncommon at Genoa to see Thiago Motta - who by the way was Gasperini's eyes on the pitch and will be reunited with his former coach now - hold a position a few yards in front of his central midfield partner when the side had possession, and although the Italian-Brazilian and Sneijder are extremely different players, there's a chance the Dutchman will be given a chance to keep his current role.
Another question mark is whether the many Inter veterans will adapt to a style of football that requires constant energy and perspiration after a few of them showed some wear and tear at last in 2010-11, but again, Gasperini is not going to walk into the training centre at Appiano Gentile and start tearing paint off the walls and whip the current group of players into something they could never become.
At 53 - "young" by Italian standards - and born bizarrely on the same day as Jose Mourinho (January 26), only five years earlier, he has come in as the manager with a sound professionalism and polished methods, but little of "international mentality" (i.e. the ability to step into the Champions League stage as if you've been there before), and he will need the full backing of owner Massimo Moratti, who must be sick of having to introduce a new manager (Gasperini is No. 16 since he became the owner in 1995) and start all over again every year.
After going through the process of seeing Leonardo leave; Marcelo Bielsa, Fabio Capello, Andre Villas-Boas, Sinisa Mihajlovic and apparently Guus Hiddink turn Inter down, fans of the Nerazzurri, may have felt the same. They have a new man at the helm now, though, and considering Inter's recent history and Gasperini's energy, the coming months will be all but boring.