Buoyed by two wins from two as Everton manager, Carlo Ancelotti begins the new decade back in the division where he was the first title-winner of the previous one.
Tactical thought in the 2010s was dominated by the Dutch-Catalan school’s influence, as Pep Guardiola refined Johan Cruyff’s vision to stunning effect with his dominant Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City sides, throwing in some South American seasoning as a Marcelo Bielsa disciple.
Guardiola, of course, has a more than worthy adversary in Jurgen Klopp, who looks to be at the beginning of his own imperial period at Liverpool. The gegenpressing master has refined his high-octane approach to find something utterly relentless – more motorik krautrock than heavy metal football.
Whenever major clubs make a managerial appointment nowadays, talk of “philosophy” and an overarching vision are rarely far away. This is the age of high-concept football.
Amid all of this, despite Serie A losing some of its lustre and the Azzurri humiliatingly failing to make the 2018 World Cup, Italian coaching remains something of a gold standard.
Ancelotti was the first of four of his compatriots to win the Premier League in the 2010s. Roberto Mancini lifted Manchester City’s first English title for 44 years in 2011-12, leaving in place foundations Guardiola has built handsomely upon.
Mancini is now in charge of an Italy side that has not looked in such good health since Antonio Conte’s time at the helm. Former Juventus boss Conte left after Euro 2016 and promptly won the Premier League with Chelsea. In doing so, he followed a countryman into the winner’s enclosure.
Claudio Ranieri’s 2015-16 march to glory with Leicester City stands apart as the outstanding club football achievement of the past 10 years.
A mix of football cultures
Ranieri and ex-Bayern Munich boss Ancelotti have also worked with distinction in Spain and France, while Mancini’s route back to home came via stints at Galatasaray and Zenit.
All four men have some similarities in their approaches but do not speak of a uniform style. They are testament to the flexible and shape-shifting qualities of an ingrained Italian tradition.
“We have to make a mix of our football culture with the cultures of other European countries,” said Renzo Ulivieri, the director of the Scuola Allenatori – Italy’s coaching school.
“I think that our best quality is we are not closed, but we are open to other football cultures. We mix our culture with others.”
Omnisport spoke to Ulivieri during a visit to the Italian Football Federation (FIGC)’s Coverciano headquarters, which was bathed in the glow of late autumn sunshine last month.
A picturesque location around five kilometres east of Florence, nestled below Monte Cereci where Leonardo da Vinci tested his flying machine half a century ago, Coverciano is where the latest generation of Italian coaches seek to take their country’s proud tradition of tactical excellence to new heights.
Along with being home to all of Italy’s national squads and a treasure trove of a museum celebrating each of their four World Cup triumphs, Coverciano is a campus that exists as football’s equivalent to Harvard and Oxford.
Ulvieri oversees the UEFA Pro License course, already known as Il Master before it took on the standards of the highest coaching qualification set by European football’s governing body.
Back to school with Pirlo and Toni
A Coverciano coaching education still stands apart. Alongside intensive tactical and technical elements, psychology, communication and sports medicine form part of the studies.
Andrea Pirlo, Luca Toni, Thiago Motta and Walter Samuel were among the 2019-20 intake, who found themselves trading free afternoons following training for eight-hour classroom days.
The course concludes with a set of oral exams and the completion of a detailed tactical thesis, which students present in the same oak-panelled room where we sat down with Ulivieri, resplendent in a federation tracksuit and speaking via an interpreter with a twinkle-eyed enthusiasm that belied his 78 years.
“It’s a sort of obsessive thing for me,” he said, when discussing the adaptability that has helped Italian coaches continue to thrive throughout a fast-changing period.
“A football coach has to arrange things with the players that he has. Being able to arrange is the main topic because, for the names like Marco Rossi, the coach of Hungary, it is more difficult to be a coach in these countries, instead of being a coach in France, in England.
“Italian people are a population who travel so much, so they have to arrange to go in other cultures. I want to explain to [the students] what will be their future life.
“There are some coaches, for example, who make a good season and then the other seasons are not so good. These are coaches who have not adjusted their football and arranged for the players they have.
“The future of football will be with a very big flexibility in tactics, because the tactics of a football team do not only change from match to match but also within the same match. Now we are seeing this. In future, football teams will play in two or three different ways.”
A passion for tactics
Ulivieri’s longevity is evidence he practiced what he preached.
Starting as an amateur coach in the mid-1960s in his native Tuscany – a region he still proudly proclaims to be a hotbed, with the exploits of Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and others backing up the point – Ulivieri boasts a bulging Serie A CV that features spells in charge of a young Mancini at Sampdoria, Cagliari, Parma, Napoli, Torino and Roberto Baggio’s renaissance at Bologna.
His last top division post was with Reggina in 2007-08, although the obsession remains.
Alongside his day job at Coverciano, Ulivieri continues to coach women’s Serie C side Pontedera, where he is still keen to throw around the odd bold tactical scheme.
“With the team, we are in a low level but I am still a coach because I have the passion and I want to try something. I want to try some tactical concepts on the field,” he explained.
“Recently, I was speaking and I told them we will make a tactical approach that no team is doing.”
Asked to elaborate, Ulivieri eagerly took Omnisport’s notepad and sketched out a sort of 4-2-4 formation, featuring a rhombus of forwards where width would be provided by the central midfielders overlapping into wide areas.
A discussion of Sheffield United’s successful adaptation to the Premier League followed, with Ulivieri fascinated to learn of Chris Wilder’s roving wide centre-backs.
“I will study it,” he exclaimed, before sounding a note of caution for Wilder and his contemporaries.
“In the past, tactical innovation could last four years, now maybe one year. We have to change always.”
Back to the future
Coverciano’s latest intake studied England’s 1966 World Cup winners towards the end of 2019, with Ulivieri highlighting the movements of Roger Hunt, Martin Peters and Bobby Charlton as useful ploys against zonal defences of the modern day.
“Sometimes the past comes back,” he said. “When Guardiola says my first forward is the space, before Guardiola was England with Bobby Charlton and the great Hungary team before that.
“Ideas in football come back always. We have to know everything. We have to know the past but we have to guess the future. Guessing the future is our main topic.”
So, what will that future look like?
“More flexible,” Ulivieri reiterated. “We will work for principles, not for schemes. We see this today in the big teams with big players.
“In the future, we will have players who are able to do many things, not just one. These things [Sheffield United’s tactics] would be unthinkable with the players of 20 years ago. These players have to be athletic.
“In the future, we will have players who will be able to play here, there and in all parts of the field.”
Thanks to their impeccable education and tradition, if feels safe to assume Coverciano’s next alumni will lead these versatile stars with distinction, leaving their marks all over the 2020s as their predecessors did in the decade just passed.