Everything Is a Remix

Over the past three decades, Roma has had some interesting coaches. Some doggedly retrograde, some visionary by both accident and conviction. This is not a text about Mazzone, Delneri or Ranieri, leaving us with the ones who've made football take evolutionary leaps.
     While Roma has not been a tremendously successful club if measured by abstract values like trophies and titles won, it has been a hotbed of creativity and innovation. Zonal marking, for example, has been so ingrained in European football for so many years now that it is hard to imagine that Nils Liedholm introduced it no sooner than the gap between the '70s and '80s.

Luciano Spalletti's happy accident, the nominal 4—2—3—1 which was for all intents and purposes a 4—6—0, was studied and talked about on elite coaching conferences and regarded as perhaps the most obvious example of what football of the proverbial tomorrow would develop into. Variations of the lone striker dropping deep has since been reinterpreted by many of Europe's top billing coaches, among whom we count Ferguson and Wenger. Although not as clear cut, there are also parallels to draw between Messi dropping deep as a false 9 and Villa cutting in from the left to Totti dropping and Vucinic cutting inwards as early as 2007.

Evolutions like these don't happen through sheer brilliance. Liedholm applied his zonal defense because he didn't feel his defense was good enough to man mark the opposition, so needed a way to keep them from entering the penalty area to begin with. Spalletti used a 4—2—3—1 since his first game in Roma, but it was only when Roma were injury struck and the only available player to start in attack was Francesco Totti that the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.
Not pictured: Ancelotti and Spalletti in a Paris hotel
Zdenek Zeman was more set in his ways, then. Unapologetically and without fail he fields three tried and true attackers, of whom the central one acts as a proverbial light house. Has he a player with such characteristics available, Zeman prefers the player to occupy this focal point in attack to be stronger than the others in order to lead the line. Here Luis Enrique differs, in that his central attacker drops down so deep and often that most of this season's games it would be almost misleading to speak of anything other than a 4312. Other central tenets are borrowed from Zeman, albeit entirely possibly indirectly and without awareness. Totti jokes that he hadn't been made to run as much in practice under Luis Enrique since Zeman's time. This affects many aspects which we would use to characterize Luis Enrique's style; the high pressure his team exerts to gain possession of the ball quickly, the bombarding wing backs, the offside traps and high defensive line as well as the unrelenting will to score goals as often as possible. About the only clear difference between the two coaches is their view on ball possession. Zeman prefers quick transitions that catches opposition teams unprepared, while Luis Enrique wants to achieve the same objective by circulating the ball both horizontally and vertically to test the endurance of the opposition's attention. And while it hasn't been used as of yet, in Stekelenburg Luis Enrique has a goalkeeper capable of launching quick breakaways Zeman so often use, thanks to the exceptional feet many Dutch goalkeepers possess.

When Franco Baldini met Luis Enrique for the first time this spring, the Spaniard quoted Paulo Coelho's book The Pilgrimage:
When you are moving toward an objective it is important to pay attention to the road. It is the road that teaches us the best way to get there, and the road enriches us as we walk its length.
Yet we can find an equally telling description of Luis Enrique's style in another of Coelho's titles: The Alchemist. While little in Luis Enrique's style is revolutionary in and of itself, he applies bits and pieces from great leaps in the evolution of the sport and mixes them into his own brand of cocktail. The ingredients that cocktail shares with Zeman's game has been laid out in the paragraph above, here are others: the false 9 in attack of course borrows heavily from Spalletti's Roma, and it is easy to recognize many plays this season as Spallettian in design. Fabio Simplicio as Spalletti's Perrotta is a good example of this. Daniele De Rossi being fielded between the lines of midfield and defense seems influenced by both Zeman and Liedholm at the same time. Zeman, because he dropped a player from his three man midfield into that position before Makéléle's career had yet begun, but much more than that it leans on Liedholm. Apart from introducing zonal marking, Liedholm's other major invention was taking a central midfielder from Rome and placing him as a sort of libero in front of defense: Agostino Di Bartolomei. De Rossi shares with him many qualities essentially making him a deus ex machina; leadership, strength, ability to read the game, tendency and expertise to hit long passes from deep to stretch the field, and a fearsome shot. Luis Enrique obviously plays zonal defense, a Liedholm invention, but like Zeman he now lacks the lightning fast central defender that Liedholm had in Vierchowood, and which should be considered a big boost to the style of play.


Another curiosity of history: when Nils Liedholm signed for Roma, it was a new beginning in all senses. He had been chosen by the new president Dino Viola, the latter having just gained control of the club. Liedholm struggled early with a weak Roma, and it took the better part of that first fall for things to start clicking. Then, suddenly it did. The parallel to today's Roma is obvious, with the ever growing sense that we're slowly moving closer to the utopia of playing in coherence with the coach's views. The key to Liedholm's successful transformation will be the same as if Luis Enrique becomes successful in Rome: patience. "In football, you mustn't rush things", said Liedholm after winning lo scudetto in 1983. He talked openly about the time it tookfour yearsto turn Roma and its players from having a mentality of playing not to lose to playing to win. Hardly has a press conference gone by in which Luis Enrique hasn't echoed that same sentiment. "I won't speak about the referees, ever", Luis Enrique said in the summer. "What would be the point in complaining?", asked Liedholm thirty years prior. Just yesterday a journalist posited that given the even matched nature of serie A, Roma should perhaps be considered a contender as soon as this season. Luis Enrique proceeded to pour water so cold it had frozen into a solid block onto that idea, the journalist's table shattering under the weight of the impact. Even as he did this, Luis Enrique wondered if he had been clear enough on the subject.

Luis Enrique's and Nils Liedholm's athleticism—the Spaniard has run marathons and competed in Iron Man competitions since retiring, while the Swede starred for Milan until he was 39 thanks to a extracurricular regimen of track and field—is another similarity that seems to call out for attention. There could be worse predecessors to, consciously or unconsciously, emulate. Here too, it is the road towards that which enriches you and not whether or not you actually make it all the way.