Saturday Jul 22, 2017  
     
 
  27/10/2014: Under the Microscope: Pioli's Philosophy
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About a year ago, I wrote an article on Vladimir Petkovic and the 4-3-3 in which I analysed the Bosnian manager's move towards a system which was modern and dynamic. I was hoping I would have the opportunity to write a sequel months down the line, focusing on our success with the system under Petkovic, but we all know what happened. Results did not go our way, and Edy Reja returned to the helm.

I have spent much of 2014 in a state of shock. Not only did Reja return, but he continued where Petkovic left off. He took up the 4-3-3 and in what could be interpreted as a thinly-veiled dig at his successor and predecessor, stated that his job was to go back to selecting players in their best positions. There was one game in particular, a 2-0 away win at Chievo Verona, that had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Edy Reja's brand of attacking football was fun at first, but it became painful as the season wore on. We would often score two, perhaps three, but the opposition could score three, perhaps four. 

It was not working, largely due to personnel, but Lazio were faced with a difficult decision; stick with the safety Reja brings for another season or take a punt on an attack-minded manager.

Edy Reja made the decision for us, but did not leave us high and dry, pointing us in the direction of Stefano Pioli. There were obvious similarities between the two; both's success was built upon good organisation, although Pioli had shown himself to be more tactically-gifted while Edy Reja's man management abilities were unquestionable. If Pioli was to succeed at Lazio, he would need to get the players on side, buying in to his vision of the game. 

This is where Pioli has excelled himself and in the process of doing so, took me by surprise. It is not so much the case that Pioli has got his players to buy into his philosophy, rather that the players have been convinced by his logic. 

Many players past and present, most notably Giuseppe Biava, have said that Petkovic's greatest flaw was his inability to communicate with his players. Interestingly, those in the locker room at present describe Pioli as an excellent communicator. 

Thinking about this, we may say that Pioli is perhaps a more talkative person than Petkovic or a more efficient communicator, but such an explanation does not sit well with me. Firstly, Vladimir Petkovic was a community worker who managed to forge a career for himself as a manager. Someone with such a curriculum vitae must be an efficient communicator. In addition to this, those who have played alongisde Pioli or worked with him have described him as a quiet man. Based on this, I am inclined to believe that the difference between Pioli and Petkovic communication skills lies, not in the levels of chat between the two parties, but in the levels of trust between Pioli and the players. This squad simply has more faith in Pioli than they had in Petkovic, at least come the end of the Bosnian's spell in charge.

Why were the players so quick to put their faith in a manager whom many fans had already written off? The answer could lie in Edy Reja's admission that upon his return, he simply played players in their best positions. Tactics in football has moved on in the last 10-15 years, yet many old school managers such as Edy Reja continue to have a successful career. Our squad in particular seems to respond well to the tried and tested method, that is if Reja's results with this team are anything to go by.

Pioli's success with Lazio so far has been built on combining old-fashioned methods with modern thought. In pre-season, Pioli chose a specific system and worked on it obsessively and from day one, made it clear that every single position on the pitch was a specific role and that there was a hierarchy - and therefore competition - for each individual role.

As an example, Lazio went out and signed Stefan De Vrij - a young player who had played as a centre-back and a right-back in his career in either a back three or a back four. De Vrij is clearly adaptable, but he is accustomed to playing on the right side which we all observed during the World Cup. The moment he arrived, he became our first choice right centre-back with Diego Novaretti relegated to being his understudy. Not once has De Vrij been tested on the left side of defence in training, or at right-back. Neither has Novaretti for that matter.

Pioli's philosophy and the hierarchy within the philosophy provides clarity and establishes a meritocracy. De Vrij will start every game unless he is injured, suspended or goes off form. If any of the above circumstances arise, Diego Novaretti steps in. Novaretti knows that the onus is on him to put De Vrij on the bench by impressing when the chance arrives. 

That's just one example, but the same can be said about any two players competing for any position on the pitch. There is a clear number one and a clear number two and given our depth, sometimes there is also a clear number three.

We had the same clarity this time two years ago under Petkovic, if only because he made it clear beyond clear that he did not trust his reserve players. We were flying high when the best eleven was at his disposal, but the points dried up when Petkovic had to go to his bench or make tough calls. That is a bridge Pioli will have to cross in the near future, a bridge that gets steeper the more players are coming to your office and asking why they have gone from being a favourite of Reja or Petkovic to a regular on Pioli's bench.

Pioli's hierarchy will also be under threat from injuries and suspensions. Stefano Mauri and Keita Balde Diao are both injured, leaving a role free on the left of our attack at present. Pioli opted for Felipe Anderson against Torino, and he underwhelmed. Stefano Mauri now enters a race against the clock to be fit for Verona, but what happens if he does not make it? Does Pioli stand by Felipe Anderson even though he failed to take his opportunity? If so, will an Ederson or a Bruno Pereirinha wonder why they were not given the opportunity? These are questions that will pop up as the season goes on, and questions Pioli has yet to have been asked.

Our manager has gone on record saying he likes versatile players and Eddy Onazi's comments during the week about the need to learn how to play on both sides of midfield suggests versatility is an attribute our manager seeks to exploit to our advantage. Yet, there appears to be very little flexibility in Pioli's philosophy. This is a dichotomy that requires a resolution and our hopes of qualifying for Europe could depend on it. Pioli can adapt and I have no doubt he will adapt, but until he is forced into doing so, we cannot say with any certainty that we are on the right path.


Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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