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COMMENT: Watford's appointment of Giuseppe Sannino is a risk but it is a calculated one based on sound reasoning
Comment by Frank Smith
The appointment of Giuseppe Sannino as Watford’s new head coach is a risk. But do not be mistaken. It is a calculated one based on sound reasoning and made by someone who has a track record of getting things right.
Gianfranco Zola had Premier League experience as a player and head coach, he spoke the language, had lived in England many years and, due to his exceptional playing career and personality, had the respect of the players instantly.
Sannino, on the other hand, must have been one of the most searched terms on Google in the last week as little is known about the coach on these shores.
If you glance at his recent record, consider he has no Championship experience and does not speak the language, then you can understand the scepticism and, in some cases fear, from supporters.
This week one prominent radio show presenter took great pleasure in ridiculing the appointment and highlighted Sannino’s recent record at Chievo, where he was sacked after 12 games having won just one of those, and Palermo, where he was replaced after three games and then reappointed later in the season only to then fail to keep them in Serie A.
At a glance, his recent record looks terrible but there are mitigating circumstances in both instances.
Chievo have a squad which is expected to be embroiled in a relegation battle and Palermo’s owner is known to be volatile and I was told by one Italian journalist that the squad Sannino inherited was the club’s worst in a decade.
But if you look at his managerial record prior to those clubs, it is superb and includes four consecutive promotions with three different clubs.
The fact he has had 13 different clubs during his 17-year coaching career has been highlighted but that is largely down to a very different attitude to the management of clubs in Italy. Head coaches are changed regularly during a season, quite often more than once, and they do not hold the same importance as a manager does in England.
Traditionally managers in the UK make most decisions relating to football matters. That isn’t the case abroad, with owners and technical or sporting directors given as much importance, if not more. Head coaches are deemed as interchangeable and there is not as much importance placed on long-term stability in terms of the man at the helm of the team.
That is the way Watford now operate and, whether the supporters like the model or not, it is here to stay.
Now it is important to recognise Hornets owner Gino Pozzo was patient with Zola; they did not fire the Italian despite five consecutive home defeats and nine without a win.
But in many respects, Zola did not fit in with the Pozzo model. The family do not usually go for names or whether they have huge clubs on their CV; it is about the way that individual works.
And the way Zola operated wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit for the Pozzos. Watford owner Gino Pozzo likes his team to be disciplined, work extremely hard in training and spend a lot of time on tactical sessions. That wasn’t always the case under the Hornets previous head coach.
Udinese spend around eight hours a week on tactical work and clubs like Juventus are said to do around 12 hours. I’ve been told Watford would sometimes do a solitary hour during a seven-day week. Often the players would also have Thursdays off, despite having a game 48 hours later, which is also questionable.
Pozzo now lives locally and would regularly attend training sessions so he was aware of the issues at London Colney but Zola produced results for most of his time in charge – after all the likeable head coach narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League twice – so the perceived shortcomings were tolerated.
But Watford started to look for a successor two weeks before Zola decided to leave following a decline in form, which resulted in some supporters questioning whether he was indeed pushed. However, the club are adamant the Chelsea legend was not sacked and he did resign.
The club’s decision to look for possible replacements weeks in advance of Zola leaving should not be criticised; it enabled them to have a new man and all of his staff in place less than a day-and-a-half after Zola’s departure was confirmed. If anything they should be praised.
It means the appointment was not a snap decision. They considered their options and approached Sannino two weeks before Zola left. Such behaviour is not uncommon, it’s just we rarely hear about it.
The appointment of an Italian who doesn’t know the league has been criticised, maybe correctly, time will tell. But it is hardly surprising either because, as I mentioned before, the Pozzos concentrate on the type of coach and their main attributes. It is therefore hard for Gino Pozzo to know with confidence the coaching style and personality of someone like Owen Coyle, for example. Whereas he knows all about Sannino and his strengths.
The new Golden Boys’ head coach is a student of the game, he spends a lot of time on tactical preparation and is known for developing a togetherness in his squads.
His tactical nous means he adapts to situations. At clubs such as Varese, where he almost secured three consecutive promotions, with a play-off defeat denying them a place in Serie A, he was known for playing an attractive style of football.
He tried to continue playing attractive football at Siena and Palermo in Serie A but during his second stint at Palermo and Chievo, he attempted to make his teams harder to beat, although one journalist I spoke to questioned whether he sometimes places too much emphasis on the opposing side.
Opposition analysis, tactical preparation and a fighting spirit were some of the areas which arguably need addressing at Watford and are some of Sannino’s strengths. I’ve been told the team did a two-and-a-half hours of tactical work on his first day at the club.
The Pozzos believe that if the structures are put in place, then it allows the club to assess more accurately whether the players are good enough. This squad is better than no win in nine and 13th in the table so it will be up to Sannino to prove he is the right man to turn the club’s recent form around.
Not speaking English is a problem and so is the fact only one of his four new assistant coaches speaks the language reasonably. But with retained staff like head of medical Marco Cesarini and sports scientist Giovanni Brignardello, and players such as Manuel Almunia, Joel Ekstrand and Marco Cassetti bi-lingual, that should help somewhat.
It is easy to be doubtful of head coaches we have never heard of. But had the wider public heard of Aidy Boothroyd or Brendan Rodgers before their spells at Watford? And players like Almen Abdi, Matej Vydra and Gabriele Angella were unknown quantities to most English football fans before they showed up at Vicarage Road.
This piece is not meant to be an endorsement of Sannino as time will ultimately tell whether he will be a success or whether those with serious reservations were right.
But I have been hugely impressed by Gino Pozzo and he has a track record of bringing long-term success.
Chief executive Scott Duxbury has made a point of saying the Pozzo family are here for the next 25 years so this is not an example of a foreign owner coming in, throwing money at a club to secure the riches of Premier League football before swiftly departing.
The Pozzos are here to stay and their track record at Udinese and Granada indicate that if Sannino is not the correct appointment, then they will find the right man for Watford FC eventually.
- It is said that you should never meet your heroes because you always end up disappointed. Well that certainly wasn’t the case with Gianfranco Zola.
Gianfranco was my idol growing up; he inspired me as a boy and made me fall in love with the beautiful game that little bit more.
He has the public perception of being a lovely guy and he is; he was a gentleman throughout his 17 months in charge and showed that with the way he left the club.
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