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The Zdeněk Zeman method: A look at the tactical approach of the legendary coach

Infamous is the best way to describe Zdeněk Zeman, a well renowned manager across Italy who often baffles with his tactical approach. Stuart Reid has a tactical look at “the Zdenek Zeman method”.

“In percentage terms, the people who play at the back make fewer mistakes than those further forward. If not, games would end up 5-4, 6-5 or along those lines. Let’s discount teams coached by Zeman, because we’re talking about the very limits of reality there.” These are the words of Andrea Pirlo, describing the methods of the Czech manager Zdeněk Zeman. 

Zdenek Zeman

Having moved to Italy from the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in his early twenties to live with his uncle, an ex-footballer turned coach, his interest in the sport and the tactical side of it was engrained early on. He would accompany his uncle to coaching sessions, raking in some early experience in the field.

If you’re reading this without a keen interest or following of the Italian game, there’s a very strong chance that you haven’t heard of Zdeněk Zeman. Sadly there’s a reason for this, and that is his footballing philosophy will most likely never win a major title, nor a cup. He sets his teams out to entertain, and to score goals; entertain and score goals they certainly do.

Allow me to rewind to the summer of 2010, Zdeněk Zeman is 62, and has had a managerial career spanning 30 years, managing such teams as Lazio, Roma, Fenerbahce and Napoli. At this point he has perfected his philosophy, yet all he has won in 30 years is two titles, the Serie C2 title with Licata (in his first managerial role after qualifying from Coverciano, the mecca of all Italian coaches) and the Serie B title with Foggia in the early nineties. Zdeněk Zeman was back at Foggia (now in the Serie C1) and their fans went mad, with the club selling over 3000 season tickets on the day that his return was made official. To put this in perspective, the average attendance over the course of the season for the teams in Foggia’s league, excluding Foggia, was just 2542!

So why the hype? As I mentioned previously, Zeman sets his teams out to score goals. That season Foggia went on to score 67 goals in 34 games, the highest in the league by a margin of 14. Not one team in the Serie C divisions have managed to score more than 60 goals since Zeman achieved this feat, and only 5 teams have scored more than 60 goals since the 1995/1996 season. None of them scored more than the tally of 67 set by Zeman’s Foggia though. Despite Foggia’s incredible attacking form, their defensive form left a lot to be desired, so despite scoring the amount of goals that would normally easily crown a team as champions, they floundered in 6th place, not even making the play-offs. Zemans career as a whole can largely be summed up by this stat, an incredible amount of goals scored, but a boatload of goals conceded at the other end.

After leaving Foggia in the summer of 2011, he signed a one year contract with Serie B side Pescara. With the help of a certain Ciro Immobile (on loan from Juventus at the time), Zeman and Pescara ended up winning the Serie B, scoring an incredible 90 goals. Looking back through the records as far as I can (to the 95/96 season), only one team has come anywhere near scoring that amount of goals, and that was Juventus, with 83 goals and that was in the 06/07 season (after the match-fixing scandal). So even with legends like Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved, in a division far below the class that Juventus had in their team, they still couldn’t outscore Zeman.

Zeman left Pescara before they could kick a ball in Serie A, returning to Roma, who with players such as Dani Osvaldo, Erik Lamela, Mattia Destro, Danielle De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi and of course Francesco Totti, had no shortage of talent. The fans initially weren’t happy with the re-appointment of Zeman, but the general director of Roma, Franco Baldini put things into perspective “We did say we wanted to play an attractive style. Well, Zeman fits that, right?”. Sadly Roma floundered, and Zeman got the sack in February. Roma ended up finishing 6th, despite scoring an impressive 71 goals over the course of the season (the winners Juventus, also scored 71).

So, he’s had a pretty mixed career, what makes him so special then? Zeman has a very specific way of playing, one which, when broken down, turns the game into a gamble, of outscoring their opponents by going all out attack, in which practically every player joins the attack. The basic formation is 4-3-3, with the full-backs expected to play a more attacking role than the conventional full-back (imagine more of a wing-back). The centre-backs are supposed to run forward and attack once they’ve played the ball. The midfielders do the same, with the wingers cutting inside and being in the box during attacks, becoming more like three forwards than two wingers and a striker. His reasoning behind this is the principle of “overloading”, which is used by every manager around the world – this is where players try to out-number the opposition in a particular area to gain an advantage (think of a full-back overlapping a winger to create a 2 vs 1 situation against the opposing full-back). He believes that if you outnumber the opposition in the opponents box, you will score.

Whilst not 100% true, it’s a very logical way of thinking, in a game where logic is mostly discarded. There isn’t a whole lot of clever defending for Zeman’s teams – they sit back, invite a bit of pressure then suddenly will press heavily with 3 or 4 players to try and win the ball back. It’s almost a variation of the famous Total Football of the 70’s, where every position is expected to contribute in both offence and defense, but Zeman has taken it almost to a disorganised extreme. This of course means that every single player has to be in peak physical condition (slightly ironic considering Zeman is a chain smoker), with Zeman renowned for putting on punishing training sessions, often including running up and down the stadium steps or marathons through forests.

An example of Zeman's press. His team are in red.

An example of Zeman’s press | Lazio vs Cagliari

There are of course downsides to such a cavalier approach to attacking. The wings are incredibly easy to exploit against a Zeman team, especially on the counter-attack. This is due to his wingers being in a more central position, with the full-backs further up the pitch. Using the Lazio vs Cagliari (the team that Zeman currently manages) game to analyse a Zeman team, this was especially noticeable.

Lazio also lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Candreva and Lulic on the wings. Lulic had the second most touches from Lazio, and it was obvious that they had fully planned to take advantage of it with 45% of the hom side’s attacks coming from the left-hand side of the pitch, with Senad Lulic getting 2 assists (the other winger on the night, Antonio Candreva, got the other assist as Lazio won 4-2).

This is how a Zeman team (red) usually kicks off.

This is how a Zeman team (red) usually kicks off. | Lazio vs Cagliari

Despite Napoli’s great domestic form (unbeaten since September). Cagliari managed to come from 2-0 down to grab a typical Zeman score of 3-3. Once again they were easily exploited down the wings, with Napoli’s second goal coming from a counter-attack sprung straight after Cagliari had committed too many men forward. A chipped pass down the wing reached the in-form Jose Callejon, who with little opposition squared the ball back into the box, before it ended up reaching Gokhan Inler who smashed it in from 25 yards out.

Cagliari’s first goal was perfect from Zemans point of view – a short pass into the box, with four Cagliari players in against the four of Napoli. A bit of skill from Victor Ibarbo saw two of those taken out the game, for him to slot into the bottom corner.

The pass that led to Napoli's second goal. Cagliar's left back isn't even in the picture!

The pass that led to Napoli’s second goal. Cagliar’s left back isn’t even in the picture! | Napoli vs Cagliari

One thing noticeable in Zeman’s approach is that he has slightly altered the style of play which he usually enforces on his teams. They seem slightly less attacking than when in the past. This could be down to the players not embracing his philosophy and are being somewhat stubborn (the least likely theory, given the stern control he enjoys over his players), or if he’s realised (somewhat late in his career) that you simply cannot be so gung-ho in the modern game, and has reined in the all-out attack style that he’s been playing for years. If it’s the latter, then the game is worse off entertainment wise, as you were always guaranteed goals when watching a Zeman team play.

In a way it’s sad that Zeman’s uncle lived in Italy, as the Italian game is so very tactical; it means that a logical but slightly mad philosophy such as Zeman’s cannot find as much success as it would elsewhere. In a day & age where results or aesthetic value of performances are often debated, Zeman’s approach clearly favours one side of this discussion. Successful he might not be, but the man knows how to stick by his ideals, and that is to be admired.

Written by Stuart Reid

Stuart Reid

Stuart Reid

Stuart likes possession football, idolises Guardiola, Bielsa, and all things Watford FC. He takes a great interest in statistics, tactics and all things detailed and is an aspiring football coach (level 2 qualified).

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Stuart Reid

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