Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Richard Pike has a look at Panathinaikos.
THE PREVIOUS CAMPAIGN
Football in Greece historically mirrors that of many other European countries whereby either a group of two or more “Super Clubs” dominate proceedings and win either the majority of or all of said country’s league titles throughout its history. Greek football’s “Big Three” of Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens have dominated Greek football since the country’s first national championship in the 1927-28 season by winning 74 out of 80 championships contested during this period. Whilst these three clubs have mopped up practically all the honours between them, one could argue that since the mid-1990’s Greek football’s “Big Three” has become a “Big One”. In the twenty seasons between 1996-97 and 2015-16, Olympiakos have won 18 championships out of 20 with Panathinaikos taking the other two championships, the last of which was in the 2009-10 season. This winning streak by Olympiakos has taken them to 43 Greek championships, way ahead of Panathinaikos’ 20 titles and AEK’s 11 titles.
When it comes to prolonged success in team sports, timing really is everything and Olympiakos’ great run of success over the last decade coincided perfectly with the rebranding of the old European Cup into the UEFA Champions League in 1992 and the subsequent large increase in prize and participation money in the competition since the beginning of the 2000’s. Even though Olympiakos do not have many great runs in Europe (they have only reached two Champions League quarter finals in the last 20 seasons), their mere presence as Greek football’s sole participant in European football’s top competition gives them a massive financial windfall each year. Because Greek teams have only two teams qualifying for the Champions League qualifying rounds every season, the Greek non-champion participants are often unseeded. Because of this, they often run into higher-ranked opponents from higher-ranked leagues like England, Spain, Germany and Italy where they are often defeated and thus fail to get a share of Olympiakos’ prize money for representing their country in the competition. Olympiakos do have to qualify themselves, of course, however they are placed in the champions qualification route which combined with seedings due to their frequent Champions League group stage appearances make their qualification section easier. This helps to preserve the status quo in Greek football as Olympiakos have a large financial advantage over every other team in the country, which is reinforced even further by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and Greece’s economic crisis really beginning to bite, which has had an impact on spending at football clubs in the country.
In the shadows of their rivals dominance, Panathinaikos therefore, are a club who are really trying to re-invent and revive themselves, to show that Greek football is about more than just their fierce rivals from Piraeus. This makes the club an ideal fit for a young manager who is trying to re-invent himself and revive his career after being thrown in at the deep-end of the ocean, initially struggling to stay afloat, before gradually treading water.
In a bid to eventually win their 21st league title, in November 2015, Panathinaikos turned to 40 year-old former Inter Milan and Udinese manager Andrea Stramaccioni to be their new manager after they fired previous manager Yannis Anastasiou. Like many modern managers, Stramaccioni did not have a distinguished playing career, having to retire at the age of just 19 when a youth team player at Italian club Bologna due to injury. After finishing his playing career, the Italian then enrolled on and obtained a law degree at La Sapienza University in Rome before then deciding to move back into a career in football. Stramaccioni began his professional coaching career in 2005 coaching Italian giants AS Roma’s youth team. After some moderate successes with the youth sector of the capital club, a meeting with Inter Milan’s sporting director Roberto Samaden in May 2009 saw Stramaccioni move to Inter’s youth coaching set-up. Here, he eventually became head coach of Inter’s Under 20’s Primavera team (essentially Inter’s reserves) in the summer of 2011.
It was upon Stramaccioni’s elevation to Inter Primavera coach that his talent really began to be recognised, for the 2011-12 season, Stramaccioni won Inter the short-lived NextGen Series trophy, a youth competition that lasted for 2 seasons between 2011 and 2013 featuring European football’s best under-19 club sides. Just 5 days after Stramaccioni won the NextGen series, Inter dismissed their then first-team manager, Claudio Ranieri and piloted Stramaccioni into the very hot seat of interim manager at Inter. After some initial promising results through to the end of the 2011-12 season which saw Inter eventually finish in 6th place, Stramaccioni was then given the job as permanent new Inter manager for the 2012-13 season. Many billed this as a Pep Guardiola-esque appointment because of how Guardiola had experienced success with Barcelona’s reserve team before then being promoted to the role of first team manager. However, whilst Guardiola was a success, Stramaccioni was not as Inter dropped from finishing 6th in 2011-12 to 9th place in 2012-13 which failed to see them qualify for European competition for 2013-14. As a result of this poor season, Stramaccioni was dismissed. After a year out of the game, Stramaccioni returned to management for the 2014-15 season by taking over at Udinese who had finished 13th in 2013-14. However, like his spell at Inter, Stramaccioni could not improve Udinese’s fortunes, finishing the 2014-15 season in 16th place, once more a drop of 3 places from the previous season. Once again, Stramaccioni was not kept on for the following season for the second job in succession.
There was limited impact that Stramaccioni could have had on Panathinaikos’ 2015-16 season as he only took the reigns of the team on 8th November 2015, however, in his first half season in charge, Panathinaikos played 20 Greek league matches, winning 11, drawing 3 and losing 6. Though, it must be said that one of the defeats was beyond the control of Stramaccioni, as Panathinaikos had to forfeit with a 3-0 loss their home derby against Olympiakos (ironically scheduled to be Stramaccioni’s first game in charge) due to extreme pre-match fan behaviour in the stadium. Panathinaikos eventually finished 2nd in the final 2015-16 table with 55 points from 30 games, a whopping 30 points behind champions Olympiakos’ 85 points. With this, Panathinaikos advanced to a Champions League play-off round-robin with the Greek sides that finished between 2nd and 5th in the final standings. At the end of these round-robin matches, Panathinaikos finished in 2nd place in the round-robin group behind top ranked PAOK and thus failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2016-17. The 2015-16 Greek Cup saw Panathinaikos reach the Quarter Finals where they lost 1-0 on aggregate over 2 legs to fellow Athenian side Atromitos Athens. So all-in-all, a mixed start to life in Greece for Stramaccioni who after failing to improve matters at both Inter and Udinese in his past managerial jobs, must now get things right and improve Panathinaikos’ ranking come the end of this season. Any future success in management could depend on doing well with this job as a third managerial failure could really harm his future job prospects.
To get a better feel of the tactics Stramaccioni deploys, I watched both legs of Panathinaikos’ UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round match against Swedish side AIK, a match which Panathinaikos won comfortably by 3 goals to nil on aggregate. In the first leg in Athens, Panathinaikos lined up in a 3-4-3 formation. In goal is former Man United and Barnsley goalkeeper Luke Steele. The three man defence consists of Brazilian Moledo, Bulgarian Ivan Ivanov and the sole Greek in their starting eleven, Giorgos Koutroubis, the midfield four comprised of two central midfielders, veteran Italian Christian Ledesma, and the team’s captain, Zeca, the other two players were attacking wingbacks, Swede Niklas Hult on the left side and veteran Italian Giandomenico Mesto on the right. The three up front comprised of two wide forwards, Ghanaian Mubarak Wakaso on the left hand side and Colombian Victor Ibarbo on the right, in the middle of the attacking front three and at the spearhead of the attack as the central striker was Swede Marcus Berg. This formation was an offensive one as straight from the start, Panathinaikos set their stall out to create chances and score goals. Both Hult and Mesto were almost attacking wingers rather than wingbacks as both were constantly in the opposition’s final third supporting attacks.
The heartbeat of Panathinaikos is Ledesma, the 33 year-old was the deepest of Panathinaikos’s two central midfielders who sat in front of the defence, shielding the back three from attacks and also covering defensively across either flank when the wingbacks are out of position and the opposition have possession. Crucially, however, Ledesma acted as the team’s playmaker, frequently coming very deep to collect a simple pass from his defence and then using his good varied range of passing to pick out either a simple pass to a midfield colleague or a more direct pass to the central striker in Berg or any of the wide players on the flanks. Finally, the front three of Panathinaikos all worked in different ways throughout the first leg of their match against AIK, Mubarak was the forward who constantly looked to cut inside the penalty box taking opponents on with his dribbling, sometimes even dropping into pockets of space in an attacking midfield role to play through passes. Ibarbo was utilised as a deep-lying forward who timed attacking runs from deep running onto flick-ons from Berg and through balls from either central or wide areas. Finally, Berg is the team’s target man, strong and capable of holding the ball up well and bringing the other forwards and wide players into play with flick-ons and chest-downs. The first leg of the tie saw Panathinaikos completely dominate AIK with more possession, territory and shots both on and off-target then their opponents. However, their winning goal only came in the final 15 minutes when a cross was floated into the box by Mesto on the right flank after a Panathinaikos corner was cleared and it found the head of centre back Moledo who headed the ball into the back of the net.
For the second leg away in Sweden, Stramaccioni changed his tactics slightly, lining up in a 3-1-4-2 formation with the only personnel change being Swede Niklas Hult being replaced by Finnish central midfield player Robin Lod. By bringing Lod into the team in place of Hult, this meant that Panathinaikos had a three man midfield in the second leg comprising of Ledesma, Zeca and Lod. To fill the gap left by Hult at left wingback, Mubarak moved into the role which thus left Ibarbo and Berg as the two central strikers. Whilst the first leg did see Panathinaikos predominantly keep the ball on the deck when passing centrally and only looking to float passes to the forwards when in wide areas, the second leg saw predominantly 15-30 yard passes played by both the left and right sided centre backs and the central midfield players to the forwards and wingbacks in a more direct style. Both Berg and Ibarbo are big, strong strikers who hold up the ball well and the chemistry between both in one holding up the ball and the other one making runs so he can pick up laid off passes caused AIK’s defence problems all match. The way they worked reminded me of the chemistry between Italian forwards Graziano Pelle and Eder at Euro 2016 in Italy’s 3-5-2 formation. Upon getting a two goal lead in the match and a three goal aggregate lead courtesy of goals from Ibarbo and Berg, Stramaccioni then further demonstrated his tactical flexibility by switching to a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation in order to smother the midfield, maintain possession of the ball and see out the game via the use of his three substitutions.
Baring a few hairy defensive moments, Panathinaikos were comfortable for large swathes of the match in both legs and recorded a comprehensive victory over their Swedish rivals. What will have impressed Stramaccioni was just how well in both legs his players adapted to and carried out his tactical instructions.
TRANSFER MARKET ACTIVITY
With the financial crisis in Greece having a profound impact on player spending, Stramaccioni is having to utilise his acumen to search out for transfer bargains. So far, Panathinaikos have only spent EUR 700,000 on new transfers with only 3 of these having a valuation, Bulgarian defender Ivan Ivanov, Swedish fullback Niklas Hult and young Argentine striker Lautaro Rinaldi. Stramaccioni has utilised his knowledge of Serie A well in the summer market, bringing in Ibarbo on loan from Cagliari, Ledesma on a free transfer, Mubarak on a free from Rubin Kazan and Portuguese defender Nuno Reis on a free from French club Metz. Panathinaikos have only recouped EUR 180,000 in sales from player departures in the summer, however, crucially, a lot of players who were likely amongst the club’s highest earners last summer have now departed like former Croatian internationals Daniel Pranjic and Mladen Petric and former Chelsea and Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien.
THREE KEY PLAYERS
Cristian Ledesma – The signing of 33 year-old Argentine-born former Italian international Ledesma is an example of Stramaccioni using his experience and knowledge of Serie A to find a reliable, experienced head to control the midfield battle in matches. After signing for Southern Italian side Lecce in 2002 as a 19 year old from Argentine club Boca Juniors, Ledesma spent 4 seasons at Lecce before signing for SS Lazio in 2006. In nine years at the Roman club, Ledesma became a key player for Lazio and his form prompted then Italian manager Cesare Prandelli to give Ledesma his sole cap for the Italian national team in 2010. Released by Lazio in the summer of 2015, Ledesma joined Brazilian club Santos, however, the move was not a success and after barely featuring for the club, Ledesma terminated his contract with Santos in January 2016. After a break of six months from football, the 33 year-old has now decided to embark on his latest adventure in Greece, signing a two-year contract with Panathinaikos. Ledesma controlled the match from deep in both legs against AIK with his varied range of passing and ability to pick out attacking players both centrally and on the flanks. Could be an inspired signing by the club.
Mubarak Wakaso – Another summer signing, 26 year-old Mubarak Wakaso will now hope that the move to Panathinaikos will finally enable him to find some stability with his career. Made his European club debut with Spanish side Elche as an 18 year old in 2008, subsequently signing for fellow Spanish side Villarreal in 2011. However, since that move the left-sided Ghanaian fullback/winger has never settled. He has had a number of moves since Villarreal to decent sized clubs like Espanyol, Rubin Kazan, Celtic and Las Palmas, but has never managed to stay at any for more than one season. However, despite his instable club career, Mubarak has remained a regular for his country, winning a total of 41 caps since his debut in 2011. Fast, good at dribbling and versatile owing to his ability to play as a fullback, winger or left-sided wide forward, Mubarak could likely emerge as a key player for Stramaccioni when you consider his tendency to line-up with three central defenders.
Victor Ibarbo – Yet another summer signing, with this one potentially being the best of all of Panathinaikos’ transfer business, 26 year-old Colombian striker Victor Ibarbo now has the platform in Greece to revive his once promising career which has stuttered in the last few seasons. The forward signed for Italian side Cagliari in the summer of 2011 from Colombian side Atletico Nacional, He spent 4 seasons in Serie A at both the Sardinian club and a brief unsuccessful spell at fellow Italian club AS Roma in the second half of the 2014/2015 season. In the summer of 2015-16 season Ibarbo left Cagliari and signed for Premier League club Watford on a season-long loan, however, he could not get much football and in the winter transfer window the same season, cancelled his loan and returned to his native Colombia for a 6 month loan spell with former club Atletico Nacional before finally joining Panathinaikos this summer on a season-long loan. Ibarbo is capable of playing as both a striker and a winger, however, so far under Stramaccioni, it looks clear that Ibarbo will be used as a striker as Panathinaikos look to try and replace the goals of former striker Nikos Karelis who left the club in the last January transfer window to sign for Belgian side Genk for EUR 3 million. Quick, strong and good at finishing, Ibarbo could prove a valuable source of goals for the Athenian club.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYER
Lautaro Rinaldi: Stramaccioni has on average an experienced squad at his disposal with not too many young players in it, however, one potential exciting youngster that could be worth keeping an eye on is 22 year old striker Lautaro Rinaldi. The young Argentine striker has been signed from Argentine club Argentinos Juniors who were relegated to the second tier in Argentina on a four year contract for a fee of EUR 300,000. Rinaldi scored 7 goals for Argentinos Juniors in 2015 and it will be interesting to see how he fits in alongside Ibarbo and Berg up front for Panathinaikos.
CONCLUSION AND EXPECTATION
After finishing a staggering 30 points behind Olympiakos last season, no one expects Stramaccioni to overhaul such a huge deficit in his first full season in Greece and win the league. Nonetheless, another deficit of 30 points to Olympiakos would represent a disappointing season, therefore, narrowing the gap to Olympiakos to anything between 10-15 points whilst maintaining their grip on second place and this time winning the Champions League play-offs and gaining entry into the 2017-18 competition qualifying rounds would represent a good performance by Stramaccioni. Equally, Stramaccioni will also be judged on Panathinaikos’ displays in European competition for two primary reasons. Firstly, prior to Stramaccioni’s arrival in November last season, Panathinaikos were eliminated in the final qualifying round of the Europa League by Azerbaijan’s Qabala when they were favourites to progress. This time round for Panathinaikos, they are once again favourites for the final qualifying round when they face Danish side Brondby, so pressure will be on Stramaccioni to win that game and gain access to the Europa League, which could prove lucrative for Panathinaikos in terms of additional funds for future transfers. The second reason why a good performance in European competition is important for Panathinaikos is to improve their co-efficent ranking. Should they qualify for the Champions League for next season, they would have to negotiate the non-champions route in qualification, which with a low co-efficent rating could prove difficult as they would be unseeded and therefore could run into the 4th placed teams from England, Spain and Germany in the final qualifying round. Therefore, to improve their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League group stages, reaching the group stages or even the last 32 of the Europa League this season is an attainable objective to push for.
Whilst Olympiakos have dominated Greek football for the last decade, this season has already seen evidence that they may not be quite as strong as in recent years as they lost in the third qualifying round of the Champions League to Israeli side Hapoel Beer Sheva. Despite things not quite working out for Stramaccioni in his short senior coaching career so far, his record with Inter Milan’s youth sides still means he is held in high esteem. Stramaccioni should therefore use 2016-17 both on the domestic and European fronts to lay the foundations for a potential title challenge in 2017-18 alongside potentially returning Panathinaikos to the group stages of the Champions League sometime in the future. Should he be successful at this, it could see future job offers from Serie A clubs back in his homeland.
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here
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