Mina Rzouki looks at the latest manager under the watchful glare of Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini.
Condemned to a perpetual state of change, Palermo live in a paradoxical world that combines lunacy with sanity. Waves of talent often burst through its gates only to exit via the revolving door as Maurizio Zamparini toys with his puppets in a manner akin to an Arab dictator.
“If he thinks he’s in charge then he’s joined the wrong club,” Zamparini bellowed in predictable fashion as he flexed his dictatorial muscles. If you didn’t already know, then Zampa is the ruler of the pink Palermo world where opinions are discouraged and obedience is the law.
The comment above was directed at Sean Sogliano, the Palermo Sporting Director who took over in summer and is the son of the renowned footballer Riccardo Sogliano. Papa Sogliano formed part of the Varese squad that infamously thrashed Juventus 5-0 in 1968 during what came to be known as the leopards’ golden era when entrepreneur Giovanni Borghi was in charge and the squad boasted incredible talent such as Pietro Anastasi - the man who scored a hat trick against the Bianconeri.
Junior Sogliano resigned from his job only a few days ago and many speculated that he tired of consistently clashing with the brazen President. Assessing his future job opportunities, he can take comfort in the fact that Palermo’s first team will be left in the capable hands of Devis Mangia – a man he introduced to the pink half of Sicily.
Mangia or rather “Eat” if you have Google translate on, was initially brought to Palermo so that he may take on the challenge of coaching the club’s primavera side. Considering the trigger happy approach to firing Zamparini adopts, Stefano Pioli, the man brought on as Coach in early summer, was shown the door leaving the Rosanero club without a successor before the season even started.
In comes Mangia, a man who Guerin Sportivo brilliantly likened to a commoner who ‘is participating in some kind of game show where the first prize is the opportunity to Coach a Serie A club for the night’. Mangia is the ‘ordinary’ man living the dream made possible by his talent for tactics.
Worshipped (I exaggerate of course) by the king of Italian tactics, Arrigo Sacchi, the pragmatic tactician transmits his ideas to the squad clearly. By combining his human touch and progressive ideas, he transformed a poor Varese youth team into credible challengers complete with an identity and heart in only a matter of months last season.
Quizzed about his achievements, Mangia, who boasts the sort of character that makes you want to introduce him to your friends in the local pub, seems genuinely surprised at how good he is at this whole coaching malarkey. Humble, funny and often gracious, he is the antithesis of the pretentious characters usually found in this footballing world – one that takes itself far too seriously.
“How can I stop Klose and Cisse? I will just have to tie them up in the locker room.”
Regularly deflecting difficult questions by delivering a joke, Mangia is subtly devious and very much aware of how to play the media game. He uttered his first words as Coach of Palermo in Palermitano, explaining that if Jose Mourinho can say ‘idiot’ in the Milanese dialect then surely he could speak in the local dialect. Reading out the prepared sentences, Mangia became an instant hit with the Italian media – a group largely known to be both cynical and critical.
Whilst he was the loveable character indoors, the Press still doubted his ability on the pitch – doubts that were put to rest when his Palermo side scored four against World Champions, Inter. Hailed a phenomenon by the President, the media quickly agreed. After all, the last time a team had scored four goals against the Nerazzurri was on the 6th of March 2004 when Fabio Capello’s Roma destroyed Alberto Zaccheroni’s men.
Despite studying law in University, Mangia was captivated by the artistry within the game and devoted his life to the sport. Politely told he was terrible as a footballer, he embarked upon a professional career in coaching at the tender age of 30, working alongside Sean Sogliano in Varese and leading the side to two promotions and back to professionalism in only three years. He returned to the club in 2010 as their youth Coach and led a largely anonymous team to a place in the Campionato Primavera.
Whilst he despises the triviality that exists within the industry and attempts to rediscover the joy of a job that now walks hand in hand with immense pressure, Mangia is still very much in love with football. Certain toffee-nosed tacticians like to think of him as an amateur who only trains kids but as the Guerin Sportivo article intelligently pointed out, raising the youth of today is by no means an easy feat. It is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
Coaches have to act like mentors, tacticians, parents, dream makers and at times, dream crushers. Most of the youngsters who are promoted from the youth academies come from broken homes, have been subjected to emotional pain and cling on to the hope that football will help them to not only change their life but also allow them the chance to forget their harrowing past. Youth team Coaches have the delicate task of managing these youngsters’ dreams in addition to finely tuning their raw talent in a digital age full of distractions.
Compassionate and articulate, his former players are quick to testify to the brilliance of their former Coach’s methodology. Dario Toninelli, ex-Varese Primavera right-back spoke emotionally when describing his former Coach. “He was like a father to us. He taught us so much, both from a human aspect and in terms of football.”
Carpi’s defender and Inter youth product Paolo Marchi likened the Palermo Coach to Mourinho, noting that: “In a few years, we’ll call him the Italian Special One.” Despite being a great motivator and an able tactician, his most precious quality, Marchi explains: “is his ability to bring out the best in each of his players.”
Indeed, he has taken a leaf out of Luis Garcia Plaza’s coaching handbook - the man who inspired Levante to a good run last season by utilising unique training methods such as motivational videos to inspire his squad. Whether it be playing epic films such as ‘Any given Sunday’ to invoke passion or asking his players to recall a happy memory so that they are feeling positive when walking onto the pitch, Mangia focuses on exploiting the hunger within.
Tactically, he is meticulous in his approach and prepares extensively for each upcoming game. Described as a man with clear ideas, Mangia is the common man devoted to the common 4-4-2 formation.
Possession is key as the Coach focuses on a short passing game with the ball on the ground with particular emphasis on wing play. He likes his sides to press in all areas on the pitch so as to lessen the burden on his back four whilst he favours hard-work and gritty play to creative artistry. As such, the ingenuity of Josip Ilicic has been used more scarcely than usual as the likes of journeyman Mauricio Pinilla revel in the new Coach’s approach.
Matches such as the one against Inter perfectly exhibited the Coach’s courage. Organised neatly in a 4-4-2 shape, the team pressed high up the pitch, won the ball back within seconds of losing it and dominated the flanks.
However inexperience soon meant that bravery gave way to fear and Mangia was forced to ditch his pragmatic 4-4-2 shape to please Zamparini. The President rightly explained that the side was built to play a diamond formation. As one would accept, brazen authority triumphed and Palermo lined up in a 4-3-1-2 (more of a 4-1-2-1-2) in their following match against Roma.
At 37, Mangia is the second youngest Coach in Serie A (Vincenzo Montella is 12 days younger) and with a salary of €90,000 per season, he certainly represents a cheap option. To put that into perspective, what the Coach makes in a year is less than half of what Wayne Rooney makes in one week.
Whilst the squad only won one of the last four matches, there is genuine belief that Mangia can create something special with a little more time and even the impatient President is willing to afford him that luxury.
Hopefully, the commoner is here to stay to add even more character to a league often thought to bask in the theatrics of its environment.
Mina is the deputy editor at Football Italiano and a regular contributor to BBC Sportsworld radio. You can follow her on twitter @Minarzouki