“We are able to play good football and build something special, for now what we lack is concentration over 90 minutes.”
So said Zdenek Zeman shortly after watching his Roma capitulate and lose 3-2 after jumping to a two goal lead at home to Udinese in late October. What makes it even more difficult to digest for observers of the Giallorossi is that not only was the Coach absolutely correct in that initial statement, he was also entirely right when he went on to say “when we play our football and defend together, it is difficult to score against us.”
Roma were, in that opening spell, every inch the scintillating attacking force we expect of Zeman teams, completely dominating and dismantling an opponent who has not only thoroughly out performed them in recent seasons but has also entered the Champions League Playoff round in both of the last two years. In contrast, Roma’s last flirtation with European football’s elite competition ending in a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk almost three years ago.
Yet the absent mindedness and sudden display of timidity that completely enveloped them in the later stages of the encounter with Udinese merely marked the latest roller-coaster entry into the legend that builds on an almost daily basis around their Coach. It is the second time this term that the Giallorossi have conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to which the default response for watchers of Serie A is to shrug and mutter ‘typical Zeman display’ as the score-line pops onto our screens.
There is perhaps, Luciano Moggi aside, no less polarising figure in the world of Calcio than the 65 year old Czech coach. Many view him as an iconic figure, idolising his cavalier, carefree approach to tactics, embracing his firm belief that his side will outscore the opposition and that defending is almost an alien concept.
Those views are supported by any number of facts, witness the way his free-flowing Pescara swept all before them in Serie B last season, marching to the league title and promotion while scoring almost thirty goals more than any other side in the division. There is also the small matter of his ‘Foggia of miracles’ side, birthplace of the original, now almost mythical Zemanlandia that took the peninsula by storm as they marched from the third tier to the upper echelons of Calcio, introducing the world to names such as Beppe Signori, Bryan Roy and Luigi Di Biaggio before he moved on to lead both Roma and Lazio to high placed finishes playing the same brand of football he still preaches today.
However, his detractors will point out his relatively bare trophy cabinet, two Serie B titles and the 1985 C2 crown somewhat at odds with a career lauded so widely for so long. They will also never fail to mention his constant attacks on football’s traditional establishment, the doping allegations against Juventus that remain an open wound for those such as Alessandro Del Piero and Luca Vialli whom he identified as would-be dopers.
But, after each side has had their say there remains something truly captivating about watching this season’s Roma, with so many small snapshots, often insignificant if viewed as standalone events but which truly encapsulate all we hold dear when first falling in love with the beautiful game. Francesco Totti threading incredible through-balls for Pablo Osvaldo to chase, both the sheer aesthetic beauty of the supply and the echoes of Gabriel Batistuta in the Argentine striker as he looks to remove the net from the posts with every shot like manna from heaven for almost every fan of football.
The bearded Daniele De Rossi, able to both rampage around the field like the passionate, fan-on-the-field midfielder we’d all love to have on our own teams or elegantly intercepting the ball before passing it out of defence like the legendary libero of days gone by combine to see him rank highly on the wish lists of even the most successful clubs. Even Zeman, prowling his technical area, able to switch effortlessly between complete nonchalance at the chaos – his chaos – going on around him to looking like a man who would kill his dearest ally for a few drags on a cigarette, perfectly playing up to his bohemian image.
Of course he should address the defensive issues at Roma, just as he should have at Pescara, Lazio and Foggia, everyone can see that and it is almost a dereliction of his duty as a Coach to not do so. But, with a resume that stretches back all the way to Palermo’s youth sides in 1974 – before any member of his current squad was even born – the chances of him suddenly changing tack are less remote than the prospect of them turning in a spell of ten consecutive clean-sheets between now and the Winter Break.
While he may have made subtle changes to the trademark 4-3-3 formation to accommodate Roma’s equally iconic Captain, if Zdenek Zeman didn’t exist, the Calcio landscape would be a far less entertaining place. So here’s to Zemanlandia and all its glorious failings, long may it continue.
Follow Adam on Twitter @Adz77 for more insight into Italian football, past and present.