FOX SOCCER

Paying homage to Luis Enrique

Luis Enrique Roma coach
Roma coach Luis Enrique is expected to bring the flair of Barcelona to the Eternal City.
SpecialtoFoxSoccer JAMES HORNCASTLE
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Even before the satirical film An American in Rome was released in 1954 with the legendary comic actor Alberto Sordi japing around Trastevere wearing a baseball cap in the style of Joe Di Maggio threatening to destroy macaroni, Italians have held a curious fascination with the strength, opulence and freedom of the United States.

Naturally it wasn’t a big surprise then that there were great expectations surrounding Thomas Di Benedetto when the businessman from Boston agreed to buy Roma this summer.

Americans, so the stereotype goes, are loud and brash. But not Di Benedetto. His measured and sedate demeanor suggests a greater familiarity with balance sheets than the sports pages despite a deep-rooted affection for baseball and a son who plays in Italy.

As one columnist noted, there have been few stars and stripes since his arrival in the Eternal City, more a Homage to Catalonia with the appointment of Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique catching the locals, who were expecting Carlo Ancelotti, completely unawares.

“There is a lot of apprehension,” wrote Sergio Rizzo in an editorial for Il Corriere dello Sport. “Hopes and fears mix. There is great anxiety. The question marks are many, perhaps too many, but that’s what the club wanted. Roma have taken an innovative path with unpredictable choices, often giving the impression that they want to surprise everyone at all costs. The choice of Luis Enrique is a gamble not a bet.”

Afraid of the new and threatened by the unknown, Roma supporters were sceptical. What had led their club to take such a leftfield decision? Why would Di Benedetto go all in with his first move at the helm rather than play safe and hand the reins to a more established name? Enrique had only recently announced that he was leaving the first coaching position of his career with Barcelona B, the reserve side of the Champions League winners.

In three seasons he had earned promotion to la Segunda, Spain’s second division, then finished third, a place meriting participation in the play-offs, which Barcelona B weren’t allowed to dispute in case of another promotion this time to la Primera.

The cynics among the Italian media put an asterisk against these achievements. What could be easier than working with the graduates of la Masia, they said, and how was Enrique’s experience or perceived lack thereof any different to his predecessor Vincenzo Montella? Didn’t the Aeroplanino play for Roma? Wasn’t he a member of the last team to win the Scudetto in the club’s history? Didn’t he then coach Roma's Giovanissimi [the Under-14 to 15 age group] to 21 victories from 21 games? Couldn’t we consider him to be Roma’s Pep Guardiola?

All of which was to miss the point.

“The reason why we chose Enrique is symbolic,” explained Roma’s director of sport Walter Sabatini. “He represents discontinuity. Enrique represents an idea of football that we would like to follow, which imposes itself today through Spain and Barcelona, a kind of football, which is a little baroque but very effective. Enrique constitutes an absolute novelty, a courageous and provocative decision that I would make again.”

Foolhardy or not, it’s to Roma’s immense credit that they are attempting to change the prevailing culture in Serie A where results are still said to come before everything else.

“I was looking for someone outside of Italian football. Uncontaminated,” their general manager Franco Baldini told La Repubblica. “I liked his boldness, both toward the game and in his character. He is very motivated. His aim is to score goals. We also found ourselves talking about books: Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgramage. He is not one of my favourite writers but I can’t stop reading books, especially when I travel.”

Asked if this is a new philosophy, Baldini, a staunch critic of Italian football who - disillusioned with the game - left Roma in 2005 vowing never to come back and then followed Fabio Capello to Spain and England, snapped in response: “No for heaven’s sake. I’m not bringing a revolution just common sense and pragmatism. In other countries these things have already been done, so why not in Italy?”

To give an example, Roma’s youth side, the Scudetto-winning Primavera, will train beside the first team on the same schedule and with the same system [based loosely around a 4-3-3] to promote the understanding among the players of the Cantera Romana that making the jump to becoming a regular with the club in Serie A isn’t impossible.

An indication of how Enrique wants Roma to play from top to bottom can be gleaned by taking a quick glance at Barcelona B’s statistics last season.

According to Opta, the top scorers averaged 65.9% possession and made 546 passes per match – that’s more than anyone else in la Segunda, and also more than Real Madrid in la Primera. Even when taken with a pinch of salt – accounting for differences in quality between divisions and the varying styles of play in Spain and Italy – they remain eye catching.

“When Roma got to know me, they got to know me as an offensive coach who likes to attack, who likes good football,” Enrique revealed. “The important thing is that the fans come to watch us, that they enjoy themselves. It’s a very attractive way of playing. We will play on the attack. I don’t consider football any other way. We are moving towards a complete change of ideas and identity.”

With the arrival of players like Bojan Krkic and José Angel from Barcelona and Sporting Gijon respectively, both of whom are Spain Under-21 internationals, as well as the signing of the highly regarded River Plate playmaker Erik Lamela, who it’s said turned down the opportunity to move to the Camp Nou at the age of 12, the talk of a Barça-Roma or Giallo-grana shows no sign of abating even if Enrique, a disciple of Louis van Gaal rather than Johan Cruyff, has already moved to play it down.

“Barcelona’s model is unique because certain things have always been in their DNA,” he said.

“We are building a model that is adapted to our squad. Moreover different systems exist. I haven’t come here to bring the Barcelona model, but something that is similar to it. The model that Barcelona have used has taken many years to realise. I am coming here to bring a model by association, which takes things from Barcelona, but isn’t equal to it, also because it all depends on the players that you have and from the qualities that they have.”

Roma’s players got their first chance to grow familiar with Enrique’s approach at pre-season training camp in Riscone di Brunico. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.

“The system and the methods proposed by the mister are new, interesting and above all very stimulating,” Francesco Totti wrote on his blog.

“We are only at the beginning: day by day we’ll have the chance to enter into this new reality.”

Those spectators in Riscone di Brunico with an intimate knowledge of Barcelona’s techniques will have recognised the piggy-in-the-middle-like rondo to develop pressing and the torrello passing patterns.

An advocate of players interchanging positions, Enrique has had Daniele De Rossi play the first half of a friendly at centre-back, Rodrigo Taddei at full-back and Marco Borriello out wide in attack. His habit of frequently rotating goalkeepers at Barcelona B, is unlikely to persist following the 6m euros purchase of Maarten Stekelenburg from Ajax, a bargain when compared with the fees paid for Manuel Neuer and David de Gea this summer.

“It’s certainly a different methodology, a different approach to games with respect to the Italian championship,” noted Simone Perrotta. “In Italy we are used to being direct with a long ball straight from the defender to the attacker. Enrique is looking to be direct through a different method by going from one half of the pitch to the other as quickly as possible through possession and keeping the ball on the floor.”

Enrique’s staff, which includes the Little Buddha and former Lazio midfielder Ivan De La Peña, a fitness coach 10 years Totti’s junior, and the former Real Madrid basketball team’s psychologist, has been gradually implementing their boss’s ideas. Curious to observe Roma’s new methods, Arrigo Sacchi, the great iconoclast of Italian football, paid Enrique a visit. “I greeted him by saying: ‘Welcome to Hell’ because here it’s not easy to make inroads. We are afraid of new things when we really shouldn’t be.”

When placed in this context, Enrique, with his sunglasses and iPad, resembles Sacchi just as much as Guardiola. Milan gambled on him in 1987, believing that Italian clubs could lift major trophies without catenaccio and that if they were to go down in history, winning was not enough, they had to convince too.

Charged with emulating two coaches whose teams are regarded as the best of all-time, Enrique faces a daunting task that would deter many, but not him. As a player, he had the character to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, and proved to be a winner whatever the circumstances, playing in every position except goalkeeper and in central defence.

On such occasions as when Bobby Robson used him as a right-back for Barcelona against Oviedo in the first game of the 1996-7 campaign, he still found a way to do it for his team, scoring twice in a 4-1 win. Once he had hung up his boots in 2004, he spent a year surfing in Australia then registered for marathons in New York, Amsterdam and Florence, culminating in the Frankfurt Ironman – a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run – which he completed in 10 hours 19 minutes and 30 seconds.

As a coach, the easy thing to do of course following his success with Barcelona B would have been to patiently wait for the Guardiola era to end and then step into his shoes. But that’s simply not Enrique’s style. He constantly needs a challenge and Roma is perhaps his biggest yet. It’ll take patience, especially with a team that, after the departures of Philippe Mexès, Jérémy Ménez and Mirko Vucinic, is in full transition.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, a cliché Di Benedetto is particularly fond of using, but with the Ironman from Asturias acting as foreman the foundations already look sturdy.

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