Zdeněk Zeman and Pescara: The enduring legacy of the 2011/12 promotion season

The side that won the Serie B 2011-2012 season scored 90 goals in the league, 30 more than the next most prolific team in the division and only five short of the league record set by S.P.A.L. in 1950.

That statistic alone might conjure images of a dominant side running away with the. But in fact, the winners finished level on points with the team in second place, having conceded almost twice as many goals and taking the title only by virtue of the results between the two teams. The picture becomes easier to understand when you learn that this was the Pescara side coached by Zdeněk Zeman.

The former Foggia and Roma coach holds a unique position within Italian football. Not only is the chain-smoking ‘Bohemian’ one of the few foreign coaches to truly gain acceptance in Italy; but unlike, say, Jose Mourinho, he has also done so without exhibiting the kind of pragmatism and cynicism that characterises so much of the Italian game. It is hard to think of many Italian coaches who would proclaim, as Zeman did, “If you score 90 goals, it shouldn’t really worry you how many you concede”.

However, following high profile jobs at Lazio and then Roma in the mid-nineties, things had not gone well for Zeman. His stays at Fenerbache and Napoli were as unsuccessful as they were brief, and he spent the first decade of the 21st century bouncing around the Italian lower leagues with Salernitana, the only club where he lasted longer than a season (and it was barely that). After a reasonably successful but ultimately disappointing season with Foggia, where he originally made his name, he found himself at Pescara.

It is fair to say that Pescara do not always come across as the most serious of football clubs. Based in the south of Italy on the east coast, the Biancazzurri’s pale blue and white striped shirts recall the breaking waves of the nearby Adriatic, while the club’s emblem and nickname is a less-than-intimidating dolphin. Seeing them play at a sun-bleached Stadio Adratico-Giovanni Cornacchia, it is hard not to think of summer holidays.

Moreover, the club’s history is hardly decorated. Founded in 1936, by 2011 the club had spent a total of only five seasons in Serie A, and almost half of its existence below Italy’s second tier. After going bankrupt in 2009, Pescara Calcio S.P.a. was re-founded as Delfino Pescara 1936 in Serie C, with Giuseppe De Cecco of the De Cecco pasta company, itself based in Pescara, appointed as president. Coach Eusebio Di Francesco took the helm and the club immediately won promotion to Serie B in the 2009-10 season, via the play-offs.

Zeman arrived at Pescara in June 2011 following the departure of Di Francesco for Lecce. The Pescara squad consisted of a mix of youth prospects and Italian journeymen. But Zeman brought with him a couple of players who had played under him at Foggia, including Lorenzo Insigne (on loan from Napoli). He also recruited Carlo Pinsoglio and Ciro Immobile, both loanees from Juventus.

Zeman is famous not only for his attacking style of play but for consistently playing a 4-3-3 system throughout his career, and that was exactly what he implemented at Pescara. As Francesco Totti discovered during Zeman’s time at Roma, this system does not leave space for the classic Italian trequartista role. This meant that 18 year-old Pescara academy product, Marco Verratti, faced the prospect of limited first team opportunities were he not able to adapt.

However, recognising Verratti’s sublime technique and vision, Zeman moved him back into the heart of the midfield three, to operate as the team’s regista, a role he has since made his own for both Paris Saint-Germain and Italy. As Verratti would later admit;

“The year with Zeman changed my life. Before, I only went back to defend if someone was injured. It was then that I started to think about football 24 hours a day, about the little things that can improve your game to make the difference, and so it became a job, a responsibility.”

In front of the midfield was a deadly attacking trio, with Immobile playing through the middle as a number 9, and Insigne and Marco Sansovini as inverted wingers alongside him. Immobile was the obvious star. Quick and powerful with a fierce shot, he finished as capocannoniere with 28 goals. But the creative and technically gifted Insigne also caught the eye. He contributed 18 goals, regularly cutting in from the left to bend right footed shots into the far corner. The diminutive Neapolitan also registered 14 assists, which was all the more impressive when compared to Sansovini’s two.

Like Veratti, Insigne spoke highly of Zeman’s influence as a coach. “He told me ‘You just worry about attacking’,” Insigne later recalled, “he advised me to play like I was in the the street and just enjoy myself.” It was a message Insigne most definitely embraced.

After a strong start to the season, the Delfini seemed to fall off the pace in the spring, taking one point from four games from 19 March, 2012. This slump coincided with two tragic events at the club. First was the death of Francesco Mancini, the club’s goalkeeping coach who died of a heart attack on 3 March 2012 at the age of 44, just a few hours after taking training. The second was the death of Livorno midfielder, Piermarino Morisini, who passed away while playing against Pescara at the Stadio Adriatico on 14 April 2012. Morisini’s death at the age of just 25 rocked Calcio, and the anniversary of his death remains a significant day of remembrance.

Eventually, however, the Biancazzurri managed to pull themselves out of their slump with a 6-0 away thumping of Padova. Insigne and Immobile each scored a brace, with midfielders Matti Lund Nielsen and Emmanuel Cascione also getting in on the act. From there, Pescara won every game to the end of the season (with the exception of the final hour of the suspended Livorno game, which ended as it had stood when it was abandoned at 2-0). The Delfini pipped Torino to top spot having spent only 3 weeks in the lead, while the Granata had spent more than 20 weeks at the top.

Overall, the team’s performance was reminiscent of the heady days of Zemanlandia, when during the 1990-91 season, the charismatic Czech guided Foggia to promotion from Serie B with by far and away the best attack in the league. But while Foggia followed their promotion to Serie A with three good seasons in the top flight (two of which were top half finishes), the same did not follow for Pescara.

At the end of the season, the protagonists of this remarkable Pescara side were practically scattered to the four winds: Insigne returned to Napoli, Immobile moved permanently to Genoa and Verratti, who had at one point seemed set to join Juventus, went to PSG. All three went on to play starring roles in the Italy U21 side that made it to the final of the European Championships in 2013, only to lose to Spain. Zeman himself returned to coach Roma after the departure of Luis Enrique.

As a result, Pescara endured a dreadful season in Serie A, finishing bottom of the league, 16 points from safety and setting a record for the highest number of defeats in one season (28). Even worse, they finished 17 and 20 points behind Torino and Sampdoria respectively, the two clubs promoted behind them.

But it wasn’t just Pescara who failed to kick-on from that remarkable season in Serie B. In fact, while those who had departed seemed to have done so for rosier pastures, trouble soon emerged. In Rome, things went sour fairly rapidly for Zeman. After disappointing results and an apparent falling out with club bandiera Daniele De Rossi, the Bohemian was sacked in February 2013. His next job, at Cagliari, didn’t go much better: he was sacked on 23 December 2014 after 16 games in charge, but was brought back again in March 2015 following the sacking of local hero Gianfranco Zola, only to leave of his own volition after five more games.

Meanwhile, Immobile experienced mixed fortunes. After an unimpressive season at Genoa, the Italian international moved to Torino and re-discovered his form, scoring 22 goals in 33 games and ending the season as capocannoniere. Evidence appeared to suggest Immobile had proved himself an elite striker, but he stuttered once again when he moved to Borussia Dortmund the following season, scoring just three goals in 24 appearances.

In truth, Immobile should be commended for taking the opportunity to play abroad, an opportunity which Italian players seem almost as resistant to take as English players. But in truth, the challenge proved too great for the ex-Pescara man. He spoke of struggling to adjust to the German language and culture, as well as feeling lost without the high level of tactical direction he was provided in Italy. In January 2015, Immobile moved to Sevilla where things scarcely improved: he scored twice in eight appearances before heading back to Torino.

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Click to read ‘Pescara: Once in a Life Time’

While his fellow Neapolitan played globetrotter, Insigne did precisely the opposite, remaining with his boyhood club. But at times, he found it no easier. Under both Walter Mazzarri and Rafa Benitez, the local boy had to adapt, required to carry out more defensive duties than he could have ever dreamed of under Zeman. Nonetheless, he developed steadily in his first couple of seasons: five goals in 2012-13 and nine in all competitions in 2013-14. However, Insigne soon began to suffer injury setbacks and a difficult relationship with Napoli’s fans.

They say no man is a prophet in his homeland and it’s easy to see why when observing how quickly the cheers for the one Napoletani call Il Magnifico can turn to whistles and boos. It seems like Insigne is judged by a higher standard than other players, particularly when you consider the way in which Belgian Dries “Ciro” Mertens has been embraced by the Partenopei.

Only Verratti, somewhat away from the spotlight in Ligue 1 and initially under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, stayed on a steady upward trajectory. At PSG, the ‘Little Owl’ soon cemented his position as a first-team regular and, injury problems apart, went from strength to strength.

In a similar vein, Verratti seems to have made the step up to the Italian senior side more comfortably than Insigne and Immobile. All three were in the squad for Italy’s disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign, but only Veratti escaped with any credit. He received plaudits for his performance against England, playing alongside Andrea Pirlo as a doppio regista, a system that was briefly christened ‘TikItalia’. Immobile and Insigne both made starts in the other group games, but they looked as disjointed as the rest of their teammates, as Prandelli’s side unravelled.

Since then, things have turned around for the Neapolitan duo. In the 2015-2016 season, playing alongside the record-breaking Gonzalo Higuain, Insigne was the first player in Europe’s top leagues to reach double figures in both goals and assists. This season, he has proved his quality again by adapting to play alongside Mertens and reaching 16 goals and 10 assists in all competitions thus far. This feat was recently rewarded with a new contract, which will keep Lorenzo Il Magnifico at the Stadio San Paolo until 2022. Immobile, meanwhile, has re-found his goalscoring touch for Simone Inzaghi at Lazio, and currently stands on 20 Serie A goals.

All three of Zeman’s Pescara prodigies have also been called up for Italy by Giampaolo Ventura in recent months, and a great deal is expected in the next few years, both collectively and individually.

And as for Pescara, they won promotion back to Serie A at the end of the 2015-16 season with Massimo Oddo. This year, with the club rock bottom after 24 games and on a run of six consecutive defeats, they sacked Oddo (on Valentine’s Day) and reappointed one Zdeněk Zeman. In their next match at home to Genoa, Zemanlandia temporarily took hold as they won 5-0.

The inevitable, however, has since caught up with the Delfini, succumbing to relegation after their defeat to Roma on match day 33. And though Zeman has not been able to manufacture a miraculous revival, Pescara supporters retain their fond memories of the year during which Zemanlandia arrived and thrived on the Adriatic Coast.

As for Veratti, Immobile and Insigne, their experiences during the 2011-12 season with Il Boemo remain as invaluable as they are indelible.

Words by Ricci Potts: @sttopr

‘A lawyer by trade, Sunderland born and of Ciociarian heritage, Ricci supports Sunderland, Juventus and Italy.’