All Italians are equal, but some Italians are more equal than others.

The dismal failure of England at the world Cup has been hashed over so many times and by so many people there can’t be much left to say, but there is one element of the press feeding frenzy that has turned into English football’s boomerang, in that no matter how hard you throw it away it keeps on coming back; the national football academy.

The idea has been promoted in one form or another since 2003, but is unlikely to be open this side of 2012. Some say it should focus on taking the elite of young English players and turning them into tomorrow’s three lion’s stars, others say that it is better coaches that are needed and that, like Italy’s Coverciano, a national university for coaches is the answer. Fabio Capello, who attended Coverciano in the early 1980s, is probably the current highest profile promoter of the idea. And it certainly did seem to work for a lot of years, establishing Serie A as the foremost league in the world, where the best international players went to ply their trade.

Of course everything has a down side, and for Italian coaching it’s been the coaching-drain, never more stark than in this new season of Serie A, where not one domestic coach has won the title in the past. Three championship winning coaches now grace English football, Capello, Ancelotti and Mancini and, like Capello before them, Ancelotti (1997) and Mancini (2001) are graduates of Coverciano, but does this mean that they’re all equally good? Not necessarily.

Back in 1984, when Capello was writing his study of the zonal marking system pretty much all teaching, of both children and adults, was firmly stuck in an old mode called pedagogy. As a style it carries with it some assumptions, the most important of which is that the teacher is the fount of all knowledge, and the learner a blank slate. The teacher, or coach in this case, is there to teach, and the player is there to listen and learn. And although pedagogy still works with kids, particularly the younger ones, it doesn’t work nearly so well with adults. The more modern style of teaching adults is called andragogy, where instead of assuming the learner is a blank canvas, on which the teacher is going to paint, it’s accepted that the learner comes with a whole set of life skills and experience. And in andragogy the teacher expects the learning process to be a two way street, where not only does the student learn from the teacher but the teacher also learns from the student. In fact the best adult educators take it a stage further. If a teacher only teaches that which he knows he sets a limit on what can be learnt, but if he’s prepared to get his ego walking to heel and accept that others know things about his subject that he doesn’t, he can facilitate the learner becoming better and more knowledgeable than he is. Which of course is how the student gets to surpass the master, the hallmark of only the very best teachers.

Football coaches are no different, and the best modern coaches listen to their players and accept that they have a store of knowledge and experience of their own that they can contribute to the coaching process, particularly the older, senior, professionals.

When the wheels started to come off Chelsea’s first season under Ancelotti, instead of following the boring old path, where the manager tells the media that senior players have to ‘step up and take responsibility’, Ancelotti took the androgogical way forward. The whole team and coaching staff got together and talked about it in a free exchange of ideas, and it was that which created the platform from which Chelsea went on to win the double.

Now compare that to Capello’s performance as England manager at the World cup. Instead of expecting to learn from his players, which you’d think was entirely reasonable, coming as they do from a different culture to that in which he had spent the majority of his football career, he imposes on them a ‘boot-camp’ kind of set up where they become bored and listless after what had been a long hard domestic campaign. He doesn’t communicate with them, when he talks at all he talks at them. And instead of getting them up for a new campaign on top of what they’ve already done he succeeds in de-motivating them.

If Italian coaches were all equal surely he would have been finessing players into a second athletic peak, rather than turning them off! And when John Terry, an important leader in the team, whether captain or not, speaks up, knowing that if changes don’t get made, and quick, they might as well pack up and head off on holiday, he’s vilified by the media, and Capello attempts a public humiliation as payment for his knowledge and honesty – instead of looking at his own performance, as any good self-reflective adult educator should. So what did Capello think, that after playing as many games at the highest level of football Terry had no store of knowledge of his own? Plain daft; John Terry might not be Mr Brain of English Football, but he has a wealth of experience that only an egotist pedagog would ignore.

You may not like Jose Mourinho, but you have to admit he’s one of the very best coaches in world football, so when he goes on record as saying that Capello’s one dimensional approach was to blame for England’s poor performance you at least have to give it some thought. Particularly when it is as a man-manager that Mourinho is supreme.

So what about Mancini? Does he have the ‘golden’ touch? And on the basis of his performance to date it doesn’t look like it. Steven Ireland was Manchester City’s player of the year only a season or so ago, but under Mancini he’s gone, which, as the longest serving City player has to be seriously akin to shooting yourself in the foot given the new squad rules. Craig Bellamy was one of the best players in the EPL last season, and he’s gone too. Mark Hughes showed Bellamy a sensible degree of respect by allowing him to structure his training to protect his suspect knees, yet Mancini imposes the same double sessions that the rest of the players get.  Would Robinho, the EPLs most expensive signing, have fizzed out like a wet firework under Mourinho? It seems unlikely. And now Shay Given and Adebayor are talking about leaving too. Yes it’s early days, and yes we have to give him more time, but there’s no guarantee that this Italian is going to succeed any better than Capello in the long term.

Ancelotti may not be the darling of the media, and he certainly doesn’t entertain in press conferences by shooting from the lip a la Mourinho, but I know who I’d want to be coached by out of the three. There are a lot of managers that pay lip service to the idea that no individual is more important than the club, but Ancelotti doesn’t just talk, he walks the walk. Plus he has that very rarest of qualities in football managers; honesty. To date every time he’s made a statement regarding transfers time has proved him right.    

The title of Ancelotti’s thesis in his last year at Coverciano was ‘Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita’ – ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’, and it’s that philosophy that Chelsea bring to life on the pitch, where it counts. Clearly, some Italians are a lot more equal than others.

© Andy Beck – 2010


Saturday 21st August – Away to Wigan.

Chelsea starting line-up:

Petr Čech, Ivanovich, Alex, Terry, Cole, Mikel, Essien, Lampard, Malouda, Drogba, Anelka.

In 2009 Wigan inflicted a rare defeat on Chelsea, testament to manager Roberto Martinez’s determination to play expansive attacking football at home. And although Wigan started well, shading possession and looking very capable during the first 15 minutes or so there was to be no slip-up this time round.

Chelsea continued to look a little diffident up to the first goal on 33 minutes, with some sloppy passing and Wigan playing a high offside line that saw Anelka and Drogba repeatedly caught out. But the first time Chelsea found their game, with what has come to be a trade-mark team goal, the likelihood of Wigan having a good day at the office receded rapidly. Kirkland managed to palm Lampard’s effort out, but only as far as Malouda, whose reaction was just that bit quicker than the Wigan defence.

For the remainder of the first half Chelsea seemed content to concede occasional possession to Wigan as long as attacking chances were limited to shots from outside the box, and although several were on target none troubled Čech, who looked confident and in control throughout.

Shortly after the break another such Wigan attack broke down and Mikel found Anelka with a perfectly weighted 50 yard diagonal pass. Kirkland’s attempt to limit Anelka’s angle couldn’t prevent him finding the net with a very welcome, and well deserved, first goal of the season for the French striker. And just a couple of minutes later Didier Drogba’s assist helped Nico to his second.

We’ve become accustomed to Anelka operating more as a playmaker than striker since Drogba returned from injury last season, and he’s certainly reinvented himself very successfully in this new role, his change of pace, ability to hold the ball up and vision an often decisive factor in Drogba’s winning the golden boot. Gone are days of pundits saying the two couldn’t play together, and that Ancelotti would have to settle on one or the other. But when the partnership started to gel even the most farsighted of them never suggested that it could work both ways, with Drogba supplying the assists and Anelka putting the ball in the back of the net. And it’s not hard to imagine this turning into a very potent weapon in the search for the elusive Champions league success this season.

Wigan didn’t give up, with Boselli finding the back of the net on 61 minutes, only to have his effort ruled offside. And shortly afterwards Ivanovich, whose tackling had, deservedly, earned him a yellow card in the 36th minute, was replaced by Paulo Ferriera in a reverse of the game against WBA, when Ferriera’s card saw him replaced. Neither of the two are likely to be first choice on the right side of the back four should Jose Bosingwa regain full fitness and the form he enjoyed before his lengthy time out of the side due to injury and a series of complications, with Ivanovich arguably offering better cover to Alex in the center of defence. Ferreira’s value has often been seen most in European games, where his understanding of the continental game adds an extra dimension. Without Bosingwa Chelsea still look weak on the right when compared to the channel driven by Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda, both of whom gave the Wigan defence serious problems.

The Wigan wall was less generous than WBA had been the previous week, when it opened nicely to let a Drogba free kick through, and his attempt on 69 minutes failed to penetrate. Ivorian team-mate Saloman Kalou was substituted for Malouda, who looked as if he may have taken a knock, and was soon on the score sheet with another goal from a silky counter attack. Lampard intercepted on the halfway line and found Drogba with an intelligent and finely judged pass, and although Drogba could have taken the shot himself he unselfishly laid on an easy finish for Kalou, whose post goal ‘shoe-shine’ routine appeared to cause a little embarrassment. And perhaps that little cameo perfectly sums up the new Drogba. No more of the petulance and ego that used to be so much a part of his mercurial game under Mourinho; Didier has matured into the consummate team player and senior professional, looking happier, and more fluid in his movement than at any time during the last couple of seasons.

The return of Michael Essien to the team after his own long battle with injury has been a revelation, heralded as being equal to a new signing – and rightly so. His strength and drive create constant problems for opposition midfielders, inject pace and energy in attack, and power in defence. What has changed under Ancelotti is his partnership with John Obi Mikel. Previous managers have tended to play Mikel in a very tight and restrictive role, so much so that when Ancelotti went on record back in 2009 with the prediction that he would become a valuable playmaker it was greeted with mild derision in some quarters. Playing the two in this fluid partnership allows both to show a wider range and scope to their game, and with Europe in mind the obvious benefit of their acting in a dual holding role should allow Chelsea to lock the midfield down when needed.

Benayoun replaced Essien on 78 minutes, and Wigan soon brought two of their own substitutes on, partly in an attempt to shoe up their flagging energy levels, and partly to replace Figuroa, who was stretchered off following a collision with his goalkeeper. Unfortunately for Wigan Boyce and McCarthy were unable to shore up the home side’s flagging concentration, and Drogba again supplied a perfectly flighted cross, this time from the left of the 18 yard box, for Kalou to nod in his second of the game, and goal number 5 for the rampant Blues. And it could very easily have been 6, when Kalou just failed to pull the ball back for Lampard, at the end of one of his trademark runs into the box from halfway, to fire home. But the last goal came just two minutes later when Benayoun rolled the ball home for his first goal in a Chelsea shirt from a Ferreira pull back after a sprint down the right. You sense that it’s going to take a lot of doing before Yossi replaces Joe Cole in supporter’s affections, but this is certainly a better way to go about it than red cards and missed penalties.

So ended a veritable master class in taking your chances when they come; 10 attempts on target, for a shot to goal conversion rate of 60%. For many, Chelsea have simply taken up where they left off last season and, certainly in goal scoring, that’s true – but unlike the past, when large numbers of opportunities were sometimes missed on the way to impressive score lines, this display suggests that more clinical finishing has been added to an already potent mix.

Jose Mourinho may inhabit a special place in the hearts of Chelsea fans, but you always felt that his own ego always took precedence. With games like these Carlo Ancelotti is laying the foundations of a dynasty full of character and creating a shrine to Joga Bonito in the Fulham Road.