Red flags were flying high, the ultras were singing loud as 16,000 travelling fans watched as Franck Kessie scored a left footed thunderstrike to clinch Milan’s first title in 11 years at the Mapei stadium. It was a long wait, filled up with many ups and downs but the dark era of the club was finally over. AC Milan were champions of Italy again and this Scudetto might be the sweetest of them all.
After Massimiliano Allegri returned to Juventus, all pre-season predictions were in the favour of the Old Lady regaining her crown. But Allegri’s return hasn’t quite gone to plan. Early season bad form saw them in the relegation zone in mid-September. Then, the attention turned towards Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli and Simone Inzaghi’s Inter who were flying high in the league. Few people predicted Milan to go all the way. The continuous upwards trajectory since Pioli’s arrival wasn’t enough. The second placed finish last season, also, wasn’t enough to convince people that Milan can be champions this season.
However, this Serie A season has laughed at all the predictions made during the start of it. Napoli dropped off after injuries in November and losing key players such as Victor Osimhen and Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa in January as they travelled to Cameroon to take part in the African Cup of Nations. Simone Inzaghi was still finding his feet at a big club when Napoli were soaring till November but the Nerazzurri were more than ready to take over the top spot from Napoli during the turn of the year and it looked like they would win the Scudetto again.
Milan, though, were staying within touching distance of Inter as they had to navigate injury issues of their own. Mike Maignan missed a month in Autumn through wrist surgery. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has barely played in the last 4 months. Simon Kjaer was ruled out for the season after tearing his ACL in early January while star defender, Fikayo Tomori, had to fix his meniscus in his left knee. Even after all that, Milan managed to stay consistent on the pitch and their results guaranteed that they would stay within touching distance of their rivals.
The turning point in their route to the Scudetto was when Olivier Giroud turned the Milan derby around on its head within a matter of seconds. Inter were in a comfortable 1-0 lead, and looked like they were going to run away with the win, and eventually, the Scudetto. Giroud’s quickfire brace resulted in a 2-1 win for the Rossoneri and then the title race was truly on. Ionut Radu’s mistake against Bologna in Inter’s game in hand in late April was the final nail in the coffin in this title race for Inter. Milan’s consistency, after that, ensured the Scudetto will come back to the red side of Milan this season.
Milan’s fall from grace
To fully gauge how Milan have won the title this season, we have to back up a bit. When Milan last won the Scudetto in 2011, it can probably be seen as the beginning of the end. Milan lost Gattuso, Nesta and the omnipresent Seedorf. Kaka made his way to Spain to practice his trade with Real Madrid. Milan’s legendary owner, Silvio Berlusconi, just could not keep up with the financial strength of the big clubs in Europe.
Milan still had a good squad in early 2010s and Massimiliano Allegri was a very competent manager. However, after Berlusconi’s tax scandal in 2013 coupled with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva’s departures to PSG and Allegri moving to manage Juventus in the span of 2 years close to the scandal, Milan went into free fall. Berlusconi was still one of the richest owners in Europe but there is still uncertainty of why the investment dried up post 2011. Reports suggest he was advised against investing money in the football club owing to the corruption charges and political reasons. In the end, Berlusconi sold the club to a Chinese consortium in 2017.
Following Allegri’s departure in 2014, Milan recorded 2 of their worst finishes in Serie A history with them dropping down as low as 10th in the 2014-15 season. A giant of Italian football had fallen and it looked a long way back to the top from the situation they were facing with a club high in debt. It was reported that Milan were facing a €91.1M loss in the financial year of 2014.
In 2017, Chinese investor Li Yonghong, bought 99.93% stake in AC Milan and the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux became the parent company of the club. Li took out a loan of €303M from American hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation to go through with the acquisition of AC Milan. By July 2018, Li failed to keep with the repayments of his loan and eventually the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux was removed as the parent company of the club with all the control now going with the Elliott Management corp.
Till 2017, Milan were a club with 0 stability. They had as many as 5 managers in 3 years until Gennaro Gattuso came back to the club as a manager replacing Vincenzo Montella. Gattuso defied expectations and did much better than what was expected of him. Milan spent the majority of the 2018-19 season in the top 4. However, Milan stumbled towards the end and finished 5th and Gattuso resigned after failing to make it to Champions League football. Marco Giampaolo was hired from Sampdoria to be Gattuso’s replacement. But his reign lasted only 4 months and was sacked after 4 losses in his first 7 games and fans were not at all convinced with the manager. Stefano Pioli was hired as his replacement and a new era began.
Pioli and Maldini era
Paolo Maldini will always remain a Milan legend. Ever since the downfall started in 2011, Milan have been flirting with the idea of bringing back Maldini at the club in some capacity. However, Maldini has continued to decline the approaches up until 2018, when sporting director Leonardo hired Maldini to become the head of strategic development at the club. It came as a surprise to Maldini when Leonardo announced his departure from Milan while naming Maldini as his successor. Maldini was unsure about his new job but learned as the time passed and is now doing a stellar job. It was around the same time that Ivan Gazidis joined the club as the new CEO while Ricky Massara came in as the DOF a year later, truly commencing a new era at the club.
“I didn’t feel safe having to negotiate with agents and clubs. Then I started having to do it myself and it became the most natural thing in the world. I figured out what to say and what not to say. How to change register based on the interlocutor, those with whom you need to speak clearly and those with whom you need to use more diplomacy. If you have always been in this world and you use common sense these things are very easy. And it’s nice to do them.” – Maldini
Maldini’s philosophy as a sporting director is the same as it was when he donned the no.3 shirt at the San Siro – Nothing is more important than AC Milan. There is a clear pattern of his philosophy coming into play as he never caves into a player’s demands. The most recent example of this being the departure of Gianluigi Donnarumma. Milan offered Donnarumma a new contract and a wage hike but it was not enough for the Italian goalkeeper. Normally, one would be tempted to offer one of their best players whatever they want in order to keep them at the club. However, Milan and Maldini didn’t cave into the demands of their player and as the deadline for Donnarumma to extend his contract came near, the club called the 23-year old to inform him that they have signed a new goalkeeper in Mike Maignan. And thus, Donnarumma went to PSG.
Franck Kessie and Hakan Calhanoglu have experienced a similar fate to that of Donnarumma. Calhanoglu switched colours and joined Inter in the summer on a free transfer. The Ivorian may have scored the goal that sealed the title, but he will be on his way to Barcelona when his contract expires in June. Milan, in this new era, have elected to go with a data-driven recruitment approach. The club feels like every player is replaceable through the correct scouting and correct analysis. In fact, one of Maldini’s first signings as a sporting director was the French left-back Theo Hernandez. Maldini flew to Ibiza to convince the Frenchman to join Milan and while Hernandez first struggled, he is now shining and has formed one of Europe’s best left-flank partnerships with Rafael Leao.
There are many examples as to why this data driven approach has worked for AC Milan. The Rossoneri have recently adapted to a counter-pressing, fast transition system. Winning the ball back in such situations is very crucial and something Milan were struggling with when the opposition bypassed their midfield press. Hence, Milan signed Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea. Tomori’s aggressive front foot defending coupled with his athleticism has helped the club to improve on their existing system and progress even further as a team.
Many other signings have gone under the radar at Milan. Alexis Salamaekers has proved to be a very useful outlet on the right flank. Rafael Leao and Sandro Tonali have shrugged off their initial struggles and are now flourishing. Mike Maignan has replaced Donnarumma seamlessly. Almost to a point where the departure of a superstar player has not affected Milan at all. The versatile Pierre Kalulu has formed a formidable partnership with Tomori so as to a point where Milan are wondering whether they even need a new centre-back. Brahim Diaz had barely played before his loan move to Milan in 2020 but has improved massively and is showing signs of replacing Calhanoglu as the primary creator in the final third.
One signing that has helped them massively has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Often, you would see veterans and legends going to big clubs in the twilight of their careers and helping the team strive on and off the pitch at the same time. Ibrahimovic had a similar impact at Manchester United. If we don’t count Ibrahimovic, Giroud and Tatarusanu, Milan have the youngest squad in the Serie A. Ibrahimovic has come in, and has helped this fairly young side find their way and improve themselves as footballers. A true leader of the pack, Ibrahimovic’s impact upon his return, which saw him score 15 Serie A goals in 18 games, set the tone for others to improve as footballers. His presence and return also helped to take the pressure off from the young shoulders of his teammates, allowing them to work and better themselves in silence. A type of personality that everyone gravitates towards, signing Zlatan, even considering his age, has helped Milan massively.
As for Stefano Pioli, this Scudetto will feel like vindication. From the very first day that Pioli was appointed as the manager for Milan, he was doubted. The hashtag #PioliOut was trending on Twitter on the first day that he was appointed and he has been doubted every step of the way since. From an outside perspective, the 56 year old always seemed like a stop-gap solution rather than a long term one, something Milan were lacking for a while with their constant chop and change of managers. In fact, Pioli’s form till the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 didn’t convince Ivan Gazidis that he is the man to take the team forward. So much so, all the steps were taken by the CEO to appoint Ralf Rangnick as the manager and sporting director starting from the 2020-21 season. Which would’ve put Maldini’s tenure in threat as well.
You could hardly blame fans for doubting Pioli when he was first appointed, though. The Italian’s track record doesn’t really inspire a lot of people. However, after football resumed in June 2020, Pioli’s Milan were flying and he did enough to convince Gazidis that the current structure in place is the right way to go forward.
Maldini, though, always trusted Pioli. And he always trusted players with rocky starts too. Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao, Sandro Tonali, have all experienced rough starts to their life in Milan ever since they were brought into the club. But, with a crystal clear recruitment policy of buying players who suited the team more than anything else, along with Stefano Pioli bringing the best out of them, Milan have been making positive strides towards getting back to the top. Milan finished 5th in Pioli’s first season, and secured European football after their 2-year ban in the previous seasons. Pioli’s Milan followed that up with a 2nd placed finish last season, in a typical Antonio Conte style league domination season with Inter.
For sure, Milan’s group stage exit in the Champions League this season might have helped them and Milan could still do with more players in terms of squad depth. In fact, if you’d ask Maldini, he would say this Scudetto was earlier than what was mapped in their project. Nonetheless, in a football world dominated by who throws the most money, Milan have proved that their reluctance to bow down to player power and their data-driven approach for recruitment can still achieve success.
“At Milan, they only remember the players who won the Scudetto or the Champions League ”, Ibrahimovic said. “If we want to be remembered, we have two games left, let’s give it our all.” Zlatan promised a title upon his return to Milan. And he delivered. Pioli went from ‘Pioli out’ to ‘Pioli’s on fire.’
For only the third time in this century, Milan are champions of Italy.
Every revolution is born in order to change the status quo. And it is born out of a collective idea, a unique impression to unite the masses for eternity. For a revolution to become successful, you need to have not just the brains behind the idea but the brute strength to support that idea and bring everyone together. You need to have a Leader to make It possible, who knows how to connect on a mental level with the followers to put them on the same page and keep them motivated towards the fulfilment of the ultimate goal
The history will never forget the Greeks for what they achieved and their contribution to various fields will be unforgettable for time immemorial. In Sports, many thought that the Greek victory in Euros 2004 (article link) was the pinnacle. But what they didn’t know that this was just the beginning. While, the progress in football slowed down; the country progressed in other sports: especially basketball and tennis. Antentokounmpo brothers have taken the NBA by storm (the back story about their rise to the top can make even the most cold-hearted person shed a tear), Olympiakos and Panathinaikos has lit the brazier in EuroLeague. Stefanos Tsitsipas is breaking many records at a young age for a Greek tennis player. But it is the Greek export who has proved his doubters wrong (and as Jurgen Klopp once said: converted ‘doubters into believers’).
The man under the spotlight? Ange Postecoglou.
A relatively unknown football manager outside the Euro-bubble, the Australian-Greek manager has made a big name of himself in his native country and Japan over the years. Born in Athens, his family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia when the 1967 coup in Greece completely destroyed his father’s business. A move half-way around the world and the culture shock that comes with it is not easy to handle which the Postecoglou family also faced. It is these experiences which made a young Ange learn about humility and the value of hard-work (which he has shown in his entire professional career). “People say they go to another country for a better life. My parents did not have a better life, they went to Australia to provide opportunities for me to have a better life”.
Ange had a modest playing career, playing in it’s entirety in Australia for his hometown team, South Melbourne; winning 2 league titles with them while also earning 4 caps for the Socceroos. He ventured into football management; eventually becoming the manager of South Melbourne in 1996. He led them to 2 consecutive league championships in 1997-98 and 1998-99 season and also winning the 1999 version of Oceania Club Championship, thus taking a tiny team from South of Melbourne to FIFA Club World Cup. His work as manager of South Melbourne didn’t go unnoticed and the Socceroos soon came with an offer of managing the U17 Australian side, a young side with it’s high coming a year before where they reached the finals of FIFA U17 World Cup, hosted by New Zealand- only to bow down to the mighty Brazilians in the final. He achieved a total domination in the OFC Championships, winning the 2001, 2003 and 2005 versions and even reached the quarter finals of the 2003 version of FIFA U17 World Cup.
He was then promoted to the U20s setup where he managed the likes of Robbie Kruse, Adam Federici and Danny Vukovic who went on to make a decent career in Europe. A victory in OFC U20 Championships was marred by failure to qualify for FIFA U20 World Cup due to poor display in the inaugural AFC U20 Championship saw Socceroos relieve Ange of his duties.
Ange then embarked on a new adventure, returning to his roots, to Greece. He took up his first ever job in Europe, as manager of 3rd division side Panachaiki. He kept the side in contention of promotion but a falling out with the directors led to his departure inside 9 months. A short break from management did him a great deed when he came back with a renewed vigour to take reigns at Brisbane Roar. 3 Trophy laden years at Brisbane saw him move further up with Melbourne Victory. His stay at Melbourne Victory was a short one when Socceroos approached him once again, this time to appoint him the manager of senior team.
Ange took the reigns of the remnants of the Golden Generation when Australia played at 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; pitted against the previous edition finalists: Netherlands, defending champions Spain and South American champions Chile. It was a difficult group but Australia still delivered some respectable performances.
A thrilling AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2015 saw Australia lock horns with South Korea in the final, which Australia won 2-1 after extra time. Once, qualification for 2018 FIFA World Cup was confirmed, Postecoglou resigned from his position which shocked many Socceroos fans.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
His next destination? Japan. Yokohama F Marinos approached him to take over as manager, a position which he did take over at the end of 2017. He guided the team to their maiden league title in 15 years once he settled down in Japan and moulded the team in the way he wanted them to play. There was an active interest from Greek national team to sway him away from his job at Marinos but he eventually signed a short-term extension to stay put in Japan.
Postecoglou’s success in the A-League with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory led to him getting the Australia job. He took the national team to the 2014 World Cup, playing an attack first oriented 4-2-3-1. Wide forwards and full backs were the key to modest success as Socceroos boss. Mile Jedinak and his partner in the midfield stay put so that fullbacks could bomb forward and the wide forwards came in-field to play in between the lines. When the central midfielders got on the ball in deep positions, they either looked to play direct balls up to Cahill, or targeted the wide midfielders.
(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
He used 4-3-3 as well which provided the team with more balance and extra cover in the centre of the pitch and Postecoglou evolved to put more emphasis on keeping a structured possession system instead of just playing on transitions. Ange even used a 3-4-2-1 while keeping the tactical skeleton same, complex rotations in order to isolate the opposition in various zones on the pitch.
But it is at Yokohama F. Marinos where he perfected his system; which eventually led him to another league title in his budding career and Japanese club’s first major honour in 15 years. At Marinos, he used a 4-3-3 but instead of bombarding full backs and narrow wide forwards, he chopped the system. Instead, he used fullbacks in a more unconventional way. Instead of making just overlapping runs, Ange instructed them to make more underlapping runs into the central channels. Instead, wingers stayed wide instead of being narrow and central midfield became very fluid to accommodate the inverting full backs, with one of the #8s going wide to press back the opposition and carve out an opening using either a cut back or by pinging a pass into the opposite half space. Postecoglou selected wide forwards who could beat an opponent and could therefore occupy two defenders, which would then free up another player elsewhere.
Ange Postecoglou is very flexible when it comes to management. He puts equal emphasis on the coaching aspect and well the management aspect of dealing with the emotions. He has a set tactical philosophy and he likes the player recruitment to complement his coaching style but he is flexible in chopping up systems according to changing situations. He has always been a performance first manager. Results can be churned out but in long term, you need to prefer the performances. According to him, good performances will eventually lead to consistently good results.
He likes to integrate youth with experience, always ready to give younger players a chance; not just giving minutes to youth for the sake of it but phasing them in favourable surroundings which don’t hamper their development and destroy their confidence. These are 2 very important aspects to maximize the output from younger players.
His man-management style has been moulded from his experiences as a Greek immigrant growing up in Australia, learning the value of hard-work and humility from his family and instilling the same at the clubs where he has managed. He is very direct, honest person and has a way with his words when it comes to presenting his ideas, improving not just the playing attributes of his players but also emphasizing on the human element of his players as well, striving for them to not only become a better player but a better human being as well.
Ange was always attracted to the Australian rules football from a young age and he found his motivation to become a professional player (and afterwards) manager because of his love for the game and his father, “My motivation,” he would say when he’d become a football manager, “is always to produce teams [my] dad would enjoy watching.”
(Ange with his father)
Formed by Brother Walfrid as a means to help curb the poverty among the Irish immigrants living in East End of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club was eventually set up as a private limited company with a select few families seeing their descendants taking their place in the board of directors. Even after seeing success come their way over the years, this family dynasty at the club was making it run on fumes. Jock Stein and his ‘Lisbon Lions’ made history but they were often underpaid in comparison to their counterparts at Rangers (and even the Edinburgh based clubs: Hearts and Hibernian).
(Jock Stein with his ‘Lisbon Lions’: a team built from local Glasgow players who defeated Inter Milan in Lisbon in order to win Champions League)
The club was less than 24 hours of going bankrupt in 1990s when it was sold to a Canadian-Scot businessman: Fergus McCann who bought the club for 9 million and ensured that club can ‘modernize’ with the changing times: funding the major re-development of ‘The Paradise’: Celtic Park and also re-structuring the way club was run: changing it into a public listed company and even offering the fan led coalition to become the major share-holder after 5 years of his ownership.
With this re-structuring, 90s was for Rangers to enjoy but the appointment of Martin O’Neil turned a new chapter in Celtic’s history. Led by the mercurial Henrik Larsson, a club which was looking at getting erased from history was lining up in sunny Seville for a major European final in less than 10 years. Though, McCann owned the club for just 5 years but he sold his share for a profit of 40 million to the next biggest share-holder: Dermot Desmond (ironically it was Dermot who sold his share in Manchester United which ensured that the Glazers family became the principal owners of the club in 2005).
While the family dynasty at Celtic was a thing of past but the way they ran the club, was very much evident under Desmond’s stewardship as well. In 2012, it was Rangers who faced the similar fate which was hanging on Celtic’s head in 1990s. In this case, there was no one to save their parent company from getting liquidated and the club staring at rock bottom: 4th tier of Scottish football pyramid. And there was absolutely no one to give competition to Celtic due to disparity of funds distributed in Scottish football (and football in general nowadays). Despite the mismanagement, Celtic did find success come relatively easy with Rangers out of the picture, starting in 4th tier of Scottish Football.
Neil Lennon, Ronny Delia and Brendan Rodgers brought about a domination at domestic level but Celtic was lacking success at European stage (partly due to no direction in running the club and partly due to poor distribution of funds at European level, rich becoming richer scenario).
While Rangers, starting from absolute bottom learnt from their past mistakes and came back to Premiership in 4 years, but this time they had a direction, a plan to reach the heights of the past. A direction in how they want to play, how they want to recruit, how they want to grow at European stage.
All of that happened under Steven Gerrard’s reign: deep runs into Europa League and eventually winning the Premiership, bringing in 55th Championship in club’s history (or 1st as many hardcore Bhoys will say). Not only did Rangers win the league but they stopped the dream of a 10th consecutive title for Celtic (just like they did when they stopped Jock Stein from winning a 10th league title in a row). And there are a lot of parallels in these.
A Rangers team with renewed strategy to progress as a club, Celtic marred with complacency and mismanagement, a team bereft of any direction. Disconnect between fans and club ever growing. And again, to mention: your arch rivals looking ready to dominate the domestic scene and even having the tools to have modest success at European stage.
Whoever was going to be the next Celtic manager had a MASSIVE task on his hands. And that’s where the protagonist of our article comes in.
Ange Postecoglou and Celtic: a bond meant to be
When Brendan Rodgers was poached away by Leicester City, Celtic turned their heads to then Hibernian manager Neil Lennon to once again take over as Celtic Manager. Pitting him against Steven Gerrard and first major managerial role. Gerrard used a patient possession-based system which brought the best out of the long serving full back James Tavernier. While Lennon relied on playing a transitional based brand of football with more emphasis on individual brilliance at times. This was reflected in Celtic’s recruitment as well, buying individuals for the sake of it, without any planning. While Rangers filled the holes in their squad with some thought process behind it, Celtic did the exact opposite. Not only Celtic had no clear direction in their player recruitment, they also didn’t know when to cash out on players at right time, also costing a lot of money at times after under-selling a lot of their assets by keeping them for too long. Rangers went on an upward trajectory while Celtic went on a downward trajectory, silly mistakes from everyone costing a 10th consecutive title and fans and the team growing apart day by day.
In order to select the next manager, club tried to look at various profiles: some at board level wanted to tackle this possession-based approach used by Steven Gerrard at Rangers with the anti-dote: direct and aggressive brand of transition-based football: hence looking at coaches who had experience in Germany and Austria- Jesse Marsch was one on the shortlist (but a pipe dream), Valerien Ismael was also looked at one stage but he was already employed by Barnsley- taking them very close to a promotion to Premier League. While some in the board wanted to go with more British, man-management oriented approach. Again, club started looking at almost unattainable names: Eddie Howe being one in this kind of approach.
When the board had exhumed all their possible shortlist options (almost every name in that list being unattainable in first place), Celtic turned their heads to Japan- specifically to Yokohama where Ange was managing Marinos. A completely unknown name, an ‘outsider’ taking reigns of a club as revered as Celtic in such a delicate situation, many fans were discontent with the appointment and Ange had a massive task to not only coach the team in his philosophy but also win the approval of fans and repair this breaking relationship with the fanbase.
So, he packed his bags and came to Glasgow, without any coaching staff of his own and even at one stage, UEFA making extra background checks whether his coaching badges would make him eligible to manage in Europe or not. Once, all of this bureaucratic stuff was sorted; Ange took the reigns of the club on a one year rolling contract.
The thick South Melbourne accent meets the Glaswegian accent. The ‘Straya’ meets the ‘fitbaw and patter’. A blend of 2 different worlds. A mini rebuild of sorts started at Celtic; but this time they weren’t targeting the ‘big name’ signing but signings suitable for the manager to build a team capable of challenging the rise of Rangers. A young lad from Israel by the name of Liel Abada came, Ange used his connections in Japan to bring Kyogo Furuhashi from Vissel Kobe to Celtic. He then turned his attention to Benfica to lure in once highly rated Jota to join on loan (with option to buy on a permanent basis). Celtic had been leaking a lot of goals under Lennon due to mis-profiling of centre backs Julien Stephen and Nir Bitton and also the Greek goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas. In order to fix the defensive issues on a personnel basis, Ange looked at Tottenham Hotspurs and picked up out of favour Cameron Carter Vickers (now a full time USA international) and Joe Hart. Josip Juranovic came from Polish club, Legia Warsaw. Celtic had a major gap to fill in the centre of the field with the fan favourite and a cult legend, leader and captain, Scott ‘Broony’ Brown leaving the club; creating a major leadership void to fill. Ange turned to Callum McGregor to take the arm band, fitting that a local lad from East Glasgow who has been a boyhood Celtic supporter and came from the youth ranks, also being one of the longest serving player in the current squad take up the duties of a captain.
When Ange had assembled his squad, he tried to implement his high risk-high reward approach right from scratch. It was unrealistic to completely change the squad in one window so he integrated many players from previous years, some from academy and reserves. Many players who looked underwhelming under previous manager, looked reborn; especially the fullbacks Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor: adapting to the instructions of manager and completely taking a 180 degree from being line-hugging full-backs to inverting, underlapping full-backs; comfortable in possession. Joe Hart who was phased out of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola for not being comfortable in sweeping and distribution also looked reborn. At an age where Goalkeepers start peaking out, Joe Hart picked up these new skills with relative ease. Another player who responded well to the tactical instructions was the recent acquisition of Georgios Giakoumakis from Dutch club VVV Venlo. A typical archetype of journeyman physical centre forward, often mis-profiled as a target man due to his built. Ange identified his knack of playing of the shoulder of centre backs and breaking the offside traps. Kyogo Furuhashi was adept at dropping deep to become a +1 in possession while Giakoumakis was lethal inside the box, giving a lot of flexibility in terms of getting goals out of the strikers. The midfield was also instructed to follow the similar principles which the Australian used as a Socceroos and Marinos coach: a flexible and fluid midfield; with McGregor being the deepest among the 3 midfielders, taking extra defensive duties. David Turnbull and Tom Rogic being the ‘free no 8s’, depending on the direction from where game was being built up, one of the midfielders pressed the opposition by going into wider areas, operating in half-space in order to isolate the opposition and free up space in order to be exploited.
(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
Along with this, the narrow full-backs’ positions help Celtic dominate possession by overloading the centre of the pitch, while also providing the single pivot with support at defensive transitions. They will help to lock the ball in the opponent’s half and prevent counter-attacks when the number eights are beyond the ball. In terms of defending and counter-pressing, Ange has been more pro-active than before when it comes to setting up a defensive structure. They press aggressively, often high up the pitch after having lost the ball. The wingers have been instructed to press high up the pitch with centre forward, making in-ward runs in order to force the ball into centre of the pitch so that the no. 8s can also activate pressing triggers to completely choke the opposition, but this often leaves space on the flanks at times if teams know how to circumnavigate through the press.
Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
After a very long time, it looked like there is a set direction, a plan to execute not just good performances but get good results which are sustainable in long run. But all of this didn’t happen overnight, it is quite natural and humane for anyone to take time to adapt to changing scenario and it was the exact case at Celtic as well. Squad took it’s sweet time, gelling in and getting acquainted with the manager and his tactical instructions.
Early losses to Hearts, Rangers and Livingston in the league did amplify the rusty nature of the team adapting to new set of instructions along with elimination from Champions League qualification rounds to FC Midtjylland, being forced to go through a lengthy Europa League qualification round: battling Jablonec and AZ Alkmaar to book a place in Group Stages of UEL. Europe has been an achilles heel of Celtic in last decade. It was the same case when Celtic were pitted against Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen and Ferencvaros. Yet another difficult group.
This transition period and a tough UEL group also added to the misery of tackling many off the pitch criticism from the not only fans but from so called ‘pundits’ for not being ‘fit’ to lead such a prestigious club (because Ange was a completely unknown entity in this Euro-bubble of football).
Although, Celtic tried to play to it’s new found strengths in Europe and produced some scintillating moves in those matches, results didn’t go their way, with the weaknesses of the new system being exploited a lot. Meanwhile at domestic level, there was also a mixed bag of results in the initial months. Some commendable wins but that rustiness was still there to see. But Ange stuck to his principles and eventually results also started flooding in.
Ange’s camaraderie and his down to earth attitude eventually started winning the approval of not just the players but even the fans as well. And when results also started going their way with an up-turn in performances, even the most critical of fans swallowed the bitter pill of being ‘wrong’ and started to back the manager unconditionally.
Winter window came and in came a host of signings, with skillsets tailor made to suit the Australian’s coaching style. Reo Hatate came from Kawasaki Frontale, Daizen Maeda got reunited with Ange, playing under him at Yokohama F. Marinos and Yosuke Ideguchi came from Gamba Osaka. This was his 2nd venture into Europe. Initially picked up by Leeds United as a youngster from Gamba Osaka only but a series of underwhelming loan spells at Cultural Leonesa and Greuther Furth along with a feeling of home sickness prompted him to return back to Japan.
Reo Hatate’s versatility to play a variety of roles in centre midfield, left wing and even left back: especially in the inverted fullback role was one of the reasons why Ange wanted to go for his signature. Daizen Maeda’s off the ball ability to counter press the opposition and Celtic’s poor depth in wings was also ticked off with this signature.
Callum McGregor had been playing non-stop and there was no suitable player to play his role in the team (Ideguchi slots right in this scenario). But crème de la crème of the winter signings has to be that of English/Danish youngster Matt O’Riley from MK Dons who usurped the role of Tom Rogic and completely provided a fresh breath of air to Celtic’s midfield.
The new recruits from Japan and Ange again faced the wrath from the conservative sections of British media with some racially driven reporting being done around the new recruits. The Australian did step in to defend his players and taking a right stand, which he has done a lot of times in a short span of time in Scotland: completely aligning with the ethos on which the club was founded.
Now, with a replenished squad full of jolly good characters, Ange’s ability to attach to every player closely on a mental level and a team responding well to the manager’s instructions saw the team go on a massive 31 match unbeaten run in the league with a few upsets coming in Europe and Scottish Cup. Highlight of this unbeaten run has been the complete annihilation of their Old Firm rivals: Rangers on 2 occasions. A 3-0 drubbing at Celtic Park, preceded by one of the best atmospheres seen at Celtic Park in recent times, coming after such a difficult time when world came to it’s knees in front of the Covid pandemic and it’s effects on society and 1-2 win, away at Ibrox Stadium.
Celtic did get some help from Rangers as well in this period, who saw their manager Steven Gerrard leave his post in middle of the season to take up the vacant seat at Aston Villa. His replacement? Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. An ex-Rangers manager with a similar tactical setup to Gerrard eased the pain of losing Stevie G midway into the season. While Celtic went in a complete domination stage at domestic stage, Rangers had a memorable run in Europe; reaching the finals of UEL in a dramatic style, annihilating teams in their path.
When Ange had taken over the vacant seat at Celtic, no one could have thought that he would achieved a lot in such a short time for someone who had no experience in Europe and not only achieve great results through some exquisite performances but make the team feel connected with the fanbase again. Who would have thought that a bunch of Gaijins (a derogatory term in Japanese, meaning outsiders– also used by a certain you shall not be named newspaper in Britain in the context of Ange and the Japanese players at Celtic) will play a massive role in bringing a cultural shift at the club, which was lacking such an atmosphere in the dressing room for a long time? This world is full of talented people. If you have an open mindset, you will always find under-appreciated and under-valued gems. Ange and his Bhoys are one such example that if you want to find a niche, you have to broaden your horizon, break open from stereotypes and think out of the box in order to perfect this new found niche.
The onset of aggression from Russia on Ukraine has resulted in Russian football teams barred from playing in European competition. With Russian League out of the picture, the winner of Scottish Premiership will get a direct place in group stages of UEFA Champions League. Now, with Celtic winning the league and Rangers in the finals of UEFA Europa League, potentially we can see both the teams play against the elites in UCL next season, high time the Scottish football and arguably 2 of the best teams in terms of prestige in Europe get back to where they belong, while they usher into a new era and continue with their rivalry, free from any shoddy Sectarian elements which marred the Old Firm teams whenever they locked horns in the past
Celtic is a football club which has been deeply engrossed with it’s Irish roots and it was fitting that they needed a revolutionary character, someone who can lead them to new heights. In Ange Postecoglou, they have got the perfect character who can steer them into a new era. Long may the revolution continue. Viva la Posteglucion!
All sports produce underdog stories. Leicester City wins the Premier League. Iceland makes the World Cup. Kapil Dev leads India to a World Cup victory at the birthplace of Cricket. Billie Beane and his Oakland Athletics perform above their ability with an innovative way of player recruitment. While such stories are rare — this rarity is what makes them special. Each story is unique in its own way but their rhythms are familiar.
There is, generally, a charismatic coach who dares to take challenges out of his comfort zone. There is either a group of players with something to prove or a squad of homegrown players who dream of reaching the promised land with their local team. Most of the time, there is some sort of behind-the-scenes advantage — an edge that will hold for a year or two until everyone else adopts it — or some bold new style of play that has an element of surprise, a fresh breath of air.
What makes the story written by Bodo/Glimt is that it contains all those elements and many more. Toothbrush, Meditation, Thunder and Lightning — FK Bodo/Glimt is an amalgam of things which may seem weird from the outside when you get to know the context, you will be surprised.
Historically, it was considered that the teams from Northern Norway will never reach the level of their Southern rivals. The discourse was at such a level that there used to be a different Domestic cup involving the participation of teams from the North. The Northern teams were even shunned from participating in the national top league. This excluded the teams from major cities of North Norway: Tromso and Bodo.
A change of decree in 1963 allowed Northern teams to take part in the Norwegian FA Cup and this change in rule eventually paved the way for the right of inclusion for Northern teams in top flight in 1972. But there was still a sense of bitterness among the people in the North because of this change in rule.
From 1973 onwards, Norway had three second divisions: two divisions for southern teams and one for northern teams. The first-place holders in the two southern divisions gained instant promotion, but the first-place holder in the northern second division had to compete in play-off matches against the two second-place holders from the south.
Bodo/Glimt became the first ever team from the North to win the Norwegian FA Cup in 1975, also the first team ever from lower division to win the cup. They also went unbeaten in regular league season yet they ended up losing in promotion play-offs. Now, you can imagine why the people from the North were frustrated. But among this frustration rose a symbol which has become an identity of the club: Toothbrush.
In a 2nd division match, one fan: Arnulf Bendixen was getting restless at the inability of fans to chant at the top of their voice. He asked for a baton in order to conduct the chanting but he rather got- you guessed it right- a toothbrush from a salesperson sitting in the stands. From then onwards, the toothbrush became a symbol for the supporters.
Eventually, Bodo/Glimt found their way into the top flight. In their debut season at top level, they ended up finishing 2nd in the league, just shy of Lillestrom — who also bested Bodo/Glimt in the cup final. This modest success increased their fan following. A 4 year stay in top flight ended in 1980 which started the darkest period of the club with the club dropping to regional league and losing their professional status.
As they say: at the end of the tunnel, there is light. If the 1980s was darkness, then 1990s was the Lightning for Glimt (which actually translates to Thunder and Lightning). With coach Jan Muri in charge, Glimt was promoted to 1st division. The following season they hired Trond Sollied as coach, and the team won the 1st division in the 1992 season. At last, in 1993, Bodø/Glimt was back in the top-division, and as in the debut season of 1977 they took 2nd place in the league. This time they also managed to win the cup final, defeating Stromsgodset 2-0. The victory in FA Cup was the crowning of three remarkable seasons, going from 2nd division to 2nd place in the top-division in only three years — an achievement rarely seen in the Norwegian league system.
Over the course of the next decade, the club had a topsy turvy ride — eventually becoming what is called a “Yo-Yo team”. A good league and domestic cup campaign followed by a relegation fight. After a 16 year stay in the top flight, the club suffered relegation yet again. Next few years saw the club shuffling between top division and dropping back to second division Eventually, it resulted in financial difficulties at the club, reaching to the point that club had almost next to zero money and faced the expulsion from 2nd division. And that’s where the fans come in.
Bodo is a small city with a modest population of just 41,000. They play in a 6,000-seater stadium yet they have a close relation with the fans. Bodo is a city which not only houses the Norwegians but also the indigenous Sami people, Finns and Russians — came together and pitched in to raise money for the club. In 2012, the club started to lay foundations- from which the entire club and the community is reaping benefits in present day. After enough research and planning, the club decided to take a long-term approach in order to become self-sustainable — laying down a 10-year plan in which they decided that 35% of league minutes are to come from North Norwegian players, of which a certain percentage should be from players who had come all the way through the Academy.
FK Bodo/Glimt started investing more on grassroot level, starting the work with U12 players. Bodo involved 8 grassroot level clubs around their municipality- collectively investing in them and taking cream of the bunch on a 2 days-a-week training schedule at the club to complement their learning at respective clubs at grassroot level. Slowly and steadily, players progress through age categories- eventually reaching U15 level where National league starts and the mandate governs that clubs are allowed to play players from their nearby regions. Thereby, Bodo eventually started getting the cream of the bunch at this level- in line with their long-term goal.
In 2016, the club assigned Aasmund Bjorkan as first team manager and brought in a relatively unknown Kjetil Knutsen as his assistant. Club suffered yet another relegation from the top flight but the club decided to stick with the duo. Bjorkan paved the way for yet another promotion to top flight but he decided to step down as manager, taking the role of sporting director. Knutsen took over as manager. And this was the start of a fairy tale journey which no one would have even imagined.
Kjetil Knutsen: Managerial Profile
Kjetil had moderate success as a manager in lower divisions of Norway before taking up the role of Head of Youth Development at top division side Brann. After leaving this role, Knutsen joined Bodo/Glimt as assistant manager.
Aasmund Bjorkan and Kjetil Knutsen formed a great partnership. When Bjorkan stepped down as manager to move upwards as sporting director, he appointed Knutsen as manager. First step which the Knutsen-Bjorkan duo took was to find a new Head of Youth Development. Club had to go overseas, all the way to England to get Gregg Broughton. Gregg had worked as HoYD at Luton Town and Norwich City- seeing the development of players like James Maddison, James Justin, Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis, Ben Chilwell to name a few.
Kjetil has always tried to ease the expectations of his players, focusing on performance instead of results. He feels that if performance is good and consistent, then results will follow. According to him, focusing on results first and performance second first adds undue stress on the team and is not beneficial in the long run.
Kjetil also brought with him another unknown entity in the footballing world – Bjorn Mannswerk in full capacity to work with the squad. Bjork is a veteran, having served in the Norwegian Air Force: 2 tours of Afghanistan and Libya each which also included various rescue missions. Bjork was brought in to work with the academy players and senior squad to improve on their mental conditioning, using his own experience in the Air Force- right from training in military academy to field assignments.
He has done one-on-one work with the players towards their character development, helping them to control the situation and being in the moment- which Kjetil also emphasises on. While many clubs just do the talking on the same topic, Knutsen actually does the action. He doesn’t force his players to do extra work or run themselves to the ground- for him, all of this should come from within. And it will come only if you are happy and fit- both mentally and physically. And that’s where Meditation comes in. Every team, right from youth to senior level does a 30-minute meditation session before their training.
The best example of this character development has to be of Ulrik Saltnes, the club captain. Ulrik had lost interest in football and even considered retirement in 2017, facing severe anxiety attacks before the matches. Three years after this onset of anxiety, he led his boyhood team against AC Milan at San Siro in a crunch UEFA Europa League qualification match.
Transparency is yet another thing on which the Norwegian manager has put a lot of emphasis. Players are free to discuss anything- football or non-football. Their voices are heard and respected. This thing in football is taken as a sign of weakness from manager’s point of view elsewhere but it isn’t the case at Bodo/Glimt. Players who have played under Knutsen collectively have appreciated that they have not only improved as a player but they have become a better version of themselves as a human being.
There is almost a poetic simplicity to the Bodø/Glimt system. One of the main factors contributing towards their success in the last 3 years has been their ability to keep a strong and consistent XI in which everyone knows their exact role. The manager has created a tactic that doesn’t change too much and doesn’t over-complicate things. Players are scouted, recruited or coached from within to fill each role and position. Kjetil Knutsen goes with a standard 4-3-3 shape during possession phase and 4-1-4-1 out of possession. Knutsen’s playing style revolves around dominating the ball using a positional play system in possession and counter pressing the opposition using a high block out of possession. When they have the ball, they try to use the width of the pitch. This allows their positional play to work. They try to control the game by keeping possession of the ball but their passing is direct and vertical.
Knutsen’s team tries to squeeze the opposition into their own half as much as possible. Glimt uses a high block whenever possible and presses the opponents relentlessly. Counter pressing the opponent is a major part of their game. It prevents the opposing players from having time to look and play the ball into the space left behind. The players press with purpose and have the positional awareness to cover each other if necessary. They combine the man-to-man approach of counter-pressing and counter-pressing in certain zones.
When they are pushed back into a mid-block, they revert back to their compact 4-1-4-1 shape. The holding midfielder often has to vary his position creating a 4-5-1 shape at times. If the opposition is not moving the ball forward, one of the central midfielders tries to push forward to press with the striker. The holding midfielder then steps into his place creating a momentary 4-4-2 out of possession.
The most common shape Glimt takes up in the build-up phase is 2-3-2-3. The front three pin the opposition’s defensive line back towards their own goal. This allows FK Bodø/Glimt to have numerical superiority in the build-up. They make sure to make the most of this and use it to a devastating effect. It is a relatively simple concept yet incredibly effective.
Glimt made a staggering 1000 progressive runs in the 2020 league season, the team with the next most had 610, almost half of Bodo/Glimt’s tally. Taking these figures in per 90 minutes metric, it tallies up to 31.6 progressive runs which is double the league average in the Eliteserien. This is because of their ability to create and find the free man in the build-up.
In the middle and final third FK Bodø/Glimt form an asymmetrical 2-3-5 shape. If the play develops quickly then the 2-3-5 shape is formed from the wingers staying wide and the 2 offensive minded midfielders (or #8) occupying the half-spaces. Full backs will occupy the space vacated by the midfielders by inverting into the field, forming the ‘3’ of 2-3-5.
This 2-3-5 shape is very flexible. If the team was patiently building up from the back but unable to break the lines then the wingers often come inside into the half spaces. The #8’s drop deeper to make a midfield 3. The width must be maintained at all times so full backs end up taking on this responsibility, positioning themselves higher up the pitch and using the width of the pitch.
Third man runs are a key component of Bodo/Glimt’s attacking phase. It requires collective understanding and recognition of the situation (this is where Mannswerk’s work on mental conditioning comes in). The ball can be moved quickly via one-two touches because of the constant passing options available to the players due to their positional play.
Although Glimt keeps the width at all times, they don’t cross a lot. They rather try to work the ball into the box. They only cross 14.41 times per 90 minutes, the 6th least in the Eliteserien but their crossing efficiency is among the top most percentile.
Bodo/Glimt have had the most possession, the greatest number of passes attempted and completed in Eliteserien and least number of long passes attempted. These stats will give you an indication that they are keeping the ball just for the sake of it but the reality is different. Their playing style is direct. They are ruthless and lightning quick on the break, aggressive with and without the ball. (Justifying their name after all). Runners are trained and coached to make marauding runs in transitions which helps them to create overloads and numerical superiority. Two players immediately go wide to offer passing options and three players move in between the defenders. The ball carrier progresses until he pulls a defender in. This simple yet effective set-up has taken Bodo/Glimt to new heights, which even their players and fans couldn’t even imagine. A modest 11th placed finish in their first season back was followed by a 2nd placed finish in the league, narrowly missing out on the title. This ensured that Glimt will take part in Europa League qualification rounds. The squad was made up of majority of players from Northern Norway with many local lads- the likes of Fredrik Andre Bjorkan (son of Aasmund Bjorkan), Patrick Berg- son of Orjan Berg who is a coach at U17 and U19 level and ex-player of the club. His uncles Runar and Arild also played for the club while his grandfather Harald is hailed as the best player to play for the club. Club captain Ulrik Saltnes came all the way from U11 to senior team. Hakon Evjen is another player who came up all the way from U11s to the senior team. Andreas Schjelderup was in U19s when he was signed by FC Nordsjaelland and he became their youngest debutant and scorer. But the Crème de la crème has to be Jens Petter Hauge, who became the first player from this revamped youth system to pick up his senior call up to the National team. Born in a family of die-hard Rossoneri supporters, Jens fulfilled a dream of his father when he played at San Siro. He not only played but scored a brilliant solo goal, even picking up man of the match award despite the fact that AC Milan won the match. A week later, he completed his switch to AC Milan in a then record sale for the Norwegian club.
Their 2020 league campaign started very well, the team yet again defying the odds of relegation. By now, they had perfected their performance and it was starting to reflect in terms of results. A record breaking 26 wins, 3 draws and single defeat and staggering 106 goals scored in just 30 games catapulted them to their maiden league title, becoming the first ever side from Northern Norway to win a league title. A barrage of sales and bringing in replacements from academy coupled with shrewd signings from other clubs brought criticism from many that they cannot retain the title. A third of the 2021 league campaign was up and Glimt was 6th, but they went on a 20-match unbeaten run and eventually won the title yet again. Meanwhile the club was eligible to take part in Champions League qualification rounds. But they dropped from UCL Qualification to UEL Qualification and all the way down to qualification rounds of the newly inaugurated UEFA Europa Conference League. They battled their way to the group stage of the competition, achieving their first ever participation in European competition.
But the story isn’t over here, it’s just the start. Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma, CSKA Sofia and Zorya Luhansk were their opponents. The Roman warriors were bested 6-1 when they travelled all the way to the Arctic Circle. Mind you. SIX GOALS AGAINST ONE GOAL. AGAINST JOSE MOURINHO. AGAINST AS ROMA. The fire in the belly of Roman warriors was of no match to the calm and composed, icy cool persona of this young Bodo/Glimt team. This was the biggest loss of Jose Mourinho’s illustrious career and it came at the hands of a bunch of boys from Norway. A big feat for not only Bodo/Glimt but Norwegian Football. This side carried the fiery aggression like that of Surtur yet they had the ice-cold and calm demeanour of Freya. A 2-2 draw in Rome was enough to win a place in knockout rounds, yet another achievement for the club.
Their opponents in the first knockout round were Celtic led by the mercurial Australian manager Ange Postecoglou who is also leading a renaissance of sorts at the Glaswegian club. This was a clash between 2 sides who utilise a similar tactical set-up and what added fuel to the fire was that Knutsen was actually moments away from joining Celtic’s arch rivals- Rangers when Steven Gerrard departed for Aston Villa. Bodo/Glimt travelled to the Highlands and came back with a 3-1 victory, reminiscing the glorious era of their ancestors who travelled to the same lands and came back with the spoils of victory. A 2-0 victory at Aspmyra Stadion was more than enough to land a place in Round of 16.
A tricky fixture against Dutch side AZ Alkmaar was awaiting them. First leg was in Bodo which ended in a 2-1 victory, a dramatic 90+1 minute winner from Ola Solbakken. With the home advantage now with AZ Alkmaar, they started on the front foot right from the first minute. Vangelis Pavlidis’ brace was then shadowed by Amahi Pellegrino’s goal for the away side. With the tie at 3-3 aggregate score and away goals rule a thing of the past, the match went into extra time. But this time, it was Glimt who was in the moment and controlling the momentum. A strike by the Icelandic Right Back- Alfons Sampsted was enough to take the aggregate victory in the Netherlands.
A historic quarter final place sealed and the story is still not complete. And their opponents? *check notes* AS Roma. Time for the Vikings to again defend their land against the Roman invaders.
50 years ago, who would have thought that any Norwegian team would come this far and that would be a so-called inferior team from the North of Norway. And they achieved it through their own unique way. The goals set in 2012 are fulfilling- Hauge, Berg and Bjorkan are Norway internationals already and many more are in the pipeline to follow their footsteps. But even by their modest standards, the team has punched above their weight. While from the outside, it will look like this is just a once in a lifetime story but in reality, it isn’t. Glimt are here to make their mark on European football and this is just the beginning.
After all, who in their right mind doesn’t love an underdog story? And to quote a certain someone: THE NORTH REMEMBERS!
When Emmanuel Dennis scored the 4th Watford goal, even the most optimistic of United fans knew that there will be a new manager to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, it came true. The 4-1 defeat at Vicarage road was the final nail in the coffin for the Norwegian, who lost 4 of his last 7 games in charge including humiliating losses at the hands of Leicester City, Watford, and long time club rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City.
As expected (and probably a little too late), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left his position as the head coach of Manchester United and Michael Carrick was appointed to be the caretaker manager while the board search for a new interim manager. What followed was a host of names being linked to be the successor of the 47 year old including Ernesto Valverde, Rudi Garcia and Lucien Favre. Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag have been rumoured to be the favourites to take over next summer and while there were rumours that Pochettino would be willing to swap Paris for Manchester, the deal never materialised.
On Wednesday, David Ornstein and Laurie Whitwell broke the news of Ralf Rangnick being appointed as the interim boss at Manchester United till the end of the season, with a 2 year consultancy role after the season ends in May. According to club sources, Manchester United hierarchy have maintained that the German was their primary target for the interim role and after an initial breakdown in talks last Monday, John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Ed Woodward got the deal over the line 2 days later.
Regarded as a smart appointment by many, today we’ll have a look at what Ralf Rangnick can offer the Red Devils as a manager and indeed, as a consultant later on.
Ralf Rangnick, the manager
First, we will talk about Ralf Rangnick, the manager. Rangnick first became a manager in the late 1980s starting as a player coach for his local side Viktoria Backnang. His first job as a manager came for SSV Reutlingen 05. Afterwards, he managed a number of clubs in Germany, including VFB Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and most recently, RB Leipzig. Throughout his career, he has a track record of improving the teams he managed.
Ralf Rangnick has also earned a lot of plaudits for his tactical acumen. Widely regarded as the godfather of the counter pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ style of play, Rangnick has shown immense tactical nous during his time as a manager. After his Hoffenheim side decimated Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund with a scoreline of 4-1 In 2008, the current Liverpool boss said “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day”. He is regarded as “The professor” in Germany for his methodical and detail oriented approach to training and coaching his teams.
So, how will Manchester United line up under the German?
Rangnick has used many formations in his tenure, such as a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 but his most preferred formation is the 4-2-2-2. This is the formation which would suit United the most but he can even opt for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
Despite his formation, his principles remain the same. He likes a high pressing team and focuses a lot on winning the transitions. He likes to set up pressing traps by using 2 players to press and blindside pressing for the man on the ball with a 3rd player, thus creating a numerical advantage while pressing the ball. He also uses various different pressing triggers, such as a loose touch or a ball shifted in wide areas, to initiate the press. His focus on high pressing football would suit Fred and Scott McTominay, who are good pressers of the ball but not that polished positionally.
To understand the extent of his focus on transitions, we need to look at his training sessions with RB Leipzig where he introduced a 10-second clock rule with a custom clock made for this. The clock would tick loudly and all the players playing could hear it. The 10-second rule indicates that once the team wins the ball back, they must create a goalscoring opportunity within 10 seconds, thus completing the attacking transition. His RB Leipzig side ranked 1st in Europe in terms of defensive actions leading to shots and defensive actions leading to goal for the 2018/19 season. In terms of defensive transitions, the time limit was 8 seconds instead of 10, meaning that the team must win the ball back in 8 seconds after they have lost it, thus proving his detail to dominate the transitions, attacking or defending.
In terms of build up play, the German is not a fan of wide players and wants his wide players to tuck inside and act like a ‘inside forward’ almost creating a hexagonal shape with the 2 defensive midfielders behind and the two attackers in front of the two inside forwards. This would suit Manchester United’s wide players very nicely as all of them like drifting into the central areas and making things happen. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and even Donny van de Beek are players who are best suited to play in the half spaces and that is what Rangnick will allow them to do. Sancho, who is known for his creativity in the final third by occasionally stepping in central areas would benefit from the 63 year old’s system.
Rangnick allows his fullbacks to push forward, creating a 2-4-4 shape while attacking. He likes to create overloads in wide areas and use numerical advantages to make things happen with the help of his narrow attacking structure. The German has been on record saying he doesn’t like square passes much and focuses a lot on being direct and exploiting the spaces by having runners in behind and constant positional rotation. This ideology would suit mainly 3 players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. The Portuguese superstars are known for their ‘high risk, high reward’ approach and Paul Pogba always likes to make things happen and use the runners in his team to spread passes and flex his creative muscles.
All in all, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s squad would suit Ralf Rangnick’s ideologies very well. There are question marks being raised on how Cristiano Ronaldo would play as he’s not suited to a gegenpress style of play but considering Rangnick’s history and his tactical acumen, it wouldn’t be a stupid thing to assume that the 63 year old would have a plan to integrate Manchester United’s #7.
Assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, we can see David de Gea continuing in goal with a back 4 for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Scott McTominay and Fred would act as the 2 defensive midfielders, but it is possible we can see van de Beek and Paul Pogba being used there with McTominay or Fred against weaker oppositions. Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes would be the obvious choices to play in the flanks as the inside right and inside left creative midfielders/wingers. Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are capable replacements on the flanks respectively, similar to how Marcel Sabitzer was deployed on the right despite him being a midfielder. At Leipzig, Yusuf Poulsen played as the target man or the deep lying forward while Timo Werner was a menace with his lines behind the line of defence and his pressing. We could see Marcus Rashford playing the Werner role while Cristiano Ronaldo plays the Poulsen role. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani being more than capable replacements for the roles respectively.
“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.
Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”
-Ralf Rangnick, The Coaches’ Voice
This is how the Red Devils will line up under Ralf Rangnick:
In conclusion, Manchester United have enough depth and enough quality in the side to cater to Ralf Rangnick’s plans. His high-pressing, counter-pressing, direct style of play would suit most of the players Manchester United have at their disposal and if he is able to get his ideas across quickly, Manchester United can flourish during the time he is at the helm as manager.
Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director
Now that we have seen what Ralf Rangnick brings to the table as a manager, let’s dive into what he could bring to the table as a consultant/sporting director.
Ralf Rangnick took his post as the sporting director of the clubs under the RedBull group in 2012, namely RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls. He left his post as the manager of Salzburg to focus solely on as the sporting director of both the clubs. He made a return to management with RB Leipzig twice, first in 2015 when he guided them to a promotion in 15/16 and then in 18/19 where he managed to finish 3rd in the Bundesliga, proving that he can do both roles very well.
Ralf Rangnick oversaw the huge footballing success of the RedBull group of football clubs with both Leipzig and Salzburg coming from nowhere and then being regular outfits in European football in a very short period of time. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rangnick said, “Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.” He got that freedom at RedBull clubs and they have flourished under him. He got the same freedom at Hoffenheim, where he converted them from a third-tier Bundesliga team to a regular top flight team and laid the foundations for Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim as far as the Champions League. “Ralf has a special way of looking at football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN in 2020. “I used Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim; counter-pressing is a very important topic.”
Even though Rangnick’s first role as a sporting director came in 2012, at Hoffenheim he was already a manager + sporting director. He took the job when Hoffenheim were in the third division, even after having achieved great success with Schalke in the Bundesliga where he achieved a 2nd placed finish. It was later reported that the 63 year old wanted more control over the club’s decisions which led to a crossroads with the board. Dietmar Hopp, the chairman of Hoffenheim and the co-founder of tech giants SAP was keen to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga as soon as possible and he chose Ralf Rangnick to be the person to help Hoffenheim achieve that.
Rangnick likes to have a hands-on approach on how the clubs he is managing should function. He likes to control many aspects, the scouting, the recruitment, the way the club travels. At Schalke, he wasn’t given that freedom but at Hoffenheim he was given a clean slate to leave his mark. The German brought in Bernhard Peters, a former hockey coach, as the head of performance. His input on player performances, fitness levels and his analysis on the team tactics was very crucial for Hoffenheim’s first season under Rangnick’s leadership in 2006-07, when they achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Rangnick also brought in Hans-Dieter Hermann, a sports psychologist from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2006 World Cup team, having his request for a psychologist previously rebuffed by the Schalke board.
In the 2.Bundesliga, Rangnick established his transfer policy. Establishing a worldwide scouting network and recruiting players with age on their side. Most of the signings were under the age of 23, mainly foreigners and many of them being from Brazil. Brazilians like Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Edouard were signed while Demba Ba came from the Belgian league and Chinedu Obasi, from Norway showing the vast scouting network put in place by the 63 year old. The same philosophy and structure TSG Hoffenheim still uses after being established as a top-flight club in Germany.
“Did we get Ribéry? Never! For us, it is ideal that we don’t sign players who are already playing at a higher level than us, but rather want to go there [the higher level] with us. I want players for whom a move to us is not a step backwards. We are convinced that all the guys we brought in last year – Vorsah, Eduardo, Gustavo, Ba, Obasi, Nilsson – were not only good for promotion, but also for the first division.”
In fact, this is a philosophy Rangnick would follow during his tenure with the RedBull clubs. Instead of splashing millions on star players, the German focused on signing players who are young and who will develop along with the club. His recruitment at the club proves his eye for talent and his wide scouting network, something Manchester United could benefit largely from. His shrewd recruitments include players such as Tyler Adams, Matheus Cunha, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, Naby Keita, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, some of the most exciting youngsters in the world. Rangnick believes in developing the players and making them improve so that the club improves along with them.
How would this be beneficial for Manchester United? Well, for years, Manchester United are a club which has lacked an identity, a direction. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have followed their manager’s lead in terms of recruitment and signings and changes to the club in the background. That would have been fine if all the managers they have hired were of the same mould but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Quite the opposite. Manchester United went from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal, to Jose Mourinho. 3 managers with completely different ideologies on football, which led to the club constantly ‘rebuilding’ whenever a manager was sacked.
If we look at all the top clubs in Europe, all have a certain identity, a certain philosophy that they follow in order to be successful. Ajax being the best example for this. The dutch club have a certain way of playing football and their use of academy and being able to churn out the best talents in world football known to everyone. The managers and squad may change but their philosophy and identity remain the same. They hire managers who believe in the same philosophy as the club. Anything can happen in this world, but Diego Simeone becoming the manager of Ajax in future has a very low probability of happening due to the said philosophy of possession-oriented style of play being in place at the club.
Not just Ajax, all the top clubs in Europe have an identity. Bayern’s identity of playing fast paced attacking football, Liverpool’s brand of heavy-metal, heavy pressing brand of football since Klopp came in or even the identity Pep Guardiola has installed at Manchester City. Every decision these clubs take are in accordance with a pre-defined philosophy at the club, something which has eluded Manchester United for some time. Now, following a philosophy or an identity is not necessary at all, but for a club who have been as wayward as Manchester United in recent times, this is something which would benefit the Red Devils a lot.
Since Solskjaer came in, he tried to do the same. Install an identity at the club which the club can follow long after his departure. Appointments of John Murtough as the football director and Darren Fletcher as the technical director were one of the first few steps the Norwegian took to implement his vision at taking the club to the next level. It didn’t work out for Solksjaer towards the end, but he built the building blocks for the next chapter in this club’s history and Ralf Rangnick is the one who can complete writing it.
Even though his title is as a ‘consultant’, it is widely reported that the German will have a lot of influence on many decisions the club makes such as choosing his own successor and other off the pitch decisions regarding recruitment policy, potential future signings and even changes to the training ground. Rangnick’s influence, with the input of Murtough and Fletcher, could help Manchester United oversee a change towards building a long term footballing philosophy.
Ralf Rangnick’s appointment feels like a first great step Manchester United have taken towards building a long-term philosophy at the club, something they have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Judging by the German’s track record of improving and building clubs from scratch, it seems like a very wise choice.
Hoffenheim gave him the keys, and he built a fortress. Leipzig gave him the keys, and he built a kingdom. Now he has the keys to Manchester United, time will tell if he can build a dynasty.
It is said that La Dea– the Goddess Atalanta herself lives in the mountains of Bergamo, looking after the town and providing her blessings to the town folks. Situated in the heart of Lombardy, Bergamo has a deep connection to the old Celtic tribes who first moved into the region. The Bergamo faithful still to this date carry that Celtic blood in them. An industrial town, Bergamo is the heart of the construction and infrastructure industry of Italy. The town derives it’s spirit from the Greek Goddess-Atalanta (which translates to ‘equality’ from Latin) who grew out to be an able hunter and runner- known through her tales of Calydonian boar hunt, Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece.
The spirit of the Goddess resonated in the town. It is channelled perfectly by the football team situated at the heart of the city and every citizen. Named after the Goddess herself- Atalanta BC is at the lips of every football fanatic in recent times. Their playing style depicts the character of the Goddess herself- an able runner (given how Atalanta plays a high tempo football and cover every blade of grass on the pitch) out in the wild to hunt the mighty boars by the use of her will and wits (given how strategically the club is run in modern day and competes at top level with a lesser wage budget than many clubs in English Championship- the SECOND tier of English football pyramid).
Rise of the Goddess to the top
Atalanta BC was founded by high school students of the town in 1907. The ethos on which the football club was founded was to inculcate the importance of physical exercise in the youth- the ethos which club has followed throughout its existence. The club is known as the ‘factory’ among the followers of Calcio due to their work done in developing youth players through their famed youth system. Historically, the club struggled in the 2nd division of the Italian football pyramid throughout the 1920s and 1930s but they achieved a historic promotion to Serie A in 1937. They came crashing down to newly structured Serie B after just one season. But they built a core of players which came from the youth ranks and again achieved the promotion in 1940- this time winning Serie B. 1940s proved to be a great decade for an underdog team which even drew comparisons to Grande Torino– the famed Torino side which won laurels in 1940s.
By this time, Atalanta had become a regular in first division- achieving a club high position of 5th in Serie A during the 1947-48 season. The 1950s also saw the same upward rise but a false match fixing allegation saw the club get demoted to Serie B and a points deduction. But against all the odds, the team won the Serie B title- resonating the undying spirit of the Goddess and the town folks itself. This promotion was the start of yet another journey for this budding club. The highest point in this journey was winning the Coppa Italia title in 1963- defeating Torino with a score line of 3-1. This victory ensured the first and only title in the club’s history. The victors of 1963 again consisted of a core made up of players who came up from the youth ranks. From here, the club could not sustain this rise and it went in a downward spiral throughout the 1970s- becoming a yo-yo club, shuttling between Serie A and Serie B. Even in this period, the club didn’t stop investing and putting it’s trust on the youth. The lowest point in club’s history came at the start of 1980s when the club suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie B- dropping to Serie C1 in 1981. Despite playing in lower divisions- the club churned out players who eventually became the core of the Azzuri– Italian National team which enjoyed the spoils of victory in 1982 FIFA World Cup.
his trust in youth did pay off when the club dug its way out from the depths of lower division and looming bankruptcy and reached back to the promise land- Serie A in 1984 where they again stayed for 3 seasons before suffering a relegation in 1987. A series of dismal performances in 2nd phase of 1986-87 season saw the club crashing down but a fairy tale run in Coppa Italia saw the club 180 minutes away from glory. Only one team stood in their way- Napoli led by the God himself, Diego Maradona. It was the battle of 2 Gods in Coppa Italia but the rejuvenated Napoli side spearheaded by D10S himself saw the club win a historic double- Serie A and Coppa Italia. With Napoli winning the Serie A and ensuring a place in European Cup (precursor to UEFA Champions League), a relegated Atalanta side became eligible to play in European Cup Winners Cup. This young team again made history, reaching the semi finals of the competition while playing in 2nd division, the highest position a team playing outside of top division has achieved in the history of all UEFA Competitions. Atalanta suffered a 4-2 defeat to Belgian side KV Mechelen who would go on to win the competition. The club immediately won the promotion to Serie A and a 6th place finish in the 1989-90 season saw the club reach UEFA Cup for first time in club’s history. Another fairy tale run in European competition followed in 1990-91 UEFA Cup where they reached Quarter Finals of the competition. They were eliminated by the eventual winners and their local rivals- Inter Milan.
The rise in fame of Italian football during 1990s saw Atalanta shift from their policy of inculcating youth players in senior team and they tried to go towards the path of glory- buying expensive stars which eventually backfired and saw the club suffer from various relegations and promotions during the 1990s and 2000s. The best moment during this tumultuous period was a local Filippo Inzhagi winning capocannoniere (Serie A’s top scorer award) during 1996-97 season and another cup final appearance in which they lost to Fiorentina, led by the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta.
2000s also saw the same trend of yo-yoing between first and second division. Changing players and coaches without giving them ample chances saw the club incur a massive financial strain which eventually led to local entrepreneur and ex- Atalanta player Antonio Percassi take over the reigns of the club in 2010.
Percassi hit a reset button- bringing the old ethos on which club was built upon and tried to mend the wrongs of the past. He believed in long-term stability and glory over short term gains. After winning the promotion to Serie A in 2011, the club worked towards building a stable foundation to work upon in the near future without compromising on the principles on which the club was carved out. Being a local, boyhood fan and ex-player, Peracassi understood what the club means for the people of Bergamo and what Bergamo as a town means for its people and the club. Peracassi started many welfare programs with the club, helping to mend the past bruises and re-building the relationship with the community and the Ultras- who are known throughout Italy for their notoriety.
It is known that whenever a new child takes birth in Bergamo, the club personally delivers a jersey for the newborn- taking ‘Teach them young, teach them right’ motto to another level. Like a phoenix, the club was rising from the ashes- reborn with a new ambition and purpose. This was just the beginning of another fairy tale. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the fans, the president and the coach- Mister Gasperini.
Gian Piero Gasperini: Manager Profile
The 63-year old enjoyed a fairly successful playing career, coming from the youth ranks of his boyhood club-Juventus and playing with the likes of Paolo Rossi and Sergio Brio in the Primavera squad. He never made an appearance for Juventus but he played for Serie B sides- Reggiana and Palermo, with whom he reached the Coppa Italia final in 1979. A fairly successful career with Palermo saw him move to Pescara and play in Serie A from 1985 to 1990. After retiring in 1993 at the age of 35, Gian Piero pushed to become a coach.
One year later, he was at Juventus again, this time starting his career as a coach with the Bianconeri. He managed all possible age groups in the youth system of Juventus, right from U14 to the Primavera (U-20) squad. In 2003, he left Juventus to start his career as a manager- taking over a young Crotone squad which was playing in Serie C1. In his first season, Gasperini won the promotion to Serie B via play-offs. He stayed for 2 more years with the Crotone side- pushing above their weight in 2nd division.
In 2006, he joined Genoa who were also struggling in 2nd division, pushing hard to win a promotion. In his first season with the Rossoblu, Gasperini won the promotion with Genoa, thus foraying into Serie A as a manager. In 2008-09 season, Genoa combined shrewd signings with Gasperini’s penchant of pushing his players to perform above their capabilities which resulted in the club finishing 5th in the table, missing out on a potential Champions League qualification due to an inferior goal difference (Fiorentina hence qualified after finishing 4th). This was the club’s best ever finish in 19 years. Gasperini re-launched the careers of a certain Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, both of whom were then snapped up by Inter Milan and became core members of a treble winning squad. Gasperini’s achievement earned him rave reviews from even the elite managers and comparisons with the Great Zdenek Zeman were also there because of some similarities in their management styles, building tactical systems according to the best output of players present and playing a rather expansive, high tempo football focusing on overloads from wide areas.
There were even murmurs that the Great Scot- Sir Alex Ferguson also looked at Gasperini as his replacement at Manchester United. His glorious time with Genoa eventually came to an end and Gasperini embarked on a new adventure- joining Inter Milan. But with lofty ambitions of the club and Gasperini’s rather patient and long-term stability thinking didn’t align After a series of bad results, he was relieved from his duties.
Gasperini then took the reins of a struggling Palermo where he helped them provide some stability. Highlight of his short stint at the Sicilian side (this time as a manager) has to be consistent performances of their captain and legend- Fabrizio Miccoli giving great goal scoring returns which also earned him a callup to the National team, 9 years after his last call up and cap for the Azzuri.
In 2013, Genoa again sought Gasperini’s services. His second stint at the club wasn’t as successful as the first stint but he brought a much-needed stability to the side which was struggling both on and off the pitch, providing them with an identity on the pitch.
With Atalanta looking for a manager who can take them one step further after building a stable foundation in the last 5 years, they turned their eyes to Mister Gasperini in what was the beginning of a romantic story- full of ups and downs.
Gasperini’s personnel was not merely turned into gold in an instance. Instead, the manager’s biggest feat was to create a consistent and successful game model imprinted upon the virgin goddess Atalanta’s virtues, the same virtues on which the football club was existing- the same virtues on which the entire town has survived.
Fearlessness, a by-product of the wilderness the goddess was bred in.
Speed, an essential quality of every one of her quests, such as when she challenged her suitors to a foot race, confident in being able to outrun each and every one of them.
Survival instinct, manifested in the knack for hunting that Atalanta inherited from the bear that suckled her from birth, and that she later perfected after being found and nurtured by hunters.
Atalanta: Tactical Analysis
“I posted a picture of a wolf pack in the changing room. There are wolves at the front, some in the middle and one at the back. The ones up front can set the pace in the beginning. The next wolves are the strongest, they are the ones who must protect everyone if they are attacked. The ones in the centre are always protected.
“Then there are another five strong ones further back to protect an attack from there. The last one is the boss and he ensures no one is left behind. He keeps everyone united and is always prepared to run everywhere; to protect the whole group. The message is that a leader doesn’t just stay up front; he takes care of the team and this is what I want from my players.” This is how Gasperini has managed this Atalanta side, not just tactical drills but also instilling that mentality in the players. “Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’- Gasperini once quoted the Art of War proverb to his team in one of the training sessions, which are said to be so intense that match days eventually just feel like a holiday. Gasperini doesn’t like players who don’t work hard, in his words- he is scared of those players; for the players need to struggle; from those struggles the victors are born.
Tactically, Gasperini is known for using a fluid 3–4–3 formation and a spectacular high-risk hyper-offensive-minded possession-based system, which relies on the versatility of his midfielders and front line. His team’s playing style places more focus on scoring goals, off-the-ball movement and quick, short passes on the ground, and less focus on long balls and the defensive aspect of the game. As such, at times his trademark 3–4–3 system resembles a 3–4–1–2, 3–2–4–1, 3–5–2, or 3–4–2–1 formation, with energetic overlapping attacking wing-backs in lieu of wide midfielders, that provide width along the flanks and push up the pitch when going forward. They make a 3-2-3-2 shape during the build-up phase, building passing triangles and creating overloads in the required area of the pitch where numerical advantage is needed. He has also been known to use a 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1 on occasion.
The 3-2-3-2 shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. The players are close to one another, and know that their rotations are based on the shape of the diamond. Therefore, it gives structure to their rotations. Where Atalanta truly excel with these diamonds is when they are anchored by one of their three centre-backs, and it allows their attacking midfielder with an option to drift in the middle of the pitch and rotate into the diamonds to create a 5 v 4 in these areas. From this position as an attacking-midfielder, the player should always be available to sustain a forward phase of play by dropping into the diamond where needed.
When defending off the ball, his teams are also known for the use of heavy pressing, but also apply elements of fluid man-marking across the entire pitch and often switch to a 5–4–1 or 5-3-2 formation defensively. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.
Gasperini favours using hard-working and highly physical two-way players in midfield rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but also quick, talented, technical, diminutive, slender, elusive, and creative players upfront, in order to implement his system effectively; he has also been known to use a larger and more physical centre-forward upfront on occasion, who is good in the air.
While this kind of playing style has been successful for Gasperini at Genoa and now Atalanta, Gasperini has also attracted the criticisms of pundits if he can actually manage an established footballing giant with his current set-up (which he can but due patience is needed from the top authorities).
Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape often gets disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system.
And that is where the club comes. Atalanta have roughly relied on the principles of ‘Moneyball’- finding undervalued players who statistically were at par with many established players but went under the radar and honing them under Gasperini’s management. Other than this smart recruitment where they scouted the central European countries and Scandinavia where teams usually followed the principles on which Gasperini set up his tactics, Atalanta and Gasperini also relied on the youth academy and a highly structured loaning system where they closely monitored the activity of players to either sell for a profit or integrate in first team.
Despite selling many of their key players over the years, Atalanta have made a hefty profit and have spent in a sensible manner in which their running cost also hasn’t impacted their financial security and has kept them equally competitive.
Rise of the Goddess to the top (continued)
A poor start to his Atalanta reign almost saw him get relieved from duties but a series of crucial victories against AS Roma and SSC Napoli bought Gasperini some added time. But this added time was enough for his players to get accumulated to a change in system which eventually saw Atalanta finish 4th in the table, their highest ever finish since the 1947-48 season and qualification for UEFA Europa League, 26 years after they last played in Europe. The 2017-18 season saw Atalanta wreak havoc in Europe- getting 6/6 wins in Europe in the group stage which consisted of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol. They took the fight to Borussia Dortmund in Round of 32 who were among the favourites to reach the final of the competition. A 7th place and semi final appearance in Coppa Italia capped off a successful season for the ambitious Atalanta side. 2018-19 also started very well and Gasperini took them to 3rd place in the table with a final appearance in Coppa Italia- losing to Lazio in the end. This was the best finish in the club’s history, making the club eligible to play in UEFA Champions League for the first time in club’s history.
Despite losing some key players and utilising the newly revamped loan system to raise money- Gasperini’s side made many shrewd signings along the way who didn’t take a lot of time to get settled- raising money, keeping the investment and wage budget in check and not losing their competitive edge. The 2019-20 season also started in the same fashion- a juggernaut Atalanta side stomped the yard in Italy, scoring a lot (conceding a lot also)- very different from the stereotype of football in Italy being ‘defensive’. In Champions League, Atalanta was making their debut against Manchester City, Shaktar Donestk and a rejuvenated Dinamo Zagreb- then spearheaded by present day RB Leipzig talisman Dani Olmo, who really gave the Bergamo based side a lot of trouble in Atalanta’s debut match- which they lost 4-0. Not the start the Italian side expected. Next up was the trip to Manchester, another 4-0 drubbing and the dream of progressing from group stage was at the stage of shattering.
But did I tell you that this team was blessed by the Goddess and possessed the wrath of the same? When everything looked against them, they fought back and did they conquer? Yes. They somehow qualified from the group stage by securing 2nd place with a massive victory against Dinamo Zagreb. San Siro was roaring (since Atalanta’s Gewiss Stadium didn’t meet UEFA’s expectations). Right at the stadium of their arch rivals, this young side was celebrating a massive victory in the Champions League. Next up was Valencia- then led by Marcelino.
Boy, did this Atalanta side dismantled the slight favourites in this tie at San Siro! A 4-0 drubbing saw a packed San Sir erupt in joy. The eruption in Bergamo was even more massive than the one witnessed in Milan. But it was February 2020. The Atalanta-Valencia match proved to be the ground zero for the spread of Covid-19 in Lombardy. The tears of joy soon turned into the tears of sorrow as Bergamo was badly hit by the virus.
The army was deployed on the streets of Bergamo, which a few days back were resonating with the sound of the club’s anthem, were now full of the sound of ambulance sirens- to help carry the ones who could not survive the scare and provide them a dignified burial. In this time of sorrow, the football club kept everyone together and stepped up when it mattered the most. A resounding 4-3 victory in Valencia in an empty Estadio Mestalla saw the debutants reach the quarter final before football was halted worldwide (just like various other activities). The club was at the pinnacle in it’s 113-year old history at the worst possible time, where they could not celebrate this achievement with the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin.
For the hunters Gasperini trained and never ran away from a challenge. In soulless empty stadiums, they kept on playing amidst the scare of contracting the virus and the fatigue due to bio-bubble, away from their families. The 2020-21 season also started in similar fashion but this time every victory carried even more weight, for now they were truly playing to ease the pain of thousands in the town. Another 3rd place finish in a very tight competition ensured that the team embraced its divine inheritance to establish itself in Serie A’s Mount Olympus, guided by its very own King Midas, Giampiero Gasperini, able to turn every player passing through Bergamo into gold. From the youth to veterans from Europe’s deepest trenches.
All thanks to the advancements in modern day science that viruses can be countered and defeated. Now, the faithfuls of Atalanta BC can see their beloved team play in Bergamo, under the shiny lights against the biggest teams. On Wednesday, the ‘wolfpack’ as Gasperini calls his squad will again go on a hunting trip- this time in the fabled land of Manchester, a decade after the first rumours about ‘Gasperson’ taking over the reins at Manchester United arose. For the Goddess and her cult of Ultras will be on the hunt of not a boar but a Devil.
Atalanta BC is a model club for not only the ambitious underdogs but fallen giants, behemoths of the clubs who have lost their identity, who want to achieve the things in their fashion and opposite to that of the direction which modern football has gone. For Atalanta is one of the best examples of “Another football is possible”
“Siamo sempre insieme a te. Non ti lasceremo mai. Devi sempre solo vincere. Devi sempre solo vincere .Dai Dea. Non Mollare per gli ultra. Per gli ultra. Dai vinci per noi”.
“We are always with you. We will never leave. You simply always have to win. Come on Goddess. Don’t give up on Ultras. For the Ultras. Come on, win for US.”
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us but unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”These were the words spoken by Eric Cantona when he came to accept the UEFA’s president award at UEFA’s award ceremony in 2019 -cladded in a simple working-class attire at a strict ‘Bow Tie’ kind of event. These words seemed like a rambling from a senile old man at that time- a man who was ready to give away his entire footballing career over ‘kungfu kicking’ a racist in the stand and standing true to his intentions, who retired from football in what you call the peak years of a player- just to find the true meaning of Life by visiting and living in the places from where his ancestors came to France- Barcelona and Sardinia. Eric carries the blood of his rebel grandparents who fought against the Francoist Army of Spain just before the onset of the ‘2nd Great War’- the war which was supposed to end all wars.
These words which came from the mouth of a ‘mad man’ did depict the meaning in which this sport (and in turn the world in general) was going towards. Eric quoted the words from the play of King Lear, written by the Great William Shakespeare- depicting the treachery the Duke of Gloucester faced because of the kindness he showed to King Lear. This treachery came in the form of King’s own blood- his daughter Regan and her husband who blinded the Duke. The son who Duke thought was the real traitor- then proved to be the innocent one and this innocence came at the price of Duke driving this son away. The ‘supporters’ are the flies– who are subjected to ‘sportful’ cruelty by the ‘God’ who are likened to immature, uncaring and unjust children i.e the people in power, may it be in football or in other places.
Amidst all the drama that has ensued because of the ‘greed’ of the elites governing the game, we have reached a stage where there is no saint on either side- there is no Heaven or Hell on this Earth– as Shakespeare depicted in King Lear. Same meaning was also depicted by Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath on their album by the name of ‘Heaven and Hell’. Everyone is somehow in the game to earn their own gains.
All of this exploitation in football is happening at the expense of that one entity because of which this ‘beautiful game’ is null and void- the 12th man of the game: the fans. The past 18 months without fans in the stands coupled with the ravenousness of people at upper echelons have shown one thing- this game is becoming soulless day by day. With such a hostile environment revolving around the world of football in these troubling times, the spirit of the game is still living in the hearts of the people who look up to the game as a means of escape from similar problems which have now engulfed the game too. Even in such troubling times, football has helped people to liberate them from their personal troubles. The rich want to keep the riches from the game among themselves only. But the sheer unpredictability in the game of football still cannot be substituted with these riches. You will always have the underdogs providing an upset or two- ALWAYS.
One such upset has been in the form of a small club from the country of Moldova (or Transnistria from where this club actually is). Sheriff Tiraspol recently qualified for the Group Stage of UEFA Champions League by defeating Dinamo Zagreb in the final qualifying round of the competition. While very few people know about Moldova (which sadly is one of the most insecure places for women to live on this Earth- a hub of a billion-dollar illegal trafficking empire), even few people know about Transnistria.
Sheriff comes from a town called Tiraspol which is near to the Ukrainian border and home to more than 500,000 people. While everyone from around the world was celebrating the success of Sheriff Tiraspol reaching UCL proper, there was no such celebration in Moldova. Tiraspol is the capital of a self-declared country called Transnistria- created amidst the break away of Soviet Russia. While rest of Moldova wanted to align with Romania, Transnistria became a break away from rest of Moldova- opting to keep the Russian speakers and making all possible bodies to run a fully functional government under the supervision of KGB and Russian Army- who still to this date provide free gas and electricity to the disputed land despite not officially recognizing them as an independent country.
Despite this disconnect, the Moldovan national team play their national fixtures at the home ground of FC Sheriff Tiraspol- which lies in an entirely different world, which is kind of ironic. The club itself is owned by a company called Sheriff LLC, controlled indirectly by the same KGB agents who made the entity of Transnistria, a company which has earned a big chunk of it’s wealth through the same illegal smuggling and trafficking. This much wealth has also broken any competition which exists in the domestic league- with Sheriff winning 17 out of last 19 league campaigns- boasting a squad of international players from South America and Africa without following any player registration rules while the rest of the league has to make way with players coming from a 175th ranked country on FIFA rankings in Moldova. The sporting complex made by Sheriff is among the few modern structures present in the city while the rest of the city still lives in age old Soviet era architectural structures- making it look like a Dystopian world.
While a small team like Sheriff making it to the UEFA Champions League has been heralded by many but people do not know about the truth of their actual existence. And they have been pitted in Group D against the likes of Real Madrid (controlled by the person who was the brainchild of European Super League), Inter Milan (owned by the Chinese business family of Sunings who are indirectly controlled by the state of China- known for it’s oppression of Uighur Muslims), Shakhtar Donetsk (owned by an Oligarch who himself has had ties with organized crime families in Europe). It isn’t the Group D of UCL which is full of chaos, the Group A of the same competition is filled with teams like Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge- owned by again questionable people (and in turn states). Not only UCL is full of such chaos but UEL Group Stage is also full with same chaos- Group A involving Rangers, Sparta Prague and further comprising of Lyon, Brondby; Group C including Legia Warsaw, Leicester City, Napoli, Spartak Moscow and Group D containing of Royal Antwerp, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, Olympiakos. But what tops all of this is the real troublesome group in the competition- Group E which encompasses Galatasaray, Lazio, Lokomotiv Moscow and Marseille. All the aforementioned clubs either are known for their notorious fan groups who have indirect ties to some questionable authorities or have ownerships who are directly or indirectly associated with wrong doing happening around the world. With the return of fans, tensions will be high in the stands and these unwanted tensions could have been easily avoided if proper structure which didn’t involve any inequality was present and followed.
This chaos on a humanitarian level is disguised by the slogan of ‘Football for All’ by the governing bodies who will pledge that there is ‘no need for unwanted politics in the sport’ yet shake hands with those people who WANT to use the sport to remove the stains of their unwanted politics. The players representing the fans and clubs, taking part in such elite competitions are hailed as ‘People’s Champion’. But this tag of ‘Champion’ is coming at what cost? And how will they be the ‘Champion’ if the ‘people’ aren’t there at all? These accidents, these wars, these crimes have been killing the people (both in physical and mental aspect) but they ARE multiplying. What more must we do to put an end to all of this?
Sport is meant for entertainment and has always been seen as an escape from day-to-day life. ‘Calcio’ was made by the partisans of Florence during the Renaissance Era who wanted to pass their leisure time by bonding through sport. From this ‘Calcio’ did football evolve which was taken to different countries by the Englishman- workers, elites alike. Football became a way to break boundaries. Whether you are sitting on your sofa or standing in Stretford End or Curva Sud or Nordkurve, these 90 mins are an escape from those obligations which swallow you entirely through your life. If we actually want to make “Football for All” become true- we HAVE to initiate these difficult conversations. We just cannot hide behind the ‘keep football and politics separate’ banner and ignore the wrongdoings despite knowing deep down that these wrongdoings are affecting people around the world and they are happening under the pretext of Football.
When we talk about our Heroes– we should discuss about them in entirety- their strengths, their flaws, their good deeds, their wrong deeds. Only then we can actually push towards equality that everyone craves for, not only in football but in life as well. Someone close to me once said that what makes us ‘Human’ is that we commit mistakes, but we also learn from them and try to perfect ourselves through those experiences. For we have the power of thinking beyond boundaries but we also have the will and guts to know what is right and wrong and a voice to raise our thoughts but one thing which is dear to us is freedom.
“Emancipate youselves for mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”uttered Bob Marley on ‘Redemption Song’. Another one of his quotes says “Football is freedom, a whole new universe”. Football was one way through which Bob Marley found his freedom in his life and one of the ways to keep himself close to ‘Jah’ (the God).
Who would have thought that 40 years after his premature death, his words will resonate on another level with the atmosphere around the world. Same way, the words sung by Black Sabbath also resonate on another level and the words spoken by Eric Cantona in 2019 are also finding it’s true essence with the socio-economic impact this pandemic has brought on the world and has accelerated the same impact which was there in pre-Covid world as well but we, the people somehow ignored it.
In Norse Mythology, Ragnarok is said to be the end of all means- to purge the Nine Realms present on Yggdrasil (the sacred Tree of life) of all impurities. Ragnarok translates to the ‘Doom of the Gods’ from Old Norse. Ragnarok is preceded by the cruelty of nature on man amidst moral chaos, the same nature on which man showed cruelty. The stars will dim, the sun will darken and realms will go under the sea but they will rise again, free of all impurities and the people will live together in a hall- roofed with gold.
Football can be said to suffer from an inevitable Ragnarok also. It is at that stage of moral chaos at this time. As depicted in Richard Wagner’s opera named Goetterdaemmerung, Ragnarok is said to be the ‘Twilight of the Gods’. These are the same ‘gods’ Eric Cantona equated to modern day ownership in football through Shakespeare’s writings. Tupac Shakur once said that Death is not the greatest loss in life. The Greatest Loss is what dies inside while being alive. Never surrender.