By Frank Risorto
As a professional footballer Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi could be what was arguably considered a ‘journeyman’.
Beginning his career with the AC Milan youth academy, De Zerbi spent his time pursuing his trade from Monza in the North to Catania in the South, from Foggia to Napoli any anywhere else he could however it was perhaps his two-year spell in Romania that helped shape him as the manager we know today.
Looking to rebuild his career after an injury-riddled spell in Italy, De Zerbi spent the entire 2008–09 season out on loan from parent club Napoli, first with his hometown club Brescia and then Avellino for the final months of the season.
In the summer of 2009, De Zerbi found himself being wooed to Romania by CFR Cluj manager and fellow countryman Andrea Mandorlini.
Mandorlini heralded De Zerbi as a ‘fantasy and versatile player’ who was perfectly suited to his attacking philosophy and a player who could ‘distinguish himself from other footballers’.
Mandorlini’s arrival itself was met with enthusiasm for the side known as ‘The Railwaymen’, a nod to the club’s name CFR Cluj, the CFR being an acronym for ‘Căile Ferate Române’ (Romanian Railways).
Fresh from leaving Serie B side Sassuolo by mutual termination, Mandorlini was sold to masses as a ‘disciple of Giovanni Trapattoni’ according to club president Iuliu Muresan with the local media outlet Cluj-Napoca Ziare.
Meanwhile De Zerbi’s arrival was also greeted with fanfare and excitement as the player himself promised Mandorlini he’d do whatever he could to get the deal over the line.
“I promised Mandorlini something. I will come to help him for four months. If all goes well, I could continue at CFR for another year,” said the Italian.
And that’s what De Zerbi ultimately did however injuries again derailed De Zerbi’s time in Romania as he went onto make 30 appearances in three seasons including five appearances in the 2010–11 Champions League.
De Zerbi said his time in Romania and spell on the sidelines changed his perspective on the game.
“In Romania I thought differently about the game,” said the Sassuolo manager.
“There were players from all over the world with a football perspective completely different from mine in both training and methodology.
“This is where I seriously thought coaching might be my way” De Zerbi told LookSport.
Mandorlini thinks De Zerbi’s time in Romania was invaluable to his future career in management.
“He joined my staff as a collaborator in Cluj,” said Mandorlini. “He’s doing incredibly well.”
At one stage linked with the Barcelona job after the departure of Ernersto Valverde, De Zerbi’s now starting to take on a the cult-like status similar to the Marcelo Biesla and Pep Guardiola’s of the world as his Sassuolo side continue to punch above their weight.
The 41-year-old manager, who Sassuolo captain Francesco Maganelli rates ‘as the best in Europe’, is looking to lead his side to their highest ever Serie A finish in 2020–21.
Appearing at a UEFA Pro Master Course recently De Zerbi laughed off attempts to compare his methods to some of the great managers of Italian past.
“I have no secrets,” he told the audience tongue-in-cheek.
“In Romania in the evening I didn’t have much to do and I was studying football: those were the years of Guardiola against Mourinho and of Van Gaal’s Bayern,” De Zerbi told Gazzetto Dell Sport earlier this season.
“Being able to show the players everything that will happen in the game, to facilitate the task I think about football 24 hours a day and before presenting it to the team, I have to convincingly answer the questions that have come to me in the meantime. The coaches know the problems and study how to solve them”.
“My approach to life affects a lot. I was born in the north, but my father has Calabrian origins and I have often worked in the south: I have warm blood and I put human relationships first. I’m interested in people, the head, the character. I need to have a personal relationship with the players, otherwise I can’t give my best. Education, respect, even affection are good even in a team.
However, as captain Maganelli told Football Italia earlier this season De Zerbi leaves nothing to chance but still maintains his side needs to enjoy themselves when in possession.
“There is a meticulous job behind De Zerbi’s tactics,”
“He wants to keep the ball possession, have fluidity, but with clear ideas. We don’t run around the pitch without a target.”
“He is scrupulous. We want to have fun on the pitch but everything we do on the pitch has a reason for it. Those who say we only keep a sterile ball possession are wrong. That ball possession has a specific target. I could spend hours taking about it.” said Maganelli.
Arguably Serie A’s most entertaining team to watch Sassuolo seem determined to play out from the back, maintain possession and out-press every side regardless of their opponents and De Zerbi ultimately wants his side to have fun playing football.
Making a fast start to the 2020–21 season Sassuolo find themselves in fourth position, equal on points with Napoli, and expectations have been raised in Emilia-Romagna and the quiet industrial suburb of Sassuolo could be soon a destination for some of Europe’s biggest clubs if Sassuolo’s rise matches that of their manager.
De Zerbi, the self-acclaimed ‘dreamer and pain in the ass’ has spent time learning and observing the ways of Bayern Munich and Barcelona, has spent significant time with Marcelo Biesla, Pep Guardiola and Max Allegri, to name a few, learning from his coaching idols.
If Sassuolo continue their rapid rise and De Zerbi stays in Emilia-Romagna it could be the next generation of Italian and European coaches looking to visit the Mapei Football Centre to learn from De Zerbi.
De Zerbi has shown faith in his players and the club, the club has shown faith in De Zerbi and soon both parties could be rewarded and it’s most likely all thanks to an injury riddled spell in Romania.
As author Josh Medcalf wrote in ‘Burn Your Goals’, “We don’t have control over outcomes, but we do have control over how we use our time.”
De Zerbi made the most of his time off the field and for both the coach, his players it’s now paying off.