Taking Bologna on an extraordinary run of form since the turn of the year, Stefano Pioli is Serie A's man of the moment. Rob Paton writes.
“Football is beautiful because it is unpredictable. Today I am happy to be in Bologna. Unfortunately, I cannot say much about Zamparini. My adventure with Palermo was too short to assess properly,” offered a coy Stefano Pioli this week, perhaps with the knowledge that Maurizio Zamparini’s own words on his pre-season sacking are hard to beat .
Some seven months on and Bologna, with just one defeat from 11 played in 2012, have now passed the Rosanero in the League table, making as clear as possible what might have been for Zamparini, had he exercised a little more patience for Pioli’s pre-season work in Sicily.
Since the turn of the year, the Felsinei have only been bettered in the form book by Milan and Napoli, whilst only the Rossoneri have recorded as many clean sheets and along with Juventus conceded fewer goals than Pioli’s team. Under the Parma-born tactician, what was a relegation scrap - the team were bottom of the League with a -8 goal difference when he came in - has turned into something verging on European qualification. The team’s average of 1.55 points under Pioli has them on course for a 52-point finish - the same total achieved under Francesco Guidolin’s organised side that finished 2001-02 in 7th. Had Pioli been at the club from Week 1, that points average would have yielded a season tally of 59.
“The return in 2012 has been very good, we’ve stopped some big teams,” reflects Pioli. “But even against the most delicate teams we have not failed. There is an enthusiasm and awareness of what we can and what we still will do.”
It is enthusiasm that Pioli is most credited with reintroducing to the team, alongside an emotional stability that cannot be underestimated, in light of the club’s close shave with liquidation during an unsettling 2010-11. However, the psychological steadiness has also been matched with a tactical development. Indeed, for the positive impact Pioli’s early work had - three wins from his first four games - defeats that followed, including at home to Cesena and away to Genoa, were of a Bologna side still struggling to both effectively defend and attack over the course of 90 minutes.
Pioli’s refocus has been more than motivational. He has introduced a three-man defence, a tactic that whilst fashionable in Serie A this term, has benefited the Emilia-Romagna outfit more so than most to have tried the switch. Similarly, Marco Di Vaio has been restored to a single striker role, supported by two playmakers, as opposed to the previous version of one playmaker supporting two strikers. The overall effect is of a team with a strong central spine that offers little space to opponents and plenty of avenues for Bologna players when on the ball. Perhaps the biggest step forward for the team under Pioli, however, is the squad’s application within his tactics - this is more than just a successful starting XI performing well, but an entire squad.
It has been one of Pioli’s key and regular points communicated via the Press - that every member of the playing staff has a role to play. Subsequently, 27 different players have featured so far this term, whilst such results as the credible home draw with Juventus and the convincing away wins at both Inter and Lazio have each been achieved with different line-ups.
Following the somewhat resounding 3-1 win at the Olimpico last weekend, Pioli has enjoyed notable attention this week and has faced a number of interviewers asking what might have been with Palermo, or even on how Roma would have turned out under him, had talks with Walter Sabatini developed further last summer.
Yet, it is most pertinent that after such a week of praise that he welcomes Chievo to the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara for Week 28, one club who just like Bologna know exactly how good things can be under Pioli.