The post-pandemic remainder of the Serie A season was always going to be weird, but when it comes to Cagliari and Walter Zenga, ‘weird’ sounds like an understatement.
Zenga replaced Rolando Maran after Cagliari’s disappointing 4-3 loss to Roma on March 3, but here we are almost three months later and Walter is still yet to make his debut for the Sardinians.
However, the wait is finally over as Cagliari play Verona today, but can Zenga turn the Isolani’s fortunes around after such a long period of managing a team that wasn’t there?
The Sardinians are currently on a 11-game winless streak in Serie A and also suffered a Coppa Italia exit under Maran, so his successor’s task is far from easy.
In all honesty, it was only logical for Cagliari to slow down after such a strong start of the campaign. For the majority of the first half of the season, Maran’s men looked like a worthy contender for a top six finish, but their very unlucky 2-1 defeat against Lazio turned on the free-falling mode.
Considering Cagliari’s terrible form, the interruption of the league might seem favourable for them from a sporting point of view, but the truth is Zenga’s reign could’ve hardly started any worse.
Just imagine what it feels like to come at a new club and not be able to train nor see your players and staff for two months. Then, you have roughly a month, during which you need to get to know your team, clear up your tactics and starting XI and improve the physical condition of your players after the quarantine. And all this without playing any friendlies.
Saying it like this, it really seems that Zenga will have his hands full and his nomadic coaching career could hardly suggest that the Inter legend can return Cagliari to their early season form.
Since retiring as a player in 1999, Zenga has been on the benches of FC National, Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade, Gaziantepspor, Dinamo Bucharest, Catania, Palermo, Al-Nasr, Al-Jazira, Sampdoria, Al-Shaab, Wolverhampton, Crotone and Venezia and hasn’t lasted two full seasons at any of those clubs.
To make matters even worse, Zenga will make his Cagliari debut at the Stadio Bentegodi against a Verona team that have lost only one of their last 10 games before the quarantine.
In many ways the pre-pandemic Verona team had much in common with Cagliari’s playing style under Maran. Both Verona and the Rossoblu were very aggressive and direct in their approach, combining speed and physicality that often suffocated the opposition.
What was most impressive in both sides’ style was the fast and brave transition from defence to attack, as in an almost Atalanta-like fashion, both Verona and Cagliari were not afraid to put players in the opposition box.
Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Zenga will try to revert back to Maran’s ideas, which were obviously failing during the second half of the season, or maybe try something different.
Based on his managerial career, it’s really hard to predict what playing style Zenga will try to implement for his trip to Verona. One thing we can try to guess though is that the 60-year-old will go with a four-man backline, like he has usually done in the past, so there is a good chance that he’ll stick with Maran’s 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation.
Another thing to look out for during his debut will be Cagliari’s deadball routines, as during his spell at Catania, Zenga became well known for his detailed set-piece preparation. However, Zenga will have to do without arguably his three best players for the Verona trip, as Leonardo Pavoletti, Joao Pedro and Radja Nainggolan are all unavailable.
Considering all challenges and uncertainties that their new coach needs to tackle, it’s really hard to imagine Cagliari returning to their early-season exploits. However, the Sardinians have dropped rapidly in the table and currently sit in 12th place, only seven points above the relegation zone.
Therefore, Walter Zenga does not need to do miracles and chase unrealistic goals. He only needs to steady the ship and secure a comfortable mid-table finish, which will stop Cagliari’s freefall, and despite the many question marks, he seems capable of doing that.