Udinese’s decision to sack Coach Beppe Iachini following a poor run of form was the latest sign, as if there hadn’t been enough already, that things have taken a long-term turn for the worse in Friuli.
An insipid performance in the 3-0 home defeat by Lazio proved the final straw for owner Giampaolo Pozzo and President Franco Soldati, who promptly brought about the end of the former Palermo boss’ brief Bianconeri tenure. After just four and a half months, Iachini was gone.
Gone too, it seems, are the days when Udinese were the envy of most clubs in Italy. As recently as 2012, Francesco Guidolin led a squad containing Antonio Di Natale, Samir Handanovic and Medhi Benatia to a joint record high third-place finish, securing a ticket to the Champions League play-offs for the second season running.
This was despite the fact that, yet again, the Bianconeri had sold some of their leading stars the previous summer. Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata had all been allowed to leave after being instrumental in a successful 2010-11 campaign, in which Udinese finished a highly-commendable fourth. Though nobody of similar stature replaced the trio, Guidolin found a way to improve the team’s League position still further the following year.
It was no coincidence, though. Over a 16-year spell between 1997 and 2013, Udinese finished in Serie A’s top half 13 times, qualifying for European competition on 11 of those occasions. Despite a high turnover of Coaches [only Guidolin, Luciano Spalletti and Alberto Zaccheroni lasted longer than two years], key players frequently departing and a negative net-spend almost every season during this period, the Zebrette were thriving.
Guidolin resigned in 2014 after a 13th place finish fell way below his high standards, but Udinese’s downward trajectory has continued since. A shocking late-season run of form saw them finish 16th the following year, while in 2015-16 the Friulani slid perilously close to dropping out of Serie A. Though safety was assured prior to the final day, a home defeat to Carpi meant the Dacia Arena side ended the campaign just one point and one place above their relegated opponents.
So what exactly has gone wrong in recent years? As is usually the case with these things, a number of factors can be said to have contributed to the Zebrette’s fall from grace. Some will argue that Pozzo’s revolving door policy involving Coaches, players and directors of football, all while turning a profit, was always going to meet its downfall eventually.
The decline and retirement of the talismanic Di Natale after 12 years at the club cannot be underestimated either, with Udinese badly missing his goals and leadership. In keeping with this, former Bianconeri player and Coach Massimo Giacomini believes the team’s lack of an Italian core is the main problem.
“That is what you get from a group who are almost totally foreign, made up of players who have been taken on loan or signed in a rush. It needs players with personality. The team is missing character because all the players are foreign. Udinese don’t have an identity because every player plays for himself.”
The foreign influence has become an issue for fans, who have become increasingly convinced the Pozzo family are pouring the lion's share of their resources, attention and best players towards their other asset, English club Watford. Though they sold Spanish club Granada earlier this year, it is not unreasonable to say the much more lucrative Premier League has increasingly soaked up assets and focus at the Bianconeri's expense.
Whatever the main reason for the team’s decline, new boss Luigi Delneri will have his work cut out if he is to make this season any kind of success for Udinese. He should be able to steer them clear of relegation trouble, but any thoughts of a return to challenging for European places in the near future appear ambitious in the extreme.
It seems that Udinese’s years of punching above their weight are over.
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