He’s wild, he’s exuberant, and he’s fantastic entertainment, but Paolo Di Canio is a more studied manager than his pitch-side persona reveals, says Alex Cooke.
“The media portrayal of Paolo Di Canio is very different to the manager I’ve come across. The one I have experienced is very meticulous in his planning, very knowledgeable about every level of football from the Premier League to the Conference.”
For those who don’t regularly see Swindon’s boss at as close quarters as forward Paul Benson does, it is easy to caricature Di Canio: he’s the media’s touchline theatre and rival fans’ pantomime. However, he is also a thoroughly modern, and surprisingly cautious, manager.
Former Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi once said “A jockey does not need to have been born a horse” and it seems to be a quote which Paolo Di Canio is at least familiar with. For Di Canio, like Sacchi –a ex-shoe salesman – knows that former position counts for little now. Instead Di Canio seems to have taken a more thoughtful, more Sacchi-like path, working up from the bottom. And when asked, he points to the role of manager needing more practical characteristics than simply a big reputation: “Having knowledge, desire, a strong character and a willingness to study counts for much more than if you were a top-level footballer before.”
For Di Canio hasn’t traded on his reputation; not to cherry-pick a managerial role or fill his team with former team mates. Instead he has become a willing student who has refined classroom knowledge through experience and a bold willingness to make mistakes. Characteristically he admitted as much on the Football League’s podcast: “The best manager, as in life with the best man, is not a man who doesn’t make a mistake, but how he learns from it, and learns how to recover from this mistake.”
And knowledge has been a key part of his armoury for not only did Di Canio pass all of his coaching badges to UEFA Pro standard at Italy’s Coverciano facility but, according to his biographer Gabriele Marcotti, he excelled topping the year in every one. He also seems to apply the same studiousness and patience to every match and every length explanation to a substitute. Certainly the opposition are scouted and studied at length, much as any manager does, but Di Canio goes further. “I look at the state of the field, whether it is good or not, I look at the weather two days before. Obviously it is really important to if you have a more physical player or a technical presence if you need that on a bad surface.”
The chief beneficiary of this approach of adaptation has been Oliver Risser who has been frequently brought into the side for his largely destructive play, but the same could be said for Billy Bodin. The Welshman had been surplus to requirements until Di Canio noticed Rotherham’s lack of defensive mobility, then he had no qualms about dropping the young striker straight into the side, ahead of far more experienced team-mates.
Di Canio also clearly drills his sides – including short corner routines – and talks about discipline post-match as often as fans talk about the passion. However, by his own admission he has learnt to simplify his instructions as the season has worn on: “I spend the most time giving the more specific jobs and the right details to my players, and not too much. I learnt this as before I used to give them many, many, many details and it got lost in the last few hours before the game. But now I always say to my players that if we are going to do A, B or C in a good way we win the game.”
The players also claim to understand despite his feverish delivery, as Alan Connell explained after the Wigan match: “He does a lot of research with his technical staff before every game, he shares all the relevant intelligence with us”. Not listening is certainly not an option though as many have been substituted or dropped for not following instructions, including Jon Smith. It also seems highly likely that Medhi Kerrouche’s positional indiscipline could have been an early point of contention between striker and his gaffer.
Despite his desire to change personnel to match even the lowliest of teams, Di Canio keeps his formation fixed and simple – if inflexible. Under him Swindon have played the vast majority of games in an orthodox 442, a formation that is increasingly rare, even in division four. And while they play it with a great deal of positional discipline and efficiency, when the situation has demanded change Di Canio has struggled to find a viable alternative. Which certainly suggests that ‘Plan B’ – the haphazard 343 of Wembley- has been rarely worked on. So the question remains does Di Canio use 442 because he believes that it works at this level or that division four players can only play 442?
At times he has also tried to jam square pegs into round holes, such as with Lukas Magera and perhaps Luke Rooney. Hypocritically Di Canio has pointed at this being a failing of Danny Wilson and Paul Hart. “I saw the likes of [Matt] Ritchie, [Paul] Caddis and [Simon] Ferry play last season. The problem was not that they did not play every game, but where they played and in what position… but if I judge the managers’ decisions at the time based on what I know I would say that they were mad.”
In Di Canio’s system each player has a defined position and a plan. It isn’t that invention has no place in his team, only in certain areas. No one dribbles in their own half and no one hits aimless balls into the channels-not if they wish to play again. But it isn’t that Town are utterly prosaic to watch, more that they are highly structured. It is an approach that has suited Roy Hodgson too, drilling his troops endlessly on shape and position. It has served him well at West Brom and Fulham, but when confronted with the tabloid fodder of Liverpool, it also became his great weakness. The same could be true of Di Canio when he meets those with bigger egos and trophy cabinets than his own.
Like Hodgson’s, Town’s approach at first is one of caution. Town compress their 442, keeping their shape, keeping the ball and waiting for chances. As the game progresses the gaps open allowing the wingers to operate further forward and one of his full-backs to attack in support of the wide-men. But Swindon are never cavalier and they don’t over-commit – so they rarely get hit on the break. Instead they defend as a unit and in numbers – especially at corners when everyone comes back to defend.
While Di Canio principles are attacking, he is also pragmatic – and typically Italian. As he told the Independent: “Obviously I’ve always said that I’ll try to play attractive football for this league. I want to win, attack with five players, but also not concede a goal.”
So despite the manager’s own flamboyance he places the emphasis on ball retention – or as much as is possible in a 442. “I’m never going to tell players not to try tricks, do their stuff, especially if they’re talented, but do it in the area, where it should be. It does not mean anything to do a backflick in midfield. Even Messi doesn’t do that. Do something incredible, special, but not where the risk is bigger of what can happen when you lose the ball for a stupid thing. I don’t want to stop their talent, but if it’s better to pass, pass.”
As a tactical approach, it is closer to that of Di Canio’s former manager Fabio Cappello, than perhaps he would care to admit. While Harry Redknapp might be the man who remains in Paolo’s BlackBerry but with Cappello’s belief in discipline, defensive solidity and fitting flair within a framework, the pair clearly think similarly. Both also tailor their team and tactics to suit and stifle, often putting stability ahead of creativity, just as when Cappello used a converted centre-back as a midfield destroyer. The only minor difference was that holding player was Marcel Desailly, not Oliver Risser.
If Di Canio’s man-management doesn’t quite seem to match his mentor, it is slightly better than the Leon Clarke incident suggests: Alan Connell and Raffa De Vita perform selflessly, despite being dropped numerous times. Also Risser has become a key member of the squad despite facing the difficultly of being dropped first from the team, then from the captaincy – and yet he has remained a willing servant. It’s remarkable journey to take a player on and expect them to be loyal, but Di Canio has managed it. Of course, that is if he wants you and if he doesn’t, as Clarke, Medhi Kerrouche, Etienne Esajas, Ibrahim Atiku and now Jonathan Tehoue have discovered, he is ruthless.
The question today is will his post-Aldershot outburst see other bigger names added to that list? Many will say that Di Canio should follow Sir Alex Ferguson’s example and keep things behind closed doors but that is to underestimate Di Canio’s savvy. He clearly understands the media and fans’ perception – hence his increasingly contrived post-match scarf waiving – but he also understands how to get a response to his rants, just as he did after the away game at Bristol Rovers. For, having been born a horse, Di Canio knows about pressure: “Too much confidence can be bad anyway. Too much expectation can put someone in trouble”.
So will we all one day see the same, calmer, controlled Di Canio that Paul Benson and the players have spoken about? It seems unlikely, according to Paolo. “I am a man who has to set a good example to my players. I am never going to lose my passion, even in the technical area because I am a passionate man and you need to send a message to your players with your advice.”