An open conversation with the Serie A coach Gian Piero Gasperini on coaching, training and team management in order to share invaluable advice with Wyscout Blog readers.
Let’s start with beginning a career as a coach. How does someone start out in this profession?
“There’s no set path. You can start in the youth sector, in a first team, you can start from low or high categories. The history of coaches is very varied: some have a straightforward path, others have to take many turns before they make it. For me, the youth sector has been a great training ground.”
What else is important when starting out?
“It’s also important to bear in mind that coaching is not like playing. It’s not necessarily the case that someone who played can coach, it’s not such an immediate transition. It’s an entirely different profession, with different challenges. It requires a character with an underpinning willingness to impart something.”
Do many get lost along the way?
“To start with, I didn’t think I would coach. I wanted to continue with football, yes, but I was happy training youths and passing on my experience. It never crossed my mind to work with professionals. It’s something that happened over time. My ambition was educational, related to my passion for football, but it was also a way to put myself to the test. It was the delight of being with the kids, being on the pitch. Your first problem is didactic. You ask yourself: ‘What do I do? What kinds of drills? What do I want to teach?’ It’s about progress, a study of yourself. Initially you have to create your working method based on the ability and potential of the kids you have, and this is something that already pushes you to be prepared. It’s not instinct. If you have kids of a certain age, based on that you have to adapt to their emotional, physical, and athletic level.”
Did you ever take inspiration from any models?
“From the very start my models were professional ones. Even if some kinds of training are applicable, the ability changes, but the same exercise can be used with both professional and young players. I didn’t only want to impart what I had received in my youth either, because systems and knowledge evolve over time. So, I started to prepare.”
“There are important preparation courses. You enter a system that is different to the player’s world, you work on your own training. Even there it can be varied, however, and not only tactical. Tactics are often what we’re most passionate about, but they’re not the only important aspect, even less so for young players. This stage contributes to creating your own method, but it’s still a truly different world. Behind the individual and collective aspect: you have 11 players and the reserves, you have to study them, but yourself as well.”
Are there necessary steps to becoming a coach?
“I feel that the transfer capacity, with both young players and the first team, is fundamental; transferring your ideas and training to your players, making them noticeable in your formation.
About transferring… Is it necessary to transfer your own playing model to the team, or adapt it to the characteristics of the players?
“I think it’s necessary to start with what you have. I don’t think that a coach can add more to the players, but rather get the best out of their abilities. We mustn’t think that a coach can transform normal players into great champions, because the greatest success is getting the very best out of their characteristics. To do this, it’s important to work with the person, to have something that connects you. And then repeat this process for the 25 people that make up the formation. There are coaches who have based their success on tactical ability, others on communication.”
There’s no single method to follow. Quite the opposite.
“There are examples of winning coaches with highly different methods: some train a lot on the pitch, some focus on other aspects. What’s important is establishing a transfer, something that shows on the pitch, because in the end everything is measured against one single factor: the result, which determines if a coach is good or not. Even if I don’t really think like that, I believe that the greatest success in achieving your own objective, which is not only winning the championship but transferring something, creating a positive atmosphere in the team. The result isn’t necessarily victory, but the best of your objectives: growth. It’s necessary to set your sights on possible objectives, ones not too high nor too easy, otherwise, you run the risk of always being disappointed. For those of us who love football, it’s a great feeling to find satisfaction in coaching; it has to be something that doesn’t weigh you down. The effort itself can be satisfying. It’s really important to create a team spirit.”
What’s your understanding of the concept of ‘team’?
“For me, it’s important to have an atmosphere where everyone reasons with the same head, where there’s altruism, availability, the desire to achieve results together. But I’ll also say that in football there have been examples of teams where fights and disagreements were the order of the day, and they still achieved results. It’s the variety of football. Certain behaviours in certain environments work well, with other people, they don’t. The coach makes decisions, and as such, is subject to criticism and impatience. As are parents, teachers. Then in the professional world, there are economic interests: there are relations with management, the public, the media. The situation is so complex that it would be presumptuous to say: ‘Okay, this is how you do it.’ Results are achieved through various paths.”
Football, with all its variables, is one of the most complicated systems to measure.
“Since I cannot control everything, by nature I tend to place a lot of importance on professionalism, on the 105×68, the rectangle of play. Simply because the rest cannot be controlled, whereas there I feel like I have more of an influence. But this is part of my disposition. I admire coaches who have given less weight to this aspect and still achieved great results. By nature, I’m more technical: I take shelter on the pitch, even if I recognise the importance of the rest. Therefore, my attention is focused on a problem that we might have on the pitch, on a technical, athletic or attitude issue. Meanwhile I am deliberately less attentive to other aspects.”
How long does it take to build a team identity?
«Not too long. The problem is always influenced by the result: if it’s there, it helps you. Especially if you enter a new team. It’s important to learn the characteristics of your players and ask what they find rewarding. In football, the group is distinguished by roles, players must think about their role in relation to the team, their teammate; the roles do count. But, all the players have to feel rewarded by what they do, not just whoever scores goals. So you create a virtuous circle. Since there are eleven players and the roles are varied, there are always uncertainties, and you still have to create a team. Everything happening around you goes against this concept, football, par excellence, is the sport of excuses. ‘Why did you play badly?’, ‘I wasn’t in position’, or ‘Because my teammate made a bad pass’… When you remove some of the excuses, you’re moving forward. Coaching is a little like cooking: if you want to bake a nice cake, you need the right ingredients. Only here you can’t weigh them, you have to know “how much”. So it’s your job to create the right mixture. It’s a hard battle, there’s no reprieve, you don’t go home and switch off. There’s always something you need to do, improve, you have to find balance. It’s some challenge.”
Just like the world of communication.
“You have to be careful there. At professional level, communication is another aspect to manage. There are some who are better from this point of view, others who are not. Nowadays, it’s a determining factor, much more than it was in the past… It’s what allows you that additional credit.”
We commissioned researchers from the University of Pisa for unprecedented research on a team’s invasion index, to understand how dangerous play and ball possession are. The Invasion Index is based on the premise that a team’s ball possession is often “sterile” if it occurs far from the opponent’s goal. The researchers then studied a team’s capacity to play close to the opponent’s goal, attributing a different weight to each area of the pitch based on its dangerousness (probability of scoring). They took Atalanta and Manchester United’s last season and studied the frequency of ball possession. Atalanta invaded the opponent’s area more often and with greater acceleration than Mourinho’s team. Not bad…
“There’s a lot of research around football, we’re surrounded by numbers, but there are few we value, those that give us a significant parameter. For example, they depend on the kind of game. Sometimes we forget to consider that often it is the opponent who sets the rhythm, so it’s not always the case that if you ran or worked less, it’s a symptom of the match. In general, certain parameters are an indicator of good conditions, of course, but it’s not always true that they have anything to do with performance. Some numbers are significant, others are in evolution, so it’s very difficult to create a match concept through numbers alone.”
You prepare a lot with videos.
“For me, working with videos is fantastic. Wyscout has raised the didactic, progressive and methodological level of training. The videos are convenient, but there’s still selection work to be done. There’s no deception in the video: that’s what it is. It forces you to face reality. It’s a big help for the coach because it’s not an opinion, it’s not an act of convincing. The times, spaces and distances can be seen and it’s a great way to improve, by working in contact with the player. It’s useful for the coach’s credibility, and to convince the player. If players are not convinced by a situation, it’s difficult to get it across to them. Instead, they see it and have the chance to correct it and improve. It has also sped up scouting times. Now you watch players, and if you want, go to see them play. It was a strong demand from everyone. We were the first to use it at Genoa in 2006. Now it gets everyone excited; you even show it to an amateur coach and he’s impressed because it’s the essence of football.
Monitoring videos mean preparation.
“There was a time when people thought it wasn’t useful to see how an opponent played. They thought it was only important to express their own play, which is slightly risky as a theory. At the time, it was even difficult to watch your opponents, but now you know them well. Perhaps you remove some of the surprises, but it forces you to be better prepared. Staff numbers have increased for analysing videos, as well as for scouting, but with lower costs.”
Let’s talk about data. Using the Rankings tool on the Wyscout platform, we analysed the values of Atalanta and Borussia Dortmund in their respective championships. It could be an interesting way to prepare for the next challenge that awaits you in the Europa League.
“They’re useful numbers for framing the match. For example, if they’re top in the Bundesliga because of accurate passes, it’s a good indication, it means that they’re a team with technical quality. Looking at the shots on goal statistics, I can gather that they’re very dangerous in the finishing phase. If I go to see the numbers for each individual, I can understand that maybe that player is better at scoring a second goal rather than another player less dangerous at a shot. In general, to prepare for the match I prefer to focus on the videos. I would find it more difficult to come up with countermeasures from some numbers, in certain cases they need to be interpreted.”
About that. Interpreting an ongoing match is another fundamental factor for a coach.
“Reading the match is another ability, for a coach to foresee his team’s difficult moment and correct it, or find an opponent’s weakness, this is also part of the strategy… Sometimes a substitution fires up a player, sometimes not”.
Do you adapt more to the opponent or try to impose your own play?
“This is a characteristic, too. It depends on many factors: the opponent, your players, the result, if you’re satisfied or not. Are you happy with a draw? Do you want to win? You’re winning, but how can you maintain the advantage? Many times I’ve wanted to make a substitution to change something because the squad was in trouble, and I conceded a goal before the ball had gone out. Then I wonder if I had made the change, would I have lost that goal? But that happens, too. It’s still experience. I would say that the next step is to control the energies that we don’t know how to contain. Take Atalanta for example…”
Let’s hear it.
“Last year, we found ourselves competing in a championship final that brought us 37 points and fourth place. We had an energy inside that allowed us to win games that we also could have lost, because the others had also accumulated goal opportunities, but you felt something heavy inside, so how do I quantify that? In that moment you were winning games, because it was a truly strong feeling. Yet if I go and rewatch the games, there were risky moments. They’ll call it “luck” or “misfortune”, but how do you weigh these factors? When teams have a goal then find themselves detached and lose the chance, Inter and Roma were at the top until a few weeks ago, then they lost something and stopped there. It happens to many teams. And you lose 10 points in a month. How do you solve this, how do you manage it? There are still other components, other than statistics and videos.”
It’s a question of atmosphere.
“I really believe in a positive atmosphere. Another example: we’re going to play Milan at the San Siro and we’re on equal points. They’re disappointed by the rankings, we’re really satisfied. The points are the same, but the point of view changes. These are most of the other components, but since I can’t control them, I rely greatly on tactics… There’s also superstition. I’ve taken myself away from all kinds of superstition to avoid going mad. So, if you ask me, I believe in the pitch. Words don’t matter for a team’s communication, sight is important: visual communication is fundamental, we can understand one another with one glance and I know how you’ll pass the ball to me. It’s a synchronicity created over time, not from day one. We play together and I know if you prefer the ball on your right, left, in full run. Those are ways you play that might determine a goal, a result. So it becomes a technical thing and I like that a lot.”