When Walter Mazzarri arrived for talks and to be shown around Watford’s training ground few would’ve batted an eye. Italian visitors are fairly common down at London Colney. Usually they’re agents, scouts or businessmen who are waiting to speak to Gino Pozzo, Scott Duxbury or a player.
In that sense Mazzarri was no different. He had a meeting scheduled with Watford’s owner and chief executive. But what they had to discuss was far more important than the run-of-the-mill conversations that take place throughout the week at a football club. The 54-year-old was there to hold talks about taking over from Quique Sanchez Flores. It is he who Watford’s hierarchy believe can take the club to the next level in the Premier League.
Hornets fans, we imagine, have since hit the internet to try and find out more about the Italian who, it was announced today, has signed a three-year contract to become head coach of Watford.
A brief glance at his managerial history is fairly encouraging. But there is always more to a manager than simple results, league positions and statistics. And, as we’ve found out this week, there is a lot more to Mazzarri that meets the eye.
“He is a hard worker who is focused on his job all the time,” Aurelio Capaldi, who works for Italian sports channel Rai Sport, told us. “He only thinks about football, he doesn’t seem to have many other interests. “Your first impression is that he is a quiet, calm and shy man but he has an ego. He thinks he is very, very good and wants his work to be recognised.”
Perhaps that is because, as a player, his career was distinctly unremarkable. Mazzarri was a midfielder who spent most of his career flitting between clubs in Serie B.
It’s why, when Mazzarri retired in the mid-1990s, he had to start his coaching career at the bottom. He worked almost every non-playing role you can have at a club, from opposition scout, chief scout, goalkeeping coach, first-team coach, assistant coach and, eventually, head coach.
“He always stresses he worked his way to the top,” respected Italian football journalist James Horncastle, who works for the Guardian and BT Sport, told us. “He makes sure people know nothing was given to him on a plate.”
It wasn’t until 2001 that Mazzarri landed his first managerial role. He spent a season in charge of Acireale in Serie C2 and a year with Pistoiese in Serie C1 before joining Serie B side Livorno in 2003. He guided the club to promotion, the first time they’d reached the Italian top flight since the 1940s.
Mazzarri’s stock was rising in his home country. He left Livorno after one season for Reggina, who at the start of 2006, had been handed an 11-point penalty for their involvement in match-fixing. The club was expected to go down. Nobody gave them a chance.
“He did something sensational at this club,” Capaldi explains. “To achieve what he did that season should never be forgotten.”
Horncastle adds: “Some of the jobs he has done with teams that are not extremely prestigious are minor miracles. Reggina is the best example of that.”
Mazzarri spent three seasons with Reggina before embarking on a two-year spell with Sampdoria, where he would guide the team into Europe and a Coppa Italia final, which they eventually lost on penalties to Lazio.
He left the club at the end of the 2008-09 season by mutual consent. Mazzarri waited patiently for his next role and in October 2009 took charge at Napoli.
Capaldi says. “Napoli was perfect for him. I believe he is a good manager but only for a certain kind of job. Napoli were a team that needed Mazzarri’s football. He prefers one system, 3-5-2, and wants everyone to know their jobs. He likes to have certainties in the team, players who will follow instructions.”
Horncastle adds: “His football isn’t the most entertaining and it certainly isn’t always easy on the eye. Yet at Napoli they did play thrilling counter attacking football at times with Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani.
“Napoli weren’t a consistent force until Mazzarri rocked up. When he took charge they were 15th but he got them to sixth place. From there they built quickly and reached the Champions League for the first time in their history. He made sure they qualified again in his final season. When he left he had his pick of clubs.”
Mazzarri opted for Internazionale, commonly known as Inter Milan. He could’ve taken charge at Roma but the challenge of restoring Inter to their form glories was one he couldn’t turn down. Napoli’s president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, wasn’t too happy: “Our marriage was split in two,” he said of Mazzarri’s departure. “You can use money to convince a wife to stay with you, but if the wife wants to sleep with another man, then she will sleep with another man.”
Mazzarri’s first season at Inter was mixed. They finished fifth, an improvement on ninth prior to his arrival, and secured Europa League football. But cracks were appearing. Inter fans were unhappy with his style of football and, after a promising start to the 2014-15 season quickly faded, Mazzarri was sacked for the first time in over ten years as a manager.
“At a big club you have to be able to seduce the players to your way of thinking,” Capaldi says. “Mazzarri didn’t manage to do so. Instead of handling the situation in a relaxed way he became nervous because people were criticising him and things went from bad to worse. He didn’t handle it like a top manager.”
James Richardson on The Guardian Football Weekly Podcast backed up that line of thinking: “He blamed everyone but himself, continually got the formation wrong, played completely uninspiring football and the fans didn’t miss him at all.”
Horncastle, however, has more sympathy for the man Watford will hope can take them beyond 13th place in the Premier League next season.
“The expectations are so high at Inter that it’s difficult for anyone to take charge,” Horncastle says. “Roberto Mancini is finding that out now. The side which won the treble under Jose Mourinho was never truly rebuilt. It’s why Mazzarri was the sixth head coach there in three years when he took over. But things just didn’t work out for him. He got more and more desperate and even blamed the rain for a defeat. That was a low point.”
Mazzarri left Inter in November 2014 and has been out of work since, although he is being paid by the club until his contract expires this summer. There have been unconfirmed reports in Italy that Mazzarri, who has the same agent as former Watford manager Gianluca Vialli, has spent time living in Manchester over the past 18 months in an effort to learn English – he was spotted at Manchester City’s game against Aston Villa at the end of last season.
But he has largely stayed off the radar. It’s why few would’ve recognised him when he arrived at London Colney last week. So what can he bring to Watford? It’s a question you imagine Pozzo and Duxbury asked the Italian.
Capaldi says: “He will be very motivated because his reputation has suffered a lot while he has been away from football. It hasn’t been easy for him “The Pozzo family know him well. He will be anxious to come back and work. I think he is at the same level as Quique, to be honest. He isn’t a joker. He is serious and a bit touchy, in certain players’ opinions. He isn’t the funniest guy around. It will be interesting to see how he takes on this situation in a new country because he doesn’t have any international experience. He’s only worked in Italy, so that might be difficult for him.”
“He is definitely less handsome and less charismatic than Flores,” Horncastle adds. “And I don’t think he’ll be as engaging a person to listen to by any stretch. But he’ll know the Pozzo model well and will understand it. He’ll know they like to source young talent, give them a stage to shine on and then sell them on at a big mark-up. Quique didn’t really do that with the likes of [Steven] Berghuis and [Obbi] Oulare. One thing Mazzarri has proven he can do is to get strikers scoring goals even if the rest of the team aren’t pretty on the eye. He’s done it everywhere he’s been. He was the man who turned Cavani into a 25 to 30 goal a season striker. The Pozzos know plenty about football and they know Mazzarri. When you look at his CV, has always improved the teams he has managed. Watford will hope he does the same.”
This feature first appeared in our paper on Thursday.