It was difficult to know what to make of Walter Mazzarri on first impression. That was always going to be the case when he exclusively used an interpreter.
It’s also difficult to judge him without looking through the prism of Quique Sanchez Flores’ reign. Sanchez Flores would walk in (usually late) and light up a room. Mazzarri is more likely to light up a cigarette than bowl people over with his charisma. He was more formally dressed than Sanchez Flores, turning up in a well cut, dark blue Italian suit and his hair brushed back. Sanchez Flores was a ringer for Hugh Laurie. Mazzarri is Alec Baldwin’s doppelganger.
Mazzarri’s entourage is certainly Hollywood. Of the nine members of staff, both coaching and technical, he has been allowed to bring with him, Antonio Finco and Giuseppe Santoro were in tow yesterday. Santoro is his manager, a technical consultant, and he sat at the back of the Vicarage Road media suite yesterday, observing from a distance. His role is clearly quite broad as he was also making the substitutions against Union Berlin.
Finco’s Twitter bio states he’s an ‘assistant to the head coach’. He had a press list in his hand yesterday and discreetly sought clarification, from a fellow club employee, as to the identity of Mazzarri’s inquisitor every time a new question was posed. He filmed Ben Watson’s interview with the press after the game at Queens Park Rangers and, after yesterday’s press conference, followed most of the journalists in attendance on Twitter. He’s either really thorough and keen to build media relations or there is an element of paranoia in the air. Perhaps even a bit of both. He spoke to us afterwards about a beef he and Mazzarri had with a journalist in Italy over the reporting of the head coach’s time at Inter.
The appointment of Finco complements a media team that stands at five full-time members and at least another three consultants / part-time employees. In fact, the number of club staff there yesterday, excluding Mazzarri, totalled ten, which was only five less than the number of press there. There was one filming the whole event, another fiddling with a GoPro, one to tell you Mazzarri was going to be on time, another making notes and one taking pictures. Another sat back and just observed. They had every base covered and then some.
The most important man was the translator, Lorenzo Libutti. He initially joined the club in a commercial capacity in a business development role but he’s since risen to play a prominent role on the football administration side of things. His title is International Player Liaison Officer, and he, among other things, helps new players find accommodation and uses his linguistic ability (he speaks English, Italian, Spanish and basic Chinese Mandarin) to overcome any language barrier. He facilitated interviews for us last season with Jose Manuel Jurado and Miguel Britos. Now here he was, on the top table, charged with the task of conveying the inner thoughts of the main man on his right in what was his maiden appearance in front of the often unforgiving English press. He did a good job. He’s a nice guy.
Mazzarri won’t be able to rely and lean on Libutti all season. He’ll need to stand on his own two feet soon and start conducting his press conferences in the language of the country where he works. One club employee agreed that he really should be doing so by Christmas. If he doesn’t, then he’ll either have to let results do the talking or the interest in, and goodwill towards, Watford among the media will wear thin. The narrative of the Premier League is based around the managers, the head coaches. They are the protagonists. They are the people the stories are written around, they are the subject of the headlines. Watford need a figurehead, someone at the front of house.
“Hello to everyone,” Mazzarri started by saying. “I want to say to introduce myself to all of you. I’m very happy to be here.”
It was a nice sentiment but we reckon it would have gone a long way if he had delivered that part in English. It was clear he understood most of what was being asked of him but he proceeded to answer every question thereafter in Italian, albeit thoroughly. Mauricio Pochettino hid behind a translator at Southampton but one of the apparent pre-requisites of him taking the job at Tottenham was the need to conduct his interviews in English.
Mazzarri was quizzed on a range of subjects yesterday. He was asked about the influx of Italian managers in the Premier League.
“I know there are great Italian managers in the Premier League,” he said. “Some of the best managers in the world are here in the Premier League.”
One thing that was abundantly clear was that Mazzarri was at Wembley to watch Watford in the FA Cup semi-final, backing up the theory he was lined up long before Quique Sanchez Flores knew his fate. You can’t blame the club. They would be criticised if they didn’t have someone else in place yet would stand accused of being underhand if they did.
“It was beautiful to see the fans clapping after the defeat [against Palace],” said Mazzarri who knows he has some pretty big shoes to fill this season. “I am not aware how popular he [Quique] was but it doesn’t change anything. I respect the great season he did.”
Sanchez Flores benefitted from a fairly gentle start, opening games against Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Southampton, Swansea, Newcastle and Bournemouth allowing him time to bed in his plan and win the trust and belief of his players. Games against Southampton, Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham Manchester United and Burnley, who will be pumped up under the scorned Sean Dyche, mean Mazzarri is not afforded that luxury.
“I know we have a very difficult start but it also means I am very curious about how to cope and fight against these teams,” he said. “I am a very positive person. We will see how it goes on the pitch. I don’t feel the pressure. Actually, the pressure motivates me. It makes me work even harder.”
There is a theory Sanchez Flores became too complacent after the heady win over Liverpool and that complacency transmitted itself to his players. Mazzarri is more intense, coaching with more of an iron fist than a velvet glove.
“I am a manager that thinks 24 hours on the players,” he said. “I consider myself the boss of the group. For me, it is very important there are some rules, that there is mutual respect in the group. Victory comes from these principles and respect of the roles, I’m like the father of the family. It’s like a father-son relationship.”
Mazzarri was keen to stress the strength of his CV, one that saw him take Napoli to heights they only previously scaled when Diego Maradona was around.
“I’ve been in football for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been in the Champions League and the Europa League. I’ve played against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. When I’ve done well it has been against these teams.”
He’s also got a decent track record of getting the best out of the strikers he’s worked with, of harnessing their talent. Edinson Cavani’s best haul was 14 until Mazzarri got hold of him. By the time they finished working together Cavani had scored 104 in 138 games.
“Thank you for noticing this [my work with strikers like Cavani],” he said. “People tend to forget it. I like to work individually with each player. All the forwards I have worked with all beat their own individual records. This comes because there is lots of hard work. This comes with time.”
Time is in short supply at Watford. Six coaches in two seasons is testament to that. Mazzarri says he smokes to help cope with the pressure of top-level football management. His CV is good, particularly his spell at Reggina who he kept up comfortably despite a points deduction. He talks a good game too, albeit in Italian. Let’s just hope it’s not all smoke and mirrors.