Luciano Spalletti: “The most important matches are still ahead”

Luciano Spalletti, FC Zenit head coach and winner of this year’s Russian Premier League and the Russian Cup, was a guest of Radio Zenit on Wednesday evening.

– How does it feel to be champion?
– To be champion in a city like this, in a club like Zenit means to be relaxes, to enjoy following how the fans celebrate. I feel great, looking at our fans' happiness. Football in St. Petersburg, like in Italy, is a large movement that takes in many people, lots of emotions, lots of passion! That’s why my feelings are a variation of the feelings that this whole movement feels now.

– We discussed a lot in this studio about who felt that Zenit would be champion and when. Radimov [Vyacheslav Radimov, former Zenit player and currently the team manager] said that he felt Zenit would be champion at the end of August. Was there any moment when you felt that you would definitely win first place?
– I felt it after the match with Rostov.

– I didn’t expect any other answer.
– Well, when I accepted the offer from Zenit to be coach, I thereby accepted a challenge – that I would win the league. The way each individual match takes place doesn’t change my opinion about my players. I know them a lot better now, but I knew them very well before too. Because I observed the players before I accepted the job… Every person has their own ideas in football, their own way of seeing football. It’s a mistake to base one’s strategy on the ideas of other people. You always have to base your strategy on your own way of seeing the game, on your own understanding of football. You have to watch football, and make your conclusions based on the way you understand this sport.

– What were the most unexpected congratulations that you received from Italy? Totti congratulated you on his website, for example.
– The pleasant congratulations came from the president of the Italian Football Federation, because he was really satisfied by the fact that we are exporting our brand, the brand of Italian football. And of course I enjoyed getting congratulations from the footballers back home.

– Was it hard to work with Totti and Cassano in Roma? How close are the stories about Totti to reality?
– When you work in such a big club as Roma, in a city like Rome, when so many things are happening around the team, when there are so many movements, then of course it’s really hard to work. And even if you say the most fair thing possible in Rome, you still only get the support of 51% of the people (laughs). I’m satisfied that I spent four years in Rome. That’s a long time considering that before I came there were five different head coaches. And those coaches that were fired included Cesare Prandelli, who coaches the national team now; Luigi Delneri, who now coaches Juventus; Rudi Voeller, who was an icon for Roma, and Bruno Conti… And when I first came to the club, everybody was betting not on the result of the matches, but on how long I would last at the head of Roma.

– Can you compare the function of Roman Shirokov in Zenit with any of the players in Roma when you worked there?
– De Rossi, Pisarro, Perotta, Brighi?... In terms of his characteristics, the way he sees football, he’s probably most similar to de Rossi. Pirotto was more a player who was like a second forward, who often attacks the space behind the backs of the defenders. Pisarro is a classic dispatcher who comes back to get the ball from the defenders, tries to gain control of the back, and manages the flow of the game. And Brighi and de Rossi are the ones like Shirokov, he’s more like them.

– I saw a list recently of the 20 best coaches in the world, and you were there too. A lot of coaches have their own idée fixe, their own “thing”. Ferguson doesn’t give interviews to the BBC, the Valencia coach Unai Emery makes a scandal if he sees his players drinking coffee before a match. Do you have any idée fixe like that?
– Ya, I have one too. I don’t like it when the footballers come home too early on a day off.

– What do you mean by that?
– Well, I mean that every coach has their own rules. Footballers need to have fun sometimes, they’re young guys after all! We all have to understand that the players have their own style, that they’re all young, and we need to recognize their mannerisms. We have our own rules in my club which the players set themselves. We did so that the players respect one another within the club. But there’s one very important detail – as the season has gone on I’ve noticed that my players always have a lot of respect for other people that we meet during our travels, and for new places that we visit. It’s one of the most correct teams I’ve ever seen in my life as a coach. There are a lot more things that I like about this team than things I don't like. So my answer to your question was my attempt to do something out of the ordinary (for example, saying that all players have to be home by 10 p.m., for example). So when you're young, you’ve got to live the way your age allows you to.

– What led to the cardinal changes in the team’s play at the end of August and the beginning of September? Many journalists thought that the Petersburg club played dry, Italian football for nine months, aiming for low scores all the time, to put pressure on goal right at the end of the match, or to score right off the bat, then defend. Then when Alves came to the team the scores started to be 4:2, 3:2, 3:3...
– Those aren’t changes, that’s evolution! The team just understood the concepts better that we’ve been developing all season. And then the team got the opportunity to show itself better thanks to its better understanding of those concepts. Those changes can't depend on one individual player, because the team mentality plays the most important role.

– Zenit spent record amounts on the transfer window both last winter and this summer. What qualities does a player need to have to be able to play for Spalletti?
– (Laughs.) Ya, that’s true that we spent some money in the transfer window… And if you want to count how much money CSKA and Rubin and Spartak spent at the same time, then you’ll see that Zenit spent less than some of these clubs.

– I was more interested in the qualities of the player.
– I like players who can add to what the team has at the current moment. As for players, of course I want to have players who are ready to run a lot, who are ready to fight, who are ready to fight, and who have good skills and the right physical structure, because that’s very important in this league. A fundamental thing is that the players should think about how to work in a team. And those players who think they are great players, who can solve all the team’s problems all by themselves… they’re too good for us. We need players who can solve their own tasks, not one guy who solves everyone’s tasks.

– You’ve seen all the stadiums in the Premier League besides Central Stadium in Kazan. Maybe something struck you, something surprised you? A lot of people speak about the similarity in football infrastructure in Italy and Russia.
– As for infrastructure, things could be better here. There’s a lot that can be improved here. Things are a little better in Italy.

– Next season is going to last a year and-a-half. Are you doing anything in particular to prepare?
– Naturally we’re not preparing our work for the whole year. We work in mini cycles. Naturally, in the first month and-a-half of pre-season preparation we'll work really hard, because the footballers need to remember everything, and their muscles have to adapt to the stress. We’ll prepare in mini-cycles, because the dates of matches can change from week to week, and we have to be ready for that.

– Already now people are asking about the team's motivation for next season, because you’ve lifted expectations to a new level.
– Besides the fact that I won some matches, I also lost some games. We need to improve certain things in those places where we worked poorly. And what, if you play a good season, then you can just stop playing? Whatever happened in the past has no meaning. What happened, happened. The future is what’s important in football. The most important match in football is the one you’ve got ahead.

– How did your family, your mom congratulate you?
– They were really happy. They called me, congratulated me. Our family is very tied to traditions. And that’s why each person in the family really cares about everyone else, and is happy when the other family members have success. When my mom goes to the store to buy groceries (laughs), the salesman says to her: “Hey, you’re Spalletti’s mom! He just won the championship!” And everybody asks her if its cold here? (Laughs.)

– Who among your players would you like to see be three years younger?
– I think that this year all our players were really great, so if I answer your question then I’ll have to say that some players are worse than the others, and I wouldn’t want to do that. We have older players, like Semak, Krizanac, and Alves… We’ve got players like that, but I think that none of my players will have any trouble playing another two years here.