Exclusive Interview: Eusebio Di Francesco - the man making history with Sassuolo
Sassuolo’s rise to Europa League qualification has been a remarkable one. A club that had never even featured in Italy’s top-flight as recently as three years ago overcame an Athletic Club side well versed at that level comfortably to win 3-0 in their first game in the tournament. It was the latest achievement of a manager that has deservingly drawn admiring glances from a number of the continent’s top clubs, and even the Italian national side.
Winning the Serie B title in his first season at Sassuolo in 2012/13, Eusebio Di Francesco has taken a club focused on improving from within and homegrown talent to unimaginable heights in such a short space of time. The 47-year old former Azzurri international midfielder spoke exclusively with Emanuele Giulianelli on behalf of WhoScored.com on the European adventure this season, the limitations that he has to work within to ensure success and the future of Italian football, as well as his own…
Ending the season with four consecutive victories, how did it feel to earn Sassuolo a place in Europe on the final day of the campaign?
There are no secrets. I think it was the hard work done previously that led us to get to that point of the season in great mental and physical condition. Then we got to a point where we knew that four wins could give us this great chance. When we arrived at that point we thought it was possible, sure, but there were teams above us, both in terms of reputation and individual quality of the players better placed than us. We, from my point of view, were more of a team.
Do you think that resolving your future at the club had a part in the strong finish to last season, giving everyone a boost?
I think so: this act of showing faith in a coach was very important in order to give a clear message to the team. It's a great stimulus for the players to know that the next year there will be the same coach. It is unconscious, because each of us is a professional, but it was still a great show of strength, both on my part and that of the club, giving continuity to the project.
How difficult a decision was it to extend your contract at Sassuolo despite reported interest from some of Italy’s biggest clubs and even the national team?
I do not remember. I just know that I signed with Sassuolo: the rest does not matter to me.
Now playing in the Europa League, how has your job changed?
It has changed because you have less time to prepare for games: you have to make the most of every moment, even those five extra minutes you have during a workout, you can use them to work on both defensive solutions and offensive. This has been a limitation, but at the same time it is a great pleasure to do because it means that we have done something important. For everyone, including me as a coach, it’s big news. What we are using now is the great enthusiasm that we have for this adventure. Without fearing anyone, with great respect for all the teams, but without fear. And I must say that so far this attitude and this mentality have borne fruit.
Now that you are travelling around Europe, what can you say about this period of Italian football?
It is a period when the state of Italian football is in big trouble. We have been far below, in terms results, what we used to achieve, when we obtained important victories in continental competitions. In recent years only Juventus have had the prestige of reaching a Champions League final. At the moment we are a bit behind the other like-minded European nations, although it is known that we are improving again: even Sassuolo.
What is the mentality needed to compete in these important competitions for a team like Sassuolo?
We'll try to give our best in every match. It’s wrong to say if we will focus more on the league or more on the Europa League because you could do well, but also poorly in both competitions. So we have to try to prepare in the right way for every game, trying to make the most of the rotation of the squad, although at this time I do not have everyone available.
For me it is exciting to take to the field and see the team play in a certain way. I love my job: it's nice when you see mature players. For me it is a source of great pride to see them grow.
The fact that the newspapers write that we are more cynical and less spectacular is a sign of maturity: it means that we are growing. Playing at the same level with such great clubs is what excites me the most.
You lost Sime Vrsaljko this summer having played a key role to earn the third highest rating for the club from WhoScored.com last season. How big a blow was his departure and do you think you have adequate cover?
I think Vrsaljko became a great player here. At first he was a good player with many defects, but he deserved the chance to go to Atletico Madrid, which is one of the top five clubs in Europe and works extremely hard on the pitch. We have not replaced him with a big name, but we’re trying to develop another footballer, Lirola, who has only had experience with Juventus’ Primavera. He made his debut in the Europa League in an excellent manner, both in Belgrade and against Bilbao: do not forget that he is a boy, only born in 1997. We, as club policy, focus more on the development of players rather than those that have already developed.
Sassuolo and yourself have been praised for having faith in homegrown talent, fielding just four non-Italian nationals last season. How important do you feel this is in terms of building a strong chemistry in the group?
We have experienced players like Gazzola, who is our soldier, and that is important to help the younger players. If our resources remain as they are then this will remain our policy but, when targeting young players, you must also be prepared for defeats and difficult times. Other teams, however, that take players that are fully formed, may have more guarantees.
So right now we cannot compete in that sense. Of course, anything can happen. But at the moment we are below other clubs, both financially and in the players we can attract. We take players who are from the lower leagues and, when they arrive in Serie A, inevitably have to adapt. I do not see Roma, Inter and Juventus’ owners put faith in a player from Serie B so, in these conditions, we cannot compare ourselves to these teams. If I trained a team that focuses on young players that are already very strong I would take them, but when you're in Sassuolo you know you have to focus on younger players that aren’t as developed: then you have to train them.
What about the most well-known Sassuolo player, Domenico Berardi?
Berardi, for me, has been ready for a great team for two years, but it is a matter of opinion. If I had coached a great team two years ago, I would have taken him. It's too easy to see when a player is worth 10 million, it is obvious to everyone; yet I have been criticized for having faith in him even when he has not been in the best of form. But there was talent in him and I am convinced that negative experiences are crucial to the growth of players.
You were a very good player yourself in your day: is there anyone today that reminds you of the midfielder Eusebio Di Francesco?
I was good going forward and going back to help defence. Perhaps Lorenzo Pellegrini has these features, but he still has to work to mature and improve in terms of his personality. But in perspective he has the same qualities.
Your son Federico is now playing in Serie A with Bologna: how do you rate him? And would you work with him?
He’s a good winger, and has grown a lot mentally: from a technical point of view, he has always had the quality, but not always the mental strength to express it. From that point of view he has improved a lot. I would coach him, but I cannot: I think that for the overall balance of a dressing room, knowing how it works, I would say no. I like that the lads to have the serenity to think that I select a side based on what I see in training rather than any bias towards certain players.
If the opportunity were to present itself later in your career is international management a field you could still be interested to explore?
I would love to try and gain more experience abroad rather than just in Italy first. In terms of the footballing ideals I would say Spain; England would be exciting, but for the context I would also like to work in the German league. To see full stadiums, the families, the mentality, it is a source of great excitement for those who work there. In Italy we should take lessons from other models in order to grow. We should start looking at the British model, the German one.
How impressed have you been with the work of Di Francesco and Sassuolo? Let us know in the comments below
Would love to see what Sassuolo can achieve with Berardi at his best for the whole season. They need him back from injury asap
He's done a remarkable job with Sassuolo. a big job awaits. Maybe in Spain by the sound of things