Coaching prodigy Motta faces his biggest test as Genoa meet Sarri’s Juventus
If you wanted to design the perfect course for an elite manager, you could scarcely assemble a better, more rounded ensemble of teachers than these: Louis van Gaal for lessons on team structure, Jose Mourinho on defending a lead, and Frank Rijkaard on gaining one, stylishly. Some Carlo Ancelotti on man-management, some Rafa Benitez on the importance of detailed planning.
Add a Antonio Conte masterclass on firing up a dressing-room, Pep Guardiola on the mechanics of pass-andmove and the student should emerge with a doctorate in management.
A privileged base, then, for Thiago Motta, whose playing career began with Guardiola as his captain, and, through the next 17 years, took instructions from all those greats.
Motta is 37 and tonight, at Juventus, he oversees his second match as manager of Genoa – his first senior coaching stint. What he achieved on his debut would be envied by any of his fine teachers.
Genoa, in the Serie A relegation zone, were 1-0 down at half time on Saturday to Brescia. Motta, who had had three days to get to know his players, looked as his substitutes and picked three to turn the tide.
Boldly, he told Kevin Agudelo, the young Colombian midfielder, to go on at half time, which meant a tactical rejig, a back three to a four. It was Agudelo’s Genoa debut.
Thirteen minutes later, he summoned Goran Pandev, 36, to support the attack. Still a goal down, Motta then made his last throw of the dice: Christian Kouame, the 21-year-old centre-forward, came on, with 25 minutes to go. Bingo! Kouame immediately thumped a header against the Brescia crossbar.
A minute later Agudelo equalised with a handsome left-foot strike. Next, it was Kouame’s turn, the Ivorian putting Genoa ahead with a spectacular volley.
On 79 minutes, Kouame picked out Pandev’s run and the veteran arched an angled effort across the goalkeeper for 3-1. Three subs, all on the scoresheet: unprecedented in Italy’s top division.
“It’s a nice record,” Motta said with a smile. And as all good managers should, he deflected the praise.
“Everyone was good. We showed a lot of heart in the second half. Most of what I have done is to work off the pitch, getting to know the players.” He had learned, he said, how “brave” they are.
Genoa’s unpredictable directors were seen as brave – or foolhardy – to have taken on such an inexperienced manager to rescue a season that, under Aurelio Andreazzoli, had yielded five points from eight games.
Motta only retired as a player last year, after six seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, and spent 2018/19 coaching PSG’s Under 19s.
There he left clues about an innovative outlook, making headlines by telling Gazzetta dello Sport about his concept of a ‘2-7-2’ formation.
What he meant is that it is equally valid to look at tactical line-ups reading from left to right, rather than back to front (where 4-3-3 always means four defenders, three in midfield, three in attack). And he hadn’t got his maths wrong: In the seven-man spine of his ‘2-7-2’, he included the ball-playing goalkeeper.
Motta certainly knows the game from all angles. Born in Brazil, of Italian heritage, he was nurtured at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, and came into the first-team squad when their strategist was Guardiola.
He served under Van Gaal at Camp Nou and was part of Barca’s Champions League winning run under Rijkaard. He won the treble under Mourinho at Internazionale, a Club World Cup with Inter under Benitez, and Ligue 1 with PSG under Ancelotti.
He knows setback as well: there was a phase of off-field disciplinary problems as a young player and battles with injury. He redefined himself as a footballer.
The dashing midfielder evolved into a tough enforcer at PSG and with Conte’s Italy.
In between Barcelona and a resurgence at Inter, he had a successful season at Genoa, so knows their managers tend not to stay long. His appointment is Genoa’s eighth change in the last six-and-a-half years.
Tonight, Motta is thrust straight into the toughest assignment of any Serie A manager, a trip to Juventus.
The champions and league leaders, though, are still finessing their relationship with their innovative manager Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri, the epitome of the self-taught manager, never played under famous coaches and when he was Motta’s age was still working in a bank and managing lower-division clubs part time.
But he rose through the ranks thanks to a compelling vision, and now has that rare coaching endorsement, a style named after him.
It is known as “Sarriball”. Motta will need more than supersub instincts to halt it.
Genoa manager Thiago Motta’s next assignment is a trip to Juventus