Fiery perfectionist Walter Mazzarri can raise Watford to greater heights

Watford manager Walter Mazzarri

Walter Mazzarri and Quique Sánchez Flores both have dark hair and come from southern Europe.

There the similarities end. At the end of last season Watford cast adrift a diminutive, slender, softly spoken, friendly Spaniard and hired in his stead a stocky, spiky, snarling Italian, a man who both smokes and fumes, is renowned for furious outbursts on the touchline and admits that “I’ve always been an unpopular coach”.

Mazzarri has been out of work, if not money, since being sacked by Internazionale in November 2014, the sole significant blot on his managerial record. The Italians continued to pay his €3.5m a year salary until the end of June, allowing Mazzarri to, among other things, spend the last six months of last season in Manchester, immersing himself in Premier League football, living with an English family and studying the language with Sean Warren, co-author of the book English for Football. Though given his workaholic tendencies Mazzarri surely did not want for effort, his linguistic skills remain very much unproven. In a stilted video message to Watford fans following his appointment, he admitted he will need to start the season with an interpreter by his side.

The 54-year-old has a reputation as a firm disciplinarian, a man who to those not in his inner circle or his dressing room appears forever frosty, but who is faithful both to his players and to his tactics. Though he will work on alternatives – “Coaches are clever and figure you out,” he said at Inter, “over time I’ll try to get my players comfortable playing at least two more formations” – he has always preferred to play with three at the back. Wing-backs provide width both in attack and defence, with Juan Camilo Zúñiga, who performed with distinction for Mazzarri at Napoli, recently signed on loan to reunite with the coach in Hertfordshire. Two central midfielders – Valon Behrami, who also worked with the coach in Naples, is on hand – are augmented when necessary by a deep-lying forward, the role played at Napoli by Marek Hamsik, with two strikers waiting to turn in the chances.

And if Mazzarri is known for one thing, it is the regularity with which they do so. Time and again, club after club, he has coaxed a succession of strikers to career-defining success. In his single season at Livorno he transformed Cristiano Lucarelli, a player who had previously been only fitfully impressive, into a lethal forward who scored 25 goals as they were promoted from Serie B and was the top scorer in the top flight the following year. Lucarelli has described Mazzarri as “a hero” who “is still one of the best Italian coaches”. “He is so meticulous in the way he prepares for matches,” Lucarelli said. “It’s amazing how he prepares for them and how during games he can fix things that aren’t working. There are few coaches who can change the course of matches like he does. I’ve seen how he works, how he influences the team. Along with Antonio Conte he is the best coach that we’ve got, in Italy and beyond.”

The following year Mazzarri moved to Reggina, where in 2006-07 he had one of his greatest triumphs, taking an unheralded and apparently doomed club that started the season with an 11-point deduction as a result of the Calciopoli scandal to the safety of 14th (without the deduction they would have finished eighth). His first-choice strike pairing of Rolando Bianchi – who in his entire career had scored five league goals in 69 injury-affected matches – and Nicola Amoruso were responsible for 35 goals, earning the former a move to Manchester City. “He always gives everything, on and off the pitch,” says Amoruso. “He manages to get the whole team pulling together and he’s particularly good at transmitting his enthusiasm and his determination to the players. He’s a master at match preparation and he’s also a very technical coach who puts in a lot of work on the training field.”

At Sampdoria he turned Giampaolo Pazzini, a player who had never reached double figures in a single season, into the team’s top scorer, with 19 league goals in 2008-09. “With him I made my breakthrough,” Pazzini said. “I’ll never forget how much I enjoyed training. I mean, he is a coach who puts his players at ease. There’s no specific thing that he does but there is a collection of things: he talks a lot with his players and devotes himself fully to the team. By giving the maximum he pushes you to do your best.

“Most of all he’s a perfectionist. I have never met a coach who focuses so much on small details. He prepares you well for every situation in the game. I think the best thing about him is that he is never happy. On television he often seems dissatisfied, sometimes he mumbles and that’s the way he is. He always sees something to improve and this attitude transmits itself to the players.”

His most famous success story is Edinson Cavani, a player who had never scored more than 14 league goals in a season but who in three years for Mazzarri managed 26, 23 and 29, and a total of 104 in 138 games, shattering along the way Napoli’s then 78-year-old single-season goalscoring record and helping the team to a first Coppa Italia and to second place in Serie A. There have been defensive successes – most notably, while at Livorno, he gave a debut to the 17-year-old Giorgio Chiellini – but it is for flourishing forwards that Mazzari is best known.

Such a forceful personality cannot be popular with everyone. The former Napoli midfielder Walter Gargano, whose fury at being substituted led to a falling-out with Mazzarri, was one critic: “He always wants to get his own way. He’s got a particular character and we were young and a bit rebellious. He didn’t like it when we drank maté in the dressing room or that we listened to our own music. That was how we did things but he hated it. One time Ezequiel Lavezzi tried to punch him and I stopped him. Mazzarri never thanked me.”

In 2013 Mazzarri walked out on Napoli to take over at Inter. “He’s a great coach, and a lovely man,” said the Napoli chairman, Aurelio De Laurentiis, “but there are two people in a marriage. A man can convince a wife to stay by offering money but, if she wants to screw another man, she’s going to screw another man.” It turned out to be a bitter and brief fling. Until his appointment in 2013 Mazzarri had tasted only success. It is surely no coincidence that this was his most high-profile and high-pressure appointment and the only time he has inherited a squad used to a high level of achievement. Marco Materazzi’s criticism of Mazzarri – “I would have expected a lot more respect” – said as much about the player’s attitude as his manager’s.

Mazzarri eventually won an unimpressive 39% of his 49 league games at the club and certainly did not refrain from criticising his players as the situation rapidly turned sour. His charges were publicly reprimanded for “showing off and playing more for the crowd than to get goals”, being “sluggish and lazy” and having “concentration limits”. He also said Massimo Moratti was “not even worth listening to”, prompting the club’s former owner to quit as honorary chairman. In the weeks before he left, Mazzarri, having run out of more convincing excuses, was being openly derided for blaming a defeat on the rain. “I’ve never seen a coach become so unpopular at a club before,” said Moratti. “He’s a good person but his character didn’t help him.”

What also probably did not help was the fact that while at Napoli he had been drawn into a prolonged spat with the then Inter manager, José Mourinho. Mourinho said of Mazzarri that “a donkey can work hard but will never become a thoroughbred” and derided him for “never winning anything, not even the Coppa Lombardia or the Tuscan Cup”. Mazzarri said his rival was obsessed with “slogans”, “talks, talks, talks, so much rubbish” and was “the creation of the media, always talking about money and budgets”, further insisting that, “if you compare the teams we have managed, my results are definitely better”.

The pair eventually reconciled after Mazzarri joined Inter, although their patched-up relationship may once again be tested by the rigours of the Premier League. “Apart from tactics I am quite similar to Mou,” he said later. “We clashed because we both grab hold of anything and everything to defend our sides and that is one thing that unites us. Every coach has his own way of working but I see myself very close to Mourinho’s style.”

Whether he will have a similar impact on English football remains to be seen but, if he can add, say, Odion Ighalo – who for parts of last season appeared but a few short steps (and perhaps the occasional pass) from the genuinely spectacular – to his list of striking transformations, these could be exciting times at Vicarage Road – combative and occasionally confrontational but exciting.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Burnton, for The Guardian on Tuesday 9th August 2016 15.00 Europe/London

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