"I'm so happy when we win 5-4 or 4-3 rather than 1-0."
There are certain stereotypes that are deeply entrenched in popular footballing culture. The Brazilians dance with the ball. The Dutch are artists. The Spaniards don't want to keep the ball off the grass. The English don't want to keep the ball on it. The Italians... well, catenaccio literally translates to door-bolt and that's just what they do, isn't it?
Well, Vincenzo Alberto Annese doesn't do stereotypes. Which is why he would much rather see his team win 5-4 or 4-3 than 1-0. Why he thinks his defensive midfielders should spend more time in the opposition box than their own. Why he has managed in Estonia, Armenia, Latvia, Ghana, Palestine, Indonesia, Kosovo, Belize, and now India.
The Italian manager of Gokulam Kerala is very clear with what he wants out of a game. "From day one, I have told everyone that I'm not happy if I don't see goals during the game. I want to enjoy watching my team play."
Standing at the cusp of making Gokulam the first team from the state to win the I-League title, and the first Kerala club in AFC competition, Annese doesn't believe in toning it down, in taking the pragmatic option. Tied on points with TRAU and Churchill Brothers, and facing the former on Saturday, he knows a win is the only way to guarantee the title comes home with him.
And the only way he wants to win is by scoring bucket loads of goals.
From the beginning, their training sessions have been heavily skewed towards attacking phases. "When I come in and say I want to play attacking football, and then to make it happen inside three months... it's not easy. We train every day to improve our attacking style -- again and again, different methods, different moves. We never do the same training each day," says Annese. "I try to open the mind of the player also. You need to change the mental set-up of these guys, to change their fundamental [approach]. You need to make them believe in this philosophy."
He was involved in the pre-season camp at Kozhikode -- from where he handpicked four players from the reserve team. He wants his players to be skillful on the ball, and more importantly, aggressive both on and off it.
It has not been an easy shift for the players. Kerala's Mohammed Rashid hadn't played such an attacking style in his career. "It wasn't easy at all in the beginning. It was so tough for me, as a defensive midfielder, to get into the [opposition] box all the time. As I've learned the role, though, it has become easier -- and now I quite enjoy it," says Rashid.
Annese says he is heavily influenced by the maverick Zdeněk Zeman -- who took Italian football by storm with his attacking, high-energy, 4-3-3 based systems at several top clubs. "He always tries to think of this game like it's basketball, where it's all about how you keep on scoring points. I always believed in this -- the more points you make, the more exciting you are, the more the people come to watch your games. It's the same for football."
The Gokulam coach, though, is not as perma-wedded to the 4-3-3 as Zeman. "My 4-3-3 morphs into 4-4-2, into 4-2-4, sometimes it becomes 4-1-5. What's important is not the system, but how you attack the spaces, how you can penetrate the defense, how you can involve [the most] players in the attacking phases."
Annese got into coaching after an injury early on derailed his playing career. "I went abroad at an early age, and I enjoyed it - learning new philosophies, new styles, new cultures, new people in football."
It has helped in reinforcing his coaching philosophy. "I love to have as many of my players inside the [opposition] box as possible, I love to attack with different players. We've scored through nine different players this season -- the most of any team in the league -- we don't believe in having just one player doing all the attacking," he says.
At Gokulam, the football on the field has walked his talk for him all season.
In the first phase (ten games each, everyone plays the other once), Gokulam outscored everyone. Only the bottom three conceded more. It's been the same in the second phase (top six play against each other once), where they've scored more goals than anyone. Over the season, they average 1.93 goals scored per game, and 1.14 conceded. Oh, and this after they've missed three penalties.
They are a fun team.
They started the league in haphazard fashion, players still adapting to the new coach's all-out tactics. They lost four out of the ten games in the first phase, and qualified second last (ahead of TRAU only on head-to-head).
Annese calls it an "adaptation period". Which is why he's not surprised that in the pressure matches, they turned it on.
In the second phase, they are yet to lose a match. They eased RoundGlass Punjab out of the way. They fought toe-to-toe with the league's great scrappers, Real Kashmir. They decimated the early runaway leaders, Churchill Brothers 3-0; and that's after spurning approximately 9,274 chances that game. They beat direct rivals Mohammedan Sporting 2-1, the scoreline not reflective of the dominance they had on the game.
After the lone draw (1-1 vs. Kashmir), Annese raged at his midfielders for not moving forward out of midfield enough. For him, it's important that the players recognise that it's this all-out attack philosophy that has got them success.
"I've already told my guys one thing -- we have made a record of goals scored by Gokulam in one season, of wins, and of points, so far [in their history]. It's by playing this kind of football that we got here. Never forget that."
And so, he will go into this virtual final, against a team whose values he extolled endlessly with the same all-out, I-want-my-DMs-to-attack mindset. "We will approach this game as any other game, we will try to push them deep into their own halves, to impose our rhythm and we will try to score first up, early."