NKOTB 2: Mazz-Puel-Karanka

NKOTB_MazzPuelAitorLast week I looked at the biggest new names in Premier League management; this week, it’s the undercard. Though Walter Mazzarri, Claude Puel, and Aitor Karanka don’t have quite the star power of Guardiola, Mourinho, and Conte, they are managers worth knowing about. So let’s take a first look.

Walter Mazzarri

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My best move in fantasy football this season was getting Etienne Capoue on my starting roster (I’m conveniently ignore that he’s been sitting on my bench for both games). It wasn’t Capoue that I trusted, though; it was Mazzarri. Having been a big fan of Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli, I believed that the new shape he was bringing to Watford was not a preseason mirage.

Mazzarri replaced Quique Sánchez Flores at the end of what had appeared a fairly successful freshman campaign for Watford. Watford is owned by the Pozzo family (technically, it is now son Gino rather than father Giampaolo who owns the club), also owners of Udinese in Serie A and, until this summer, Granada in La Liga. Side-stepping the ethical issues of multi-club ownership, Pozzo’s track record suggests that he knows a thing or two about getting teams promoted and keeping them that way; and the decision to bring in Mazzarri was undoubtedly a carefully considered one.

Mazzarri is a serious coach, credited with initiating the Italian vogue for three center-backs that took hold at Juventus and was one of the tactical highlights of this summer’s Euros. Though he struggled in his most recent appointment at Inter-Milan, the club has become a managerial graveyard. Watford’s early performances under Mazzarri have been promising, and not just from a fantasy perspective.

Watford has played 3-5-2 in each of their two games this season, and with former Juventus midfielder Roberto Pereyra scheduled to make his debut this weekend against Arsenal, there is little reason to expect a change in the near future. Pereyra was effectively Arturo Vidal’s replacement at Juve, and though he is not in Vidal’s league he remains a substantial upgrade for Watford.

Second seasons following promotion can be nearly as dangerous as the first season up, but Watford has brought in a manager for the long term. Mazzarri will expect to get his side into the top half of the table rather than worrying about relegation.

(For more on Mazzarri’s Napoli side, check out Aron Sohal’s excellent piece on Forza Italian Football.)

Claude Puel

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Southampton have not sparkled in Puel’s first two games in charge. Last weekend’s loss to Mourinho’s United was probably expected, but the opening tie with Watford will feel like a setback. Add to that the sense that the Saints were playing considerably above their natural level under former manager, Ronald Koeman, and this slow opening will leave some supporters nervous.

If it is up to Puel, however, he will be in for the long haul. A player at Monaco for 17 years before becoming their manager and leading them to a Ligue 1 championship (24 years in all), he then spent six years at Lille, followed by four-year stints at Olympique Lyonnais and Nice. At the two bigger clubs, Puel’s record was hit-and-miss; but at Nice–probably the most relevant comparison to Southampton–he has worked wonders in getting a smaller club into and then competitive in France’s top flight.

As would be expected for any Southampton appointment, Puel’s style of management is in alignment with that of the club. His teams are possession-oriented, pressing sides with an attack built around quick, creative passers. This is also what you would expect of someone who was mentored in the late stages of his playing career by Arsène Wenger. Moreover, Puel has a history of bringing through younger players, complementing the impressive record of Southampton’s academy.

Puel tends to use a 4-3-1-2 (or, as it is sometimes described, 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond), and that is what he has done thus far at Southampton. This means that width is provided by fullbacks Cédric Soares and Matt Targett, with Dušan Tadić playing underneath the strikers Nathan Redmond and Shane Long. The plan is a sensible one for the team’s personnel, but it is a definite change from Ronald Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, and thus far the players still look uncertain with the new game plan.

Puel will probably be given time to get his ideas across. Southampton are unlikely to find themselves in the relegation battle, and a bit more time in this new formation should see the players reducing their errors. Goal-scoring may still be a problem, unless Redmond is able to raise his level considerably. If the team begins to better embody Puel’s vision, however, he and Tadić could become an exciting combination.

(For more on Puel’s fit with Southampton, see Tommy Scott at Saint Mary’s Musings (SB Nation) and Joe Devine at Squawka.)

Aitor Karanka

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Middlesbrough is the only one of the newly promoted sides spending like a team anticipating a longer stay in the Premier League, and confidence in Karanka might be part of the reason. A disciple of José Mourinho, working as his assistant at Real Madrid, Karanka is very much in the model of defensive pragmatism associated with the Special One. Though he often used a 4-4-2 in the Championship, it’s been 4-2-3-1 thus far this season.

Like Mourinho, Karanka is not afraid of causing a stir, having walked out on the team last March in a dispute with at least some of his players following a poor run of form. It was a stunning showdown for a manager whose team seemed likely to achieve automatic promotion, and despite the potential embarrassment, the directors blinked first, bringing Karanka back and backing him.

Karanka also has a track record of quickly assimilating new players into a side, which will be good given Middlesbrough’s transfer activity. Striker Álvaro Negredo, midfielder Gastón Ramírez (last May) and Marten de Roon, defenders Antonio Barragán and Fabio Da Silva, and goalkeepers Víctor Valdés and Brad Guzan are among the new players this term. Though they have yet to face truly top-level competition, the team has looked worth their four points in two games.

Although it is the offensive signings that have garnered the greatest attention early on, Karaoke’s focus on defensive solidity will probably be his team’s most important trait this season. For all the new signings, Middlesbrough remains a newly promoted side, and anything other than relegation will be a successful season. Karanka is definitely the right coach for this job.

(For a brief history of Karanka, see Oier Fano Dadebat at International Business Times; for a quick tactical report on the Sunderland game, see Michael Cox at The Guardian.)

Header image created by modifying images created by Anders Henrikson, Pymouss44, and Christophe95 under a creative commons license, and incorporating them into an old album cover.

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