This feature is part of The Masterminds series
The press conference was an explosive three minutes, leaving a cluster of Germany’s top journalists stunned and bewildered. Bayern Munich coach Giovanni Trapattoni was addressing the media following a bruising 1-0 defeat to Schalke, but it was the men with pens and paper who would leave the post-match media proceedings shaken.
Trapattoni, wearing a ludicrously red Bayern training top, pointed violently at his chest and waved his fist furiously at those watching during one of the most extraordinary tirades against his players. Attacking the professionalism of Mehmet Scholl and Mario Basler, the coach visibly struggled to keep his composure as he vented his frustrations after being criticised for not starting the duo.
His German was garbled and increasingly incoherent, but the journalists knew exactly what was being said. Trapattoni was vehemently defending his bold decision to omit two of Bayern’s superstars from the starting line-up for a crucial game in the title race where they trailed Kaiserslautern, saying they were weak like an empty bottle.
The YouTube clip has become a sensation. It’s entertaining, whether you speak the language or not, but what’s clear through the barrier is that Trapattoni was at his wit’s end. The legendary Italian manager had two spells with Bayern, the second of which delivered a Bundesliga title and a German Cup.
However, he was ridiculed for an outburst which was lost on some. While some reports focused on the obvious fact that Trap had unravelled before them in spectacular fashion, more astute observers pointed out that the coach was correct in dropping two under-performing players. He dropped them for a simple reason: Trapattoni has always been defined by maximising his side’s chances of success.
For a coach like him, a fully fit and mentally prepared fringe player is more useful to him than a beleaguered superstar showing erratic form. What’s important to remember is that, while Bayern Munich ended up losing that league title, Trapattoni stayed true to his ideology and nobody could level that as a criticism – it’s an ideology that earned him ten league titles in four different countries and a European Cup. It was a proven recipe for success, and Trapattoni opted to stand by it in times of both gloried success and even when he was facing looming failure.
And he’s faced plenty of that during his career. Indeed, there were very few Irishmen sad to see him go when he left in 2013, while his time managing Italy is remembered more than anything for that ‘national humiliation,’ when Guus Hiddink’s South Korea defied the odds to knock them out of the World Cup quarter-finals in an extraordinary game.
In fact, for the younger football fan, Trapattoni wouldn’t have the greatest image. His final managerial appointment, after a career spanning 40 years and over 20 major honours, was a largely negative five-year stint with the Republic of Ireland.
When ‘Il Trap’ came in to replace Steve Staunton, it was rightly heralded as one of the most surprising and ambitious appointments in the history of Irish football. However, his negative, intransigent tactics portrayed what little faith Trapattoni had in the Irish, and they failed to defeat a team ranked above them during his time there.
Crucially though, that is not how Trapattoni should be remembered. Although his final act as a manager was to whimper out in Dublin, the years that preceded that were glistening with league trophies and prestige, earning him the status as one of the most impressive managerial minds to ever tackle the game.
By the time Trapattoni arrived in Ireland, he had already won league titles in four different countries and clinched every major European club competition too. He led teams to triumph consistently and the major takeaway from the narrative of Trapattoni’s career has always been his ability to sustain success in different places, with different teams and with a wide range of styles and philosophies.
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Pictured here with Gipo Viani, Trapattoni was an excellent defender for Milan in his playing days
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Over the years, the locations changed, the personnel at his disposal varied from team to team, but the underlying goal never altered; Trapattoni geared his teams up to win, and win they did.
That determination and spirit for the game stemmed directly from a distinguished playing career in Italy, which included 12 years at AC Milan as a no-nonsense mediani and francobollatore, his rock-solid defending helping the Rossoneri to two European Cups and two Serie A titles during his time there.
During his playing days, his peers always held the perception that one day Trapattoni would make an excellent coach. He had an advanced understanding of the machinations of the game. He gauged how players moved, how they reacted and how attacks could be stopped. It’s what made him such an effective defensive instructor on the training ground, but it started in the heat of battle in the middle of the San Siro pitch for Milan.
Trapattoni embarked on his managerial odyssey at his beloved Milan in 1974, where a brief stint as caretaker boss preceded his Golden Decade at Juventus. It was with the Old Lady that Trapattoni proved himself to be one of the managerial elite.
Trapattoni made Juventus great again after being appointed as their head coach in 1976. The season prior to his arrival, the Bianconeri had been dumped out of the European Cup by Borussia Mönchengladbach and were pipped to the Scudetto by rivals Torino. However, Trapattoni – who had been unceremoniously discarded by Milan – was snapped up by the Turin giants and charged with the task of getting one of Italian football’s finest institutions purring at the top of proceedings once more.
While the expectations were high – they always are at Juventus – Trapattoni oversaw one of the greatest club transformations in the history of football, and that isn’t even close to being an exaggeration. Trapattoni didn’t take long to etch his name into the annals of Juve history in leading them to UEFA Cup glory in 1977, but that was only the beginning of a glorious, trophy-laden run of years that proved to be the zenith of the Italian’s storied career.
Trapattoni became a king at Juventus. He taught his players that there were many ways to score a goal. Trapattoni was progressive and understood the smaller details, like studying an opponent’s habit of automatically jumping at free-kicks after building a wall; Trap would tell the free-kick taker, often Michel Platini, to hit the ball low in order to score.
It was this attention to detail and understanding of how to manipulate different situations that carried Trapattoni to such unbridled glory with Juventus. Indeed, it was his undying will to win that defined Juventus’ success over the next decade.
They became the premier force in European football and although they were not a club noted for their mistakes, Trapattoni always ensured that they strove for improvement, that any error was not repeated. The coach dedicated at least one training session a week to post-performance analysis, cementing an admirable mentality into the squad that helped them start every game one step ahead.
It was with Juventus that Trapattoni fine-tuned his tactical approach. He preached what he has dubbed ‘High Performance Soccer’, which is broken up into two main phases: in possession of the ball and non-possession.
The main crux of Trapattoni’s strategy in possession was searching for, and creating, space. He drew up detailed diagrams that mapped out every possible situation for a player in possession and his team-mates. It all revolved around the goal for creating space and facilitating attacks, breaking down various methods of creating and exploiting space in key areas like the wing and on the edge of the penalty area.
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Read | Platini versus Falcão: a great calcio rivalry
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It was a mutual understanding of such a philosophy that helped a Juventus side chock full of world-class talent to become a ruthless winning machine. Michel Platini would capture three successive Ballon d’Or titles as a Juve player and it was predominantly owed to how Trapattoni utilised his talents.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing, even during the halcyon days at Juventus. Trapattoni had to contend with the rise of a Gianni Rivera-led AC Milan, who clinched the 1978-79 scudetto in a season that also saw Juventus dumped out of the European Cup by Rangers in the first-round.
Trapattoni’s brand of catenaccio characterised by devastating counter-attacks had been sought out by the teams in the upper echelons of Italian football and, at the turn of the decade, the time for rebuilding was nigh. Despite the success he had brought to Turin, Juventus fans were growing increasingly impatient with Trap and a philosophy that stressed the system over individuals.
However, Trapattoni was adaptable and not antipathetic to changing. The 1980-81 campaign became a watershed moment for the coach. Realising it was a campaign of enormous significance, given the unfavourable combination of disquiet seeping into the stands at the Stadio delle Alpi coupled with AC Milan’s rise to prominence, Trapattoni boldly bought the tough Irish midfielder Liam Brady.
An excellent talent with passing, creativity and skill, Brady had impressed for seven years at Arsenal after debuting at the tender age of 17, eventually being snapped up by Juve. It turned out to be a masterstroke from Trapattoni, with Brady having a profound impact on the squad and helping re-shape the defensive foundations upon which the Trap empire had been built.
Juventus won back the league title in Brady’s first season, ahead of Roma after a controversial finale that included a 0-0 draw between the two sides at the Stadio Olimpico where the Giallorossi’s Maurizio Turone had a goal disallowed that ensured Juve remained one point ahead.
Trapattoni had delivered the Serie A title, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, but the holy grail of European club football remained his elusive dream. Juventus had never won the top prize in their history and although their faith had been temporarily shaken, the Bianconeri supporters believed he was still the man to deliver the trophy.
What characterised Trapattoni’s time at Juventus was an insistence not to overload the starting line-up with flair players. Brady had certainly been a flair acquisition and although his impact had been nothing short of tremendous, Trapattoni had other players in mind. Indeed, the coach’s next move would turn out to be one of the most fruitful transfers of his entire career. Trapattoni didn’t believe that he could fit three flair players in his team, so Brady was sacrificed in favour of the double capture of Platini and Zbigniew Boniek in the summer of 1982.
Platini and Boniek had starred at the 1982 World Cup for France and Poland respectively and were established as pre-eminent forces in the European club scene too. Their talent and status heralded an exciting new dawn for Juventus under Trap, but both players took time to adapt to the tough and uncompromising rigours of the Italian game, the culture, and the specific tactical blueprint of their new coach.
The marriage of Trapattoni, the leader in the dugout, and Platini, the burgeoning on-pitch general, triggered a new phase of attacking football for Juventus, which betrayed the more catenaccio-based principles of Trap’s formative years at the club.
The exhilaration of possessing such talent and force soon turned to anguish, however, as the season brought more torment than ecstasy. Juventus lost the title to Roma and although they won the Coppa Italia, that was scant consolation for what happened in the European Cup final.
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Trapattoni’s second spell at Bayern Munich highlighted his ability to adapt and improve
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Trapattoni himself admitted that his man-marking system was exposed and ruthlessly picked apart by Ernst Happel’s formidable Hamburg side, whose own nuanced tactics freed up Felix Magath, which proved devastating as the midfielder netted the game’s only goal and consigned Trapattoni to a crushing defeat.
Trapattoni was frustrated, disappointed and facing the challenge of returning Juventus to within touching distance of the European Cup, a task that certainly would have withered a lesser coach. A year on, Trapattoni was faced with another nightmarish European Cup final experience, this one through no fault of his own.
What should have been an exciting showpiece final between Juventus and Liverpool – the best English team at the time – turned into tragedy as a wall of the Heysel Stadium collapsed and killed 39 people. Despite the disaster that had just occurred, the match went ahead, with Juventus winning 1-0 via a Platini penalty.
For Trapattoni, it was an empty achievement. His dream had always been to hoist the European Cup above his head but he had never envisioned it like this. Following the match, he found his team heavily criticised for doing a lap of honour, thus souring what should have been his finest night in football.
His quest for sustained supremacy undimmed, Trapattoni clinched the Intercontinental Cup, making him the most decorated Italian football manager in history at the age of 45. Following another Serie A success, he decided it was time to bow out in style. He resigned in 1986 and moved on to Internazionale immediately.
The Nerazzurri provided a fresh challenge for Trapattoni but his return to Milan brought further success, winning a league and Supercoppa Italiana double in 1989, before lifting a second career UEFA Cup in 1991. Trapattoni’s shrewd transfer business once again came to the fore at Inter, completing the ultimately crucial signings of players like Andreas Brehme, Alessandro Bianchi, Nicola Berti, Lothar Matthäus and Ramón Díaz.
The reality of his time at Inter was simple: Trap and his squad simply couldn’t keep pace with Fabio Capello’s outstanding AC Milan side. After that, Trapattoni became jet-setting A-lister.
He had a culture-shock first spell with Bayern Munich, where he was lambasted by the German press for getting knocked out of the German Cup by TSV Vestenbergsgreuth, while a finish of sixth in the Bundesliga certainly didn’t cushion any blow. A brief spell with Cagliari followed before Trap resurfaced in Bavaria, only this time armed with the painful memories of his first German football experience.
Proving that he is a manager of extraordinary determination, Trapattoni harnessed the intense pressure from the media and the fans to deliver the Bundesliga title in 1997, while also avenging the Vestenbergsgreuth debacle by winning the cup a year later.
During the 1990s, Trapattoni’s image as a serial winner had been temporarily damaged, but he re-established his reputation in his second spell at Bayern. It was brief, but his legacy was significant, laying the groundwork for Ottmar Hitzfeld – his successor – in nurturing the likes of Mehmet Scholl, while signing Mario Basler, Carsten Jancker and Élber.
It would of course would be wrong to remember Trapattoni’s career as untouchable. He endured many failures, was often criticised for his tactics, and found himself at the mercy of the media, but his record speaks for itself. Records can never be argued with, after all. His haul of ten league titles across four countries depicts a man who had cracked the formula essential to succeed at the top-level.
It was far from ephemeral too, with Trap’s league title in Austria with Salzburg arriving 30 years after he first lifted the Scudetto with Juventus. Perhaps his time with Ireland was rightly criticised and if you’re in charge of Italy, there’s little excuse in losing to South Korea, but Trap never lost sight of what made him a winner in the first place: a deep understanding of the game and an effective method of implementing that expertise in order to win.
He did that pretty well for nearly 40 years.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11