This feature is part of The Masterminds: 10 Under 45

In 560 BC, the mathematician Pythagoras lived in a small village in what is now known as Calabria, the southern part of Italy – or the toe of the boot – what the Greeks called Locri. Today this village is known as Crotone, named after the school that Pythagoras built in the city, Kroton. It’s an odd association at first glance but Ivan Jurić and Pythagoras have something in common; both of them put Crotone on the map, for very different reasons.

As is so often the case with young players and managers, they can be labelled as a mastermind one week and given the sack the next. Such is the case of Ivan Jurić, who was sacked from his current club Genoa as this article was being written.

Jurić’s coaching methods depend greatly on angles of attack and the formation of triangles on the field. His basic 3-4-3 formation is revolutionary in its simplicity. Heavy metal in practice and exhaustive in principle, fitness is the cornerstone for being successful with this tactical method. High pressing, of course, take a huge amount of energy to execute, and Jurić trains his players relentlessly to achieve it.

Unfortunately, the story of Jurić at Genoa ended in February 2017 after a number of losses in what started out to be a sensational season, where Genoa had beaten the four-time consecutive champions, Juventus. The optimism of the student of Gian Piero Gasperini coming in to replace the old master was lost. The Croat was let go unceremoniously on an idle Tuesday, after Genoa had taken a savage beating from upstarts Pescara, losing 5-0.

This turn in an otherwise stellar career comes at a time when Jurić was on his way up the table to bigger and better teams. He had been Gasperini’s assistant at Internazionale after hanging up his boots and had impressed in the bonds he was able to form with players his ability to improve their personal games for the betterment of the team.

Jurić the player started his career at Croatian giants Hajduk Split, impressing against rivals Dinamo and quickly forging a reputation as one of the nation’s best young midfielders. Though his career failed to hit the heights many predicted early on – his highlight being a four-year stint at Sevilla and five years at Crotona – he was a student of the game throughout, picking his managers’ ears and learning his craft with a view to becoming a coach himself one day.

After leaving Sevilla, Jurić had his first encounter with Gasperini, at Crotone. The Serie B side was like a footballing laboratory, with Gasperini the mad scientist at the helm. It was here that Jurić learned of his penchant for high-presssing, heavy metal football. 

Even though Jurić is Croatian, his footballing heart belongs in Italy. It is the tactical match-ups he loves; the defensive-minded coaches who can shut a match down with a single substitution – men such as his eventual mentor Gian Piero Gasperini, who Jurić also worked with at Palermo.

Read  |  Palermo and the decade of uncertainty

Unlike some who liken their style to heavy metal, Jurić truly is actually an avid fan of the heavy metal rock scene. He does not use it as a metaphor for his style of play – he uses it as a literal extension of his personality and coaching technique.

“When I want to enjoy watching football, I watch Napoli,” Jurić was quoted as saying in the week leading up to his Genoa side taking on the formidable Partenopei, for the reason that their all-action attack coupled with defensive steel is footballing perfection for him. It is not surprising that Jurić is enamoured with Napoli: they are a high tempo passing side with tonnes of pace and an active midfield, and that’s exactly how he likes his teams to play.

The Croat is man who loves the tactical battles of calcio, especially the high pressing game he learned from his mentor Gasperini, who he replaced at Genoa. His appointment in Italy’s north was met with widespread acclaim as he had already endeared himself to the Rossoblu faithful during four productive years at the end of his career.

There was an instant bond between the two men, an understanding deeper than player and coach. Gasperini instantly recognised the leadership skills of Jurić and he took him under his wing.  The two made several moves after Crotone together; first to Genoa, where Jurić was a player, then to Inter where Jurić was Gasperini’s assistant.

In 2011, Jurić was working on his UEFA Pro Licence when the pair moved to Palermo, once again with Gasperini as the head man and Jurić as the assistant, but the former midfield star was starting to feel the tug of leadership pulling at his pride. He had always been a natural leader on and off the pitch, and it was a natural move that eventually Jurić would become his own man and take over at a club.

That chance came in the form of Genoa’s spring football side, the Primavera in 2013. Jurić managed the side for one season and took them to a respectable 11th-place finish.

The following season saw Jurić take on Pro League side Mantova. This was Jurić’s first big opportunity to showcase his ability to motivate a side – to take them from average to very good. Jurić, in the space of a single season, took a team struggling to find unity all the way to Serie B. Owners across Italy, aware of Jurić the player but not so much the manager, instantly took notice.

After Jurić’s success at Mantova, there were offers on the table, but none as tempting as the head man’s spot at Crotone. The Pitagorici had never employed a non-Italian manager and had never been promoted to Serie A in their 70-year history, so the appointment of Jurić was the opening of the most iconic chapter in the club’s history.

Read  |  Can Vincenzo Montella make AC Milan great again?

When Jurić took over in the southern city of Crotone, they had just finished 16th in Serie B with 48 points. Their manager of three seasons, Massimo Drago, had been sacked after failing to hit their mid-table target and facilitating rifts in the squad between senior players. This is where Jurić came into the picture; the former Crotone winger was the ideal candidate, having solid connections to the club and with Gasperini, another club legend.

When Jurić arrived at Crotone there was mixed optimism but he deployed a strategy similar to what Eibar had been doing in La Liga by signing as many senior professionals on loan, blending them with youth and fostering an unbreakable team spirit and determination to succeed for the people of the town. 

Jurić is a player-focused coach, using techniques to motivate his players through the media, directly, and in through his coaching staff to get maximum results. “I told the players that they can choose whether or not to fight for first place. I know them and in my view they will.”

Jurić chooses his words carefully, and uses his experience as a player, and the knowledge he gained from his mentor Gasperini to ensure that his message is simple, clear and applicable to the whole squad. This is critical to the counter-attacking, high-pressing style that he employs. 

Unlike some of his contemporaries – those who also espouse the tactical formation that has come back into fashion in the 3-4-3 – Jurić is a keen believer in playing a fluid style in attack and, almost in like the famed Dutch method of Total Football, having players replace one another, regardless of their position, in the pressing phase. This approach is what took him from just another coach to one of the most desired in all of Italy.

After taking charge of Crotone, Jurić was able to take them in one season from 16th in Serie B to the promised land of Serie A. For fans of the club, he will always be remembered as the man who achieved what no man had before, taking them to lofty heights many thought wouldn’t be possible.

With success in the south confirmed, along came his old mentor Gasperini. The senior statesman was leaving Genoa, off to greener pastures at Atalanta, and wanted to place his old student in the position he was vacating. Despite his promising start in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, a poor run of the form between January and February, coming to head in the 5-0 thrashing against bottom club Pescara, saw Jurić relieved of his duties before he had a chance to really stamp his authority. Many of his players came out in support of the Croat after his dismissal, stating that they enjoyed his methods and were sad to see him go.

Ivan Jurić, despite his recent troubles at Genoa, is a young mastermind in its truest definition, and as the likes of José Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers and a heap of others will testify to, failing early on isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His methods are inventive and his personality infectious. He has been compared at times to Antonio Conte in the way he can mould a team and many in Italy still believe he can become one of the league’s top managers 

By Jim Hart    @Catenacciari