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Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Di Natale’

Trendsetter: Udinese's Giampaolo Pozzo.

Udinese’s success is nothing short of remarkable given their finances. The Zebrette earned €41m in revenue last season, a tiny figure compared to Inter (€225m), Milan (€208m) and Roma (€123m), all of who are currently below Udinese in the league. Their average attendance is just 15,000, their TV income (€26m) is a quarter of Juventus and Milan’s and last season’s total gate receipts (€3.6m) was 34-times smaller than Manchester United’s.

Despite all this, Udinese’s year-end accounts usually show a profit of around €6-8m. How do they accomplish this with such small revenue streams? By selling players. The Bianconeri have, over the past 10 years, received a staggering net profit of €112m from buying and selling players. They have perfect the “buy low, sell high,” model, and are cable to compete at the highest level because of it.

Club president Giampaolo Pozzo first implemented the strategy in the 1990s. Udinese’s tiny budget made it impossible to compete with the bigger clubs for transfer fees and wages, forcing Pozzo to find a more financially-efficient way of lifting the club’s league position.

The system is similar to Arsenal’s only far more efficient. Udinese eschew inflated fees and wages (Antonio Di Natale, €20k p/w, is the club’s highest earner) and spend their resources on scouting and networking instead. The Zebrette currently employ over 50 scouts and have ties with literally hundreds of local contacts worldwide. It costs just €4m p/a to maintain this scouting network, and this is almost repaid by the €3.6m Udinese earn annually from loaning players out.

It’s estimated that Udinese have a stake in over 120 players worldwide. They supplied an astonishing 14 loanees to bolster Granada’s promotion campaign last season and have leant the new La Liga side a further five players this term. Furthermore, Udinese own another 32 players who are currently on loan at or co-owned by other clubs.

The system is quick and efficient. Udinese send vast quantities of young players out on loan every season to aid their growth and thus boost their market value. It’s an effective money-spinner and a method of developing quality players without parting with swathes of cash. As an example, Samir Handanovic was signed on a free transfer in 2004. He is now considered among the world’s best ‘keepers after loan spells at Treviso, Lazio and Rimini and an extended spell in the Udinese XI, and will command a seven-figure fee if (when?) he leaves.

I think it’s a very honourable way of achieving success. Bring in a player with good potential for a nominal fee and train him until he’s ready for the first team or developed to a point where he can achieve success at a lower or higher level. It’s certainly more admirable than the tasteless Chelsea/Man City model and a clever way of doing business.

I’m surprised more clubs haven’t adopted such a model. There’s Arsenal, of course, and Newcastle United are beginning to benefit from their growing scouting network. Borussia Dortmund have built a successful team by purchasing unheralded players and tapping into their potential. Other that, I’m at a loss.

Financial Fair Play’s implementation will surely see more clubs follow Udinese’s lead. Soon it’ll make much more sense to scout and sign young players on the cheap rather than splurdge millions on Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. FFP will level the playing field, and I can’t decide if that’s good for Udinese or not. The Bianconeri’s system has been in-place for years so they should have an immediate advantage, but what’ll happen to them when transfer fees (their primary income source) start falling?

The Udinese system isn’t perfect though. Its one major disadvantage is that cannot feasibly hold on to star players for longer than a couple of seasons. Di Natale is the obvious exception, but the Zebrette are in no financial position to reject big money bids for their prized assets.

Three of the club’s best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler & Christian Zapata) left during the summer, and the trend is only going to continue. Udinese are usually able to replace their stars with shrewd signings which usually negates the above argument, but it’s hard to see them progressing until they’re in a position to hond onto their top players.

Regardless, some excellent players have passed through Udinese over the years. Here are some of the Friuli farm’s biggest success stories:-

Antonio Di Natale

Why not start with the obvious? Toto, even at 34, is the peninsula’s most feared goal-getters. Signed from relegated Empoli in 2004, Di Natale has notched 143 goals in 280 Bianconeri appearances. This season’s 13 from 17 mark a healthy return for the ex-Azzurri forward, who has scored 28 and 29 goals in his last two Serie A campaigns. Loyal (he turned down a huge Juventus contract in 2010) and dependable, Udinese will struggle when Di Natale eventually retires.

Oliver Bierhoff

Anybody who watched football in the ‘90s should be familiar with Bierhoff. The German striker was playing for Serie B’s Ascoli when Udinese signed him in 1995. Three years later he was Serie A’s top scorer and a full international. Bierhoff went on to Scudetto success with AC Milan and was a 1996 European Championship winner.

David Pizzaro

A wonderfully talented deep-lying playmaker who is criminally underrated outside of Italy, Pizarro signed for buttons from Santiago Wanderers in 1999 and was Udinese’s heartbeat until a 2005 transfer to Inter. Known for his Xavi-esque passing ability, Pizzaro’s post-Udine career has seen him win a Scudetto (with Inter) and three Coppa Italias (one with Inter, two with Roma). One of my favourite players.

Sulley Muntari & Asamoah Gyan

The two Ghanians arrived in Udine within a year of each other. Both stayed for five years and experienced varying levels of success. Muntari was a huge success, establishing himself as the club’s midfield enforcer and made over 120 Serie A appearances. He signed for Portsmouth for an estimated €9m in 2007. Gyan, on the other hand, only ever played 39 games for Udinese, but the club still earned an €8m from Rennes for his services in 2008.

Felipe

Few players epitomise the Udinese model’s success like the Brazilian defender. Felipe joined the Zebrette’s youth system as a 15-year old in 1999 and had joined the senior squad by 2002. He was a key member of the Bianconeri’s Champions League squad in 2005-06, but fell out of favour in 2009 and was sold to Fiorentina for €6m last year. Felipe made 175 appearances in all competitions for Udinese but hasn’t established himself in Florence.

Alexis Sanchez

The Chilean forward’s sale is one of the Udinese model’s greatest successes. Signed in 2006 but immediately loaned to River Plate and Colo Colo, Sanchez didn’t make his Udinese debut until 2008. He came of age last season after switching from the wing to playing as Di Natale’s supporting trequartista. Barcelona paid €26m plus bonuses for his services after a 12-goal haul last season.

* For more on Udinese’s finances please check out this typically fascinating article from The Swiss Ramble: Udinese Selling Their Way To The Top.

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Can veteran striker Antonio Di Natale help bring the Scudetto to Udine?

Aside from an unrecognised pre-FIGC championship in 1896, Udinese’s closest brush with Scudetto success game in 1954-55. Hopes weren’t high going into the season: the Bianconeri had finished 16th the previous year, staving-off relegation with two play-off draws. Another season of struggle was expected, and Udine did little to defy the expectations in the early stages.

They started the season at home to champions Inter and were beaten 2-0. A 3-1 defeat at Napoli followed, and Udinese suffered a humiliating 5-0 drubbing at Catania next. Shipping goals and rooted to the bottom, Udinese were in trouble already. This changed with the signing of Umberto Pinardi, a defender previously of Juventus and Como.

Pinardi’s arrival provided the attack-minded Bianconeri with improved balance and defensive solidity. Udinese ran-out 3-0 winners over Genoa in Pinardi’s debut and only lost another three games all-season, the last of which came on December 12th (2-0 vs. Sampdoria). The defensive strengthening had had an obvious immediate impact.

Game after game drew Udinese closer and closer to table-topping Milan. The Scudetto race opened-up, and a Bianconeri hot streak moved them to within four points of the title favourites by May 1st, 1955. The teams met in Udine for a vital contest on that date, with Milan on 39 points and Udinese on 35. Anxiety filled the Stadio Moretti, but the Zebrette tifosi knew they were within touching distance of a first Serie A championship. The excitement was palpable.

Disaster struck in the game’s early stages when Udinese ‘keeper Gianni Romano was stretchered off after a collision with Gunnar Nordahl, Milan’s Swedish forward. Substitutions weren’t allowed in 1955, so the Bianconeri were forced to solider-on against the strongest team in the league with just 10 men.

Instead of capitulating, Udinese rallied. They showed incredible grinta and fire to battle through the 90 minutes, and they emerged with a miraculous 3-2 victory. Now the title race was well and truly on. The momentum was with Udinese, and all they had to do was overturn a one-point deficit to claim the Scudetto.

Sadly, Udinese lost their form. Milan collected 9 points from their last 5 games, and the Bianconeri couldn’t keep-up the pace. Dropped points to Pro Patria, Novara and Torino proved decisive, and Udinese finished on 44 points (four short of Milan’s 48).

Udinese have come close since, finishing fourth in 1956-57 and 2004-05 and third in 1997-98. Nothing, however, has matched the excitement of the 1954-55 title race. They finished a superb fourth last season, thrilling the peninsula with some of the most exciting, attacking football in Europe but ultimately finishing 16 points behind champions Milan. This season, however, I believe that Udinese have the potential to mount their strongest title challenge since 1955.

The Bianconeri have conceded just seven league goals this season. That’s an average of 0.5 goals per game: a marked improvement on last year’s still-respectable 1.13. Udinese’s average goals scored has decreased from 1.71 to 1.29, reflecting a shift in coach Francesco Guidolin’s philosophy. Udinese have added defensive steel with compromising much of their attacking verve.

The three starting centre-backs – Danilo, Maurizio Domizzi and Mehdi Benatia – are having excellent seasons, but they aren’t the only reason for Udinese’s new watertight defence. ‘Keeper Samir Handanovic must now be considered among the best in the world. The 27-year-old Slovenian has looked unbeatable at times over the past few seasons, and he’ll surely be the subject of some big money bids next summer. Udinese have the best defence in Italy (Lazio are second with 11 conceded), and Handanovic’s form has been a huge contributing factor.

Udinese are currently second in Serie A, level with leaders Juventus on points (30). Their next two fixtures should give us an idea of their title credentials. Udinese face Lazio on Sunday and Juventus ahead of the winter break on Wednesday. The Zebrette have already played Milan, Inter, Napoli and Roma, but these games could be the toughest of their season so far.

Antonio Conte’s Juventus haven’t steamrolled their way to the top of the league, but they’re efficient, functional and undefeated. The young coach has made an excellent start to top-tier management, and Udinese will do well to keep their dominant midfielders (Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio et al.).

Lazio, meanwhile, have a new lethal spearhead in Miroslav Klose and a rock-solid defence. Edy Reja’s men are just two points behind Udinese and are one of Serie A’s toughest teams to beat, having lost just twice all season. Udinese must match these teams if they’re to make a serious Scudetto bid. This is one of the most competitive leagues in recent years, and there’ll be plenty of teams waiting to take Undinese’s place if they stumble.

Much of the Bianconeri’s success hinges on their talisman, Antonio Di Natale. Guidolin’s 3-5-1-1 system is designed to feed the ageing striker, and Udinese are highly reliant on his goals. Toto has struck 10 times in Serie A this season; 56% of Udinese’s total (18). Wing-backs Dusan Basta and Pablo Armero are next in line with three each. Antonio Floro Flores, Di Natale’s deputy, is yet to score in nine appearances.

The statistics say everything about Toto’s importance, and a long-term injury would likely derail Udinese’s title hopes. Still, the Bianconeri have a balanced XI with a solid defence, drive on the flanks and a midfield blend of guile and grinta. Udinese’s intangibles make the team a sum greater than their parts, and a bit of luck should see them push Juve & co. all the way to the wire.

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As if being implicated in a match-fixing scandal wasn’t bad enough, Udinese’s 1954-55 campaign would end on an even worse note. Arrigo De Pauli, the club’s deputy president, was killed in a car accident en route to watching Udinese’s pre-season friendly with Torino. He died only a few hours after the Bianconeri’s punishment was announced.

Udinese’s dream season had turned to the darkest of nightmares. Lazio, Bologna and Triestina cherry-picked the squad but the Bianconeri soldiered-on with the barebones. Spearheaded by new forward Giuseppe Secchi’s 22 goals, Udinese finished 1955-56 as Serie B champions and thus secured an immediate top-flight return.

Finishing fourth in their first season back, Udinese enjoyed another extended period in Serie A and survived until 1962. The slide resumed, and the Bianconeri’s yo-yo reputation continued. They were in Serie B for two seasons before dropping down to Serie C. Giuseppe Bertoli returned as an advisor but Udinese finished just 11th in Group A (1964-65).

The Bianconeri’s primavera (youth) team fared much better and captured their Scudetto equivalent. This saw a number of primavera players promoted to the senior squad in 1965-66 and the team performed much better, finishing second.

Udinese’s performances had improved, but financial restraints forced them to continually sell their better players to bigger sides year after year. It took Udine over a decade to achieve promotion: they finally achieved it in 1978, a year that also saw them win the Anglo-Italian Cup.

Having been out of Serie A since 1962, Udinese were in no mood to mess around in Serie B. The club’s new board helped mastermind a barnstorming season from which Udinese claimed 55 points and a quick return to the big time. The Bianconeri had a torrid 1979-80 campaign, and won just three Serie A games all season. Their points total (21) should’ve seen Udinese relegated, but, ironically, the very thing that had started their demise in the first place ended up saving them.

Investigators unearthed an illegal betting pool ring involving multiple players and clubs. Milan, who’d originally finished third, were the most severely implicated. Along with Lazio (originally 13th), Milan were relegated which meant survival for Udinese and Catanzaro (originally 15th and 14th respectively).

Marquee signing: Zico.

The 1980’s progressed with a highlight sixth-place finish in 1982-83. Udinese, by this point, were regarded as one of the peninsula’s stronger sides, and they hoped to cement that status with a blockbuster signing on June 1st, 1983. Brazilian legend Zico, 33, joined Udinese after a minor financial hiccup. A record 26,611 season tickets were sold for the season ahead, and Zico was soon turning on the style at the Stadio Friuli.

Zico’s new team started the season excellent, soaring as high as third, but Zico was injured in a March clash with Brescia and the Bianconeri missed him badly. They were sixth by the time he returned to fitness, and finished ninth (just five points from third) at the end of the season. Zico made a telling contribution, scoring 19 of Udinese’s 47 goals.

A troubled season followed for Udinese and Zico. Injuries and suspensions limited the Brazilian to a handful of appearances as his team finished 11th. Legal problems arose for the Zico in May 1985 and he immediately went AWOL. Zico re-appeared in Brazil after an appeal five months later, having clearly had enough of Italian football. He was never seen in an Udinese shirt again.

Meanwhile, The Biancroneri’s slide continued. Gianpaolo Pozzo took over in 1986 and was met with a baptism of fire as the club were implicated in another betting scandal. Their original punishment of relegation was overturned and replaced with a nine-point penalty for the 1986-87 season. This ultimately saw Udinese relegated, and they were in Serie B for 1987-88.

Udinese’s most notable yo-yo period followed. They were promoted and relegated four times between 1988 and 1995, never staying in the same division for any longer than two years. 1994-95 saw them promoted as Serie B runners-up, and they’ve been a top tier side ever since.

Thus starts the story of today’s Udinese. Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed manager in 1995 and Pozzo redefined the Bianconeri’s philosophies. Udinese focused their energies on setting-up a comprehensive scouting network to unearth cheap, unknown talents as a way of acquiring quality players for severely reduced fees. It’s a strategy that serves them incredibly well even today, and it has allowed the small-town side to maintain their Serie A status without considerable expenditure.

Udinese finished 10th in 1995-96. In April 1997 they scored an excellent 3-0 win over Juventus (despite playing most of the game with 10 men) and came fifth in Serie A to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Zaccheroni’s boys continued their rapid improvement in 1997-98, finishing third in Serie A before the talented coach was whisked away to AC Milan. German striker Oliver Bierhoff followed him to the San Siro after 57 goals in 86 Bianconeri appearances.

The 1990s closed with Udinese finishing sixth and eighth in Serie A. They fell into the table’s lower half in 2000-01 when they finished 12th (but still won the Intertoto Cup, that holy grail of European competition). Roy Hodgson came in for 2001-02 but was fired after badmouthing the Friuli side in the English media.

Luciano Spalletti, who’d originally managed the Bianconeri in the 2000-01 season, returned to Udine in 2002. The club’s fortunes improved immediately: Spalletti took Udinese to sixth in his first season back and seventh in his second. This was something of a golden era for Udinese. Armed with a squad of talented players like Sulley Muntari (he was a good player once upon a time, honest…) David Pizarro, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Felipe, Spalletti took the Bianconeri into the 2005-06 Champions League after finishing fourth in 2004-05.

Serse Cosmi took over when Spalletti left for Roma, and Udinese finished third in a tough Champions League group featuring Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Sporting Lisbon. Now well-known for their attractive, attacking football, Udinese finished 10th in 05-06, 10th the following season, and seventh in 2007-08.

They experienced another European high in 2008-09 by making it to the UEFA Cup quarterfinals. Udinese were sadly defeated by Werder Bremen, but it’s still an impressive achievement for a city of less than 100,000 inhabitants. The Bianconeri finished seventh in Serie A again but missed-out on UEFA Cup qualification.

2009-10 was grim. Udinese took several strides backwards and finished 15th, 11 points from Europe and nine from the relegation zone. Antonio Di Natale’s continued growth was one of the season’s only bright spots: the gifted poacher scored an outstanding 29 goals in 35 Serie A games.

Experienced coach Francesco Guidolin came in for 2010-11’s start and the Bianconeri rose again. Last season was one of Udinese’s best: they finished fourth, qualified for the Champions League and wowed Europe with some of the most exciting football on the continent.

The Bianconeri are top of Serie A by one point at the time of writing. They’ve solidified their defence (only 7 goals conceded in 14 games) without compromising they’re attacking verve, and are in a great position to make a genuine Scudetto push. This season is far from over, but Udinese are in better health than ever.

Sources

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