Roberto Donadoni and Parma are two former greats, battling to shake off tarnished reputations – the former following disappointing spells coaching Italy and Napoli, with the latter failing to recreate their 90s purple patch after the Parmalat scandal almost ten years ago. However, since they came together in January, they have gone some way to consigning the bad memories to the history books.
“Zola!” cried the Parma fans after the sacking of Franco Colomba in January, baying for the return of their diminutive hero who had seen them through their greatest period of success as a player, winning the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia in 1995.
But, it was not to be. In early January it was announced that Donadoni would get the job, with scorn and scepticism pouring from all corners of calcio – and the Tardini’s curva nord. Now, little over four months later, Gialloblu sporting director Pietro Leonardi has branded Donadoni as “the perfect coach,” with Parma’s victory against Siena the first time they have ever won six games consecutively.
Donadoni has achieved this feat with a key tactical tweak from the Colomba reign, switching to a three-man defence from the 4-4-1-1 used by the outgoing tactician. The 3-5-2 is a system he has generally utilised throughout his coaching career, first at Livorno and then Napoli, albeit preferring a more standard four during his time with Italy and Cagliari. Parma have conceded only five in the last nine games, with Gabriel Paletta in particular excelling at the centre of the defensive trio.
However, it isn’t just Donadoni’s tactics which has impressed this season, with the shrewd loan signings made by Pietro Leonardi in both transfer windows perhaps the most compelling factor in the great turnaround. Aside from the likes of Jonathan, Jonathan Biabiany and Sergio Floccari, it is in the centre of midfield where the influx of new players has really told. McDonald Mariga arrived from Inter in January, adding energy and bite to an aging midfield , with the true revelation – Jaime Valdés – joining from Sporting CP.
Valdés was a calcio journeyman from 2000 to 2010, with spells at Bari, Lecce and Atalanta alongside a mere five appearances at Fiorentina. Having originally been deployed as an attacking midfielder, Donadoni has moved him into a deeper role, and he has been able to dictate play impressively. Only Sebastian Giovinco has played more key passes per game than the Chilean since his winter arrival.
The dramatic January transformation has not only secured Serie A football for another season – but also the prospect of finishing comfortably on the top half. It has left an unusual feeling of optimism bouncing around the Tardini, even with the almost imminent departure of Sebastian Giovinco. It seems unlikely that even the late season surge will be enough to keep the Italian international at the Tardini, not least with Barcelona and Juventus among the clubs making no secret of their interest in him.
Nevertheless, thanks to the crafty work of Leonardi in his transfer dealings, many of the current loanees have contract clauses which mean the deals can be made permanent, or at least semi-permanent as a co-ownership. It is a move which could prove vital in continuing Parma’s conversion from relegation battlers to European contenders, after numerous seasons of uncertainty both on the pitch and touchline.
“The ultimate goal is become like Ajax of a few years ago, playing good football, starting young and entertaining people,” Donadoni ambitiously declared. “I’d like Parma to become a reference point for our entire region.” But, until then, the former Italian international insists: “I want to enjoy this beautiful moment and nothing else.” After such an excellent start with the Emiliani, few would begrudge him the pleasure.