The enigma of Mauro Zárate

Sunday’s Rome derby was, fittingly, decided by Francesco Totti’s brace – a player with all the capabilities to swing matches in his team’s favour. In Mauro Zárate, Lazio also had a player on the pitch capable of making the difference (along with Hernanes) but, as has sometimes been the case this season, he never really involved himself in the game.
The inconsistency of his performances so far has mirrored the inconsistency of his tactical deployment. Lazio Coach Edoardo Reja has experienced real difficulty in finding a position best suited to harness the Argentine’s undoubted talent. Zárate played on the left against Roma on Sunday, but he has also played on the right, as a seconda punta, and as the main man in attack.

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Accusations of selfishness when playing up-front appear to have influenced the frequency with which Reja starts him in a game with a strike partner – only twice in 2011 has this happened. The rest of Zárate’s year has been spent out wide, or on the bench, and it is the benching that is most indicative of the Coach’s frustration. The supposed selfishness is not a tremendous attribute for a wide player or a seconda punta, and it is difficult to get round that unwanted addition to the team through anything other than keeping him away from the starting XI, an increasing occurrence in recent games. When he does use him wide, Reja even allows him to stay further up the pitch compared to the player on the opposite flank (the game against Roma was another very good example of this), yet there are still discernible differences from game to game in the No.10’s offensive output.

When Zárate first joined Lazio on loan in 2008/09 he was under the guidance of Delio Rossi, who had a lot of trust in him. He was used as the reference point of the attack, the go-to guy, and everyone else played around him. The 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1 Rossi primarily used is ideal to this end, but it still took courage to make a guy the focal point of the attack when his only experience of football in Europe was 14 games with Birmingham City. Even more so when you consider Rossi also had Goran Pandev at his disposal, who had just finished his best ever season in club football in terms of performances.

Rossi’s faith was rewarded – 13 goals in 36 appearances, eight assists, and a Coppa Italia trophy. But since then Zárate has not managed to reproduce that sort of form. When Davide Ballardini replaced Rossi for the following season, Zárate’s role changed slightly. He was not always the focal point of the attack, especially when partnered with Julio Cruz, and this was confirmed with the arrival of Sergio Floccari in January 2010. Performances started to dip, and the constant moving of the player to facilitate a return to the highs of 2008/09 began.

It suggests that if Reja is to get Zárate back on track, he needs to build the offence around him, but there are two barriers to this. The first is the arrival, and subsequent success, of Hernanes. His displays have almost demanded centre stage in the team and a leaning towards him when attacking. The second is that Reja is not the type of Coach to build around one player. Even Hernanes, whose efforts have arguably almost single-handedly dragged Lazio to the Champions League spots, was moved when his output started to wane. For Reja, it is about the team, and if Zárate is to return to former glories, he might need to adjust his psyche to one that is more in line with his Coach.

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