Undergoing the ‘Zambrotta’ process

When Juventus Coach Marcello Lippi changed Gianluca Zambrotta’s position in 2002 to full-back, he probably had no idea as to how successful that move would be. Originally a wide midfielder, Lippi started to deploy him at left-back when Mauro Camoranesi took advantage of a Zambrotta injury absence to steal his right midfield slot. Although not his normal position, his success as a full-back was remarkable, and he became regularly acclaimed as one of the best in the world at his peak, aided by an ability to perform equally as well on either flank.
A successful switch like that does not happen with regularity, but judging by the increasing trend of midfielders being used in full-back positions in Serie A this season, there are some Coaches who seem intent on attempting to replicate it, and some players who are getting closer to becoming a ‘new Zambrotta’.
Catania Coach Diego Simeone epitomises the former with his interesting use of Ezequiel Schelotto at right-back. The Italian-Argentine was used as a winger in the early part of the season by Cesena, before being dropped to the bench. Simeone seems to view his qualities slightly differently, and he has deployed him at right-back on a number of occasions already in his short reign.
Against Fiorentina on Sunday, Schelotto was arguably Catania’s biggest threat going forward, with his industry wasted by his teammates. His natural attacking instincts mean that he will always provide width in the narrow 4-3-1-2 Simeone appears to prefer, but defensively he is raw. Adrian Mutu lingered out on the left-hand side for the majority of his time on the pitch, and the Romanian’s constant forays inside gave Schelotto a genuine work out at the back.
At 21-years of age, he is going to struggle during the initial period with little experience to call on (Zambrotta was already an international when he switched), and he is more than likely going to cost Catania a goal or two. Lecce Coach Gigi De Canio had a similar problem when he used Djamel Mesbah, nominally an attacking player, at left-back, and it is telling that he does not use the Algerian there on a regular basis. Yet the potential for reward is there if Simeone does what De Canio fails to do – stick by his decision on a regular basis.
Milan’s Ignazio Abate is good example of what can materialise when you have faith in a decision. It was Leonardo, now Coach at Inter, who first used Abate as right-back last season, having originally played as a right-winger on loan at Torino in 2008/09. His physical attributes were, and still are, perfect for the role, particularly the pace he offers on the flanks. Unfortunately, like Schelotto, he was a bit of a liability defensively, as you would expect from a man who was a midfielder until 2009/10.
That has changed this season under Massimiliano Allegri, who has continued the work Leonardo started. The improvement in the 24-year-old defensively has been so impressive that talk of Milan needing new full-backs has been concentrated onto the left side. But if Abate is to take his transformation a step further and push for international call-ups, he needs to continue this form into the Champions League.
The lack of teams using natural width in Italy means he is not often tested defensively, certainly not to the extent of full-backs in other countries, but in Europe he will face sides with genuine wide players. He has already come to terms with Cristiano Ronaldo, albeit with the help of Gennaro Gattuso, and in the first leg of Milan’s knockout tie against Tottenham Hotspur he ensured Steven Pienaar had no impact on the game.
Good performances against this sort of company will increase his chances of that first Italy cap, and if his efforts for his club are recognised by Cesare Prandelli, the ‘Zambrotta’ process will have been complete.

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