After five exciting seasons at Sassuolo, Eusebio Di Francesco is heading back to Rome to break the stranglehold of Juventus. He has been here before.
When Di Francesco joined as Roma as player in 1997, northern teams dominated Serie A. In the previous 15 years only Maradona’s Napoli had wrestled the crown away from the north. AC Milan and Juventus had shared the last six scudetti.
A versatile, forward-thinking midfielder, Di Francesco was an intelligent player. He read the game incredibly well and although not the most naturally gifted player, he got the best out of his ability. He was a leader as well.
“He was quite a unique player in the dressing room, in the sense that you could feel his presence regardless of whether he was a starter or not.” These are the words of his midfield partner at Roma, Damiano Tommasi. The pair were close; people used to call them the twins. Twenty years later they still call each other gemello (twin) on the phone.
Di Francesco was a regular for Roma in his first three years at the club, making 96 appearances in Serie A. He also earned all of his 12 Azzurri caps during that period although failed to make either the 1998 World Cup squad or Euro 2000 squad. When he had been called up for an international tournament, the Tournoi de France, he refused in order to play a relegation play-off for Piacenza against Cagliari. It was his last game before joining Roma and he helped keep his side in Serie A.
In 2000, Lazio won the title. The northern dominance seemed to be over. Roma were on the title hunt in 2000/01, but Di Francesco could only watch on from the sidelines. A serious injury meant he only made five appearances, the last being on the penultimate weekend as they drew 2-2 away at Napoli. On the final day against Parma, Di Francesco was on the bench as his teammates claimed a historic title. But his influence should not be underestimated in that title-winning side.
“I don’t think enough was made of the contribution of players like Di Francesco,” Tommasi insisted. “He was injured and didn’t play much but did so much to make the team spirit we had. He always helped to raise the standard in training and therefore on the pitch.” Di Francesco was moved out, as Roma looked to kick on. His career petered out.
After retiring from football in 2005, Di Francesco returned to Roma four years after he had left. This time he was part of the Giallorossi backroom staff.
'Team manager' is a bit of an ambiguous term. Luciano Spalletti, set to take charge of his first full season, wanted an experienced Roma man to help with first team affairs. Di Francesco fitted the mould perfectly. Yet it was not an easy job.
There was the Antonio Cassano saga, with his impending move to Real Madrid and feud with captain Francesco Totti casting a shadow over the side. A transfer ban following the infamous Phillipe Mexes poach from French side Auxerre complicated things further. A disappointing campaign saw them finish fifth in Serie A, although the Calciopoli scandal saw them to promoted to second, and they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Middlesbrough.
Di Francesco was exhausted. After just a year in the job he left. He had gained vital experience in how a top club is run, but he wanted a more hands-on role. The goal was to become a top coach.
In many ways Di Francesco was destined to go to the top. His father insisted on calling him Eusebio after his childhood ideal, the great Portuguese star Eusebio. If Arnaldo Di Francesco had had his way then Eusebio’s brother would have been called Fausto in honour of the great Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, but mother Di Francesco drew the line.
Even with the name of a champion and a Serie A winners’ medal from his playing days, Di Francesco knew he would have to start his coaching career from the bottom. His first job came at Luciano in June 2008 with little success, but he was hired by his former club and home team time Pescara as director of the youth system. He took over first team duties in January 2010 after former Juventus defender Antonello Cuccureddu left the club.
Under Di Francesco's guidance Pescara went from Serie D2 to Serie B and he even moved a young Marco Verratti from a trequartista to his now trademark regista role. Di Francesco laid the foundations for Zdenek Zeman’s revered side, one which earned promotion to Serie A. Yet Zeman informed much of Di Francesco’s philosophy.
“He is a source of inspiration for me. I loved playing under him at Roma,” Di Francesco said of his former boss. Zeman brought Di Francesco to Roma in his first summer in charge and he made a lasting impression on him. Di Francesco has always preferred an attacking 4-3-3 like his mentor but does insist upon a sense of balance and that the team does not press forward, be it with the ball or without, all the time.
Di Francesco also uses a regista to protect his defence, which could see Daniele De Rossi became the crucial player in the Giallorossi’s new system. But he and the rest of the team have to be effective and forward-thinking. Di Francesco believes two sideways passes are too many and wants his team to be direct and attacking. This style paved the way for great success at Sassuolo.
After spending their entire history in the lower leagues, Sassuolo earned promotion to Serie B thanks to a short nine-month stint under current Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri. Stefano Pioli narrowly missed out on guiding the club to the top flight, with a heart-breaking play-offs defeat. Then the infamous Union leader, Milan fan and Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi put his faith in Di Francesco.
Playing a new, direct and free flowing style, Sassuolo breezed to the top of Serie B. But a late-season wobble ensured promotion went down to the final day. Simone Missiroli scored in the sixth minute of injury time to dramatically take them up as champions amid wild celebrations in the stands.
The following season was always going to be tough. But Sassuolo impressed in their debut top flight season. They even managed to beat Milan 4-3, thanks to four from Domenico Berardi. It was a bittersweet night for Squinzi as his phone, which has a Rossoneri cover, kept ringing with people full of praise for his side. It even led to the departure of Allegri from the San Siro.
But just weeks later, Di Francesco was gone too. Squinzi thought the side was in danger of relegation. In came Alberto Malesani after the club had tried to persuade for Milan star Filippo Inzaghi to join. Five straight defeats later and Di Francesco was back. He claims he never unpacked his bags. Four points from safety upon his return, Sassuolo survived with a game to spare. Berardi finished with 16 goals, with the most hat-tricks in Europe's top five leagues. All 42 of their goals had been scored by Italians.
Sassuolo went from strength to strength and began to beat the best in the country. Inter and Juventus were defeated and along with that famous win over Milan, Di Francesco’s side earned the tag of Ammazza-Grandi, or Giant Killers. After a great start to the 2015/16 season in which their first loss only came in week seven, Sassuolo finished sixth, above Milan. Allegri helped his old side by beating the Rossoneri in the Coppa Italia final with Juventus. Sassuolo had qualified for Europe.
In September, the town of just 41,000 played their first Europa League group stage game after beating Luzern and Red Star Belgrade in the qualifiers. The Stadio Citta del Tricolore, which is one of the few club-owned stadiums in Italy, was full to burst as they beat European stalwarts Athletic Bilbao 3-0. Sassuolo’s rise under Di Francesco had reached its climax.
“Its like coming home after many years,” Di Francesco revealed with a broad grin during his unveiling at Roma. Many draw comparisons between him and Jurgen Klopp for their touchline passion and hipster dress sense. But Roma are getting a man of his own moulding.
Di Francesco has an attacking style of play that he will not move away from. He will favour home-grown players which should see Roma’s talented youngsters given a chance to shine. The man with the slim suits and stylish spectacles has helped lead Roma to glory before. He could well be about to do the same again, 16 years later.
Words by Richard Hinman @RichardHinman
Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma's dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.