A name that has unfortunately faded into obscurity in recent years, Vittorio Pozzo is undoubtedly one of the greatest managers of all time. One of the most relentlessly successful international coaches the game has ever seen, Pozzo led Italy to two World Cup triumphs and Olympic gold during his twenty years in charge of the Azzurri in three spells between 1912 and 1948.
A prolific traveller during his youth, Pozzo studied in England at the turn of the century, learning English in Manchester and discovering football in the throes of a nascent professionalism. The game fascinated Pozzo and, overcome with an evangelical zeal, embarked on a playing career which saw him appear for Grasshopper Club Zurich before returning to Italy with Torino in 1906.
Back in Italy and determined to ingrain football into general society on the peninsula, Pozzo volunteered to coach the Italian national team at the Olympics of 1912 in Stockholm. Despite being eliminated at the first hurdle at the hands of Finland the tournament had been a significant learning process for the Azzurri and a notable milestone on the country’s road to footballing development.
On his return from Sweden Pozzo went back to Torino in a managerial capacity, the club at which he stayed until 1922. During that time the rising coach was forced to juggle football with his job as a middle manager at Pirelli as well as having his blossoming sporting commitments disrupted by the First World War. In 1922 he left Turin and headed south, taking the reins at AC Milan and overseeing a relatively quiet time in the Rossoneri‘s history before returning to the national team in 1928.
Pozzo, known to many as il Vecchio Maestro (the Old Master), was eventually handed the Italy job on a permanent basis in the winter of 1929 – although he was initially unpaid – and promptly set about building one of the most successful teams there has ever been. The most significant aspect of Pozzo’s position was that he was given free reign over the national team, becoming one of the first international managers to be able to make decisions without the often smothering influence of a technical committee.
Italy didn’t take part in the first World Cup in 1930, but all the while Pozzo was developing his tactical theories – the ‘Metodo‘ system being the most famous of his ideas. The formation was loosely based on the 2-3-5 system which had become popular in central Europe during the 1920s, but differed in several crucial ways.
Rather than risking a sheer lack of defensive cover by playing five out-and-out strikers, Pozzo dropped two of the forwards back into what would now be considered an attacking midfield position. This created what became known as “inside forwards” and gave Italy, in what was essentially a 2-3-2-3 shape, far greater flexibility than many of their rivals.
By the time the 1934 World Cup came around Pozzo had as good as perfected his system and was in a position to mount a realistic bid for the game’s biggest title on home turf. The Italians cantered past the United States with a 7-1 victory in the first round before struggling to a draw against Spain in the Quarter Finals, eventually beating the Iberians 1-0 in a replay the following day.
The Azzurri‘s most notable win, however, came in the last four against Hugo Meisl and his Austrian Wunderteam. Inspired by the likes of Giuseppe Meazza and Angelo Schiavio, Pozzo’s team upset the odds by triumphing 1-0 in San Siro with a goal from 24 year-old striker Enrique Guaita. Not only was it a triumph over one of the best teams on the planet, it was also a triumph of the new over the old. The seemingly all-powerful Danubian 2-3-5 had been displaced by Metodo, Pozzo’s ideas leading to a dramatic change in the confluence of strategic thinking.
The final was an even more dramatic affair, Czechoslovakia being beaten 2-1 in Rome with late goals from Raimundo Orsi (81st minute) and Schiavo (95th minute) overcoming Antonín Puc’s earlier strike. The ’34 World Cup had signaled a juncture in the evolution of tactics, Pozzo being the central figure in this move away from the attack-biased systems on the 1920s and towards a more cautious, counter-attacking future. This was il Vecchio Maestro‘s finest hour.
Pozzo and Italy’s run of success continued throughout the 1930s, the Azzurri winning the Central European International Cup in 1935 before claiming the Olympic title in Berlin a year later. The Olympic final saw Austria slain yet again, the Italians running out 2-1 winners in extra-time with two goals from Frossi to kill off the Austrian golden generation once and for all.
Pozzo’s Italy were widely considered the best team on the planet going into the 1938 World Cup in France, but were having their stranglehold on the international game threatened by the up-and-coming Hungarians. After comfortable passage through to the final the two teams clashed in the tournament’s climax, the rampant Italians up against Alfred Schaffer’s majestic team. Despite Hungary arguably having played the more impressive football during the competition, Italy refused to be phased as Pozzo led them to a famous 4-2 victory in Paris.
A brace each for Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola gave Italy their second consecutive world title, Pozzo outsmarting a Hungary side still attempting to adapt to the tactical changes that had been brought about four years earlier. However, where Hungary would continue improving until well into the 1950s, ’38 marked the point from which Italian football began something of a decline.
Pozzo remained in his job until the after the Second World War, but resigned in 1948 following a 5-3 defeat to Denmark in the Olympic quarter-finals. By that time the great coach had become unfortunately tainted by association to Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, many believing him to be at best a puppet and at worst a voracious supporter of the right-wing dictator. He returned to life as a sports journalist for La Stampa after quitting management with his reputation far from as strong as it deserved to be.
A tactical visionary and arguably the game’s most prolific international coach, any list of the football’s greatest managers would be thoroughly incomplete without mention of il Vecchio Maestro, the godfather of Italian football as we know it today.