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Jun 14, 2013

How Garcia can reinvigorate Roma

Roma have already had one go at aping the Barcelona recipe for success. Having seen the stewardship of Luis Enrique, the brave first appointment of the Di Benedetto era, fizzle out, they will hope the second attempt is a touch more successful.

Rudi Garcia is not directly hewn from the Catalan club's culture like Enrique, but he is most certainly on the same wavelength when it comes to footballing philosophy. Influential magazine France Football took to referring to the side Garcia built at Lille as a "Mini-Barca", with their attacking verve and movement at its prime shaped in a loose 4-3-3. By the second half of his fourth season in charge, Garcia even flirted with using his star man Eden Hazard as a false nine, to compensate for the departure of Moussa Sow.

Garcia really authored a revolution on the playing side at Lille, and his new paymasters at Roma will hope he can do the same in the Italian capital. His predecessor Claude Puel had done a magnificent job on limited resources, lifting his squad into the Champions League in successive years. Yet Garcia's project was more ambitious and, well, just more fun. A keen rock guitarist in his spare time, the coach got his side to move with a bit of swagger, and to truly express themselves. After Puel's austere outlook, Lille's players appeared liberated under Garcia.

Garcia inspired such a cult of personality that the squad's faux-Bond villain matchday get-ups of blazer and rollneck sweater made it look as if his players - including the esteemed likes of Eden Hazard and Joe Cole - were little brothers copying him. He convinced Cole to turn his back on the Premier League, to the surprise of much of England's media, in selling him a vision of a style of play that appealed to the playmaker's artistic side, and made Cole believe his game could develop anew, even at 30. Garcia did likewise in persuading the highly-rated France winger Dimitri Payet to reject a move to Paris Saint-Germain in favour of joining Les Dogues.

Reinforcements had been necessary immediately after the stunning league and cup double win in 2011. As is normal with a club of Lille's size, success was swiftly followed by a splintering of the team that Rudi built, with Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Adil Rami heading out the exit door with the red and white ribbons still tied to the trophies.

The hope will be that in Serie A, Garcia will have the resources to retain the best elements of his squad, as well as the time to let his ideas take root in the Eternal City. It already seems he will be well backed by president James Pallotta, and the coach apparently hopes to take one of his old charges with him, the accomplished, €15 million-rated young left-back Lucas Digne.

Those links run deep - Garcia had also been a player at Lille for six years - but his "historic" contribution to the club as a coach (as president Michel Seydoux described it this week) was almost truncated. He was fired in June 2009 after his first season at the club - in which he had led Lille to fifth place and Europa League qualification - after the coach fell out with general manager Xavier Thuillot over the club's direction. A number of first-teamers complained to the board and a couple of hundred fans gathered outside the club's administrative offices to protest the decision. Seydoux reacted, re-hiring Garcia a fortnight later and sacking Thuillot instead.

If that fall-out really had been the end for Garcia at Lille, it's odds on he would have slipped back into the rank and file of the managerial game in France, and that he wouldn't be here now. The more interesting aspect of that tale, however, is that it is an illustration of his hard-headedness, despite an open, media-friendly exterior. Garcia dares to take whatever decisions are necessary in order to get the job done.

Just ask his former charges Benoit Pedretti and Nolan Roux, well-regarded but dropped when he felt the team needed a switch in impetus - or when he felt they simply weren't pulling their weight. "I haven't liked Nolan's last few appearances as substitute at all," said Garcia after dropping him from the squad in February. "This decision should serve as a lesson to him."

This is exactly the kind of situation in which Garcia will require strong backing at the Stadio Olimpico. Putting Tulio De Melo or Franck Beria's noses out of joint is one thing; upsetting Francesco Totti or Daniele De Rossi is quite another entirely. Those at Roma clearly feel he will have the clout to govern as he sees fit, with sporting director Walter Sabatini thought to be the major catalyst behind choosing Garcia ahead of the more recognised name (certainly in Italy) of Laurent Blanc.

The other side of Garcia's good cop, bad cop routine is that while requiring high standards and full commitment, he is protective of his players and nurtures them, inspiring genuine loyalty. When then-Belgium coach Georges Leekens questioned Hazard's professionalism and banned the forward from the national team squad in 2011, Garcia quickly - and very publically - leapt to his man's defence. Hazard responded with a series of superhuman performances that kept Lille in with a shout of an improbable title retention until 2011-12's penultimate weekend.

Garcia will need to build similar bonds with key players in the Giallorossi dressing room pretty quickly. Pablo Daniel Osvaldo could be an early beneficiary after his recent disciplinary problems - the new boss likes to play with a combative centre-forward with wide players moving around him, so he may be key.

Yet as much as the way is fraught with danger for Garcia, it is also paved with opportunity. With money short and a cycle of success coming to an end, it was his time to leave Lille. Now this keen student of tactics will get to put his wares to use in a country that never stops discussing them. Time will tell if Garcia's Italian sojourn is to become a legacy or a mere secondment.

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