Pitchside Europe

Fiorentina banking on Italy’s set-piece guru

The Unicredit bank in Mestre.

It was here that Gianni Vio worked, pushing pens and filing papers. Then in his early 50s, it was a job, not a passion. Football was Vio's real calling, specifically set-pieces.

His mind would presumably wander at work and he'd draw schemes and situations on the back of Unicredit letterheads, post-it notes or statements. There'd be penalty areas with dots and arrowed lines in different places, clusters and directions.

But these weren't idle doodles or senseless scribbles. They represented a body of work. Vio would host it on a website. He even wrote a book with colleague Alessandro Tettamanzi. It was entitled "Plus 30 per cent" and came with an accompanying CD-ROM to illustrate how, through careful attention to set-pieces, an edge could be found, a value added to your team in their pursuit of victory.

One day, out of the blue Vio got an email. It was from none other than Walter Zenga, the former Inter and Italy international goalkeeper. Now a coach, the man nicknamed Spider Man had found Vio on the World Wide Web. He'd read his book and used the CD-ROM. Impressed by what he'd found, Zenga's curiosity had led him to get in touch.

"I got to know [Vio] in 2005 when I coached Red Star Belgrade," he revealed. "As a goalkeeper I had always been a fanatic about dead-balls. We exchanged emails in the beginning, drawing up schemes as if it were a naval battle. I then took him on all of my experiences abroad."

To begin with Vio was part-time. When Zenga returned to Italy, taking charge of Catania in April 2008, he persuaded the club's president Nino Pulvirenti, who owns budget airline Wind Jet, to fly Vio down from Venice on a Friday in order to take a number of sessions before returning home after matches on a Sunday.

His impact was immediate.

In the first game of the Zenga era at the club, Catania scored twice from corner routines in a 3-0 win against Napoli, setting the team on its way to survival. They became a hallmark of their play the following season. In November, for instance, Catania would have drawn at home to Cagliari and Torino had it not been for Vio's expertise. They won 2-1 and 3-2 respectively instead with decisive goals scored late on directly from set-pieces, gathering six points rather than two.

People started to wonder who or what could be behind Catania's success. Not least because the winner against Torino had caused a sensation.

Catania had won a free-kick from 25-yards out. Giuseppe Mascara stood over it. Torino formed a wall, but as the referee blew his whistle, six Catania players moved. Two shifted across the face of the area. Four dropped in and set up another 'false' wall. As if the Torino goalkeeper Matteo Sereni wasn't unsighted or distracted enough already, one of the Catania players in front of him, Gianvito Plasmati, famously pulled down his shorts. Mascara then shot and scored.

Zenga had tried to keep Vio a secret, but he couldn't any longer. Hailed as Il Maghetto or the Little Wizard, though not before insisting to Il Corriere della Sera that "there's nothing magic to it", all of a sudden Vio was famous in Italy for being a set-piece guru. "The club has understood how important it is to develop different strategies on dead-balls, seeing that from these situations 40 to 50 per cent of goalscoring chances are born," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Coming up with routines all the time, Vio has since written another book called "Dead-balls: the 15-goal striker". It's title is perhaps inspired by how Zenga described his work. "He isn't just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team," Zenga explained. "A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best. He's very skilled at it. He manages to get players scoring who otherwise wouldn't score."

As you might have guessed, Vio concentrates solely on attacking set-pieces. Why? Simply because "there's an infinite number of routines. It's enough to think that there are 4,830 for corner kicks alone." How can you plan to defend them all? How, if you never use the same one again, can you really know what to expect?

"We always try to vary the routines, looking to be unpredictable," Vio claimed. "During the game, teams are lined up on the basis of various roles [players for the most part are in fixed positions], but set-pieces allow you to mix them up again and disorientate the opponent."

The unknown forms a large part of Vio's approach. "Ninety per cent" of it, he claims, is psychological. Making the opponent think they know what's coming and where from with football's equivalent of smoke and mirrors - decoy or dummy runners, screens or false walls to create an opening or a mismatch - it's clear that set-pieces to him are no different from the construction of an illusion, a grand deception. Vio's is the art of 'organised confusion' and he is the undisputed master of it.

A long-time collaborator of Zenga's, he followed Vincenzo Montella from Catania to Fiorentina this summer and his influence has been felt in their renaissance. Exceeding the provocative title of his first book, WhoScored figures tell us that they have scored 38 per cent of their goals in Serie A from set-pieces and have recorded no fewer than 13 in all competitions. Of their 12 goalscorers, the joint second best among them is centre-back Gonzalo Rodriguez with four, followed by fellow defenders Stefan Savic and Facundo Roncaglia with two each.

Vio's legacy lives on in Catania too where set-pieces have led to an even more remarkable 41 per cent of total goals scored this season. Without the wisdom he has passed on, where would they be? Vio is modest enough to admit that "those who really make the difference are the players." He's right of course, but his status as an innovator shouldn't be underestimated, nor should his ability to explain and coach a routine so that theory is turned into successful practice.

'Il Vangelo secondo Vio' - the Gospel according to Vio - has become required reading. From working in a bank, he has become a guarantee, his set-piece routines a cheque in the post [near or far it doesn't matter] that never bounces.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle