Pitchside Europe

Victims of their own success: Why Udinese fell from grace

Imagine, if you will, Francesco Guidolin, the Udinese coach, as a baker covered in flour pulling a tray out from the oven. To his latest batch, he gives a disapproving look. He followed his trusted recipe yet they haven’t quite risen as they should. The frustration that follows has become a familiar post-game sensation for Guidolin.

Take Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Parma, for instance, Udinese’s fourth in a row in Serie A which leaves them down in 15th and in trouble. It led Guidolin to reflect that “this year the donuts came out of the oven without a hole in the middle.” Not as planned then.

Udinese were expected to do well this season. To say they finished the last one strongly is an understatement. A 5-2 win against Inter at San Siro on the final day was their seventh consecutive victory. It meant the club that had claimed fourth spot in 2011 then third in 2012 had worked another minor miracle [relative to their resources] by ending 2013 in fifth.

There was cause for celebration. And there would be again when Toto Di Natale, the club’s 36-year-old all-time top scorer, up to 11th on the list for Serie A as a whole, announced that he was renewing his contract until 2015 with an option of another year.

Adding to the sense of optimism around Stadio Friuli, which incidentally Udinese revealed they had effectively established ownership of for the next century and would be refurbishing, was how, in contrast to other years, a clutch of their best players weren’t sold in the summer. The ‘only’ one of significance who they cashed in on was centre-back Mehdi Benatia. Udinese had kept Luis Muriel, the Colombia international striker so rich in potential, even locking him down to a new deal until 2018 amid interest from across Europe.

It was quite justifiably assumed then that they would not only pick up from where they left off in the last campaign but hit the ground running. They didn’t. For the third year in a row, Udinese fell at the first hurdle in Europe, this time to Slovan Liberec in the Europa League preliminaries, adding to the impression that, for all the admiration their model receives, it has done nothing to improve Italy’s UEFA co-efficient in recent times.

They then lost away to Lazio on the opening day in Serie A. Of course there’s no shame in that. Their opponents were the Coppa Italia holders, and Udinese bounced back the following weekend by beating Parma. But a pattern has emerged. No sooner do Udinese pick themselves up then they fall back down again. No sooner do they turn a corner then they hit a dead end.

Udinese have lacked consistency. They are still yet to put together back-to-back wins in the league. Benatia has proven a huge loss, a tipping point maybe, a sale too many cumulatively speaking over the last three seasons, a symbol of spreading themselves too thin.

Undefeated at home for more than a year, the fortress that was Friuli came to be breached first by Roma in late October then by Inter and everyone else who has visited it since, except Fiorentina. It has been reduced to rubble and not just by the building work going on.

So what has happened?

Prior to Roma’s visit to Udine, Benatia offered an insightful explanation. “For the first time the best players weren’t sold and maybe this is the problem,” he told Il Messaggero Veneto. “When I was there Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata left one year and Kwadwo Asamoah, Mauricio Isla and Samir Handanovic the other. In the dressing room we were really afraid of getting relegated and so we started [seasons] at 1000mph to get to 40 points as quickly as possible. Maybe this year in Udine they were a little calmer about doing it.”

Curiously counter-intuitive, isn’t it, how the apparent weakening of the team through Udinese’s policy of selling their stars year on year actually produced a dynamic within those who remained which galvanised, strengthened and focused their minds. The absence of that fear and the creeping in of complacency, however, only goes so far in accounting for Udinese’s downturn.

They have been accused of lacking character. Fans have questioned the players’ commitment and by the same token the orientation of the club’s transfer policy, which finds value abroad and not at home. Do the many foreign players turning out for Udinese really care about the club, supporters ask? Protests have been held at the training ground on several occasions this season, usually with the application or perceived lack of it from the South Americans the principal motivation. Some of the criticism is fair. Some isn’t.

Other factors have conspired against Udinese. Injuries for one. Deprived of Zeljko Brkic [hardly a great replacement for Handanovic], Maurizio Domizzi, Giampiero Pinzi, Thomas Heurtaux and Muriel at various stages throughout the first half of the season, often Guidolin has been compelled to either deploy players out of position or throw youngsters into the first team who are still raw and not yet ready. Continuity has therefore been hard to find. Doubts have set in.

After the 2-0 defeat to Torino in mid-December, Guidolin indicated that he would step aside if the club considered him part of the problem. He has suffered greatly through the years with anxiety and, one imagines, Udinese’s run has taken a lot out of him. “I love this team and I am loved by Udine,” Guidolin said, “but for this reason the link is so strong that I suffer too much for my team and for this situation.”

It wasn’t the end. Owner Gianpaolo Pozzo gave the coach his full confidence in his ability to turn things around - he considers Guidolin a member of the family - and they have moved on from it. Guidolin claims it was a heat of the moment thing. The hope is that Di Natale’s shock announcement following Udinese’s first game back after Christmas, a 3-1 loss to Hellas, when he told journalists that he had thought things over again and will retire at the end of this season was the same. You definitely get the impression with Di Natale that he listened to his heart and not his body last summer which was telling him to stop.

He has looked his age this season, although it must be said in mitigation that Muriel’s absence alongside him and a lack of service hasn’t helped. A plus-20 goalscorer in each of the last four seasons, a feat last achieved by Gabriel Batistuta in Serie A between 1997 and 2001, Di Natale has only been on the scoresheet five times in this, a drop-off in production that makes Udinese’s own decline in the table understandable. Linked with Fabio Borini, nothing has come of that and the return of Muriel should get Udinese firing again.

Flashes are there. Though they have lost to Verona, Samp, Lazio and Parma in the New Year, Udinese have knocked out both Inter and Milan to progress to the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia where they’ll face Fiorentina. They can still rescue their season and, though only three points off the relegation zone, are expected to preserve their Serie A status for a 20th consecutive season.

After three years of outstanding recruitment, succession planning, buying low, selling high and all-round overachievement, Udinese - whose wage bill incidentally is the fourth lowest in the league - are simply regressing back in line with their capabilities.

Those will change once work on the Stadio Friuli reaches completion. “In the future with the increase in revenue that we expect from the new stadium,” Pozzo told La Gazzetta dello Sport, “We could imagine keeping our best players longer while also conserving the balance between revenues and costs.”

So although Udinese’s place in the table might be precarious at the moment, they are well-positioned for the years to come.

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle