Champions of the work of Stefano Pioli have argued that he has been a manager waiting for the right opportunity at the right club at the right time.
His detractors would have argued that the former Juve and Fiorentina centre half simply had not done enough in his previous Serie A positions – at Chievo, Palermo and Bologna – to merit such a chance at their clubs.
Lazio fans would have been numbered amongst the latter camp last July when he was appointed as their new coach.
But ten months on, Pioli has become one of the managerial stories of the 2014/15.
Last season was a shocker for Lazio, finishing in ninth place – with trouble on and off the field. And on the face of it, appointing a new manager who had recently been sacked by Bologna after two seasons in the bottom half of Serie A was unlikely to placate or excite Biancocelesti fans.
That said, while he may have left Bologna under a cloud, Pioli remained popular with fans for his innovative ideas, attacking football and ability to develop players.
The policy of the club’s owners to continually sell the best of them and offer little to the manager in terms of resources made failure almost inevitable – facts not lost on the club’s fans.
And it was the qualities that endeared Pioli to Bologna’s supporters that drew the attention of a Lazio hierarchy that had tired of the defensive and conservative football offered by his predecessor Edoardo Reja
However, those Lazio fans critical of the appointment looked set to be vindicated as the Eagles lost three of their first four league games.
But Pioli steadied the ship picking up five wins and a draw in his next six league games to suggest he had something to offer.
By the winter break, Lazio sat a commendable fourth, a point behind Rafa Benitez’s Napoli in the final Champions League spot – but ten points behind city rivals Roma who occupied the second automatic Champions League qualifying position.
But then a wobble, as Pioli’s men took just four points from the next 15 – and the early season doubts returned.
However, since a disappointing defeat to Genoa in the Stadio Olimpico on February 9, Lazio have gotten impressively into their stride with a remarkable run that saw them win eight Serie A games on the bounce, leap frog Roma into second place and fight their way through to a Coppa Italia final.
That run may have come to a shuddering halt at Juventus on Saturday night, but Pioli’s work has rightly become the talk of Italian football.
So how can Lazio’s rise be explained? As mentioned earlier, there are those who have felt that Pioli has had the managerial talent to make a big splash, but just hadn’t gotten the right opportunity or been given enough time to show his quality.
The timing of the Lazio job has been perfect. The squad itself has a nice blend of youth and experience – and Pioli has done brilliantly in changing their entire approach from Reja’s ponderous, fear football into an exciting, high-risk attacking game based on possession and relentless pressing.
Pioli’s has also built a strong team spirit and coaxed consistent, quality performances from his players, but the key to his success and Lazio’s progress comes down to time.
The club’s failure to qualify for Europe last season has given the coach greater opportunities to get his messages across to his players on the training pitch.
It’s a theme we’ve seen across Europe in recent seasons –with Bielsa at Marseilles, Fournier at Lyon and last season, Brendan Rodgers with Liverpool.
The reduced workload certainly has a benefit when challenging teams tied up in European competition, but Rodgers believed that it was the extra time he got coaching the players and communicating his ideas that had the biggest impact on Liverpool’s season.
Doubtless Pioli and Lazio would agree.
But as the manager himself has said, Lazio have achieved nothing yet. Seven games remain, seven cup finals, according to Pioli, and only when they are out of the way will we be able to properly judge his work.
But for a manager charged with getting his club back into the Europa League in his first season, an automatic Champions League spot would certainly see Pioli exceeding almost everyone’s expectations.