Last year, Benevento became the latest in a series of ‘miracle’ clubs to gain their first promotion to Serie A. Following on from Carpi and Frosinone in 2015, and Crotone in 2016, they hoped to make a strong case for the newbies at a time when their presence is used by some to denigrate the league’s 20-team structure.
Unfortunately, their miracle quickly gave way to a nightmare. Having made club history in promotion, they came mightily close to making league history through a miserable run of 14 defeats on the spin. Two more and they would have broken a record held by Brescia since 1995. They became a joke team – after a poor start to life with Czech club Sparta Prague, Andrea Stramaccioni defended his record by arguing: “It’s not like we’re Benevento.”
The club will finish their first season in the top flight rooted to the bottom of Serie A. They were relegated with four fixtures to spare. But at the conclusion of their final home game, a 1-0 win over Genoa, their fans stayed behind to sing songs and applaud their team’s efforts. It was a remarkable way to react to demotion. Head coach Roberto De Zerbi said the reception gave him goosebumps.
Evidently, Benevento’s maiden year in Serie A wasn’t all doom and gloom, and De Zerbi, who took charge in October, played an important part in this. A young coach who began his career with Darfo Boario in Serie D, he received nationwide recognition for his work with Foggia in Serie C between 2014 and 2016. His reputation was founded mainly on the beautiful football his teams played, but his route to the top level was a strange one.
His first job in Serie A came as head coach of Palermo, a role that, at the time, was one of the least stable in football management. Why? Well, because it involved working under Maurizio Zamparini. To get a better picture of Zamparini’s proclivity for hiring and firing, Italian journalist Gabriele Romagnoli once wrote: “You have gone to dinner with Hannibal Lecter, you have married the clone of Elizabeth Taylor. You have signed a contract with Maurizio Zamparini.”
De Zerbi, unsurprisingly, didn’t last long in Sicily. After less than three months in charge, he was sacked. On the back of that, some saw his taking over at winless Benevento last October as the decision of a masochist. It appeared he was, once again, on a hiding to nothing. However, thanks to his ideas, he managed to ensure excitement and enjoyment even in relegation, perhaps reviving his own career in the process.
Experimenting with a number of different formations, from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3 with 4-2-3-1 somewhere in between, he implemented an adventurous and attacking style of play that sat well with the purists. His side averaged 47.5 per cent of possession and 368 short passes per game – in both categories this put them in mid-table, not too far off the likes of Lazio, Sampdoria and Fiorentina. In addition, only six Serie A teams have attacked more in the middle of the pitch than they, showing their intention to play through opposition pressure, rather than around or over it.
Several January additions were integral to this style. Guilherme, a versatile Brazilian wide player signed from Polish champions Legia Warsaw, brought extra creativity to the side in the form of mazy dribbles. Behind him, former Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna and former Tottenham Hotspur defensive midfielder Sandro added experience and composure to the team’s build-up. Alongside ball-playing centre-back Andrea Costa, pacey youth team graduate Enrico Brignola, Lazio loanee Danilo Cataldi and target man Chieck Diabate – who scored eight goals in 10 games – they formed a rather rag-tag bunch, but they allowed Benevento to compete.
De Zerbi’s tactics meant Benevento were always capable of scoring. Consequently, they were able to frighten a number of Italy’s traditional giants. They took the lead away to both Juventus and Roma, and threatened to derail the former’s title race when equalising twice at home. Their most memorable moments came against Milan, however.
At home to the Rossoneri, Benevento secured their first point of the season in the most dramatic way possible. Trailing 2-1 in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time, they looked set to equal the aforementioned 15-match losing run held by Brescia. Then they won a free kick deep in opposition territory. A hopeful cross was curled in, and Alberto Brignoli, their goalkeeper on loan from Juventus, found the net with a stunningly unconventional header.
After that incredible match, De Zerbi, in ominously wistful tone, said: “I will always regret not being able to work with this team from the start of the season.” Evidently, he knew that, while his football might just succeed in rejuvenating the club, it was already too late for a comeback.
Despite that, Benevento soldiered on, earning a momentous win at San Siro in April. Away to Milan, they defended solidly, rode their luck and took their chance. With their only shot on target they scored, and held on to that 1-0 lead to leave a magical mark on the league. They had shocked one of the most expensively assembled squads in the country.
Outside of those brief moments of joy against the big teams, Benevento suffered terrible bad luck. On five occasions, stoppage time concessions dented their hopes of survival. They lost out on points against Torino, Genoa, Sassuolo and Cagliari (twice) after letting in goals in the dying embers. That they didn’t completely crumble following on from those last-gasp defeats was a testament to their self-belief.
Because of that mental fortitude, that desire to continue on regardless of how embarrassing the league table looked for them, as well as their commitment to a riskily offensive style, Benevento won the hearts of neutrals. They were, in the eyes of many, the best worst team in Europe’s top five leagues.