Pep Clotet interview: On Brescia, Roberto Baggio and Jude Bellingham as he plots the club's Serie B revival in Italy

In an exclusive interview, Pep Clotet reveals all on the turnaround at Massimo Cellino’s Brescia, why he kept Roberto Baggio’s shirt on the wall, and discovering the mezzala role – one he believes would suit his former Birmingham wonderkid Jude Bellingham…

Birmingham City head coach Pep Clotet pictured in March 2020
Image: Former Birmingham City boss Pep Clotet is enjoying his new adventure in Italy with Brescia

Pep is already a famous name at Brescia. Guardiola himself played there. His shirt adorns the wall at the training ground alongside those of Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. But it is another Pep – Clotet, the former Birmingham boss – carrying Brescia’s hopes now.

The Spaniard arrived in February to find a team that had lost four games in a row and was enduring fan protests outside the club's city headquarters. Clotet was already their fourth coach of the season and he was charged with preventing a double relegation.

Since then, there have been tales of eccentric owner Massimo Cellino on the touchline and even the alarming sight of an opposition coach passing out in the recent game against Pescara. "Some said it was a strategy but, to be fair, he properly fainted." Amid it all, he has been able to turn things around at Brescia.

A fan of Brescia Calcio wearing a shirt of Roberto Baggio celebrates the victory of the Serie B championship after the Serie B match between Brescia Calcio and Ascoli Calcio 1898 FC at Stadio Mario Rigamonti on May 1, 2019 in Brescia, Italy.
Image: Roberto Baggio remains a huge favourite with the fans from his playing days

Speaking via a Zoom call from Italy, Clotet has to adjust the curtains to stop the glare on his screen. "After three years in Birmingham, you don't expect sun," he tells Sky Sports. Joking aside, he is relishing this chance, having overcome the problems that he inherited.

Brescia have picked up 21 points from 12 games and top the form table at home, ending relegation fears that had loomed large when only one point above the drop zone upon Clotet's arrival. But an early defeat to Cremonese had underlined the depth of their plight.

"That is the worst that I felt. Things got worse before they started to get better. The situation was difficult. It is a massive club and there was a lot of pressure after a few coaches had come and gone this season. When things go bad it can become a spiral.

"In my individual meetings with the players, they all mentioned Serie C. They were scared of going into the drop zone so I had to put a lot of work into restoring their belief.

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"It was very important to know whether the team had a tactical problem, a physical problem or just a confidence problem. With us, it was a bit of a mix of everything. We had to move away from the mentality of trying to save the individual not the team.

"I tried to increase the intensity of the training sessions. Slowly, they got much better physically. Everyone pulled together which is not easy in the situation that we were in. Once that happened, then things began to change quickly and it all turned around."

Florian Aye celebrates after scoring  during the Serie B Match between Brescia vs Frosinone, in Chiavari, Italy, on February 27, 2021.. (Photo by Stefano Nicoli/NurPhoto)
Image: Florian Aye and Brescia have turned things around this season under Clotet

Communication within the squad was an issue.

"Half of the squad don't understand Italian," says Clotet. "That is when I realised we had a problem." He found a solution. Spanish for the Italians and English for the rest. "It is funny because I am translating myself in the team talk. Now I do not know what I speak."

The quality of the players was not such a problem.

"I realised straight away that it was the kind of team where I could play the football that I have always liked. At Birmingham, we had to play football that suited the quality of players that we had. But we were limited in the football we could play that would suit everyone.

"Here, we can think about being offensive with high pressing, winning the ball back quickly when we lose it. We attack with a vertical mentality and a high line. Instead of being negative and waiting for opposition mistakes, we can be positive and force mistakes."

Guardiola of Brescia in action during the Serie A 7th Round League match between Brescia and Chievo, played at the M. Rigamonti Stadium, Brescia Italy.
Image: The first Pep at Brescia - Guardiola in action during the club's Serie A days

Clotet always talks well on tactical matters but the learning curve in Italy has been steep for the only foreign coach working in Serie B. He had to adjust to the culture. "It was easier for me to adapt and then grow from there than ask for something new," he explains.

"There are trends here that are not predominant in England. Here, there is the Atalanta model which is based on three at the back with either high or medium pressure but with a tight man-marking structure that does not allow the opposition space.

"The other is the 4-3-1-2. That is the one that I am using. Not because I prefer it but because this team had success being promoted like that. The idea was to give the players back something that they could rely on and has worked for them before as a base."

Even playing positions in Italy are different. Clotet has discovered a new one. "Mezzala, that is the word for it. These two midfielders that play either side of the central midfielder in this system. That position is played completely differently here to elsewhere.

"I was surprised by how this midfielder in Italy goes high to get the full-back at source. They have to be physical enough to press that opposition full-back. It is very intense for that midfielder but it is a very good way of doing it. It changed the perception I had before.

"In Spain, we do not play like this. In England, we do not play like this. So it is difficult to find a player from abroad who can play that position. In Italy, they teach it."

England's Jude Bellingham warms up before the UEFA Nations League soccer match between England and Iceland at Wembley stadium in London, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Michael Regan/Pool via AP)
Image: Jude Bellingham was given his professional debut at Birmingham by Clotet

One English midfielder does spring to mind. Clotet was the coach who gave Jude Bellingham his professional debut soon after his 16th birthday. He has followed the youngster's development at Borussia Dortmund and seen him progress to the England national side.

Clotet, 43, describes him as "a great ambassador for the British game" - and, yes, a potential mezzala. "I really like him in a three. It allows him to go and attack. He has more options. From there, he can press wide or he can press in. He can have more freedom."

Clotet acknowledges that he is something of a cultural magpie as a result of travels that have also taken him to Scandinavia on his long coaching journey. "I am always the odd one out. But I buy into the culture. I did that in England and I absorbed the positives from there.

"I have not come here to teach them here in Italy. That would be useless. I respect the way the game is played. But I try to bring bits of what I have learned in England. For example, we train with intensity. These values were nurtured in England.

"They are working here."

Pep Clotet manager of Brescia Calcio looks on during the Serie B match between Empoli FC and Brescia Calcio at Stadio Carlo Castellani on April 17, 2021 in Empoli, Italy.
Image: Clotet on the touchline during the weekeng game against leaders Empoli

Some cultural differences have not gone so well. There was even a red card for the new coach in that game against Cremonese. "I stepped one foot out of the zone. That was enough to call it a pitch invasion. It was very strict. That was my welcome to the league."

It was also the game that sparked headlines back in England as Cellino, the controversial former Leeds United owner, was said to have taken charge of the team on the touchline in Clotet's absence. That is something that, he insists, was blown out of all proportion.

"It was made up a little bit," he says. "He was 50 metres away but someone from the other side of the pitch takes a photograph and it looks like something it was not. He wanted the team to feel he was supporting them in the game but there was nothing in it."

BRESCIA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 09: Brescia Calcio President Massimo Cellino looks on during the Serie A match between Brescia Calcio and Udinese Calcio at Stadio Mario Rigamonti on February 9, 2020 in Brescia, Italy. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Image: Brescia president Massimo Cellino remains a controversial character

According to Clotet, Cellino "has done a fantastic job with this club" but there is no getting away from the fact that the Italian is not shy when it comes to hiring and firing. "He is very strict on coaches. We all know this. But he has always been very clear with me."

Right now, there is no reason to worry. Not when Brescia are in the top half of a league that rewards the top eight with a play-off place. "The team is clearly on a progression. They have not done it by scrapping and holding on, they have done it by playing football.

"I had a few talks with them last week and I saw how they changed. Through the hard work, that fear is not there now. The fact that we are so many points above the danger zone is a huge success for us. I just hope there are enough games left because the belief is there.

"We have a chance."

No team in Italy has spent more seasons in Serie B than Brescia, but no team has been promoted more times either. The hope now is that the ultimate yo-yo club is on the up again. Clotet and his players are learning to embrace that history once more.

"When I arrived, I thought that maybe we should take the shirts down because it is not easy for a player when you walk into the room and see Baggio's shirt. It can be a bit scary. But we did not remove them. You can just imagine the club this was." Time to dream again.

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