Gianfranco Zola: The Diminutive Italian Who Spearheaded Chelsea's 'Sexy Football' Revolution

Zola is one of best players to ever play for Chelsea
Zola is one of best players to ever play for Chelsea

Gianfranco Zola is part of a distinct group of players who are rightly considered Premier League revolutionaries.

The formative years of the product we now call the Premier League was dominated by the use of a rigid 4-4-2. The main objective for the majority of English sides was to get the ball out to the flanks to wide midfielders who'll then cross to a pair of target men occupying the box.

BLACKBURN V SO''TON
Blackburn's 1994/95 title-winners deployed tactics synonymous with the English game before foreign intervention | Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Blackburn's 'SAS'-inspired title-winners of 1994/95 and Kevin Keegan's Tyneside 'Entertainers' a season later stand out as two distinct examples of the archetypal 'English way of playing'.

There were anomalies, mind, and perhaps none more notorious than Sir Alex Ferguson's imperious Manchester United side who stumbled across a maverick deep-lying forward in Eric Cantona who'd go on to spearhead their domestic supremacy in the early 1990s.

The Red Devils could attack using the width of the pitch but the presence of the Frenchman handed United a magical dynamic down the centre. He was unlike anything England had previously encountered, playing in a role English football was 'historically suspicious of' (via Michael Cox's book, The Mixer).

Man Utd Parade
Premier League club's sought to find their Eric Cantona equivalent throughout the 1990s | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The rest of the division craved to discover their Cantona equivalent, scouring the perimeters of Europe in attempt to find their guy.

Ipswich Town landed on Bulgarian Boncho Genchev, Manchester City signed Georgian Georgi Kinkladze, Eyal Berkovic arrived at Southampton, Dennis Bergkamp joined Arsenal, while Middlesbrough drafted in Brazilian Juninho.

Then, in November 1996 - yes, the transfer window was a bit weird back then - Chelsea found their Eric.

Gianfranco Zola arrived midway through the 1996/97 season with a tremendous reputation - albeit one he was trying to restore following a difficult end to his Parma career. Carlo Ancelotti refused to accommodate a player of Zola's profile - a number ten - in his meticulously structured 4-4-2 heavily influenced by his former coach Arrigo Sacchi after he succeeded the legendary Nevio Scala in Emilia-Romagna.

Gianfranco Zola of Parma and Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus
Zola (L) spent over three years at Parma before making the switch to the Premier League in 1996 | Getty Images/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Zola had established himself as one of his generation's finest playmakers in his homeland.

Inspired by Diego Maradona during their time together at Napoli, Zola was revered for his sheer creative prowess, ingenious space interpretation and ability from dead-ball situations. He was a master between the lines, although the stringent marking and use of a libero often seen in Serie A during this period meant he wasn't someone who was destined to thrive in Italy.

In England, however, he was. The Premier League was his spiritual home.

Zola joined a Chelsea side who'd attempted to reinvent themselves under a stylish - solely from a football perspective - Glenn Hoddle. They were a middle of the road outfit but the additions of Ruud Gullit, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli - who all arrived in the summer - showed tremendous ambition.

Under Gullit - who succeeded Hoddle as player-manager prior to Zola's arrival - Chelsea's DNA was established. It was 'sexy football', with Zola the final piece - and protagonist - of the Dutchman's revolution.

The Italian endured a culture shock at Ewood Park against Blackburn on debut with the alternate philosophy of the English game compared to the ball-on-the-ground, tactical nature of Serie A laid bare.

It wouldn't be long for Zola to emerge as a household name, however, as he netted his first Chelsea goal - a spectacular long-range free-kick - in his fourth game against West Ham.

That strike set the precedent for a majestic maiden season in the Premier League and was the first of 12 goals he'd score from these situations during his seven-year spell at the club - second to only David Beckham (15) in the competition's history.

His minute size five feet sparkled in between the gaping lines of English defences and midfields. He bewildered opponents with his rapid but elegant changes of direction and capacity to shield the ball from defenders despite his slight frame.

Zola could manipulate the defensive structure of any side through seemingly the simplest of movements. The Italian's genius even forced United boss Ferguson into saying: “He’s a better player than I thought he was. He’s a clever little bugger,” following a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in February 1997.

The Parma cast-off would go on to become the first player in history to win FWA Footballer of the Year honours after joining midway through the campaign.

But it was perhaps his work in the FA Cup that season which would go on to define Zola's spell in west London.

'Magic Box' scored four times in Chelsea's journey to their first piece of silverware in 26 (!) years, with his winner in the semi-final against Wimbledon best encapsulating the brilliance of the Italian in one awe-inspiring sequence.

That turn was just brilliant. One moment he is running in one direction and then he is somewhere else. You’re thinking ‘how did he get there?!’ That’s what made him so special, he could do the unexpected and made it look so simple,” Neil Southall later described, the shot-stopper on the receiving end of Zola's magic in that semi-final encounter.

No one could lay a finger on Zola, and even when Ferguson sought to man-mark the Italian - who Ryan Giggs later admitted was the only player they'd ever pay such close attention to - United were on the receiving end of a memorable 5-0 defeat in April 1999.

Just as Cantona defined the transformation of Manchester United from underachievers to imperious champions, Zola did the same for Chelsea.

But while Cantona did so with an air of self-serving arrogance, laced with moments of controversy and madness, Zola went about his magical craft with an air of childlike charm and, of course, that wide grin.

Gianfranco Zola
The Italian scored 59 times in 229 Premier League appearances | Ben Radford/Getty Images

The Italian was the poster boy for Chelsea's transition, a Premier League tactical revolutionary and undoubtedly one of the finest foreign exports to arrive on British shores.

Very few could make Sir Alex Ferguson envious but Gianfranco Zola did, and that's a testament to the Italian's nagging genius.