I’ll be honest. Before Wednesday morning, the name Veljko Paunović meant absolutely nothing to me. Most Reading fans were probably in the same boat, unless you’re a follower of MLS or a Serbian youth football connoisseur.
Yet here we are, four days later, and Paunović has been named the new Royals boss and is the man we will place all our hopes in for the 2020/21 season. But who really is the coach affectionately known as ‘Pauno’?
With the help of those far more knowledgeable on Paunović than me, I went on a quest to find out. The views you’ll read throughout this piece come from the following four fine gentlemen. My thanks to them for their time and insight.
Nebojša Marković - Serbian football journalist for Mondo Sport
Guillermo Rivera - Chicago Fire reporter for The Athletic
Shane Murray - Former Chicago Fire reporter for MLSsoccer.com for five years
As a player, Pauno featured for 11 different clubs in five different countries, as well as for the Serbia and Montenegro international team. But what is his reputation like as a manager in his homeland?
NM: Really positive, due to his successes with the Serbia youth teams. In 2014, he reached the U19 Euro semis and then went on with that generation to win the 2015 U20 World Cup. That boosted his profile as a young and up-and-coming coach who did amazing job with a very talented side. He’s thought of as someone who might one day be the national team coach.
That win at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup win stands out as a significant achievement. How big was that for Serbian football and how much credit did Pauno get for that?
NM: Pauno got a lot of credit for that, as he was bringing up that team since they were U18 and he managed to do something we might have to wait for a very long time to see again. It was very significant for Serbian football, as that generation brought a lot of young players to the big scene and we could see that generation peak in the next 3-5 years.
Later that year, Pauno took his first job in club football when he was appointed manager of MLS side Chicago Fire. How did he get on during his four years in charge?
SM: Paunovic’s main success in his four years in Chicago was making the play-offs in 2017, which was the first time the club qualified for the post-season since 2012. That said, after guiding them to an impressive third-place regular season finish, they were eliminated in the first play-off game, losing 4-0 at home to New York Red Bulls. In his first year, the Fire finished bottom of the league as the team underwent a considerable rebuild following the end of Frank Yallop’s tenure in 2015, while in 2018 the Fire had the fourth worst record in MLS and missed the play-offs by 18 points.
In the US Open Cup, a trophy the Fire have won four times, they had two semi-final eliminations and were beaten by lower tier clubs in two of his four seasons. Ultimately, successes were few and far between and his tenure was characterised by mediocrity and underachievement.
PM: Pauno wasn’t very successful here, but most coaches haven’t been over the last ten years, or so. He did make the MLS playoffs in 2017, which is the only time the Fire have made it in the last decade.
GR: There weren’t many successes on the pitch but he did manage to successfully convince Bastian Schweinsteiger to come to Chicago. The main failure was that the Fire never assumed an identity or style of play under his direction in four seasons.
He left the club last November at the end of the 2019 MLS season in which the Fire finished 17th out of 24 teams in the overall table. Was there any particular reason for his departure?
GR: Ultimately 41 wins, 58 losses, and 37 draws in four seasons will get a professional manager axed from just about any club.
SM: There is the belief that he would have been sacked sooner but for the stubbornness of General Manager Nelson Rodriguez, who was the key man behind Paunovic’s surprise appointment in 2015, and continued to stick by him despite the poor results and performances. Rodriguez constantly referenced “The Process” and asked the fans to trust him and the Serbian, but that began to wear thin after rebuild after rebuild and lots of promises that went unrealised.
PM: Pauno was fired after new owner Joe Mansueto took control of the club. I think Mansueto just felt it was time for a fresh start after so much losing.
Do supporters in Chicago look back on his time as manager with fondness?
PM: I don’t think most supporters will look back at his time here fondly, but he’s not as hated as some other managers we’ve had, either. His time here coincided with Bastian Schweinsteiger playing here, which was fun. However, Pauno kept using Basti deeper and deeper on the field, until he was a central defender in his final season. That always seemed like a waste of his talents, to me.
GR: I’m not sure that supporters will fondly remember one of the worst four year stretches in club history, no matter how well he interacted with them.
SM: While Pauno was well liked by the fans, there were no tears shed when his sacking eventually arrived five weeks after the end of their 2019 campaign. The results of 2017 were enjoyed by all in Chicago, with several sell-outs at the club’s Toyota Park stadium and there was a distinct air of optimism around the club.
However, they failed to build on those achievements and quickly returned to the predictable, ineffective play that defined his time in Chicago. The club was typically one of the higher spenders in the league, and had the third highest salary budget in 2019, so one play-off appearance in four years was a poor return on that level of investment.
What would you suggest his main style of football is and what tactics does he use?
NM: His main style is based on retaining possession and in Serbia he used a classic 4-2-3-1, which he also used at Chicago Fire. But later on, he changed more in the United States. He likes his teams to play out from the back, but he is not rigid in his philosophy, he can be a bit pragmatic too.
SM: This is a tricky one to answer as there was no clear style or identity to the team over his four years in Chicago, which was a constant source of frustration and criticism from the fans. He used many different formations over his 136 games, but his go-to was probably a 4-2-3-1 line-up, with two wingers in the three supporting the main striker. He liked to talk about a possession-based game, but regularly trailed in the possession percentages, even at home. His in-game decision-making and substitutions often baffled the fans too, while his reluctance to go for the jugular when one or two goals up often meant the Fire failed to close out games they should have won or drawn.
GR: Defining his main style or favoured formation may have been his biggest issue over the course of his tenure. The Fire never developed a consistent style of play and frequent changes in tactical approach angered players who thought they should be more consistent.
What about his approach towards young players?
NM: He likes working with young players, offering them opportunities to grow and improve, to give them tools to do well, as he would say. At U20 Serbia, players loved working with him and they really bought into everything he was doing with them on and off the pitch.
PM: This is strange considering he won a youth World Cup as a coach, but he was particularly bad about integrating young players from the academy into the team. That has improved greatly since he left.
SM: Having made his name guiding the Serbian U-20s to a World Cup win over Brazil in 2015, there was an expectation that Paunovic would get the best out of the young players on the roster and help with the development of academy players. That didn’t really materialise, even though he wasn’t afraid to give games to the younger players in the squad. He would often appear to have fall outs with certain players, consigning them to the bench for long spells, one of which was upcoming Chicago native Djordje Mihailovic. The attack-minded midfielder, now 21, was touted as a rising star and has even made five appearances for the USA and linked with a move to Europe, but he regularly found himself inexplicably out of the line-up.
Any indications on what he is like as a person?
GR: He’s very competitive and can be intense. He was always accommodating with media and fans but wasn’t exactly popular in the locker room. That may have been more due to results than personality, however. That said, character-wise, Paunovic seemed to be a quality individual.
SM: Pauno was always a gentleman and treated the media, fans and players with respect. He was always quick to congratulate and compliment opposing teams and never criticised his own players, at least in public. I believe he speaks six languages, so his communication skills are superb and allow him to speak with clarity to most players.
PM: He’s a nice guy away from the pitch, but I’ve heard stories about him being a nightmare in the dressing room. Check out the story Alan Gordon tells on episode one of BSI: The Podcast [below]. It’s incredible.
NM: He is a knowledgeable guy who likes improving in every aspect of his work and life, not just on the pitch.
No soup for you! Explicit: Alan Gordon's time with Chicago Fire was epic! Full clip - https://t.co/XFINdxnY5A Full Episode - https://t.co/eAaGAuxXWl #cf97 #mls #chicagofire #bsithepodcast pic.twitter.com/It8fJYD70B— BSI: The Podcast (@bsithepodcast) March 2, 2020
Finally, do you think he will be a good fit for English football?
NM: It will be interesting to see him in England. In recent years, we have seen that certain styles of football can do really well in the Championship and the fact Slaviša Jokanović got promoted twice playing similar football also suggests there is no reason to think his way of playing football couldn’t do well in England. But then again, there are so many questions, the Championship is a very unique league. I hope he can do well, but I also hope he will be given enough time at Reading.
SM: Despite my less than flattering commentary about him, I genuinely think he can be a success at Reading. Without the constraints of MLS’ complicated salary cap, three Designated Player limit and recruitment in general, I think he could be a success in England if given the right support by the owners. He is a passionate student of the game and will have learned important lessons in Chicago, which I believe he will put to good use at the Madejski Stadium. And having played in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Russia and the USA, he has amassed knowledge and connections within the game that will surely help him to stabilise and improve Reading.
GR: There was some concern that his biggest successes came coaching youth squads and that wouldn’t handle a senior team very well. Perhaps he has learned something from the experience in Chicago and will adapt a style to fit his squad and the league they play in. Fitting pieces into the correct spots seemed to be a struggle in Chicago although some of that could be laid at the foot of upper management.
Son of Serbia: Veljko Paunovic / The Coaches’ Voice