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The Changing Tactics of Serie A

The Serie A logo (via Wikipedia)

Italy’s premier footballing competition has given us a lot. Nowadays Italy’s top flight is brandished as ‘negative’, holding some truth but not the whole truth. In recent years, a handful of Italian coaches have become prominent due to their innovative styles of football; Roberto De Zerbi, Gian Piero Gasperini and Vincenzo Italiano spring to mind.

 

 

Many Serie A games are tactically nuanced and therefore slower. In Italy respect is shown on the pitch between teams more than in most places. Show me what you can do and then I’ll show you what I can do. These scenarios tend to create drawn-out battles that lead to specific in-game solutions. The tactical culture surrounding Italian football is important and you can tell match scenarios are meticulously worked on, allowing the players to feel comfortable on the pitch.

 

Many teams in Italy opt for three central defenders, a constellation often mistaken as defensive. Hellas Verona are that stigma’s antithesis.  Igor Tudor in the 21/22 season relied on the three to progress the ball, and the defence would routinely lose it in excess of ten times per game. Koray Günter, the central centre back averaged 54 touches per game, most of those being ball carries and long passes towards the forwards.  Verona’s forward-thinking nature would see the ball land in wide areas where full-backs would combine with inside forwards to produce crossing opportunities. Their cavalier style led to varied success and a ninth-place finish, scoring 65 and conceding 59.

Stefano Pioli’s impressive AC Milan won Serie A in 2022 with well-rehearsed displays. Pioli's team was designed to give freedom to the wide players, Theo Hernández and Rafael Leão especially. In Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu, Milan have found two defensively sound centre-backs who possess channelled aggression, pace and good feet, allowing a deployment of a high line in defence and attack. The high line plays to Oliver Giroud's strengths by getting bodies near him while he backs into the defender and uses his strength and excellent technique to find those players in close proximity.

 

Amongst top teams, the midfield ‘destroyer’ has become obsolete. Today requires you to have a squad of multifaceted players who can play in tight spaces, defend with discipline and effectively move the ball. In Sandro Tonali and Ismaël Bennacer, Il Rossoneri have a duo with such a skillset.

 

Milan build-up slowly, to the advantage of their left-hand side. Theo Hernández is the most effective attacking left-back there is, so good that many of Milan’s attacks revolve around him. Milan attempt to overload areas of the pitch with Hernández taking the ball from the left into the centre, with Tomori covering his space as he carries the ball inside. By doing so the Frenchman takes a player with him then over or underlaps Rafael Leão, creating 1v1 situations where the Portuguese excels.

 

In recent times, Italian sides have struggled to get results in the knockout rounds of The Champions League, part of the blame can be attributed to passive defending and an increasing number of attack- minded sides. Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli are breaking the mould by deploying very quick and energetic players across the front three. Behind them, a midfield ready to collect second balls, leading to attacks from higher positions. In league play, The Neapolitans have the most tackles in the attacking third (64) and the fifth least in their defensive third (155), describing how successfully Napoli compact the attacking half.

 

Paolo Zanetti and his Empoli side are an interesting outfit. They insist on attacking the wide areas of the pitch and rarely use the centre to penetrate defences. The key to the Gli Azzuri attack is Fabiano Parisi. The left-back currently has the highest average number of touches per game (65.8) and losses of possession (15.8), showcasing his impact on the team. Playing from wide means that key passages of the game flow through the full-back.

 

One of Zanetti’s most interesting strategies is his side’s build-up from goal kicks. Keeper Guglielmo Vicario prefers to pass long, demonstrated by his 435 attempted long passes and 121 short ones. When passing long the strikers have many ways of making space for each other, the most effective includes one forward running around the other, taking a defender along. Useful against a back three. When Empoli decide to build-up from the back, eight of their players come deep into their own half to force the opponent forward. If they manage to bypass the press, ample space is left to attack.

 

Empoli like to have as many players as possible in the opposition box. The most effective way of achieving this is by having players capable of holding up the ball while players load the box. Empoli deploy a Scandinavian approach by making quick passing combinations in wide areas or in the channels to overload the back post.

 

Football in Italy looks like it’s transitioning at a slow pace. We are seeing unique attacking brands of football popping up in the league, many of which are extreme but have the potential to become game-changing with tweaking. On the other hand, Serie A is a low-scoring league due not to a lack of attacking quality but the quantity of teams sitting deep and countering with little success. 

 

In Italy you rarely see attack-minded managers getting the top jobs, culminating in the appointment of managers with outdated tactical approaches. The league at the moment is in an experimental phase where the tactical meta is evolving as younger managers start to come through and imprint their philosophies. The change of mentality is to the benefit of Italian football as a whole, not only for fans but other managers who now need to find creative approaches to new ideas.

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