The province in Italy is a place of soccer oddities. Apart from other geopolitical considerations, going up and down the peninsula feels like visiting the cradle, laboratory and tombs of football Darwinism (and possibly, two of these three things at a time). Jonathan Wilson’s recent caveat, a dire prediction that in the next decade no side will win a major tournament playing an orthodox 4-4-2, puts a lot of emphasis on that adjective “orthodox,” from which a lot of diagnosis is asked.
For those who marvel at Italy’s lackluster performance in the Champions League, which ultimately caused them to loose their fourth slot, one would be right to ask what happened to the good old catenaccio and deeply was the league affected and wounded by the liberalization of the off side rules.
The lessons of the province
From the vulnerable and ancestral Venetian squads of the late ’80s, uproarious in playing as if from heightened metabolism, the eye stretches to the Lombard cityscape of Brescia, where the impenitent Mazzone, Cretaceous in age, ordered a young Andrea Pirlo to plaster his trapezoid shapes a good forty yards deeper on the park. During the Renaissance of the Via Emilia, when the four sisters of Parma, Bologna, Reggiana and Piacenza all stepped around in the major division smiling from ear to ear, it was customary to match heftier opponents shape-for-shape rather than trying to engineer numerical superiority in the centre.
In the double-storied stadiums of the South, with sawdust swirling in the floodlights and floodlights attached to outside tractors for electrical security, a high drama was routinely secured by the glamorous vanity signing of local lords of soccer. A frail prelude to the season would be enough for the axe; and even if a coach managed to keep your miserable head above relegation, he’d be ritually giving foamy predicaments to the press’s meat grinder. Still, it is under people like Zeman, Guidolin and Delio Rossi, all somewhat heretical and über-artisans, that Italy produced some of its best stuff in football.
Italian underdog teams have often shaped their careers like overhanging, warped, gutted objects—miscarriages of mum’s interest. Faith in the Madonna wrapped tactics in tape like a boxer’s fist. The two Milanese powerhouses, on the other hand, are still wedded to narrow formations such as 4-3-1-2 or alternatively 4-3-2-1. The tactical Luddism of Inter and Milan, but also of Roma under Ranieri, gives off an after smell of turpentine leaking on wood, like a worn weatherboard choked by bushes and creepers, but still pinned to an old white veranda large enough to contain and satisfy the onlookers.
If it hadn’t been for Sinisa Mihajlovic—who brought the team to a surprising and comfortable 13th place at the end of last season, by adding some advanced tactical beliefs to the traditional rugged virtues of his Serbian upbringing—the early beginnings of Diego Pablo Simeone at Catania might already be regarded with the peculiar sparks of affection and confidence that typically vouchsafe the emerging of a managerial great at the mouth of a technical driveway.
Simeone’s work in Sicily suggests both the flexibility and the willingness to mold the players available to a philosophy of the game, rather than the pragmatic streak that one would expect since the young and valiant coach Giampaolo, rather abruptly, was sacked. Italy’s traditional wisdom would have demanded, for a team struggling in a Serie A lower mid-table purgatory, the unflinching and relentless application of Restoration principles. If not exactly the antics of the 4-4-2 buckled all around it, with crosses from the touchlines and a poacher (the world of Carlo Nervo and Igor Protti), at least a clear, uncomplicated vision of the game. Remarkably, however, Simeone has decided to put himself in the footprints of a tactical rebel such as Marcelo Bielsa, the craftsman of Chile’s amazing trajectory in South Africa, making of his Italian future one of the hardest to assess.
It is possible, of course, that the accumulation of minor tweaks made on a day-to-day level now amounted to a major difference; but Simeone, who eventually will have to prove his credentials as a motivational coach outside the peculiar Argentine colony of footballers that he so cultivates with stunning zeal, should be credited at least with the admirable ability to take specific action to counter the opposition.
At Catania, for instance, he often shifted to a 4-2-3-1 to share the burden of playmaking among different actors that, for now, lack a certain hands-on experience and would be easily marked on a one-on-one basis, while also trying to stretch the width of the play and occupy the opponent’s deep-lying midfielders.
Genoa, an early case study
Early in the spring, the 2-1 victory against Genoa, a team that never recovered after a ludicrous transfer season and the unveiling of its heroic-comic master/dog relationship with Inter, neatly froze Catania in a classic 4-3-3. The slide below shows the Sicilians in reception, or during that crucial non-possession phase that often serves as a ‘negative’ springboard for football analysis. (Like other genealogies or memes, teams are related less by their respective fluidity than by their mistakes in common.) Simeone keeps three out-and-out attackers high on the pitch, focusing on interceptions that should be equally high and on deterring the forward run of the grifoni fullbacks. As a lone-striker, Maxi Lopez is quite happy to exchange his position with other colleagues of the offensive department, although, in fairness, the positional awareness and the energy needed for this role must feel at times frightening for his still coalescing skills.
In the middle, a traditional holding midfielder sits deeper down, while two well-rounded players take the two flanks. It may seem surprising that one of these last two is Ledesma, who has been fielded with the task of spraying passes either as the lower tip of a diamond-midfield or as the gentler side in the dynamic midfield duo, now charmingly retro, of a scrapper and a passer.
The second slide is, perhaps, even more interesting. It shows that Catania, when it attacks, switches to a three-man defense, with a sweeper or defensive midfielder drafted as an additional centre-back. It is in this role, pioneered by Matthias Sammer, that Simeone shined as a player; it is from here that somebody can easily dictate the tempo in a zone system. On the upper right corner one can almost see a player completely free, and indeed, by dropping the holding midfielder, a team is able to let the fullbacks surge and fully integrate themselves into the offensive schemes. More or less, this technical lore comes away as a Catalan achievement: Guardiola showed us what damage can be done by shifting to a mixed 3-4-3 system when in possession, and make no mistake, Barcelona is always in possession.
Like Bielsa, overall Simeone seems to like to have a mix in the midfield. Alongside the obvious presence of a holding player, it is common to see at the Massimino a mobile combination of wing-backs, traditional wingers and winger/playmakers—the idea being, to put it in pseudo-scientific terms, that to a diagonal surge through the middle to latch on to second balls corresponds an equal force to retreat and assist your outside centre-backs when the opponent is raiding down that particular flank.
The clash with Juventus
Apart from being a surreal master class in bad refereeing, the recent draw of Catania with Juventus was hardly revolutionary: a draw between one remiss side and another on the rise. In his habitual flurry of substitutions, which must have given his sidemen on the bench the impression of an on-going workshop, Simeone kept on stretching the width of the play; by the time Catania closed the gap with the fallen Turin giants by two goals, they had moved from a prudent 4-2-3-1, mostly forced by their interpretation of Krasic as an adjunct striker, through a Dutch-style 4-3-3, until finally shaping up as a Chilean 3-3-1-3.
At bottom, Luigi Delneri has attempted nothing other than 4-4-1-1, first with Del Piero showing sparks of irrepressible class playing ‘in the hole,’ and secondly by choosing Toni’s hulking body over Matri’s speed, the most dangerous weapon in the counter-reactive movements that inevitably affect those who follow Bielsa’s hyper-offensive schemes. No wonder Juventus looked jittery, abysmal in confidence, and squeezed by raw runs.
Second comings are rarely a good idea. The modest fortunes of Delneri earlier in the season were, in fact, a Kenny Dalglish 2.0, or a curious vernissage of the tactics that Dalglish, long before his Lazarus-like reappearance at Liverpool, used with Newcastle and Blackburn: a 4-4-2ish formation, playing one wide midfielder tucked in and the other as a more orthodox winger. While senators of the old guard such as Grosso were vital to provide an outlet of play on the left, the functionality of this lopsided system slowly faded even against mediocre opposition.
As a coach many expected to take a Serie A starved on narrow tactics by fiercely raiding the chalked lines on the outskirts, Delneri slips from time to time into a romanticized vision of football—the mythical time in which the zone specialists, a well-disposed referee and your intact starting XI of choice are enough to make a difference. “In Turin,” he bitterly remarked, “everybody sees only the negative side.”
Delneri’s lack of syntactical cogency in postmatch media dealings suggests a man who seems to have lost the confidence of just about everybody. But it does more than peeling off the bandages of the 4-4-2. It removes Italy’s black soccer overgarment and throws it on a chair. Her shirt drenched underneath, the Serie A catches a glimpse of her reflection in a globalised tactical mirror: slender and olive-skinned, a body accidentally matching bra and underwear, with incandescent dreams of the time when ‘total football’ could live and prosper in happy provincial capitals like Chievo.
If Catania will stay in the Serie A with relative ease, Simeone will have a long summer camp to bring his tactical insights to a level of acceptable fluency. Catania could be a surprise next season. One long-term effect of this evolution that everybody should be eager to see is the spread in Italy of proactive football.
While Napoli, Udinese and Catania agree on the three-man defense and the fundamental premise that playmaking duties shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of the no.10 (since the higher the creativity, the closer the marking), Mazzarri seems to have conceived his team more like a sponge capable of soaking up the most incredible pressure to then stifle back in elastic waves of reactive soccer.
As seen in this diagram, Simeone might have instead an hybrid system, capable of changes between domestic and outside games, as well as between defending two strikers as opposed to a lone-striker with two wide wingers, where a four-man defense is preferable. In such tactical loom, wide-of-centre players are key; it is possible that Italy would be able to produce more box-to-box midfielders, once it decides to diminish the running range for those on the flanks, while also making it more dangerous diagonally. A metamorphic blend of volcanic rocks, the Serie A has not really focused, since the times of Sacchi, upon starting the defensive pressure at the beginning of the rivals attacks.
Stefano is the man behind the excellent Catch 22 blog.