Approaching the first Serie A gameday in more than two months, we realized that the Italian league faced an unprecedented twist – tactically speaking – this summer. Four Serie A top clubs – Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Roma – appointed new managers and all of them are easily recognizable for their attractive and modern football. So, we asked our friends at L’Ultimo Uomo to analyse Paulo Fonseca, Maurizio Sarri, Antonio Conte and Marco Giampaolo for us, explaining what we should expect from the Italian top tier this season. Enjoy!

 

Paulo Fonseca
by Dario Saltari

In the historic twist that saw almost every Serie A top team appointing a manager distinguished more by an attractive football than an efficient one, Roma is the club that made the most revolutionary choice of all.

After looking for more practical profiles in the beginning – or at least, more experienced in the Italian league ones – like Conte or Gasperini, the Giallorossi opted for Paulo Fonseca, coming from a very successful experience in Ukraine, where he won 7 national trophies out of the 9 possible ones (3 championships, 3 national cups and a Supercup). More than by the conquered silverware (that includes a national cup with Braga and a Portuguese Supercup with Porto) the pick of the Portuguese manager was influenced by his offensive and spectacular style, showed by Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. That, by the way, troubled a few Italian teams, like Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in 2017 and Roma itself the following season.

Paulo Fonseca is one of the most promising representatives of the Portuguese tactical school, that is proving to be the most interesting and productive in Europe in the last years. From it, Fonseca takes some of his most distinctive traits, starting from the cutting-edge training methods applied through the so-called tactical periodization, that tries to edge out the distinctions between physical and tactical exercises by always working with the ball. This tactical periodization, that was brought on the pitch for the first time by Carlos Queiroz (that, curiously, shares the hometown, Nampula, in Mozambique, with Fonseca) was presented to Italian fans for the first time in a video shared by the Giallorossi on social media, where the players can be seen training gegenpressing through an unusual keep-away exercise.

Even within the Portuguese tactical school, though, Fonseca stands out for certain features. Being a great estimator of Guardiola and Sarri, the former Shakhtar Donetsk manager has very ambitious precepts, that want to hybridize the positional game with a pragmatic approach without the ball, trying to hold the positional compactness as much as possible. In the first friendly games played by Roma, we were already able to see the first flashes of the Portuguese manager’s doctrines, like the variations he asks to his initial 4-2-3-1 to facilitate the start of the play from the back.

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When the play build-up starts, the 4-2-3-1 turns in some sort of 3-4-3 diamond, thanks to one of the two midfielders’ Salida Lavolpiana and the cuts from the wings.

Fonseca wants his team to advance the ball with shorts passes, with lots of players behind the opponent’s line of pressure in the centre of the pitch, asking the wings to cut towards the centre, playing like inside-forwards. The Portuguese manager’s purpose is to contract the field to draw his players near, easing the quick plays and freeing space for the full-backs, that stay deep and up the pitch. During these first friendly games, though, Fonseca also tried to adapt to his players’ characteristics, for example leaving Kolarov on the defensive line during the start of the play build-up.

Without the ball, Fonseca wants a very tight 4-4-2, both vertically and horizontally, and with a high barycenter, even during positional defence situations. The high pressing only activates once determined triggers activate (like the CB’s pass to the full-back), while the rest of the time the teams tries to stay short and up on the pitch, forcing opponents to play long balls towards the strikers – ideally in off-side – or the wings, where recovering the ball is usually eased by the sideline.

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During the positional defence, 4-4-2 breaks up into high pressing once the centre-back passes the ball to the full-back.

The covering of the deep plays, that in a system like this relies on the quick horizontal movements, seems to be the most noticeable structural flaw of this team so far, as Roma faced struggles especially against Real Madrid, that took advantage of the wings thanks to its 3-4-3 system.

So, Fonseca’s style of play, as echoed by the manager himself, is a very brave one and demands for the team to have a mental and physical intensity to make it work. The risk, in a cynical and attentive league like Serie A, is that the manager’s ambition crashes against his opponents’ pragmatism. Probably because of his recognition of this problem, Fonseca vowed great attention in studying the opponents and ability to adapt. Two variables that will be critical to Roma success and his climbing to European football’s Olympus.

 

Maurizio Sarri
by Alfredo Giacobbe

Try to look at Juventus like it was an industrial product and you may understand the decision of his entrepreneur. Andrea Agnelli replaced Massimiliano Allegri because – maybe – he judged his Juventus to be at the end of its cycle. Like if he wanted to withdraw a seasoned product from the market, before it became out-of-date, to put a brand new one on it.

Agnelli’s choice felt on Maurizio Sarri, a very different manager from his predecessor in many ways. Above all, Sarri has what we could define a top-down approach: he establishes the game principles he considers crucial, then deciding upon the tactical system and the tasks to achieve during the game. In his years with Juve, Allegri had a completely antipodean method, a bottom-up one: he used to observe his players’ skills on the pitch and how they integrated, then assembling his system for subsequent improvements. If Allegri was a skilful artisan, Sarri is more of an architect.

Even being loyal to his principles, Sarri – tactically speaking – is not an inflexible manager, but he has always tried to find new solutions depending on the human material at his disposal. A shining example of that is the play build-up.

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On his first Serie A season, with the newly promoted Empoli, Sarri asked his playmaker Valdifiori to regularly play long balls to the strikers, above the opponent defenders’ heads. His goal was to take advantage of his playmaker’s long-shot skills and his strikers’ pace. But the origins of this choice are more attributable to the presence of less-skilled defenders on the team, making Sarri’s strategy a way to ‘protect’ them by dodging them to start the play build-up.

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His seasons at Napoli and Chelsea presented a change, mainly because of Jorginho’s presence. The vertical and syncopated rhythm of the Italian-Brazilian passing with the centre-backs helped the team in disrupting the opponent lines, finding a free man behind the first line of pressure. The full-backs, deep on the wings, offered mere spatial support to the midfielders passing lines.

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In the first friendly matches Juve played this season, something new already came up in the play build-up style. Now Pjanic is the lower player in the midfield triangle. But the Bosnian has been man-to-man marked almost all the time. And that’s when the CBs plays with the FBs, while, up ahead, the inside-forwards on Pjanic’s sides open or draw back, as shown in the picture. The space they create facilitates for the striker and the wingers to receive the ball through a diagonal pass from the full-back towards the centre of the pitch.

The common ground of these three different approaches it the principle, that is the will to entice opponents forward. The opponent is ‘invited’ to press thanks to the space that short passing creates in other areas of the pitch, that they can attack in a second moment. Then, the attacking of the space, that can be done in various ways: verticalizing fast; playing centrally on the inside-forward or the striker behind the lines; getting to the striker by playing on the wings. The implementation changes, but the principles stay the same: in these few words, you can reassume Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy.

 

Antonio Conte
by Marco D’Ottavi

It’s not hard to see the reasons why Inter wanted to appoint Antonio Conte: at his first year with Juventus, the manager won the Scudetto by earning 26 points more than the previous season, then doing the same with Chelsea – his first participation in the Premier League – winning with 43 points more than the previous campaign. Thanks to these two experiences – more than to the time he spent as the Italian National Team coach – Conte deserved the reputation of a manager capable to come and revolutionize not-dominant teams within a few training sessions, thanks to simple and definite game philosophies, other than his massive charisma.

Inter, after two hard-fought fourth places, is looking for a technical project that can maximize the investments made by the club, that were massive in the last years. The decision to appoint Antonio Conte, strongly wanted by the management – that made him the highest-paid manager in Serie A history – goes in this very direction: the pursuit of the ultimate qualitative leap, the one that Spalletti wasn’t able to achieve.

Even if he already had experiences in Serie A (he spent 13 games at Atalanta and 3 seasons at Juventus), Conte’s return in our league can be considered as a novelty: the manager brings a unique football style in Italy with him – refined during his English adventure – well-defined work methods and a unique communicative style, as direct as his tactical approach. In his few weeks as Inter manager, he already explained that Icardi and Nainggolan were not part of the Nerazzurri’s project and criticized the deficiencies of the transfer market, specifying his will to have Lukaku, arrived shortly after.

But, in these initial months, the first signs of his football, especially in the movements and plays made by Inter, were particularly visible on the pitch. The manager seems determined to keep using the 3-5-2 tactic that led him to many wins in Itlay, but he’s not a dogmatic coach: Conte cares more about some primary principles – on which all his teams are built on – than the tactical system. During the ball possession, for example, the two wingers have to be up ahead on the pitch, lined with the forwards that, on the other hand, has to stay locked in the centre.

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Players have to remember a series of very specific plays and movements (Conte is famous for forcing his players to try plays, even 11v0, over and over) to reproduce on the pitch according to the situation. It’s not a mechanical execution, but more a way to force players to continuously make choices based on Conte’s game principles: space occupation, shifting, triangles, first-touch plays and alternated movements of the forwards.

The foundation of his philosophy, however, is more mental than tactical. Conte asks for his player to continuously work through training. The concept of intensity is vital: those who play have to be capable of pressing high when the team is trying to regain possession, but also drop back quickly. During the offensive phase, they have to be capable of continuously putting themselves forward, being able to play quick and direct football. To do that, players have to constantly be in the game, physically and mentally.

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Here’s an example from the friendly game against PSG: (1) Sensi, played as a central playmaker, has no problem in pressing the opponent defender in his box, forcing him to play on the wing, not playing forward. In the same moment (2), Esposito moves to press the wing that has to receive the ball. Four Inter players close all passing lines ahead of him at the same moment (3). The play will continue with recovery from Esposito, leading to a dangerous finish by Perisic.

Those who worked with Conte always highlighted his maniacal attention to details, that allowed him to adjust and improve all the clubs he has managed. So, we should get ready to see a team capable of changing over time, pursuing its best structure, as happened before for Juventus and Chelsea.

Inter transfer market isn’t over yet and makes it harder to make predictions. However, the club is trying to give Conte players that are functional to his project, just like Barella and Lukaku. The bookmakers’ odds, that often see Inter as the second most-likely team to win the Scudetto (after Juventus), are a marker for the credibility and expectations that the Nerazzurri have this season.

 

Marco Giampaolo
by Emanuele Atturo

Marco Giampaolo’s career had a lot of ups and downs, that always disputed his value as a manager. Ten years ago, when he was on Siena bench, he owned the club’s record for points and wins in Serie A and he was considered as the most promising young manager in Italy, to the point where Juventus seemed to have reached out to him to appoint him as manager. After a series of unfortunate experiences, though, Giampaolo was relegated to the edge of Italian football, in Serie C at Cremonese, from where Empoli chose to call him after a recommendation from Maurizio Sarri.

In Tuscany, Giampaolo rebuilt his credibility at the higher levels, and he did it by modifying his vision of the game. If originally he was mostly known for his attention and concern for the defensive organization, his Empoli team was particularly admired for its fluidity and effectiveness in the ball possession. Giampaolo used Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 with the diamond midfield – the same one he used at Siena – making a proper trademark out of it, that then reproduced at Sampdoria and, from next season, at AC Milan.

The diamond midfield is, in some ways, unprecedented in Europe’s top tiers but, in the last years, it has become some sort of Serie A trademark. Other than Sarri and Giampaolo, this system was also used by Maran, Di Carlo, Andreazzoli, Allegri and Gattuso. This tactic has a well-defined basic gameplan, highlighting its flows and values. The 4-3-1-2 ease the building of rhombus and triangles, favouring compactness in the centre of the pitch and around the ball; on the other hand, it makes harder to cover the pitch on his entire breadth – both with and without the ball – and sometimes it can become monotonous if not interpreted by dynamic players in certain key positions.

At Sampdoria, Giampaolo shown this qualities and flaws very clearly: he had a short team, very good at recovering the ball thanks to its density around the ball; a team that loved to control the game through possession (fifth in Serie A in that statistical category) but that was vulnerable to the wing-to-wing plays, especially during defensive transitions, and very subordinate to its’ strikers form.

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An example of Sampdoria struggles in defending deep. The team collapses towards the ball, leaving the other wing uncovered.

In Giampaolo’s system, the movements depend on the midfield diamond. If the defensive midfielder is stuck in helping the defence starting the play, the inside-forwards and the trequartista have to sustain multiple tasks, integrating between each other and the forwards’ movements, that always trigger the play. While the full-backs wait back at the start of the play – and drives forward alternately as the play continues – the strikers often have to stretch to offer breadth – with the trequartista attacking the box to be an advanced link – or move towards the ball, with the inside-forwards moving deep. The important thing is to always offer passing lines to drive centrally, sometimes with a doggedness that turns the midfield into some sort of crazy pinball.

It’s not coincidental that AC Milan decided to make a move for midfielders that can play in Giampaolo’s diamond. Both Krunic and Bennacer have already played in this system at Empoli and know all the schemes. It will be interesting to understand how Giampaolo will take advantage of all the players in his team: will Paquetà be played as an inside-forward or trequartista? Will Lucas Biglia be a good playmaker or will he be superseded by Bennacer? Will Kessié work as a strong inside-forward like Linetty and Barreto used to?

In the attack, the new name is Rafael Leao: a young and skilled profile – especially in cutting towards the wings – that will be able to guarantee a physical work carrying the ball and with the goal behind him, critical to drive the ball when the team is struggling in passing through the central lines.

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Leao could make the same moves Zapata did, drawing defenders away from their positions by cutting towards the wings, helping the cuts from behind made by the inside-forwards.

In the last weeks, Milan has been also trying to sign Angel Correa from Atletico Madrid. He’s a singular player, that Giampaolo may play as trequartista, taking advantage of his skills in tight spaces.

Even if it’s often celebrated for his aesthetic, Giampaolo’s football has proved to be efficient in Serie A, especially for getting points against the weakest teams, while it struggles against the top-clubs. He will have to improve this aspect on the Rossoneri bench and make sure his team won’t plump down in the second part of the season, as it happened at Sampdoria. As other teams did, AC Milan decided to appoint a manager with a well-defined tactical identity and solid game principles, and having clear ideas is often the easiest and most efficient way to start a new age.

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