Italian football has been synonymous with pragmatic, cynical, defensive tactics since, at the very least, the catenaccio of Helenio Herrera’s Inter in the 1960s. Defensive coaches have done well both domestically and abroad as Italian teams have often been labelled cynical and pragmatic. However, this perception of calcio is changing. Across Italy, we see teams at all levels appoint attack-minded coaches. This owes a lot to the emergence of Maurizio Sarri, an unconventional romantic who has inspired clubs and coaches across the peninsula.
This new wave of trusting attacking football rather than the more defensive approaches of the past 60 years or so was demonstrated emphatically in June when Juventus, the biggest, most successful club in the country, replaced the pragmatic serial winner Massimiliano Allegri with Sarri. Out with the old, in with the new. This change of coach is just the latest in a long line of appointments of attack-minded coaches, but it felt symbolic that even Juventus, a club synonymous with pragmatic win-at-all-costs football, joined the trend by appointing a coach who can only boast a Europa League-title.
The current crop of top-flight coaches
A look at the other clubs in Serie A confirms this trend. Milan replaced Gennaro Gattuso with Marco Giampaolo from Sampdoria, a coach synonymous with attractive, quick, combination-focused football. To replace Giampaolo, Sampdoria opted for the former Sassuolo and Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco who has made his name as a disciple of the notoriously attacking Zdeněk Zeman with aggressive high-pressing and vertical passing as key parts of his tactics. Roma have appointed the Portuguese Paulo Fonseca as Di Francesco’s permanent successor. Fonseca has made his name due to the attractive style of his energetic Shakhtar Donetsk.
Atalanta still have Gian Piero Gasperini as their coach, Carlo Ancelotti is still at Napoli while Fiorentina has decided to stick with Vincenzo Montella, ensuring that all three clubs will continue to try and dominate games this season. Further down the league, SPAL and Sassuolo have two very attacking, talented coaches in Leonardo Semplici and Roberto De Zerbi while promoted Lecce were very attacking in Serie B under Fabio Liverani. Hellas Verona chose the Gasperini disciple Ivan Jurić as their new coach while Genoa opted for Aurelio Andreazzoli, who impressed last season due to the attractive style of his young Empoli side, highlighting the growing trend to appoint attacking coaches. Siniša Mihajlović is another example, as his attacking style kept Bologna up last season.
Lazio’s Simone Inzaghi is an attacking coach, too, although has some of Allegri’s pragmatic streak and are not against defending deep before hitting teams on the counter-attack. He is joined by Antonio Conte at Inter as the only coaches of top clubs who might not be considered ‘attacking’ in the true sense of the word. It is definitely possible to argue Conte’s case, though, since his teams always look to dominate with their positional build-up, yet often opt to defend low compared to the high-pressing of most of his top club colleagues.
The rest of the clubs have slightly more cautious and reserved coaches, or coaches who are yet to really prove what their philosophy is over a longer spell. This begs the question: what is the reason for this trend, and how great is Sarri’s influence?
The influence of Maurizio Sarri
Everyone knows the story of Sarri, the former banker, and his rise through the divisions. Many coaches have worked their way up from the bottom but what made Sarri different was the style of his football. His Empoli side made him famous for top-flight fans given their attractive style and his Napoli team became famous worldwide as they pushed Juventus close, particularly in 2017/18 when they won 91 points, a total only bettered by three teams; Juve that season, Juve in 2013/14 (102) and Inter in 2006/07 (97). This level of performance while playing such attractive football has highlighted for clubs that it is possible to produce good results while playing entertaining football. For the clubs without the finances of the three big striped teams, the successes of Sarri’s Napoli and Gasperini’s Atalanta has shown that playing style can give a club a real competitive edge. Take Atalanta; their budget is dwarfed by those of Inter, Milan and Roma, yet they have finished above each on different occasions in the last few seasons. They have done so because of the way they play as Gasperini has created a dominant big-club style at a smaller club.
Equally, Sarri’s Napoli punched above their weight when pushing Juventus so close in the title race in 2018. Their performance levels were ridiculously high given their resources and playing staff and that was all due to Sarri’s tactics. There are other examples too; Di Francesco’s Sassuolo reached the Europa League with a squad that should have been nowhere near the European places thanks to Di Francesco finding an edge with his attacking style.
It would be possible, of course, to create an edge with a well-functioning defensive style too. However, it’s much easier to create buy-in from fans if they enjoy watching the football their team plays. Even in the cut-throat environment of Italian football, that could buy a coach more time. Clubs are now appointing attacking coaches to find that edge and unearth the next Sarri. This is where his influence can be seen the most.
Roberto Mancini and the national team
One man who has really embraced this new wave of attacking football is Roberto Mancini. Since becoming Italy coach, Mancini has established a very attractive style of progressive passing from the back with a technically superb front-six. Where former Italian coaches such as Conte and Giampiero Ventura have looked to build a team based on the defenders at their disposal, Mancini has opted to build a team around his creative and technical midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella. With no striker performing to the levels of former superstars such as Christian Vieri or Luca Toni, Mancini has often used a front three of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa. For Italy, playing without a recognised striker has previously been unheard of, but Mancini has decided to fill his team with as many creative, technical players as possible. This proved vindicated in the recent win against Bosnia and Herzegovina when Mancini replaced Serie A’s top scorer Fabio Quagliarella at half-time with the winger Chiesa, moving Bernardeschi into a shadow striker role. Italy improved, gained control and eventually won with Insigne scoring and assisting.
The new Italian national team is built on the creative talents of their midfield and attacking midfielders rather than the defensive solidity of Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini as Conte and Ventura’s teams were. Mancini’s analysis upon taking over must have identified the emerging generation of creative attackers and midfielders. Thus, Mancini has been instrumental in choosing to believe the best way for Italy to return to the top of international football is to be a proactive, dominant side and to trust the talents of his midfield and attacking players.
Which trends can be seen in Italian tactics?
The influence of Sarri and Gasperini can be seen in many of Italy’s top-flight teams today. More and more teams look to build from the back and invite pressure to play through the opponent’s defensive lines, an approach a coach like Giampaolo has deployed for a long time. Possession in Italian football today is also very vertical, as sides look to cut their opponent open with quick passing combinations on the move. Thus, possession is not as laboured and sterile as it often had been in the past.
Due to this trend of playing from the back, most teams also look to press high and force turnovers far up the pitch. The methods of pressing still vary, and this is where Sarri’s positional approach is yet to replace the man-orientated nature of traditional Italian defending. Here, Gasperini’s Atalanta is the most extreme with their aggressive man-marking, but coaches like Di Francesco, Inzaghi and Ancelotti also deploys man-orientated pressing schemes.
You can trace the roots of some of Sarri’s defensive concepts back to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan with their energetic pressing and zonal marking, but a lot of that approach went missing in the late 90s, and for much of the 00s and 10s, and is only just returning thanks to coaches like Sarri, Conte and Giampaolo.
Italian football has undergone a cultural revolution in the last five years and the Serie A has emerged as a league where some of Europe’s most entertaining sides ply their trade. Mancini, Sarri and Gasperini have all had important roles to play in this revolution. More than anything, the latter two have shown how clubs can create a competitive edge. Italian football is on the rise, but to succeed in European football, on club and international level, it needs an edge. Juventus, always the pragmatic, cynical serial winners, have also realised this as they look to make their Italian domination continental. Therefore, it is not surprising that they have identified Sarri and his football as the man to give them that edge.