Breaking from Convention (90s)
Again, Italy became comfortable with their use of the Zona mista but it wasn’t long before Sacchi came to shake things up by joining AC Milan in 1987. Three years later, he would have two champions league and one Serie A but his style was a departure from the zona mista’s form. Sacchi brought total football to Italy in a local manner with zonal marking, counter attacking and a high line. The high line was key for Sacchi, as his defence and attacking line were only allowed to be 25 metres apart. This prevents the opposition from having time on the ball in the deeper areas of the pitch, where they would have usually seen teams retreating into shape. This was complemented by the pressing, which was based on a zonal marking system that prevented the Milan team from being influenced by the opposition’s runs. It was helped by the offside rule of the time, but also by the players at Sacchi’s disposal, which contained legendary defenders from one side of the pitch to the other. This talent was led by some of Ajax’s greatest products, who understood Sacchi’s approach on arrival (Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten). All these players had extreme versatility in their positions and could act as examples to the rest of the team, as every position needed versatility to truly thrive.
They used a 442, which only had three banks, that were vertically compact, with each of the players knowing which zone of the pitch that they were responsible for pressing (starting when there was pass into the midfield). Once winning the ball, they would counter, rather than play with a possession-based style. This was Sacchi comprising with Italian football, as he knew that teams in Italy would be too quick to retreat, so passing the ball around would be pointless against zona mista. Instead, he used the usual counteracting, with a focus on the wingers staying wide and stretching the opposition.
Playing against Sacchi’s team would have been a shock to the system for Italian teams. A squad who pushed up in defence would force opposition attackers to hold their runs while the midfielders would feel a pressure in a deeper position which usually granted them a level of comfort on the ball. Milan could win the ball high and when the opposition were unprepared for such a structured counter that retained a high number of players able to move forward. Overall, the discipline of the side was a testament to Sacchi’s coaching methods that were stricter than those of the dutch.
Match Example- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT9jUA4LUSM
Capello would continue Sacchi’s success and bring the club to greater heights domestically in the 90s. The team scored more goals with Capello and went unbeaten for over a season and part of this is down to the small changes he made to the team, but it can also be attributed to the same group of players progressing at AC Milan between the time of the two coaches.
The team improved in it counter attacking, becoming better at passing and more precise. It allowed them to make sure they were taking better advantage of the chances which they were creating. While doing that, Capello retained the zonal marking system while also employing a deeper line with the Milan team on occasions. Capello was not an ideologue but also not necessarily a defensive coach, he focused on making the team better through whatever means were available. It should be said that by the end of Capello’s reign, Milan were able to win the league by scoring very few goals while conceding nearly none. Sacchi would never have falter from his team’s idea, Capello saw that there were times when playing deeper and being smarter would work for them. This introduced Italians to the zonal 442 that could be a capable defensive unit, which some of the future greats would use. Capello would also show this level of pragmatic attacking at Roma where he found success by following on from Zeman’s Roma squad by implementing a good attacking system that was also capable of defending. Zeman and Lippi
Zdenksi Zeman was another example of a manager who have gained a foothold in Italian football with uncommon methods. He played a 433 religiously with zonal marking, a high line and a pressing game that sometimes even includes pressing the oppositions CBs. The line may not be as high as Sacchi but the CBs were probably more aggressive in their pressing of opponents. His teams also attacked relentlessly. They displayed a good level of passing play, with midfielders being able to redistribute the ball intelligently to positions if there were no obvious forward options but Zeman’s idea was to batter the opposition with runs in behind and incisive passing.
The wingers in Zeman’s 433 would often became inside forwards while the striker was more often a target man. To balance the squad, Zeman used offensive fullbacks to create width. Much like Sacchi, Zeman expected a good level of technical ability from everyone in his squad and even wanted this to be true of the goalkeeper.
He found his success mainly with Roma, Lazio, Foggia and Pescara. He was an idealist who would always be uncompromising in his attacking rhetoric, going as far to say that he would rather lose knowing he played the right way than win 1-0. He saw football as being about entertainment and wanted to give that to the crowd with his style of constant attacking that demanded great technical ability from his squad.
Match Example- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaiWW4rr5ZY
Roma vs Juve 1998 Match Example 2- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIYlA8CjcSI
Roma vs Inter 1998
Finally, Lippi is the most successful of the 90s Italian managers but he’s hard to explain. He was not a tactical innovator, but he was a connoisseur of football. He was a manager who could teach true flexibility to his Juventus teams. His squad could press, play catenaccio, man mark or go zonal. His players could start 442, move to 4312 and then end in a 352. He did have preferred approached and would have periods where the 352 was the norm, allowing Zidane to play behind the strikers and retain a decent defensive shape while still having two strikers. Earlier in his time at the club a 442 would be the preferred setup to find success. In more recent times, the ability to show this kind of flexibility is not that strange but Lippi was able to do so at a very high level.
Lippi’s success was also just as closely linked to his ability to understand players and make sure that they felt they were part of a group. This environment would suit some and alienate others but once it was established, it would allow Lippi to create teams of talented individuals that would work harder than his opponents and show greater synergy. Lippi never relied on a trend or a system, he just understood football on a mechanical level and was able to build teams that could perform. Match Example- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZpMMgBXWiw Inter and AC show up (00s)
Into the 2000s and Milan had another period of European success with one of Sacchi’s protégé’s, Carlo Ancelotti. He started at Parma with an unsuccessful 442, he moved to Juventus, where he learnt some flexibility in his approach, but it was at Milan where he found success (two champions leagues). He brought his Juventus 4312 to AC Milan with the midfield three of Pirlo, Seedorf and Gattuso differed from those at the time by placing the creative players deeper where the workhorses used to be located (in Lippi). Pirlo would have more time to run the play while Seedorf could begin his influence from deeper on the pitch. This had the additional advantage of creating the passing diamond of Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso and Kaka/Rui Costa, which is a great basis for building up play. They were able to offer enough centrally that it would be difficult to completely mark out all the options along with the strikers making runs up top. Only later into Ancelotti’s Milan stay did the fullbacks also allow for width to be maintained without the midfield (Cafu being an anomaly of the time who could attack but somehow still be good defensively). Before Cafu arrived, Gattuso and Seedorf were required to give width. The left back remained somewhat more defensive but was still a decent wide option.
The approach which many know Ancelotti for is the Christmas Tree (4321). It allowed for Pirlo to have two players to carry his lack of work rate in the midfield while having two attacking midfielders along with a pure goal scoring striker. Short passing was a strength of the team with the shape of the formation giving them a numerical superiority in midfield in comparison to most teams, with an additional attacking midfielder. Also, they were more capable of squeezing space in the midfield when pressing. This approach did rely on Kaka’s brilliance, as he was an attacker who could do it all: he had the skill, power, striking ability and playmaking qualities which allowed him to provide multiple threats in the attack but also provide opportunities for his team mates. Ancelotti broke completely from a standard idea of having to be restrained with the use of creative players, which was probably somewhat influenced by his time with Sacchi.
While Milan continued to dominate in the European sphere, it was Inter Milan who established a dynasty domestically. This began with Roberto Mancini, who won three titles in a row with the absence of Juventus being a factor in the dominance. Mancini was using an interesting 442 which had been seen with Lippi in the past but not with too many more. This 442 was based on a zonal marking system that relied on remaining in a compact unit of two banks of four. While in that position the team would shift side to side, dependent on the opponents positioning. This formation also asked a lot of the strikers, who were expected to defend behind the ball when the opposition had possession. The strikers would be expected to press the ball carrier and prevent long balls from being sent to the opposition attackers. When possession was regained, the strikers would use their wide positioning (from pressing the ball) to make runs in behind the opposition. This followed the continued Italian use of the striker as a figure who had to be persistent in their running for the team, often seeing them limited in their goal return due to their need to contribute in other areas as well.
Mancini’s 442 was based on a ball orientated style of defending, meaning that it was focused on preventing the ball from reaching forward players, as opposed to stopping the forward players after they received the ball. This was done by having two players in the team press the ball while the remaining players in the squad would fill in the zones left vacant by the pressers. This permitted Mancini to overload the ball, anywhere on the pitch, as well as remain solid in their compact shape. It was especially important to keep the back four in the tight, space restricting form that we can see in many defensive sides today. Mancini could create variety in his squad, he played a 4312 at times, giving him three counter attacking threats, sacrificing one man in the defensive block. He also made sure his team was able to cross the ball well and switch the play to the opposite flank, so if a counter was not on the cards, his squad could focus on stretching the opposition through wing play or even playing some precision, short passing in front of the box to create chances. Mancini had a multi-faceted team when it came to attack.
Following on from Mancini, Inter retained their dominant position as Mourinho came into the team and continued Mancini’s success. His first season used a conventional (at this point) 4312 to win the title but his treble winning year came with his use of the 4231 which had gained him fame at Chelsea. This used a double pivot that could keep defensive shape while the four men in front of them could attack (usually ended up being three). When dropping back, Inter looked more like a 451, making sure the flair players were tightly marked even without the ball. Mourinho’s teams were abnormal in their level of discipline, making them look like robots pulling off mechanised actions. This style of play was loved by the Italians as it proved the foil to the new form of attacking football that had appears in Guardiola’s Barca. Mourinho was the one to defeat that Barca team in the champions league and was loved by the fans for that (and the treble). Mourinho’s Inter can be boiled down to its solidity but should also be praised for the range of players on display who could do more than just defend. Zanetti, Cambiasso, Motta and Maicon were in deeper roles with Mourinho, making for a great basis for getting out of defence and exploiting great attackers like Eto, Milito or Snedijer.
One of the few sides who were able to compete with Inter in this period was Roma under Spaletti playing a 4231. Spaletti brought forward a different form of attacking which Italy had only seen in short spurts, that style would be implemented by Spaletti on a mechanical level for consistent use. This first came in the shape of playing Totti as a false nine (a striker who drops deeper into midfield to create passing options), this would pose questions of Italian defences who were unsure of whether to follow or leave him. Additionally, this pulled the defending teams line higher up the pitch, making it easier for Totti, Perotti or Pizarro to send a through ball into the fast wingers when countering. This was symbolic of how Spaletti coached attacking, as he wanted to manipulate the man marking style which was present in Italy by moving intelligently and opening space through timed runs after initial movement. This was all pre-Messi false nine as well.
This approach would, theoretically hurt a Mancini 442, as it was predicated on the ability to take advantage of the way Mancini’s team would move from side to side and create space in their transition. Even though Spaletti would take advantage of that, he would also take a similar approach in defence, as he would focus on packing the centre when retreating and then defending.
Juventus Resurface (10s)
The 2010s saw the Juventus resurgence as two managers built up the newest Italian monarchy, in Antonio Conte and Max Allegri. Conte and Allegri form an interesting but opposing dynamic, presenting similarities to the Trap+Lippi Juve of the 80s-90s. Their success has been similar while their methods diverge greatly. Conte was known as a bit of a bastard at Juventus, where he would work players as hard as they had ever been worked. This came at a time when Juventus were relatively low in their club’s history, coming off Calciopoli, and this kind of manager was what they needed to whip a new era of success into being. He would play a well-known 352 which flipped the midfield on its head, when looking at traditional 352s. This saw Pirlo play deeper than the two other midfielders (Pogba/Marchisio/Vidal), as he thrived in the regista role. This required the two ahead of him to be great, rounded midfielders who would could do the work for Pirlo but also support the strikers ahead. This 352 also relied on the presence of intelligent and strong defenders, which Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci were. The full backs were trademark Conte, as they had to run the attack and defence. Conte’s team most of all relied on athletic and well-conditioned players who could put in a better shift than their opponents. While hard working, it was just as capable of playing out from the back with Pirlo and Bonucci making it extremely difficult for the opposition to cut off all passing lanes.
After three years (and three scudettos) it was fitting that a new era of coach was needed to establish Conte’s success. This came in the form of Allegri, who was tactically versatile and functions in a similar manner to Lippi. He was not revolutionary, but he understands football in a manner which few could equal. He is also capable of bringing the best out of any player, as he converted Mandzukic to an inside forward who could dominate fullbacks due to his stature and allowed Dybala to flourish in various positions while at the club. Allegri has also taken from Mancini’s 442 in his time at Juventus, while uses two incredibly gifted technical centre mids (Pjanic or Khedira) to sit infront of the defence and counter using the skill of players like Higuian, Dybala or Douglas Costa. He now uses a 4231, trying to fit all of Juve’s talent into one side, presenting another one of Allegri’s strengths. Building a plan for the players, as opposed to making the plan and then forcing in the players.
Over this time, there were some interesting teams assembled in Serie A. Along with Montella, who found some sustained success at Fioretina playing a possession based 352, Sarri has been the new manager to force attractive attacking football into Serie A with his modern methods. To quickly look at Montella, his team used the three-man backline to stretch the pitch when in possession, allowing the wide players to move further up. Additionally, a striker would drop into a deeper position to find space and add another option to create more flexible triangles in midfield. Finally, the team was built to be comfortable on the ball. Valero (CAM) was an incredibly gifted technician while Pizarro (CDM) could spray the ball out to any position on the pitch, while the CBs who were deeployed all had a good ability to move the play into the correct areas.
Sarri would then go on (at Napoli) to instil a more traditional version of Cryffian football which did not just imitate the high pressing dynamics but also had a constant control of the ball. Sarri was also more of an ideologue that Montella who was more versatile in his use of possession football. Sarri’s 433 was the perfect Italian incarnation of possession-based football which starts with a systematic press and then lays out a perfect pass map on the pitch. That Napoli team was extremely well built for that approach, similar to Montella’s, as the few transfers made were brilliantly integrated. However, Sarri’s training was just as important, with many of the players he found at Napoli when hired, remained on when he was fired. He was able to create a brilliant team environment while also upskilling the players who had been at the club before he arrived.
There is some much written on Sarri, that it would be easier to point out where to find that work: Tifo Football Napoli analysis 2016 Napoli analysis 2017
Looking at Italian football as monolithic can be a bit misrepresentative of it whole culture, as can be seen in the examples given here. Many of the managers presented were the balance to the Catenaccio style (which was not a boring style inherently), such as Erbstein’s Torino, the group of 70s managers who brought a dutch influence, Sacchi (who adapted that style for Italy) and now even Sarri or Ancelotti. Certainly, there are aspects which can be pointed out as consistent in the Italian game with counter attacking being the norm for most part. There was an earlier need to man mark which soon developed in its complexity. The use of creative players was always seen as a balance of sacrificing discipline for their flair, those players known as fantasista would be loved one week and then hated the next after not putting in a shift. Along with that there is a need for control in the Italian game, but that control is not with the ball, it is about space and who gets to use it. Every football culture is defined by its use of space but, for Italy, it is about knowing how to exploit certain spaces as effectively as possible, whether that be squeezing the defensive space or countering into open space.
Italian managers have also developed their mythos through the years. One of the greatest parts of that being working your way up through the divisions of Italian football, which is an expectation even today. It remains in spite of the new Italian school of coaching giving out degrees to the Contes and Allegris, even those managers had to work in Serie B or C. I believe this is where some gain their versatile and flexible tactical knowledge, as an ideologue will not always survive in climbing the ladder. Nevertheless, this was not true of Sarri, who built his way from the very lowest level with an idea that was never corrupted.
Italian football’s greatest boon has been the ability to react to the newest form of footballing brilliance. Right from Pozzo shaping the metodo against the unregulated approach of his contemporaries to Zona mista’s challenge to total football and then to Mourinho’s 4231 beating the untouchable Barca. Italy has relished the chance to face the new challenge with caution and intelligence and return victorious, even if it can take a defeat of two to win the war. Italian football can probably be seen as the most tactically competent of them all.