Udinese picked up another three points on the weekend after a 1-0 win over Palermo which also marked their seventh clean sheet of the season. Despite having scored few goals compared to other clubs higher up the table – 11 in total – the Zebrette still find themselves amongst the frontrunners early on because of their remarkable defensive record.
Last season, critics showered praise on Udinese tactician Francesco Guidolin for his side’s attacking style. This season, Udinese have been praised for their watertight defence rather than their lethal attack. Conceding only three goals in nine games is a testament to the fact that Udinese have improved defensively. Cristian Zapata’s transfer to Villarreal could have been a big blow for the club but centre-backs Mehdi Benatia and Maurizio Domizzi have stepped up their game while Danilo looks an inspired signing.
However, Udinese have not become a defensive team overnight. The goals may have dried up but the Bianconeri’s style is as offensive as it was last season. In a league renowned for its slower and more technical play, the Zebrette bring a high pressure system that is seen more in leagues such as the Premier League or La Liga. Rather than containing the ball like most Serie A teams, Udinese’s philosophy is to get the ball back across the pitch and to put pressure on opposition players before they can execute their game plan. Workhorses such as Kwadwo Asamoah and Badu provide the grit in the middle of the field and the team as a whole tend to push up, hassling the opposition, forcing errors and gaining possession in dangerous areas.
It was no surprise that Udinese’s only loss of the season and two of the three goals they have conceded came against Napoli – another high-flying team famed for their work rate on the pitch. With Napoli amongst the chasing pack already and enjoying Champions League football as well this season, it affirms that this shift in tactics is proving fruitful for smaller clubs in Italy. However, Napoli and Udinese’s tactics still vastly differ from English and Spanish sides. Not many Premier League managers would dream of using a three-man backline, which Udinese and Napoli thrive under. Wingbacks like Udinese’s Pablo Armero possess the pace and work rate to be taking on players in the opposition half as well as making darting runs back to help defend. They have the freedom to do so by retaining three players at the back rather than a traditional pair. While it sounds more defensive on paper, the tactics encourage attacking flair.
For Udinese, attack is their best form of defence. Whilst the backline and the goalkeeper deserve praise, the team as a whole is operating in a manner that other Serie A clubs are finding difficult to combat. With the constant evolution of football, do the rise of clubs like Udinese, who use a high pressure three-man defence, mark a potential tactical change coming across the board in Serie A? It appears as though high pressure and work rate have found their way across the continent but retain an Italian edge.