Understanding Italian football part 3.1 – Terminology – Tactical deployment

Andrea Tallarita follows up his studies of Fantasia and Furbizia to bring us the third installment in his Understanding Italian football series. In four sections, Andrea looks at the array of words that pepper the Italian game. Part I introduces terms used in tactical deployment.

Prima punta (PP) – also Bomber, Cannoniere

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Italian football distinguishes between two very clear-cut typologies of strikers. The word ‘punta’ means ‘point,’ ‘peak’ or ‘tip,’ in reference to the player’s position at the offensive far-end of the pitch. In Italian, punta is a synonym for ‘striker,’ but first and second striker (prima and seconda punta) have very different characteristics – when the distinction between these two types of striker is not being accounted for, the all-round term for striker is attaccante. The PP is the most classical and ancient type of forward – physically sturdy, very tenacious and with a strong gift for finding the back of the net. In recent history PPs have also become physically powerful, with warthogs such as Christian Vieri and Luca Toni replacing the tradition of small footballers upheld by Paolo Rossi and Salvatore Schillaci. PPs are normally not very gifted in terms of technique, with the exception of first-touch shots, a category in which they are often astonishing for accuracy, speed and control. Their contribution to the game is very limited outside of the box, and devastating inside it. They do not dribble (or, not much), but they score in every possible way – by header, on the run, from tight corners, in the middle of chaotic swarm-ups in the box and on aerial balls. PPs must be prolific and consistent and are expected to score up to 20 goals a year for any team they are starting in – hence the slang appellations of a seconda punta, the Bomber or the Cannoniere (as well as the term for the league’s top-scorer at any given moment – the Capocannoniere, literally the ‘chief-bomber’). They are their team’s main resource for notching goals and quite literally the ‘tip’ of their game inasmuch as they must finalise whatever the rest of the team has built. Great Azzurri PPs also include Silvio Piola, Alessandro Altobelli, Beppe Signori, Filippo Inzaghi and Gigi ‘roll of thunder’ Riva.

Seconda punta (SP)

The second typology of striker adds technique to the equation. Where the PP must finalise, the seconda punta must create. This kind of striker normally recruits the team’s player with the best one-on-one skills, if not the best all-round technique. In modern football, Italy’s most gifted forwards tend to be utilised in this position, even when their skill transcends the demands of the role – see Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Antonio Cassano. As the latter trio exemplify, an SP is normally a rather short individual, since the low belt-line allows for feints, turns and switches in direction which are harder to read and therefore far more effective. Alongside the dribbling skills, they possess two obligatory characteristics – a high speed on the run and a strong or at least decent shot from distance (compensating for the short range of the prima punta). Contrary to popular opinion, an SP does not specialise in passing – that bit is left to the midfield and most often the wingers, with whom SPs constantly cross paths. They do, however, take free-kicks more often than their counterparts, on account both of their aforementioned talents in long-distance shooting and also because – short as they are – they are unlikely to contribute much in the aerial phase of the game.

Trequartista (TQ)

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The conventional offensive chemistry sees the SP building bridges between midfield and PP – receiving passes from the wings, initiating runs and supporting the PP, mainly. On occasions, the team is built in such a way that the bridge-building role is left to another kind of player – the trequartista. A TQ is a compromise between a midfielder and a striker. He operates in the trequarti – the Italian term to describe the space three-quarters of the way from one end of the pitch to the adversary goal. This kind of player is in fact quite rare and a much more modern invention than most commentators would like to believe. While simple ‘offensive midfielders’ are often deployed in the trequarti, a genuine TQ operates more centrally and specifically possesses skills which cross over with those of an SP. They are slower, but they possess an even superior shot from distance. They are not as gifted in one-on-one scenarios, but they are technically more versatile. Most importantly, a TQ invariably possesses outstanding passing talent and vision. This, coupled with basic defensive skills, means that a TQ will have an entire team built around him (typically by means of a 4-3-1-2) or else will not be deployed at all. There are traces of the role in old players such as Valentino Mazzola and Gianni Rivera, but the role of the Italian trequartista truly found its exegesis only in modern times by means of Francesco Totti.

Mediano – also, Mastino

While the TQ is a role more specific in its attributes than that of a simple offensive midfielder, the mediano is closer to what in the English-speaking world is known as a defensive midfielder. Starting from the mediana – that is to say, the inner half of the midfield just behind the middle line and belonging to the player’s own team – the role of a mediano involves free defensive coverage of spaces or context-sensitive man-marking. The intended effect should be akin to that of having an extra man on the pitch, since the mediano doubles up on the coverage provided by a winger and turns into a fifth defender when the backline is under pressure. While the core defensive skills of a mediano must be extremely elevated (their slang appellation, after all, is mastino, meaning ‘hound,’ for their capacity to stick onto adversaries and never let them go), the modern interpretation of the role involves a broader set of skills. Mediani are becoming increasingly appreciated for their capacity to add passing and shooting talents to their player portfolios, allowing them to contribute rather than simply complement the work of more creative midfielders. Celebrated mediani of the past include Sandro Mazzola and Marco Tardelli. Contemporary ones list Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini, Angelo Palombo, Antonio Nocerino and Daniele De Rossi.

Mezzala

A mezzala, or a half-winger, is a player who is positioned on the wing despite not really possessing the typical attributes of a winger. His idiosyncratic talents lead him to shift from his position into other parts of the pitch where his contribution may be more substantial. This means orbiting more centrally or offering a greater offensive slant at the expense of coverage – seldom is a mezzala deployed for defensive purposes. This is not a ‘classical’ role and it is usually reserved for players who are difficult to categorise tactically or who cannot be employed in their natural position (for instance, an SP being placed on the wing due to an excess of players already available in his role). Alternatively, one of the forwards in a typical 4-3-3 formation can be assigned a role as a mezzala when the midfielders do not suffice to provide coverage. Gianni Rivera and Gianfranco Zola have been deployed as half-wingers in the past.

Understanding Italian football

Part 1 –
Fantasia

Part 2 –
Furbizia

Part 3.1 – Terminology
Tactical deployment

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