Understanding Italian football part 3.4 – Terminology – Tactics

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 IV introduces terms used in tactics.


Catenaccio has been much overstated in discussions of Italian football. People recognise it today as a synonym for quality defending, and some go as far as to read elaborate tactical solutions in it. In fact, the word catenaccio, in its conception, simply described a rather irritating and very widespread conduct in football – the tendency to have all of the players fall back within the defensive 60% of the pitch whenever one has an even marginal lead, making adversary progression very arduous and counter-attacks virtually impossible. Admittedly Italy has often been guilty of utilising it, though reducing their religious style of football to this specific nuance would be like saying that the Hippy movement was only about growing long hair. Some historic games like the ‘match of the century’ between Italy and Germany were mostly a show of catenaccio, with Italy’s 1-0 lead unlocked only in the final seconds and the subsequent, incredible extra-time taking place after that. The history of this word is in fact more interesting than the method of play it describes. Catenaccio itself, as a basic tactic to neutralise counters, is practiced by all nations and teams at some stage. Yet the narration and mythopoesis around the term has led to a tradition of legend which is unmatched for its importance in shaping the identity of Italian football (in particular the tactical identity). More can be said about catenaccio than about any other word in this glossary, but its story is a chronicle of the media, of sociology or of song more than it is one of football.


The word ‘pressing’ is one of the most common in Italian football lingo. Even though it has been borrowed from the English language, the Italian utilisation has some different implications. It is not a verb as much as a condition – a team does not ‘press,’ rather it goes in pressing. This means to have all the men in a tight condition of man-marking and the adversary ball-holder actively pursued. It overlaps with the question of having a high or low defensive line, since the latter determines how far into the pitch the opposing team is allowed to progress before pressing begins. Heavy pressing is a constructive solution for both defensive and offensive purposes. It allows to regain the ball more quickly when the team needs to fix a result, and it suffocates the offensive onus of an opponent before the ball can reach their most creative springboards. The down-side is that pressing burns a great deal of stamina and concentration. It can tire out a team’s players if too much of it is required of them too early, and it may be ineffective if it is employed at the late stages of the match, when energy begins to dwindle. The practice of pressing is an integral part of the game in football and is in fact a more common procedure in the Premier League than in Serie A, regardless of the semantic differences when describing the process itself.



The trident – the mythical weapon wielded by Poseidon in Greek myth – translates in football to any trio of forwards deployed simultaneously on the pitch. All variations of the 4-3-3 necessarily make use of a trident, and it is the composition of the trident itself – not the use of the 4-3-3 formation – which varies and identifies the culture it belongs to. Italian tridents almost invariably include one prima punta, one seconda punta and one fantasista. If the role of the fantasista is already being covered by the seconda punta, then the third member is usually a mezzala. The trio then provides a melange of power and finishing from one member, speed and technique from another, and unpredictable creativity from the third. Famous tridents which exemplify this combination include Juventus’ Gianluca Vialli (PP), Alessandro Del Piero (SP) and Roberto Baggio (F), Roma’s Vincenzo Montella (PP), Antonio Cassano (SP) and Francesco Totti (F), or Milan’s Hernan Crespo (PP), Andriy Shevchenko (SP) and Kaka (F). The classical trident has been undergoing some modifications recently after the advent of the 4-2-3-1, a formation which has greatly innovated tactics in Serie A, but the changes have yet to be metabolised properly.

Albero di Natale

An iteration of the 4-3-3 which has enjoyed some popularity in recent years is the 4-3-2-1, or formation ‘ad albero di natale.’ The expression means ‘Christmas tree,’ with reference to the triangular ‘fir-tree’ shape that the men draw on the pitch (from the broad base of defenders to the lone individual at the top of the ‘tree’). The formation is one which is fast and offensive, and it has been the darling of ex-Milan Coach Carlo Ancelotti for a while. It awarded him success in Europe but saw him struggle in Serie A, where teams afforded his formation less space for creativity. As a variation of the 4-3-3, the Christmas tree makes use of a trident. Of all the formations which do this, however, this is the most unpredictable in the composition of its three forward men. While it is possible to field the usual trio of fantasista, prima punta and seconda punta, the formation seems designed specifically to exploit the creativity of two fantasisti behind a single prima punta – the two players at the back of the striker are normally quite flexible in their role, juggling tasks which belong to the seconda punta or the trequartista or both. This explains why the formation has been adopted at Milan, where a number of players such as Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Andriy Shevchenko and Ronaldinho all seemed to possess attributes of (relatively) free-roaming fantasisti. Then again, the forward at the top of the Christmas tree is not always a pristine prima punta, and depending on the skill-sets of the men behind him, he may very well be a seconda punta, a velocista or yet another fantasista.

Understanding Italian football

Part 1 –

Part 2 –

Part 3 – Terminology
3.1 – Tactical deployment
– 3.2 –
Tactical roles
– 3.3 –
Player attributes
– 3.4 –

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