Understanding Italian football part 4.1 – The evolution of tactics in Serie A since Calciopoli part one

Imagine you were asked to name the five most powerful teams in Serie A. Instinctively – and forgetting for a moment the feats of the Genovese teams – one would answer: Inter, Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina, Roma.

What do we notice when looking at these teams? They all have a strong budget, of course, some more and some less. Also, all of them took the fields last weekend (Week 15 – December 5 & 6, 2009) arranged either in a 4-3-1-2 formation (Inter and Juventus) or in a 4-2-3-1 (Milan, Roma and Fiorentina). Furthermore, they have worked and occasionally still work with one of these two schemas – the 4-2-3-1 is the first alternative for Juventus (especially if they wish to field Sebastian Giovinco) and Roma recently seem to favour the 4-3-1-2 to some extents. The history of these two formations lifts a mirror which reflects the face of modern Italian football, and for this reason it is worth tracing it over the last few years.


For a more comprehensive picture, and before we really commence our insight, it is also worth mentioning that the 4-3-1-2 was the choice formation this weekend not only for the teams at the top, but also for Bologna, Chievo, Palermo and Cagliari, and that it is looking to be the most likely option for Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri as well. This should give us a measure of how much (and in what directions) Calcio has changed, after Calciopoli. In all of Serie A, only three teams are left which still defend the traditional and once widespread formation of the 4-4-2 – Sampdoria, Bari and Atalanta. How did we come to this? Why is it that a mere two formations group together nine teams out of 20 in Serie A, including the five most powerful?

Modern Italian football, whether people like to admit it or not, was engendered by two watersheds which took place in 2006 – the Calciopoli scandal and the triumph at the World Cup. After them, to use a common place, things would never be the same again. In the chaos which followed the collapse of Italy’s primary league, two powers emerged as leaders and affirmed themselves in a duopoly which was only to be dispelled last year, when Milan and Juventus returned to eminence. These two powers were Inter and Roma. For two years, all Coppa Italia and Supercoppa finals sported their colours alone and no other party could stake a claim to the Scudetto. Nor could anyone else defend the Italian flag in European competitions, limited as the success of Roma and Inter may have been in the Champions League. The dichotomy sketched by these two teams reflected an opposition between mindsets and schools of football which would later evolve into our current tactical scenario, the one which we are trying to analyse and which represents a synthesis of the above-mentioned football philosophies.

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The most obvious point to begin with is Roma, because you’d have to be deaf not to have brushed – even casually – with the clamours around Luciano Spalletti’s calcio champagne. Following an injury crisis which saw all of Roma’s forwards hugging the bed-sheets, Spalletti was struck with the (forced) intuition of shifting trequartista Francesco Totti to the position of prima punta and building the rest of the midfield around (or behind) him. The result was the most fulgurating style of football that the peninsula has experienced since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. Three offensive midfielders – doted with technique in Amantino Mancini, stamina in Simone Perrotta and versatility in Rodrigo Taddei – wove a web of runs as Totti shifted in front and behind their line, bouncing the ball off them and converting their passes into assists and shots. It was the birth of the 4-2-3-1. In two years, Roma achieved two second places in the league, one Supercoppa, one Coppa Italia and their best Champions League results in about two decades (two quarter-finals, albeit tarnished by the infamous 7-1 against Manchester United). In the process, they humbled teams of the calibre of Milan, Lyon and Real Madrid, they defeated Inter 6-2 and Manchester United 2-1, and Totti lifted the Golden Boot award for most prolific striker in Europe. Most memorably, Roma did all of this with an astonishingly fast, delightfully spectacular football which earned them ovations even from their critics and which was – on occasions – almost impossible to arrest.

The other side of the coin was Roberto Mancini’s Inter, the group that went on to triumph in the Scudetto race and who haven’t stopped doing so since the arrival of José Mourinho. The team was diametrically opposite to Roma. While the Giallorossi were composed of short, nimble players like Perrotta, David Pizarro or Cicinho, Inter sported colossi like Patrick Vieira, Marco Materazzi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While Roma relied on fast-flowing teamwork to find the net, Inter depended on its enormously talented individuals to produce instant flashes of conclusive skill (Ibrahimovic above all others). While Roma were unstoppable on the counter, Inter were lethal on set-pieces. Despite their elevated technical attributes, Inter were a team as physical as they come, and their victories were often laborious and inexorable, wrenched from their adversaries after 90 minutes of raw, crushing pressure. Their formation was the 4-3-1-2, with Luis Jimenez playing as the trequartista in a role which is now usually filled in by Wesley Sneijder or Dejan Stankovic. It was a style of football which earned them far less attention than that of Spalletti, but in its own way, it was just as formative and influential to Calcio as that of their counterparts.


Direct confrontations between these two teams were usually read, and correctly, as the contest between speed and power. The degradation of the Roman team last year and their own adoption of a very physical 4-3-1-2 saw this relation fall away. Even as Roma adopted traits of the Inter team (traits which were further modified after the onset of Coach Claudio Ranieri), the same happened to Inter in reverse – with the arrival of Samuel Eto’o and the increasing distinction of Douglas Maicon, the Nerazzurri became faster and more tactical.

Understanding Italian football

Part 1 –

Part 2 –

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

Part 4 – The evolution of tactics since Calciopoli Part 4.1
Part 4.2

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