There was a rather curious romanticism surrounding Juventus’ Champions League progression as the 2014-15 season developed. Having thrashed Borussia Dortmund in the second round and held out against Monaco in the quarter-finals, the Bianconeri overcame Real Madrid in the last four, essentially becoming victorious underdogs.
It must have been a strange feeling for Italy’s most successful club. Historically when Juventus lose major European games graffiti springs up around the peninsula portraying gratitude to their conquerors, such is the resentment regarding their domestic dominance. That dominance has continued into the present day, going unquestioned for four consecutive years now, with the club winning its fourth successive scudetto this season. So why was their continental pursuit so unlikely?
One need only peruse recent Champions League trends to obtain a reasonable answer to that question. In the last ten years, only four of the 40 semi-final slots available in that period have been taken up by Italian teams; AC Milan in 2006 and 2007, Inter in 2010 and Juventus this year. On two occasions Italian clubs went on to win the entire competition (Milan in ‘07, Inter in ‘10), but the general paucity of Serie A representatives in the Champions League’s latter stages is undeniable.
Statistically this has been the worst of the six decades for Italian clubs since the European Cup began in 1955. This decade’s four semi-final berths is Italian football’s lowest ever; previous decades have wielded – in order from 1956-1965 to 1996-2005 – six; six; five; six and eight semi-final spots respectively.
The last decade has also shown a gap in Champions League performance between Serie A and its traditional rivals: the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga. In this timeframe, La Liga has garnered 15 Champions League semi-final appearances, the Premier League 13 and the Bundesliga seven. The gap is rooted in financial disparity.
The most recent edition of the Deloitte Money League had just one Serie A club in its top 10 richest football clubs, with Juventus occupying 10th spot. Ahead of them were five Premier League clubs – Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, as well as La Liga and Bundesliga behemoths, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Taking into account the recent statistical trends and the relative financial disadvantage, it becomes easier to comprehend why Juventus’ deep Champions League run became a romantic affair. However, theirs was not the only significant European run to emanate from Serie A. Both Fiorentina and Napoli reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, a competition that had featured Italian semi-finalists just twice in the decade prior.
The positive performances of Italian clubs in European competition in the 2014-15 campaign hints at their adaptation to the prevailing circumstances. The financial advantages of others are being neutered and Italian teams are competing on the continent once again, powered by calcio’s most reliable currency: high-quality tacticians.
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It is well-documented that Massimiliano Allegri was not the most popular of choices to succeed Antonio Conte at Juventus, though he turned opinion around with results, guiding the club to a rare domestic double as well as the Champions League final. The quest for a treble ultimately ended in disappointment with defeat to Barcelona, but Allegri’s car certainly isn’t spat at by Juventus fans any more, as it was upon his arrival late last summer.
Having joined in fairly chaotic circumstances Allegri, instead of rocking the boat, gradually implemented his favoured 4-3-1-2 system whilst occasionally reverting to the Conte hallmark 3-5-2 that Juventus had utilised throughout recent seasons. The back three was often brought out in games where Allegri was happy to cede possession and territory for extra defensive solidity, such as the trip to Roma in early March, the tricky Champions League quarter-final second leg in Monaco and the cup final against Lazio.
However, in matches against Real Madrid and Barcelona, when Juventus were expected to capitulate, Allegri showed bravery and savvy to field his 4-3-1-2, opting to compete for the ball in midfield rather than attempting merely to stifle the opposition’s world-class attacking threats. Juventus played on the front foot in the Santiago Bernabeu against all preconceived notions, while for a brief moment in Berlin; having equalised, they looked like overcoming Barcelona’s expensively-assembled cast of stars.
Allegri’s diamond midfield has worked a treat with Juventus’ current crop of players. As with the 3-5-2, the full-backs still provide the only true sources of width and the striking duet remains intact; the one real alteration came in removing a centre-back and adding a central midfielder. Allegri’s arrival and the subsequent tactical modification didn’t just coincide with improved European performance; it was arguably the primary cause behind it.
Vincenzo Montella’s time with Fiorentina recently ended as acrimoniously as Allegri’s Juventus tenure began, the coach known in his playing days as Little Aeroplane being unmercifully thrown from the Viola cockpit for the ambiguity of comments he made regarding his future with the club. Despite the bitter end, Montella packed a lot into his third and final year at Artemio Franchi, leading Fiorentina to a third successive fourth-place league finish and the semi-finals of both the Coppa Italia and the Europa League, competitions they only exited at the hands of the eventual victors.
Montella achieved remarkable consistency whilst nurturing a cultured style of football during his time in Florence. He maintained this playing style while employing a variety of formations, working wonders with a squad comprising Premier League flops (Stefan Savic, Borja Valero, Marcos Alonso) and ageing stars (David Pizarro, Joaquin, Alessandro Diamanti).
Every season Montella steered Fiorentina forward in spite of the loss of integral first-team players – Matija Nastasic and Riccardo Montolivo in 2012-13; Stevan Jovetic and Adem Ljajic in 2013-14; and Juan Cuadrado in 2014-15. The Cuadrado deal, struck in early February this year, perfectly showcased Montella’s ability to innovate within a thrifty environment. An orthodox winger with pace and flair, the Colombian was a tough fit into the two-man forward line of Montella’s 3-4-1-2 system. With this in mind, losing Cuadrado was treated not as a problem, but as an opportunity.
Fiorentina successfully negotiated for Chelsea reserve Mohamed Salah to come the other way on loan as part of a cash-plus-player swap deal, and the Egyptian forward was an immediate tonic with his scything pace and dribbling ability. With his penetrating inward runs from the right-hand side on to his favoured left foot, he added greater scoring threat while his versatility also came in handy as Montella rotated between 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-3 formations. In both he seemed a better fit than Cuadrado.
They may have reached the Europa League semi-finals but, were it not for a combination of Montella’s tactical tinkering and new signing Salah’s speed, Fiorentina may have sunk without trace in their second round first leg tie against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Unable to cope with the home side’s fast tempo, Fiorentina were lucky to go in level at half-time. For the second half, Montella switched the system, going from the 3-4-1-2 to a 4-1-4-1 in order to plug defensive holes and maximise Salah’s counter-attacking thrust. Fiorentina held on to the draw before winning 2-0 at home to progress.
Even less expected than Fiorentina’s advancement to the last four of the Europa League was Torino’s appearance in the competition’s round of 16. Led by veteran coach Giampiero Ventura, the Granata qualified for European competition for the first time in over a decade thanks to a surprising seventh-place Serie A finish last season.
This season, Torino became the first Italian team to win in Bilbao, beating Athletic 3-2 in a thrilling Europa League second round match to reach the last 16, where they lost to Zenit Saint Petersburg after putting up a valiant effort at home. While Torino’s European exploits were overshadowed by those of their city rivals, they forced themselves into the limelight with a Turin derby win, their first win over Juventus in 20 years.
Ventura can be thanked for Torino’s resurgence, having overseen promotion from Serie B and Serie A survival before establishing them as a top-half team in the last two years. A consistent advocate of the 3-5-2 system, he has created a coherent, organised unit out of formerly unremarkable players such as Polish centre-back and captain Kamil Glik, who was brought in after impressing on loan at Bari while Ventura was the coach there, and wing-backs Matteo Darmian and Bruno Peres.
Peres and Darmian are vital to Ventura’s 3-5-2 and, just as with Glik, Torino will be desperate for both to stay. Darmian has developed into one of the finest wing-backs in the world today, is a regular Italian international and a versatile player to boot, capable of playing on either side. Peres’ forward gambols and buccaneering spirit on the right have become an important aspect of Torino’s enthusiastic counter-attacking play and it was those very traits that saw the Brazilian score one of the goals of the 2014-15 season, with a fast forward foray against Juventus that saw him leave several Juve players in his wake capped off by a powerful finish beyond Gianluigi Buffon.
Glik, Darmian and Peres were signed for a combined total of just under £5.5 million and are a microcosm of the Torino squad as a whole in the sense that their potential has been realised through Ventura’s tactical preferences. Ventura has created the perfect synergy whereby his system functions properly thanks to the individual players, and the individual players improve thanks to his system.
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Napoli, led by Rafa Benitez, had an underwhelming 2014-15 season. Knocked out of the Champions League at the qualification stage, they then bowed out to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the Europa League semi-finals and finished fifth in Serie A. It was a disappointment for a club with one of the highest wage bills in Italy and a team packed with international talent. There may have been nothing positive about the Partenopei’s expensive failings, but Empoli’s late-April dismantling of them was compelling, all the more so given Maurizio Sarri, Empoli’s coach at the time, was recently appointed to the Napoli helm following Benitez’s taking up the reigns at Real Madrid.
Just as tacticians were behind the rise of Juventus, Fiorentina and Torino in European competition, they also underpin a flourishing domestic game. In terms of sheer goals, Serie A was the most entertaining of Europe’s top leagues in 2014-15 with a goals-per-game rate that bettered La Liga, the Premier League and the Bundesliga. The goals are the finished article, a vivid portrait of a league tearing down pejorative old stereotypes of stout defensive negation and careful football. Beyond the goals, behind the portrait, are those with the brushes at hand: astute coaches brimming with innovation and ideas. Sarri is one of them.
Formerly a banker, Sarri began coaching in his early 30s, working his way around the lower reaches of the Italian game. He found himself at Empoli in 2012 and guided them to promotion within two years, earning his first taste of Serie A football. Sarri’s well-organised, energetic and youthful Empoli outfit were a pleasant surprise throughout 2014-15, surviving comfortably and finishing 15th in the league. They were at their best when employing a 4-3-1-2 system with a diamond midfield, a system that worked to perfection in their overwhelming 4-2 victory over Benitez’s Napoli.
Napoli went into that game chasing a Champions League spot and with three straight wins under their belts, but any confidence that form may have mustered was torn to shreds within the opening 10 minutes. Empoli began as a relentless whirling dervish, attacking Napoli in waves and exploiting weak, open defending. After having a penalty appeal turned down with their first attack, Empoli pressed on with immediacy and, six minutes later, they had a deserved opening goal. By half-time they had trebled their lead with some wonderful, fluent attacking movement leaving Benitez’s Napoli in a state of forlorn bewilderment.
The pulling wide of the two strikers, Massimo Maccarone and Manuel Pucciarelli; the galavanting Riccardo Saponara at the tip of the midfield diamond; the caresses of midfield string-puller Mirko Valdifiori at the diamond’s base; it was all too much for Napoli to handle. Arrigo Sacchi once named Sarri as one of Italy’s brightest coaching prospects. Watching this performance made such high praise all the more fathomable. Having comprehensively out-thought Napoli, Sarri now gets the chance to implement his tactics for them.
Other coaches – like the cultish Gian Piero Gasperini and his vibrant 3-4-3 system fuelled by technicians; Stefano Pioli and his harmonious Lazio collective, a flexible unit capable of succeeding in a number of different shapes; Eusebio Di Francesco and his provocative small-town Sassuolo side with the three-man forward line of young internationalists – dovetail with the likes of Sarri, Allegri, Montella and Ventura to make present day calcio a festival of tactical thought, a hipster’s dream.
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The extended European exertions of Italian clubs in the 2014-15 season could be viewed as an anomaly, a fault in the machine. More realistically though, they should be seen as something far more promising; a sign of better things to come, a demonstration of progress.
Within the beautiful game there is undoubtedly a cold correlation between revenue and performance, but it isn’t entirely symmetrical; something systems and styles have a lot to do with. Tactics have a way of subverting the banality of modern day football, allowing the financial underdog to occasionally prosper. In this sense Italian football is in a relatively strong position, benefiting from the realisation that in these times ideas cost a lot less than new players.
On the contrary, in spite of its vast riches, the Premier League is in danger of becoming a vacuum for innovation, where the most obvious solution to an issue on the field is money spent off it. Personality cults and a focus on the individual will not allow for legacy-building teams, while the chairman’s chequebook has become a lazy preference for squad development, even overshadowing the training ground. This is a luxury Serie A simply cannot afford, though perhaps, at least on the evidence of the last year, that is not to its detriment.
Italian football may no longer be the first, second or even third choice destination for the world’s elite players, but it continues to remain a home for tactical inspiration. While wage bills decrease on an annual basis, Italian clubs, with solid tactical foundations, seem to be in their strongest position for many years in comparison to their continental rivals. Calcio’s revival is further clarification that, while money gets spent, ideas retain their value.