The reputation of Italy as a footballing country that produces coaches that are purely defensive minded is one that has to be put to rest.
If you were to list down the top managers currently in world football or those who have graced the touchline, you would be sure that the Italians would form a huge chunk of this. Household names such as Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi, Giovanni Trappatoni, Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti, Massimiliano Allegri, Claudio Ranieri, Roberto Mancini, Luciano Spalletti would be a shoo into this list.
The term “Peel the onion” has been used often to describe a scenario that there is more than what meets the eye. Italian football has always been the deeper end of the onion. It has seen a dramatic fall from grace from being the most watched league in the 90’s to one that barely evokes any excitement among the fans. However, true to the typical Italian, they are not ones to lie down and have always emerged triumphant by battling through hardship.
While the Premier League’s pace and La Liga’s obsession with possession football makes all the headlines, Serie A has never really been able to shed the tag of a tactics obsessed and defensive minded league.
However, it remains till date the league that has overseen maximum tactical innovation and thereby forming the basis for numerous title-winning football teams of the modern era. Arrigo Sacchi’s revolution at Milan in the late 90’s brought to Italy the concept of cohesive pressing tactics which formed the backbone of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams.
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Carlo Ancelotti’s education under Sacchi served him well when he took Milan to 2 Champions League titles before he won the league double with Chelsea and another Champions League with Real Madrid which finally saw him win a league title with Bayern.
Conte’s education under two of the finest tacticians of the modern age in Lippi and Ancelotti saw him refine the 3-4-1-2 and 3-5-2 system to devastating effect at Juventus, Italy and Chelsea.
While Pep Guardiola has been showered with praise on using Lionel Messi as a False 9, the credit duly should go to Luciano Spalletti’s use of Roma legend Francesco Totti in the role even before Guardiola used the tactic.
Juventus’ improved showing in Europe post-Conte’s exit is down to Allegri’s tactical knowledge which saw them nearly pull off miracle wins against Bayern Munich and more recently Real Madrid. The ease with which teams like Juventus and Roma shift seamlessly between a 3-man backline and a 4-man backline is a tactician’s delight. Add to that Allegri’s use of the towering Mario Mandzukic as a quasi-left winger cum center forward is one that deserves high praise as evinced during the near-miraculous comeback from the Old Lady against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Maurizio Sarri’s ferocious Napoli team and Eusebio di Francesco’s Roma have all but dispelled Italian football’s dour reputation.
It even resulted in Pep Guardiola saying that the Neapolitans were the best team he has ever faced. Coming from someone who lives and breathes tactics, that compliment is a reflection of just how far Italian football has come.
Claudio Ranieri arguably deserves a special mention for arguably the greatest fairytale in modern football history when Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2015-16. Massimo Carrera brought home the first league title for Spartak Moscow since 2001 and Zenit have made tremendous strides under former Premier League and Serie A winning coach Roberto Mancini.
This success across Italy and other countries comes as a result of the extremely strong foundation that each Italian coach receives at the Italian FA HQ at Coverciano. Each coach who graduates from the portals of this haloed institution submits a thesis which focusses on football tactics. The sheer volume of knowledge that is passed on from one generation of coaches to another is something that countries around the world especially England would need to take note of considering that English coaches in the Premier League and around the world are a rare commodity.
What is also striking is that alongside tactics, Coverciano emphasizes heavily on synergy across the length of the team. Coaches such as Ancelotti and Lippi relied heavily on greater team spirit than tactical knowledge as many former players would vouch for. The training of each coach relies heavily on each coach being able to innovate on football tactics and communication and forging coaches that bring their own coaching ideology to the table rather than having to derive it from an existing school of thought.
While a critic would point out that for a country with such rich coaching and tactical history, Italy should have been at the World Cup. Yes it is a sad irony that the Azzurri will not feature in Russia, but the ability of Italian coaches to constantly challenge the status quo in football and getting results in the process cements the country’s position as the coaching mecca of world football.