Cheuk Hei Ho writes a detailed report about Gian Piero Ventura’s early experiments at the head of the Italian national team.
Gian Piero Ventura took over as the head coach of the Italy national team after Antonio Conte. While extremely well respected in Italian football circles, he has never coached any traditional big clubs, nor has he won any major club honors. Here we look at how the new Italy national team interprets his tactics and discuss some of the challenges they will face going into the World Cup in Russia next year.
The experimental 4-2-4
Ventura used a 4-2-4 formation against Albania:
(1. Buffon) // (2. De Sciglio) – (19. Bonucci) – (15. Barzagli) – (22. Zappacosta) // (10. Verratti) – (16. De Rossi) // (7. Insigne) – (9. Belotti) – (11. Immobile) – (6. Candreva)
4-2-4 is not a favorite formation in modern football. In fact, you almost could not find any team in the top flight using such configuration regularly. Conte had tried to install such formation when he first took over Juventus. His experiment lasted for a handful of matches before he permanently switched to a 3-5-2. Ventura pioneered Conte’s 4-2-4. And we finally see how the grandmaster himself implemented it against Albania.
The choices of the goalie (Gianluigi Buffon) and four at the back (Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Davide Zappacosta) were quite standard. The double pivots in the midfield were made up of Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti. Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile made up the central two strikers while Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Candreva played as two support forwards.
There are several notable points in this formation.
Two target men
First, both Belotti and Immobile played as the target men. In fact, during the offensive phase, both of them maintained a very short distance between each other centrally. Both players are quite complete strikers. Belotti looks set to become a world class striker if he can continue to show the form of the current campaign. Immobile has probably reached his maximum potential, where he is a fringe national team striker (think of him as Pierluigi Casiraghi or Fabrizio Ravanelli). They are both physically strong, fast, have decent techniques and are dangerous shooting from distance. When facing two such strikers, most opponents would want three defenders to mark them (two markers and one defender provides cover). Albania did exactly that.
The strategy of having two target men so close to each other centrally serves several purposes: Firstly, it limits the width/length of Albania’s defense. Because three of the defenders had to stay with the two Italian strikers carefully, it leaves spaces on the flanks. If uncovered, Italy could quickly take advantage of those areas. Albania responded by having more players dropping back to cover the space on the flanks. But the commitment of players to cover the width limits their ability to cover the midfield, allowing Italy to control that area after they get into the game. This advantage is exactly what Ventura wanted to achieve, because now his major weapon, the two secondary strikers (Insigne and Candreva) could thrive with less resistance and more space.
Two secondary strikers
The two secondary strikers are the essence of Ventura’s 4-2-4 formation.
On paper, most people will assume the front 4 of the 4-2-4 means that there are two wingers to support two central strikers. The offensive phase focuses on the width and is crosses-heavy. But Ventura’s 4-2-4 is nothing like that. In the defensive phase, Italy reverts to a traditional 4-4-2, and it is the only time Insigne and Candreva play as wide players. In the offensive phase, both Candreva and Insigne are positioned in the wide area initially. Both players move inwards to receive the ball and they almost exclusively do their damage centrally.
In this game, Candreva’s and Insigne’s functions were slightly different. Candreva was more a link between the midfield and the strikers. He would often receive the ball and then look for the passing lanes to the strikers.
Because he moved centrally from the wide area, it often created a space that was utilized by an overlapping Zappacosta:
Moreover, because of the threats of the two target men, Candreva often found space behind them, and he was able to receive the ball from midfield.
You can see how Candreva moved centrally from the wider position. When Belotti came back to receive the ball, both Candreva and Insigne moved forward into the space between the lines. These movements created an overloading scenario where Albania could not decide who to mark. The resultant free-kick led to the first penalty for Italy.
Insigne did not contribute so much to the build-up. He played as a receiver who tried to penetrate the space created by Belotti or Immobile.
When Barzagli sent a long ball directly to Belotti, Immobile almost immediately moved into an open space. His movement was aimed to drag the defense with him and create an opening in the center, a space that Insigne would eventually move into. Verratti tried to seek a clipped pass but was neutralized by the third Albania defender.
These clips summarize everything Ventura is seeking to do with his 4-2-4.
Belotti and Immobile act as two target men. The defenders need to mark them. When Barzagli tries to find passing options, one of them comes back, receives and shields the ball, before passing it to Candreva. Insigne would almost immediately move into the space created by Belotti’s backward movement. Moreover, with so many players in the center, Italy’s full-backs, such as Zappacosta in this game found a lot of space on the flank (because it was Candreva who often moved inside to receive the ball and created a space on the right-hand side).
First, Italy does not have good enough players to play the two secondary striker roles. The ideal players for this function should be creative. Having excellent technique is important because they have to operate in the central area and make complex decisions. Neither Insigne nor Candreva is ideal for this role. Both players thrive when playing on the flanks when there are more spaces and less passing options to process. They don’t have the skill sets to create an opening when space is tight. Italy was able to implement Ventura’s tactics in the game against Albania. There were six or seven times when Candreva tried to combine with Insigne, and the passes were intercepted. A perfect player for this role is Milan’s Giacomo Bonaventura, who can dribble and has excellent passing range. However, when you look at the other usual suspects for that role (Domenico Berardi, Eder, Federico Bernardeschi), none of them represent a much better option at this current stage. Italy surely misses players like Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero.
Secondly, with this 4-2-4 system, all four front players operate in the middle. It is critical for the full-back to occupy a very advanced position to provide width in the offensive phase because they are the only players capable of doing that. Therefore, Italy is very prone to counter-attacks with only De Rossi and Verratti covering all the spaces in the midfield. Juventus has almost the exact same problem with their double pivots.
Albania did not have the quality to punish Italy, but better opponents would certainly do that. Ventura’s version of 4-2-4 never makes it in the Italian top flight, and it should not be the usual tactic for the national team.
The traditional 3-5-2
Ventura fielded a more traditional formation against Netherlands.
(12. Donnarumma) // (3. Romagnoli) – (19. Bonucci) – (5. Rugani) // (4. Darmian) – (16. De Rossi) – (10. Verratti) – (18. Parolo) – (22. Zappacosta) // (11. Immobile) – (17. Eder)
This version is very similar to the one in Euro 2016 under Conte. There is a strong focus on the counter-attack, and Eder shone with such tactics. There aren’t a lot of tactical changes compared to Conte’s version. But the game against The Netherlands highlights some of the biggest assets Italy possess and some of the challenges ahead.
De Rossi is the most important player in Italy
At 35 and 39, Barzagli and Buffon received praise for their performances in the last few years. Juventus’s domestic dominance certainly boosts such appreciation and overshadows Daniele De Rossi’s brilliance in the recent seasons. However, in the national team, De Rossi’s performance shows he is the most indispensable player in Italy.
At 34, De Rossi is not capable of covering a large amount of area like he used to. However, his athletic ability is now replaced by his positioning and tactical intelligence. Coupled with his excellent passing range, he is the perfect central defensive midfielder.
Here the backward movement of De Rossi dragged the #10 with him. Netherlands was not able to cover the space left by #10, and Bonucci was able to take advantage of such openness by sending a vertical through pass forward.
When given space, De Rossi can use his excellent passing range to bypass the midfield and deliver a vertical pass to his striker teammates.
He was also able to find tight passing angles even when he was pressured. Italy can break The Netherlands’ first line of defense if Verratti is able to control the ball.
This clip summarizes the importance of De Rossi:
He was always the primary passing option for the three Italian centre-backs during the build-up. Once he received the ball, he needed to survey whether there was any passing lane to advance the ball further. If there were no options, he would re-settle Italy’s build-up with a backward pass to Bonucci or switch the ball to the opposite side to stretch the opponent’s defense.
Having a player like him takes a lot of pressure off Verratti. He can focus on receiving the ball deeper in the opponent’s half. The closer Veratti is to the opposition goal when he gets the ball, the better the quality of chances that he will create.
Neither Marco Parolo nor Roberto Gagliardini offered any viable passing option for Romagnoli. Opponents could now close down Romagnoli and Verratti.
Again neither Marco Parolo nor Roberto Gagliardini offered any viable passing option for Romagnoli. Verratti had to stay very deep in his half to help to advance the ball.
Whether it is the experimental 4-2-4 or the traditional 3-5-2, there are very similar themes in Ventura’s tactics. Firstly, Ventura places a lot of focuses in operating the ball from the central area of the pitch. All the players in the central region, whether it is a defender, midfielder or a forward, are the primary passers of the team. A majority of the balls go through the middle region of the pitch. These players must possess not only excellent technical quality but also mental ability to handle complex decision-making processes because space is much tighter in the middle. Secondly, there are fewer players on the flanks. In the last two games, Italy only had one designated player on each side (full-back in the 4-2-4 and wing-back in the 3-5-2). Italy relied solely on these players to provide width during the offensive phase. Because there is only one player on each side, it is extremely demanding for these players in physical terms. Therefore, it is no surprise that these players are not heavily involved in the build-up. They play mostly as ball receivers. Their simple mental tasks compensate for their extreme physical demands compared to the central players. Therefore, a clear distinction between responsibilities is apparent between the central players versus the flank players.
Italy is well stacked with talents in many areas: They gave two great keepers who are 20 years apart in age. They have multiple excellent defenders who are veterans (Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Barzagli, and Darmian), newcomers (Rugani, Romagnoli, Zappacosta and even Mattia Caldara) and back-ups (Davide Astori, Francesco Acerbi, Ignazio Abate). Their forwards are also well stocked, with the likes of Belotti looking to take the starting striker role in the near future with support from the likes of Eder and Immobile.
But midfield is where they can either shine or the area that can drag them down. De Rossi and Verratti can be one of the best midfield pairings in the world. Both of them possess exceptional passing range. De Rossi is great in positioning and defense while Verratti has excellent technique. However, they need a better midfield partner to do the running and the dirty work. At 34, De Rossi cannot cover all the area. Parolo has been solid but unspectacular. Claudio Marchisio was the best choice for that role. But he has not returned to his peak form after his ACL injury, and it is uncertain whether that will happen. The same is true for Alessandro Florenzi, who is yet to recover. The most promising player for this role will probably be Gagliardini. Another player to watch is Giacomo Bonaventura. He is perfect for the attacking midfielder or even secondary striker role.
Italy is entering an exciting period, and Ventura may be bringing a contender to Russia next year if his experiments succeed.