A tactical look at Gian Piero Gasperini’s Genoa

During 2014/2015 season, Genoa were one of the most electrifying and astonishing teams of the Serie A, particularly during the second part of the season. They clinched the 6th position, the last valid for European football qualification, but the FIGC denied them the UEFA licence and subsequently the possibility to compete in next season Europa League. As if that were not enough, their European spot was taken by their archrivals of Sampdoria, making their exclusion even more bitter.

Genoa_cfc
Genoa nicknames are I Rossoblu (The Red-Blues) and Il Grifone (The Griffin)

However, the instance of the missed UEFA licence is a black spot that cannot eclipse Genoa great season. The main architect of their success is Gian Piero Gasperini, in his second spell on Genoa bench. After taking the Rossoblu back to the Serie A in 2007, placing 3rd in the Serie B behind Juventus and Napoli during the infamous post-Calciopoli season, Gasperini took his football style and his renown 3-4-3 to the top-level of Italian football. In their first Serie A championship played in 12 years they safely managed to avoid relegation, doing even better a year later, when Genoa, thanks to the contribution of players like Diego Milito, Thiago Motta and Domenico Criscito, achieved a UEFA Europa League qualification, finishing 4th, tie with Fiorentina. Only a worse goal difference turned down their Champions League hopes in behalf of La Viola. The 2009 summer market changed Genoa roster a lot: their two gems Motta and Milito were sold to FC Inter and then played an instrumental role in the Nerazzurri notorious triplete. Nevertheless Gasperini succeeded to finish in the first part of the classification, ending 9th at the endo fo 2009/2010 season. Unfortunately, something went wrong at the beginning of 2010/2011 season: Genoa took only 11 point from their first 10 games and Preziosi fired his manager, replacing him with Davide Ballardini.

One of the few long-term projects of the Italian football, with a precise footballing philosophy sustained by important results, went up in smoke. From that moment neither Genoa nor Gasperini, lived equally satisfying experiences. Gasperini failed his big occasion as FC Inter manager of the post-Mourinho era, collecting no wins in a five games spell. Also his following job as Palermo head-coach lasted less than a season: after been fired once, he was called back by Palermo president Zamparini, before definitively leaving Sicily in March 2013. In the meantime Genoa went through a similar bad span. After finishing 10th with Ballardini, Genoa lived a period of chaos, with two consecutive championship ended at the 17th spot, the last useful to avoid relegation, and a never-ending alternation of managers.

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Genoa managers from 2007 and their respective Serie A results

The last to jump in the jaws of this manager-eater version of Preziosi, was the president’s favourite himself, Fabio Liverani, who didn’t last more than 7 matches. But then, like how happen in the best love stories, the firing of Liverani was the perfect occasion to bring Gasperini back to Genoa. After his previous 4 years experience and 3 seasons of separation, Gasp finally came back on Grifo‘s bench. Without the chance to lead the preseason training (very important for his aggressive and highly energetic 3-4-3) and with a lot of new faces in comparison with his last spell, Gasperini managed to finish 14th in 2013/2014, certainly a better result than the two seasons before.

With the preseason training coordinated by Gasperini, together with his trusty athletic trainer Alessandro Pilati, Genoa was 7th at the halfway mark of 2014/2015 Serie A. They could fight for a European qualification spot, thanks to the goals scored by Alessandro Matri (7) and Mauricio Pinilla (3). But then, the same transfers revolution took place, with Matri heading to Juventus (via Milan) and Pinilla joining Atalanta. Furthermore other two players, whose dirty work on the pitch was critical theretofore, leaved Genoa: the left-wingback Luca Antonelli was sold to AC Milan after five season with the Rossoblu, while the gutsy midfielder Stefano Sturaro reached Turin, at the end of his loan from Juventus. In addition to the four key-players mentioned, Fetfatzidis, Mussis, Rosi, Strasser, Greco and Santana also leaved Genoa.

Alessandro Matri and Mauricio Pinilla key players from the first part of the season

This winter exodus started to turn the fans nose, and many accused Genoa of being only a selling club, without any ambitions. Moreover the tifosi were afraid of the potential sales of Diego Perotti and Iago Falqué, the two creative inside forwards, just arrived during the summer. The ending of the transfers window with the two still in the roster and with 8 new signings (T.Costa, Niang, Bergdich, També, Borriello, Laxalt, Pavoletti e Ariaudo) didn’t weaken the debate. But Gasperini was involved himself in the transfers, as the third Marco Borriello’s comeback to Genoa and the arriving of M’baye Niang (considered a bad-boy in Milan, but strongly wanted by Genoa skipper) demonstrate.

The pitch proved the club and his manager right: Genoa kept his form, with even better results, conquering 3 points more than the first 19 games in the second half of the championship, ending their season 6th, with a total of 59 points.

Gasperini with M’Baye Niang, a player he strongly wanted at Genoa and who grew a lot under his leadership

During the arc of his career, started in the early 90’s as Juventus youths trainer, Gasperini (almost) always deployed a 3-4-3. As he told to Gazzetta dello Sport, in a period when every Italian coach tried to copy Arrigo Sacchi and his famous 4-4-2, he was fascinated by Ajax youngsters, who at the time played in a 3-4-3. The same formation he lined up at Crotone in the Serie C championship, when he gained promotion to the Serie B and in every other professional teams coached (Genoa, Inter, Palermo).

he 3-4-3 from the second part of the season
The 3-4-3 from the second part of the season

Despite some tweaks over the years, his system has always relied on high athleticism, indispensable to express on the pitch aggressiveness and a tempo with a few equal in Italian football, for which the pre-season training is essential, as previously mentioned. Gasperini himself explained the reason of his playing principles: a sort of anxiety when his team doesn’t have the ball, which pushes him to train a high pressing system that if sustained by the required physical condition, is almost nerve-racking for the opponents. However, depending on the case, Genoa are also capable to defend more patiently, by staying compact thanks to the two wide midfielders shifting on the defenders line, and with the attacking trio more free to wait for the occasion to counterattack.

The fluidity on the pitch requires multi-skilled and multi-positional players, who are often able to play in a wide range of positions. Players like Juraj Kucka and Tomas Rincon, central midfielders equally capable to play as wingback/wide midfielders or in the case of the Slovakian even as inside forward) or like Edenilson, who was deployed on both flanks of the pitch with the same good results. Even M’Baye Niang played indifferently as central or wide forward.

All this flexibility produces opportunities to change formation during the game and from match to match: from the last season Gasperini begun to line up a 4-3-3 from time to time, mainly to prevent his three defenders to play man to man against an opposing offensive trio.

The central defenders need good anticipation abilities and build-up qualities as well. They need to often overlap almost as pure fullbacks, with the aim to create an overload on the flanks. If this happens, the central midfielder from the same side will have to adequately cover for his team-mate.

The right central defender carries the ball forward, creating an overload together with the right midfielder and the right inside forward. The right central midfielder has to cover for the defender's forward movement.
The right central defender carries the ball forward, creating an overload together with the right midfielder and the right inside forward. The right central midfielder has to cover for the defender’s forward movement.

It’s not easy to find centre-backs with all this qualities, so Gasperini often plays ex-fullbacks (more suited for those duties) in the role, like for instance, Luca Antonini and Giovanni Marchese.

The presence of a playmaker in the middle of the pitch, capable of dictating the tempo and of spraying precise passes all over the pitch it’s not strictly needed, as last season proves. The majority of the Rossoblu‘s game takes place on the flanks: during the build-up phase the main duty of the central midfielder placed on the side of the ball, is to come deep between the lines in order to receive the ball and distribute it to the flanks.

“There is no need to have a mastermind who plays every ball. If he has to pass the ball 5 meters, I can do it too.”  – Gian Piero Gasperini

The two wide midfielders/wingbacks have a multiplicity of duties and their positioning is often vital to the balance of the entire system. Genoa pressing is not ball-oriented or passing lane-oriented, but more man-oriented: when they press high to hinder opponents build-up phase from the defence, the wide midfielder has to be ready to anticipate the play and near his man. If the two wide midfielders stayed in line with the defenders, with only two men on the midfield (the two central midfielders) there would be a lot of space for the opponents, if they manage to evade the first pressing. It is necessary that the wide midfielders always follow the play and they need to be tactical aware to make the pressing effective and efficient.

Napoli vs. Genoa 2-1 - Il Genoa pressa il Napoli, ma Antonelli è rimasto troppo basso ed è in netto ritardo su Higuain (uomo di sua competenza in questo caso) che riesce a servire Hamsik. Ne scaturisce un contropiede con una chiara occasione da gol per De Guzman.
Napoli vs. Genoa 2-1 – Genoa press Napoli high, but Antonelli stayed too deep and he is late on his man Higuain, who manages to pass to Hamsik who has a lot of space to run into. The action ends with De Guzman wasting a clear cut chance in front of Genoa keeper Perin.

Instead, when the Grifone defends deep in their half of the field, the two wide midfielders shift on the defenders line in a 5-2-3/5-2-2-1, making the lines compact, but still ready to ignite fast counter-attacks.

Genoa style heavily relies on systematic attacks down the flanks, counting on the speed and on the dribbling abilities of their wide-players like Falqué, Lestienne, Niang, Edenilson and Perotti, who leads the Serie A in successful dribblings per game with 3,6.

Att-zon
Genoa 2014/2015 attack sides

The inside forwards and Andrea Bertolacci have a great creative freedom: many scoring chances are created by individual skills and facilitated by the continuous research of wide-overloads.

Genoa 04
Atalanta vs. Genoa 1-4 – Pavoletti moved wide, switching positions with Falqué and creating the space for Edenilson, who cuts inside with the ball. The Brazilian passes to Bertolacci, who dribbles inside the box and scores, while Lestienne offers the chance for a through ball.

Switches of flank, often played close to the ground, are recurring, in order to take advantage of the eventual overload created as fast as possible.

When Genoa attack, the wide midfielders and the inside forwards execute opposite, yet complementary, movements. If, for instance, one of the inside forwards moves inside, the wide midfielder has to move wide and/or to overlap down the flank, and vice versa, for the purpose of making room to attack. The wide chain always works in coordination with the central midfielder nearest to the ball, with the aim of entering the box as quick as they can. There is the risk to leave the midfield undefended, so the two central midfielders need great stamina, work-rate and sense of position.

The pair which worked better in line with these requirements, was the one formed by Juraj Kucka and Andrea Bertolacci. The Slovakian was troubled by injuries in the first part of the season, but once free from physical problems, he replaced Stefano Sturaro when he leaved, releasing Bertolacci from a considerable amount of defensive duties. It is no coincidence that Bertolacci himself took his attacking performance to another level in the second part of the season.

During the offensive phase, with the two in the middle of the pitch, the midfield becomes a sort of diamond, with Kucka acting as the holding midfielder, given his ability in breaking up opposition’s attacks, and Bertolacci playing as the offensive midfielder, always ready to make runs into the box.

Genoa 02
Genoa vs. Verona 5-2 – Laxalt pass to the running Bertolacci, clever to find a channel between defenders and score. It’s remarkable how the inside forwards stay wide to stretch the opposing defence and to free themselves and how Kucka stays deep to defend possible counter-attacks.

In addition to the great movement, often wide to create overloads and to give passing options to flanks players or to switch position with the inside forwards, the central forward is a very important aerial option, both to finish with an header and to let the team breathe when they have to play the long ball.

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Since the start of his Genoa spell, Leonardo Pavoletti proved to be particularly skilled in carrying out these duties, until then conducted by Pinilla. The rising of Pavoletti as starting striker encouraged Gasperini to move Niang, better at take-ons than at aerial duels, in a wide position, also given the season-ending injury of left inside-forward Diego Perotti.

When the Rossoblu attempt a cross, they attack the box in numbers, usually with their striker, both inside forwards and at least Bertolacci. In this way, if the target of the cross can’t finish, he can move the ball to one of his team-mates, always ready to throw themselves on the ball. All this players moving forward jeopardize the balance of Gasperini’s team, exposing them to counter-attacks, the most well known of Genoa weak point. To prevent this contingency, the wide midfielder opposite to the cross flank, moves inside alongside Kucka, acting de facto as central midfielder in place of Bertolacci.

Niang’s second goal against Verona at Marassi, and Pavoletti’s one against Atalanta in Bergamo, are two examples that illustrate well this tactical adjustment.

Genoa vs. Verona 5-2 - Edenilson anticipa il cross dalla destra in direzione di Niang. Appena parte il traversone Perotti e Bertolacci attaccano la profondità, mentre il laterale sinistro Bergdich si accentra occupando la posizione di centrocampista centrale accanto a Kucka, rimasto in copertura.
Genoa vs. Verona 5-2 – Edenilson plays an early cross towards Niang from the right side of the pitch. As soon as he kicks the ball, Perotti and Bertolacci attack the goal, while Bergdich, the left wide midfielder moves inside to the centre of the midfield, taking Bertolacci’s spot alongside Kucka
Atalanta 1-4 Genoa - Da una rimessa laterale sulla destra, Bertolacci si propone e crossa verso Pavoletti che insacca di testa. Edenilson, schierato a sinistra, prende il posto da centrocampista di Bertolacci accanto a Kucka, in protezione della zona mediana
Atalanta 1-4 Genoa – Bertolacci receives the ball from a throw-in on the right and crosses it to Pavoletti into the middle, who scores with a header. Edenilson (that time deployed on the left), takes Bertolacci’s central midfielder role, with Kucka holding his position as always.

Counter-attacks are torment and delight for Genoa: if often lay themselves to opponents fast transitions, their brutal counter-attacks in open spaces are arguably the Rossoblu‘s strongest offensive weapon.

Genoa vs. Torino 5-1 - Il magistrale contropiede con cui Falqué ha aperto le marcature contro il Torino
Genoa vs. Torino 5-1 – The text-book counterattack wich opened the scoring against Torino

Niang, Perotti e Falqué proved many times that they give their best when they have big portions of field to run into, in which they can unleash all their speed and capitalise on their dribbling skills. Falque’s goal in the 5-1 thrashing of Torino, was one of the prime examples of counter-attack from last year’s Serie A.

Niang imposta il contropiede giungendo palla al piede in prossimità dell'area di rigore e serve Borriello, che intelligentemente taglia verso sinistra approfittando dell'uscita del difensore su Niang. Intanto Falqué alza il braccio richiamando l'attenzione su di sé dalla fascia destra.
Niang starts the counter, running with the ball until near the opposing box. Then he passes the ball to Borrilelo who wisely moves out wide on the left, taking advantage of the exit of the defender on Niang. In the meantime, from the right flank, Falqué draw the attention on himself, lifting his arm.
Genoa 05-b
Borriello takes the ball and plays a cross on the ground for Falqué, who rewards his team-mates efforts with the goal. Note how Niang still follow through the action.

The wide range of attacking options and the subsequent unpredictability gave Genoa the 6th place in the table, scoring 62 goals, 1,63 per game (the 4th attack of the Serie A only second to Juventus, Lazio and Napoli), 8 goals more than Roma, who finished 2nd. This attacking footballing style partially endured the defensive phase, only the 8th best of the championship, with 47 goals conceded, but certainly guaranteed the entertainment for the fans.

By now, another transfer market revolution is on the way in Genoa, with the already official exits of Bertolacci, Falqué, Niang, Lestienne, Edenilson, Bergdich and Roncaglia and the arrivals of  Goran Pandev, Serge Gakpé, Darko Lazovic and Diogo Figueiras, but irrespective of the personnel, will be a shame to not see Gasperini’s 3-4-3 play in an European stage, captured on the pitch yet denied by bureaucracy.

Follow me on twitter @FlaFu_tbol

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