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The best future football managers: Thiago Motta, a fascinating tactician

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This is the first article in a six-part series looking at some of the most innovative emerging managers in European football.


Thiago Motta knows a thing or two about success.

When your CV includes two the league titles, a series A title, five Ligue 1 titles and two Champions League Medal winners, you tend to command instant respect in a locker room.

That said, few need reminding that a successful playing career does not directly translate into a successful coaching career – so what about Thiago Motta, the manager?

The 41-year-old has transformed Bologna from Serie A strugglers to one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in Italy. With just nine matches remaining this season, the Rossoblu sit in fourth place and are within striking distance of a Champions League place for the first time in 60 years.

Motta’s stock has never been higher, but perseverance and effort during difficult times have already shaped his early career as a manager.

Life as a top manager got off to a false start after Motta was sacked after just nine games at Genoa in December 2019. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that he had a full season to fully display His coaching credentials keep relegation favorite Spezia in Serie A in a campaign against all odds.

A move to Bologna followed in September 2022, where things did not start as planned after taking over from the highly-rated Sinisa Mihajlovic in controversial circumstances. Winless in his first four games, Motta has had to gradually earn the trust of Bologna supporters, paying tribute to their faith by leading the club to a ninth-place finish in 2022-23 – the club’s best in over 10 years.

With the support of Giovanni Sartori (technical director) and Joey Saputo (Bologna owner), Motta was given the task of implementing his tactical ideals – but what exactly are these tactical ideals?

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Motta didn’t hesitate to share his philosophy during his first coaching role with PSGin 2018. It was here that he attracted unnecessary mockery for discussing a 2-7-2 formation – which was misinterpreted as a structure extending from back to front, rather as its intended structure from left to right. RIGHT.

“I count the goalkeeper among the seven players in the middle of the field,” Motta said. “For me, the striker is the first defender and the goalkeeper is the first attacker. The goalkeeper starts the game with his feet and the attackers are the first to apply pressure to recover the ball.

It’s fair to say that Motta has since managed to shape Bologna in his image.

This can be seen in the data below when looking at the evolution of the Rossoblu’s playing style, which breaks down a team’s stats against Europe’s top seven leagues.

In specific reference to Motta’s philosophy, you can see a notable increase in Bologna’s defensive work rate since 2022-23, rarely allowing the opposition to build a passing sequence before making a tackle (Intensity, 80 on 99).

As a result, Bologna’s defensive base is one of the strongest in Europe this season (preventing chances, 92 out of 99), with just 0.8 goals conceded without penalty – a rate bettered only by Torino, Juventus And Inter Milan in Serie A.

The way Bologna likes to build from the back (Deep build-up) is particularly interesting.

Most often settling into a free-flowing 4-2-3-1, Motta encourages his centre-backs to move forward and act as a pivotal player when in possession – in a similar fashion to what you might see. Manchester CityIt is John Stones roll in midfield.

With goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski Considered the ‘first striker’ in the build-up, the central idea is that there should always be a free man to pass the ball to when progressing the ball into the thirds.

An example of this can be seen from the first minute during Bologna’s match against Inter Milan earlier this month. As John Lucumi In possession, his compatriot Sam Beukema ventures into a central area before the ball to provide a passing option on a different attacking line. Beukema’s positioning helps Lucumi receive the returned pass into space before releasing the right-back Stefan Posch on the right flank.

Later in the first half, it was Lucumi who pushed into midfield to receive the ball as Bologna formed a defensive trio – this time with the midfielder. Michael Aebischer (20) incoming. On this occasion, Lucumi does not receive the ball, but his positioning takes an Inter player with him to make room elsewhere, with Bologna continuing to have a free man as they build.

Where Bologna differ from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is that Motta encourages both the central defenders drift towards midfield, while the full-backs tuck inside to be… completely behind.

Whether it’s Lucumi, Beukema or 21-year-old starlet Riccardo Calafiori, this approach is fundamental to the fluidity of Bologna’s game and builds on a strong technical profile among Motta’s central defenders.

In his UEFA Pro License thesis, entitled “The value of the ball“, Motta discusses collective “technical trust” as a key part of his philosophy, where each player has the freedom to make the decisions they feel are most beneficial for the team in a given situation.

Unsurprisingly, ownership is at the heart of the decisions made.

Only Naples boast a higher share than Bologna’s 58% possession in Serie A this season, with Motta keen for his side to patiently work an opening with his dynamic positional rotations.

As this season’s Playstyle Wheel shows, Bologna’s high ranking in the ‘Circulation’ category shows that Motta’s team is not quick to advance the ball, but will instead make short, precise passes to move the opposing structure and bait the press before creating an opening – no different from that of Roberto De Zerbi Brighton.

Motta is also a keen admirer of Marcelo Bielsa’s extensive body of work and will frequently focus on third-man combinations and off-ball running as a key part of Bologna’s progression on the pitch.

An example can be seen in Bologna’s match against Roma this season, where Beukema attracts pressure on the right touchline with teammates packed in tight. A blind run from midfield Remo Freuler sees Beukema thread the ball into space to advance quickly, with the winger Dan Ndoye then reduce it to Nicolas Moro to finish the quick break that Bologna organized for itself.

Such penetrating runs from Bologna’s attackers are a key theme of Motta’s style. As you can see from their ‘central progression’ rating (98 out of 99), Bologna don’t pass the ball frequently – only Frosinone average lower than their 13.4 crosses per 90 – but will use pace and cunning of Ndoye’s dangerous wingers. , Alexis Saelemaekers and Riccardo Orsolini to advance and shoot or create from forward positions.

Ultimately, Bologna’s main attacking threats lie in the center of the pitch, with a versatile Scot Lewis Ferguson capable of drifting to a #10 position behind the technically gifted Joshua Zirkzee.

The two have forged a powerful partnership and are responsible for more than a third of Bologna’s goals in Serie A this season.

“I play close to Joshua. Technically, he’s really, really good,” Ferguson said. Athleticism Last year. “He is strong, fast, powerful. He has everything you want from a striker. It’s nice to play with him. We bounce off each other. If he does one race, I do another.

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While Zirkzee’s 10 Serie A goals (eight non-penalty) lead the way in the Bologna squad, the 22-year-old Dutchman is not a typical number 9. Beyond his technical abilities, Zirkzee is most valued by his teammates for his ability to bring others into the game – regularly dropping into a false 9 position or pinning a center fielder to free runners in front of him.

To judge him solely on his goals – he has yet to record an effort from inside the penalty area this season – would be to misunderstand his role within Motta’s system.

Bologna’s recent goal against Empoli brings together many of the discussed themes of how Motta likes his team to play in the opposition half. As the Empoli central defender sends the ball into a central area, Moro leaps to push the ball away. As he falls on Zirkzee, he pins the defender with his back to goal before throwing the ball to Orsolini to make the overlapping run. The Italian enters the area and converts with insistence.

From regaining possession at height to breaking the deadlock in seven seconds maximum.

If Motta is able to guide Bologna to a top-four finish this season (fifth place may also be enough), the prospect of leading the Rossoblu into their first European Cup campaign since 1964-65 will surely be the highlight of Motta’s early managerial career.

The reality is that Motta’s contract expires this summer and many top European clubs are already looking for an exciting young manager ahead of the 2024-25 season. Bologna CEO Claudio Fenucci was understandably reluctant to lose his coach in the coming months.

“Thiago is very happy in Bologna,” Fenucci recently said in a radio interview. “It’s like he has a longer contract than he actually has.”

Whatever the outcome this summer, Motta has proven himself to be one of the most promising managers in European football.

Wherever he goes, success usually follows.

(Top photo: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)



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