Thanos Chelas – Tactical analysis of Luciano Spalletti

September 12, 2017 15:30
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That Luciano Spalletti is one of the best Italian coaches in circulation for the past two decades has never been in doubt. The fact that he has been one of the most influential managers at least for the evolution of Italian football in the last 11 to 12 years is not in doubt either, having influenced between others one of the best coaches in the Italian peninsula, Marco Giampaolo. But if we had to describe the new Inter coach with a word or a phrase which words would we use and why?

In his book “How simple can it be?” Raymond Verheijen, that has been part of the technical staff of national teams such as the Russian, Argentinian, Korean as well as the Dutch and Welsh ones, divides football managers in two simple categories, the trainers and the coaches.

With the first type, “One’s one vision is the goal and the players are a means to execute that vision. That means that players should be flexible and adapt themselves to that vision. A trainer/teacher gives players less responsibility and stays in charge. Follow the leader is his principle”.

When it comes to the coaches on the other side Verheijen underlines that “For the coach/manager the players are the goal. His vision is only a means to make the players better. That means that he adjusts his vision according to the players and the situation at a club or national team. Go with the flow is his principle.”

And now one good question is born, how can we characterize Luciano Spalletti?

The truth is that he is a mix of the two with the balance however leaning much more towards the side of the “coach”. How come you may ask?

The Tuscan coach has proven, as you will also discover in the below paragraphs, that despite his preference for a proactive, fast passed style of play, based primarily on his favorite system the 4-2-3-1, he is always willing to modify his ideas and mold them in a way that the individual qualities of his players are expressed to the fullest and exposal of their weakest points is limited to the minimum.

In the below paragraphs you will now be presented some of the man’s ideas, their development and their adjustments depending on the team, from the period 2005-2017(as there was not enough footage of his work from the start of his career since the Udinese days).

Roma 1.0, 2005-2009

In his four seasons in the capital, Spalletti won 2 Italian Cups, losing also one, one Italian Supercup and finished three times second(one due to the Calciopoli scandal), managing all that with a far inferior budget to that of the two Milanese sides which in the same period where buying players such as Vieira and Ibrahimovic or had the luxury to be forced to leave on the bench players such as Emerson or one between Seedorf and Ambrosini.

These four years saw Spalletti present a very attacking, fast paced side that based it’s game on verticality, changing the side of the game in order to take advantage of the space created in the opponent’s defensive structure as they shift towards the other side and the continuous movement of its’ front four.

It was only after the selling of Antonio Cassano to Real Madrid and Montella’s regression towards a secondary role to the team, however that Spalletti added some of the most important touches to what would be a very modern if not “revolutionary” team for its’ time.

The first and most obvious thing that someone notices of course is the lack of a real striker up front, but the presence of Totti as a “false nine” that was moving continuously between the lines and dropping towards the ball with intention to drag CBs and open up spaces for the atypical “number 10” of that team, Simone Perrotta, to run into.

Another thing that stood out and became a trademark for that team were the movements of the front four and especially the below movement.

The movement was initiated after a change of side, that was always searched for by Roma, since only this way enough space was created on the wing for the winger to drop and initiate it.

The idea behind it is very simple and very standard but as you will see with the right players executing it, at times, incredibly difficult to deal with.

“For every dropping movement that created space by dragging a defender out of position a run from deep in that same space had to be executed with the right timing”

The CB here has to respond to one very confusing question “Do I follow Totti leaving a huge space open for the opposite winger to make a diagonal run into or do I leave one of the best players in the game receive the ball and turn towards goal with the option to pass behind the defensive line or shoot?”

Another version of this movement was seeing Totti run towards the wing, dragging one CB with him and opening space between the central defenders so Perrotta could run into.

Of course the above doesn’t mean that Roma was a mechanical team that only executed movements stored in memory as the players and especially the front four learned to react to each other movements and identify the correct spaces created depending on the situation.

It was something that also helped take advantage of Totti’s game intelligence and creativity.


Listening to his interviews, balance is a word that appears a lot and emphasizes Spalletti’s continuous search for a well-balanced side.

The man from Certaldo is a strong believer that if you defend continuously with eleven players stacked behind the ball in a few square meters it will be extremely difficult to counter attack and score as it will be on the other side be very easy to concede a goal if you attack with a big number of players in front of the ball.

This search for balance was more than obvious in the way his wingers(especially Mancini) returned back to defend.

It was very common, especially in moments of continuous transitions to see Roma’s wingers and Totti stay up and not make an attempt to return back in order to receive the ball in the space created from this type of situations and take advantage of their ability to win in 1vs1 situations.

The above choice together with the fact that it wasn’t possible, due to the nature of the movements of the front four, to apply pressure at the ball when possession was lost in the final third of the pitch, meant that Roma was forced to drop back a lot during games conceding space on the centre for which to run as an opponent.

However the danger from those situations was being significantly diminished due to the presence of the two defensive midfielders that together with a defensive line that kept the spaces between the defenders very small at all times and the very quick returns of Perrotta, were creating a central block that was forcing the opponent to pass the ball towards the side of the field in an area much more easier to defend with the help of the line, something that was also giving time to the rest of the team to return.

An example of how Inter was falling towards their area on defensive transition. The defensive line and the DMs were returning as a unit with the “number 10” returning next trying to force the opponents towards the wings and if needed dropping next to the DMs. The closer to the ball (or sometimes only the winger opposite of Mancini) was returning next with Mancini and Totti returning only if the opponent was holding the ball for longer periods.

You can see above how the defensive line together with the DMs stay compact centrally forcing the opponent towards the wing where due to the limits of the pitch it is easier to defend, while waiting also for the rest to return.

Another trademark of that team was its’ willingness to keep the tempo up and catch the opponent unprepared by executing corner kicks, fouls, goal kicks quickly as well as restarting the game after a GK’s block immediately.

Zenit 2009-2014

Spalletti’s Russian adventure proved to be not only the most successful period for him as a coach but also a
great example of how if given time he can improve a team significantly.

The 2010 Zenit side was far far away from Roma in terms of capabilities and familiarity with a style of play similar to the one of Spalletti’s, despite that however it was easy to see the coach’s character and style of play on this team with the correct adaptations.

The first big deference of that team was its’ defense. With defenders neither used to nor equipped with the right athletic tools to play with a high defensive line, the team was sitting deeper on the defensive phase and as result wasn’t applying pressure high on the pitch (if the forwards applied pressure while the defensive line was sitting deep the spaces in the center of the pitch would have gotten bigger and it would have been much easier for the opponent to become dangerous by passing and moving centrally).

The other big deference was that, the CBs weren’t capable of building up from behind especially when under pressure and the FBs weren’t able to neither resist the pressing nor make the difference in the offensive third.

The team also had a classic striker in Kerzhakov that was not able to reproduce Totti’s movements but was always ready to run behind the defensive line and was lethal in front of goal.

The above factors forced Spalletti to redesign his playing style in order to make it suitable to his players’ attributes and drawbacks. For example with the FBs staying mostly deep the CMs were the ones overlapping the wingers and giving width during the transition phase. Also with the team playing a lot in a 4-3-3 formation the abovementioned “classic movement of the front 3/4” was reproduced with the CMs running in the spaces created behind the FBs and between the CBs with Kerzhakov staying close to the penalty area, where he was the most dangerous, much more than Totti.

He also gave the keys to the team to Danny, the Portuguese was a record signing at the time for a Russian team and by far one of the most intelligent and technically astute players in the league.

The Portuguese not only did he have the freedom from his coach to roam all over the pitch creating overloads, combinations and dragging opponents out of position to create space for his teammates he was also in many but not all cases searching for space during the defensive phase in order to find the correct space to receive the ball and initiate a counter-attack.

Notice above how Danny stops contributing defensively in order to find the correct space to receive the ball and initiate a counter-attack.

The next season, with addition of Criscito, a FB that can offer much more on the offensive side but also move upwards very fast but always returning on time and with the players getting used to Spalletti’s game, the team played probably it’s best football, as the players were moving in unison and creating spaces much more frequently and easily, reading the game and reacting accordingly (just like in the video below). This fluidity and movement allowed also to keep the ball for longer periods of time and manage to break down well-organized opponents better.

Roma 2.0 2016

Midway through the 2015-2016 season with Roma in great difficulty, Spalletti returned to the Italian capital
with the intention to rectify a very problematic performance-wise team.

With Dzeko being out of form and starting only 6 games for Spalletti in those first 6 months of the new era for Roma, and with players such as Perotti , Falque and El Shaarawy arriving as well as the presence of two high-class ball handlers in Keita and Pjanic, Spalletti’s team presented a lot strikerless formations and a possession based style of play.

With Keita and Pjanic constructing the game in front of the defense and with Perotti playing between the lines dragging defenders out of position and creating spaces for Salah and El Shaarawy to run into, Roma became a side capable of playing very patiently and breaking down the opponents, sometimes after long combinations of

There isn’t a better match to present this team’s capabilities other than the one against Napoli at the Olimpico.

Notice how the series of short passes between the Roma players allows them to move slowly and in unison higher up the pitch in a way in which the distances between them and the opponent were ideal in case they needed to react if possession was lost. Notice how these short passes have given the opportunity to the Roma players to keep such distances that Napoli is trapped in its’ defensive third and unable to initiate a counterattack successfully.

Roma 2.1 2016-2017

As Keita and Pjanic left the club in the summer of 2016 and Paredes and Strootman returned from a loan and an injury respectively, Spalletti realized that the patient possession based style of play Roma was playing the previous year couldn’t be achieved.

Thus he “created” a new Roma, one that at the end of the year finished only 4 points behind Champions League finalists Juventus with a points total that would have given them the title in past seasons.

The new game-style was based on De Rossi’s and Paredes’(who had a secondary role) ability to make one-touch long balls with accuracy, Dzeko’s ability to receive them with his back on goal and keep the opponents behind him if needed and Nainggolan’s ability to move upwards quickly to receive the ball from Dzeko between the lines or to move in one of the spaces created in the opponent’s defensive line.

The game plan at times seemed very simple and stayed in most matches the same throughout the season, although the way of executing parts of it were adapted on the specific opponent.

“The defenders and DMs had to pass the ball between them until the right moment for a pass to one of the DMs arrived in order to make a long ball towards Dzeko. This long ball pushed back as a result the opposition defense creating space between the lines for Nainggolan to receive the ball and either finish the play by himself or combine with Dzeko and the wingers. Of course Dzeko couldn’t be the only target of those long balls as Roma had essentialy two sprinters playing as wingers and every time the opposition defensive line was high a long ball towards one of the two was guaranteed to create problems.”

This style of play of course, wasn’t interpreted only through Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 but also with 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 that allowed Spalletti to keep the balance of his team while using to very offensive minded WBs.

These 3 CB shapes proved to be also a great solution against certain types of opposition pressing, helping Roma build-up and create even more problems as by avoiding easily the first line of pressing it was catching the opponent very high up the pitch.

Against Milan at the Olimpico last season, Spalletti’s 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 created Montella a lot of headaches as the Rossoneri coach was seeing his team in a 4-3-3 formation unable to stop Roma’s build-up when pressing up-high.

As you can see above, with Roma’s WBs staying low and close to their CBs, Milan’s wingers had to solve a very important problem. Should they mark/apply pressure to the WB leaving the closer to the wing CB with open passing lanes towards the midfielders and forwards on the inside channel or should they mark/apply pressure to the CB, leaving the WB free which of course meant that Milan’s FBs had to come to mark from deep, leaving huge spaces on the wing for Roma to take advantage of.

Against Sampdoria’s 4-3-1-2 Roma showed another way in which their 3 man defense proved to be successful against pressing. The 3vs2 and 2vs1 numerical advantages against Sampdoria’s FWs and Trequartista respectively meant that Sampdoria was seeing their lines being broken and their pressing failing again and again. And even when they managed to force Roma towards the wing in an area in which it is much more easier to defend, the fact that ball was usually arriving there after changes of sides by Roma, meant that due to 2vs1 against the Trequartista one of the two Roma DMs was always arriving on the wing before his opponent managing to create a momentary numerical advantage and break the pressing.

It is easy to imagine Spalletti using a similar shape with Inter too as it seems like an easy way for the team to have balance and also be stable and safe in defensive transition while two very attacking WBs with certain defensive deficiencies , in the name of Dalbert and Cancelo, are on the pitch at the same time.

Inter 2017-

Spalletti’s tenure as an Inter coach hasn’t been longer than three months, but with only two official matches under his belt it is very easy to see on the pitch a team that has his stamp all over it.
However that doesn’t mean that Spalletti until now has tried to create a copy of his Roma or Zenit sides as his Inter’s style of play is based on his players’ individual qualities.

The sample until now is very small, with only two official matches in which Inter was fully prepared and adapted tactically, wasn’t experimenting with player combinations and roles and with new players still to get fully ready for their 90 minute debut, but it gives us a great idea about how Spalletti has approached this challenge.

First of all, in Icardi Spalletti doesn’t have a false 9 type of player that can his team better being in a free role roaming between the lines and neither does he have a player with Dzeko’s physical attributes that can hold his opponents behind his back and act as target under any circumstance and against any opponent. What
he has however is player that if given the right passes and crosses inside the area or behind the opposition defensive line can become 30+ goal striker.

With Borja Valero and Vecino also in the roster, Inter finally has two great ball handlers that can play in front of the defense and build-up the game.

The combination of the above two factors until now has meant that Inter plays with a lot patience in the construction of the game trying to find open passing lanes through the CBs and DMs towards the area in front of the opposition d-line in order to, firstly create numerical advantages against the opposition DM with the “number 10” and one of the wingers that comes towards the center and then as a result of that find Icardi with a pass close to or inside the opponent’s area.

Another difference that we can see until now, is how in contrast with his Roma side’s the team’s FB do not take part in the first stage of the build-up but act as support being always ready to receive a “change of sides” pass or support the wingers with overlapping and underlapping runs.

It will be very interesting to understand if that choice by Spalletti was based primarily on Nagatomo’s and D’Ambrosio’s proven inability to react positively under pressure in reduced spaces and their proven ability to make well-timed supporting runs while always returning back quickly. The only way of course to find out is to watch how the team will play with two much more skilled on the ball FBs such as Dalbert and Cancelo.

It will also be interesting to see how this team will play against different types of playing styles. How would they try to breakdown smaller teams that play with eleven men behind the ball? And how will Spalletti set-up his team against proactive, possession based teams like Milan and Napoli or against a team with players of incredible quality all over the pitch such as Juventus?

The only way to find out would be to wait patiently and, finally after a long time without anxiousness as Inter for the first time in years doesn’t only have a well-pieced together roster but above all a coach who can take advantage, hopefully to the maximum, of his players.

By Thanos Chelas