Thiago Motta: Il Nuovo Ragazzo Sul Blocco

Genius, Failure, and Success


Ideas are a funny old thing, aren’t they? You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to be a success, sometimes you just need to tweak something that already works. Football is no different, success can come from something as small as moving a defender into midfield, just ask Antonio Conte.


Success doesn’t always take much, sometimes just being brave enough to try. But every so often something special happens. Sometimes we get to see true genius in the making. Pep Guardiola, Arrigo Sacchi, Sir Alex Ferguson. People didn’t know them when they started, they do now. But who is the latest Einstein, you might ask? None other than Thiago Motta.



After taking Bologna to the Champions League, Motta will now be tasked with using his revolutionary new ideas to bring glory back to Juventus, down on their luck having ceded control of Serie A to Inter Milan. But can he? Let’s take a look at the man, his revolution, and if it’ll work at the Old Lady.


The Man


After proving himself as a ball-controlling maestro for both Inter Milan and PSG, Thiago Motta retired in 2018 and promptly decided to get his coaching badges. Graduating in September 2020, he had a chance to develop his own ideas. Some good: “My idea is to play offensively. A short team that controls the game, high pressure, and a lot of movement with and without the ball.”


And some, interesting: “A very good journalist kept asking me what formation I’d play. I played down the significance of the numbers, saying to him, ‘if you look at the pitch another way, you might call it a 2-7-2 the way I see it.’”


While Motta was in a job after less than a month, it would take until 2022, when Bologna came calling, before he found success. Historically mediocre, Bologna were desperate to succeed and willing to gamble. To that end, they gave Motta complete freedom to sign whoever he liked and institute his own system.



It’s proven to be a masterstroke. Despite a modest spend (€18 million net in two seasons), a team of cast-offs is on track to finish at least 5th, their best finish since 1971.


Motta’s Revolution


Motta uses a modern spin on possession-based football that emphasizes movement, player relationships, and dominance of central areas. To make the system easier to understand, let’s break it down.


In Possession


While, at a casual glance, Bologna might not be the most prolific attacking side (7th in goals scored in Serie A), Motta has manufactured a system that gets results from players nobody expected to succeed. The best example of this is probably Bologna’s prolific duo of Joshua Zirkzee and Ricardo Orsolini.



Both players came to Bologna with a point to prove after failing to make the grade at Bayern or Juventus. This season they’ve combined for 28 goal contributions so far, not bad for a combined £20 million. Here’s how they’ve done it:


Phase 1


While the system might resemble a 4-3-3 in possession, this ends when the ball gets kicked. During the first phase of possession, Bologna’s center backs advance into central midfield. Both full-backs then invert to fill their positions and form a new back 3 with the goalkeeper, creating a 3-2-3-2-1 in build-up play. 


Player Analysis: Riccardo Orsolini


The 7-man midfield then leaves the opposition with a choice:


  •  Press using forwards, and Bologna can play out from the back.
  •  Commit the midfield too, and Bologna can beat you using long balls.


Either way, you’re in for a rough ride.


Phase 2


Then, in the 2nd phase, Bologna use the 7-man midfield to create overloads. They do this by making boxes. We’ve all seen the videos of the Tiki Taka triangle, but by having 7 players in midfield, Bologna have created a new tactic, the square!



Some teams have had some success stopping this by using a deep 3-4-3. They’ve matched Bologna man for man and stopped the squares from working by turning 4 vs 3 duels into 4 vs 4 duels. So what did Motta do? Enter the secret weapon, Joshua Zirkzee.


Because Motta’s system places an emphasis on movement over the entire pitch, Zirkzee is free to move wherever he likes, especially midfield. His presence in central areas creates an 8-man midfield. So, that 4 vs 4 you just created has now become a 5 vs 4 and Bologna have beaten you. Let’s hope your goalkeeper isn’t having an off day.


Final Phase – The Endgame


This is where:


  • The 6 (deepest lying CM) becomes an 8 (usually the middle CM).
  • The 8 and 10 join the front 3, occupying the space between the wingers and the striker.
  • One CB forms a back 3 with the full backs.
  • The other CB turns into a defensive midfielder, acting as a defensive screen from midfield.



Not only is this hard to defend, but it also makes counter-attacks very difficult and usually results in a goal.


Out of Possession


Despite being solid in possession, Bologna’s main strength has been their defending. They’ve conceded the 2nd least goals and 2nd fewest shots per possession in Serie A this season. Not only can teams not touch the ball, but they also can’t create anything positive.


When they do, Bologna make themselves hard to break down by using a compact 5-4-1 and man-oriented zonal marking. Man-Oriented Zonal Marking?! Allow me to explain. Everyone is familiar with the following:


  • Man Marking – Marking based on opposition players’ proximity, you use the “man” as your reference point.
  • Zonal Marking – Everyone has a zone, mark whoever’s in the zone, the “zone” being the reference point.



Bologna use a hybrid. When defending, every player is assigned a zone based on their area of the pitch. They then apply pressure to any opposition players within that zone, how closely depends on the player and their role. This, combined with a focus on pressing opponents (3rd in ball recoveries), means that Riccardo Calafiori and co are very hard to break down and makes it a lot easier to win games.


Where the System Falls Down


See, it was almost too perfect. Not without its issues, the problems from Motta’s system come from how many moving parts it has. Bologna’s marking system is very mentally challenging.


Players are required to shut down every ball for 90 minutes while also making decisions on who to press and what space to press. This, combined with inexperience (3rd youngest starting 11 in Serie A) and key players learning new roles, don’t mix well.


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Bologna have conceded 18 goals from high turnovers this season (4th in Serie A), and if they fail to immediately counter-press opponents, they can get pinned in their own half. So, will it work at Juventus?


Why It’ll Work at Juventus


Ultimately, all of the issues Motta has faced at Bologna are negated at Juventus by two things: quality and the chequebook.




It took a Bologna team staffed by reclamation projects a full season to learn Motta’s system well enough to succeed. The Juve job brings a lot more pressure, sure, but the players are a lot better.



Rather than bargain buys, Motta’s now coaching some of Italy’s best players and brightest young stars. In theory, this should mean they’ll learn his system quicker, better deal with the problems, be talented enough to add new elements to it and make it harder to beat.




And if none of the above works? Juve might be eternally bankrupt, but they’ve still got cash to spend and a worldwide scouting network to utilise. Raid Bologna, anyone?


Why It Won’t Work at Juventus




Given their mediocrity, Bologna could afford to be patient with Motta, especially after a 9th-place finish in his first season. At Juventus, the world is watching. He has to hit the ground running. If he doesn’t, then it’ll mean pressure. Will he crack, or will it form a diamond? Only time will tell.


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Better players are a double-edged sword. At Bologna, a group of players looking to prove themselves were receptive to new ideas. At Juventus, Motta will have to convince a dressing room full of big ego players to buy into something entirely new. If the players don’t like it, does he change or does the power struggle begin? Neither will be positive for results or his job prospects.


Tactical Set-Up


Since 2021, Juventus have been managed by Massimo Allegri. While Allegri and Motta share some key principles, the two managers set teams up very differently. Unlike Motta, who uses a back 4, relies on center backs to push forward and full backs to defend, Allegri uses a 3-5-2 with a rigid back 3, relying on the attacking skills of his wingbacks.


Given Allegri has managed Juve for 7 of the last 10 years, Motta will have to quite literally teach an old dog new tricks. How well he can do so will likely decide if he keeps his new job.



So, Will It Work?


Well, we know the system works since it’s helped a team full of reclamation projects to the Champions League. Whether it works on one of the biggest stages in Italy is likely to depend on how adaptable Motta is prepared to be, given the nature of the Juve squad and its history.


If he can adapt the system to suit his new players, he’ll be a genius. If he can’t, the revolution ends. The first step to immortality is complete, now Motta has the platform, he needs to excel. Whether he can, only time will tell, but I can’t wait to see.


By: Kieran Alder / @The_Own_Goal

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alessandro Sabattini / Getty Images