BY DAVID VERMAN
He galloped towards the enclosing Atalanta defence with inimical force. Having intercepted the ball in his own half some two minutes earlier, he began his powerful excursion towards the opposition’s goal. With his side two goals down, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic forcefully shouldered Andrea Masiello as if he were wielding a Roman scutum. With his eyes solely focused on the ball at his feet, the Serbian let loose with a powerful left-footed drive, momentarily embodying Beppe Signori in his prime.
Milinkovic-Savic would go on to win man of the match, not only for his brace, but for his dominant all round performance. It was this sort of all-encompassing display that has recently seen him linked with Europe’s elite.
He is the latest in an ever present breed of midfielder in Italian football. Often referred to as a Centrale or Mezzala, the Serie A has historically, and contemporaneously, produced and further developed some of the greatest complete midfielders to ever play the game. Just as Spain is a reliquary for the playmaker or Brazil the skilful winger, Italy seems to produce, or rather attract, complete midfielders. However, the reasons why are often more abstruse.
Sami Khedira has certainly found his offensive equilibrium since moving to the Piedmont region. After only scoring nine goals with thirteen assists in his one hundred and sixty-one appearances in all competitions for Real Madrid, Khedira has been allowed more freedom to move forward in Serie A, and as a result, has scored nineteen goals, including his first career hat trick, in only one hundred and ten games with fourteen assists.
Khedira’s capriciousness has to be attributed to his move to Italy alongside the changes in style, tactics, and all the exaggerated hand gestures that it brings. However, this often goes the other way. Despite creating the most chances and winning the most tackles for Roma in both Serie A and the Champions League since 2015/16, Radja Nainggolan was left out of Belgium’s 2018 World Cup squad, and while this decision may seem irrational to most, his gap toothed devil-may-care style of play doesn’t always translate outside of Italy. When speaking on Nainggolan’s exclusion, Roberto Martinez explained that he would pick players based on ‘’the different roles that this group needs.’’
Italy has always held on to the past. Roman ruins rest unabashedly alongside the continuous cascade of modern tourists. Ancient Florentine churches litter the skyline of the Tuscan capital while dilapidated structures sit amongst the vineyards of the countryside. Football is no different.
Despite their often self-imposed footballing isolationism, the Italian game has evolved significantly throughout its history. From the unyielding Cattenacio to the contemporary Sarri-Ball, Calcio has undertaken many identities, but a few vestiges of the past remain.
Ideologies stemming from the 1940’s have taken root in the consciousness. There seems to be a fixation with past successes and the Italian identity that has been born from these successes. Italy is one of the most successful footballing nations after all. Sitting behind Brazil for the most World Cup victories with four titles and with AC Milan only falling to second place as the most successful side in European competition behind Real Madrid, it could be argued that the Italians are right to persist in their ways, and of course these victories didn’t happen by chance.
It was through the versatility, adaptability, and steadfast nature of Italian football; it was through Nereo Rocco, Giovanni Trapattoni and Antonio Conte’s all-inclusive systems; it was through Ruud Gullit, Clarence Seedorf, and Arturo Vidal’s ability to command every inch of the pitch like an unrepentant drill sergeant that has often seen Italy become football’s ultimate destination.
The notion, and the need, for a player to be confident in a variety of positions has followed Italy’s most successful sides for almost a century and was a prerequisite for how the complete midfielder has manifested itself in the modern game. In times gone by, it was not only required for the striker to track back, but necessary if any team in Italian football were to be successful. Players would need to be alternately defensive, creative, and prolific.
However, unlike the country’s far reaching cultural and social influences begotten from the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, Italian football has unfortunately failed to completely uproot across Europe, with a few recent exceptions. Their preoccupation with the past now finds itself lagging behind the striving progressiveness of their contemporaries.
When speaking of his distaste for Italian football, Jose Mourinho said, ‘’I don’t like it and it doesn’t like me, simple.’’ It should perhaps come as no surprise that one of the men to have shaped English football in the Premier League era with a swagger has an aversion to the Italian style.
Previously famous for their long balls, rigid 4-4-2 system, and self-harming close mindedness, very few British players have been able to make a dent in Calcio’s illustrious history, at least for the right reasons. Most notably are the underwhelming cameos made by Jimmy Greaves’ evanescent stint at Milan along with Paul Gascoigne’s emotional dysregulation at Lazio – although David Platt enjoyed success at Bari and Sampdoria either side of a disappointing time at Juventus. While Gascoigne failed more because of his rambunctious behaviour rather than failing to adapt to the Italian game, Greaves proved too incongruent with Milan, its footballing culture, and their need for versatile forwards.
Both the Italian press and the then Milan manager, the great Nereo Rocco, were not ones to be reticent. As a goal scoring specialist, Greaves was criticised for being too stagnant and leaden, failing to get back and defend in a team where the famous tactical system of Catenaccio was perhaps at its best. Speaking of Greaves in an interview with the press, Rocco said that he needed to ‘’understand that during a football game you get kicked, and not just well paid.’’ Despite his more than modest goal scoring record with the Rossoneri, Greaves left for home with a profound confusion of both the Italian game and culture.
‘‘I can pinpoint the day, the hour, the minute, the second that I doomed myself to life as an alcoholic. It was the moment I signed my name on a contract that tied me head and foot to AC Milan’’ he would later write.
Jimmy Greaves wasn’t the only Milanista to fall victim to the ire of the press during the 1960s. When asked for the four best Italian players in 1970, Alf Ramsey responded, ‘’Rivera, Rivera, Rivera, Rivera.’’ His dances, his enigmatic dribbles, his sumptuous volleys, his waggish flicks that turned defenders into insecure recluses all should have tacitly told you everything you needed to know about his undoubted quality. Just leave it to Gianni Brera to find the imperfections.
A famous Italian journalist and ardent advocate for the defensive Cattenacio, Brera seemed to take a disliking to any player unwilling to pull up their sleeves and use a bit of elbow grease. He soon coined the term for Rivera that would follow him for the rest of his career. ‘’Abatino’’, meaning ‘’young priest’’, connoted a player who was unwilling and reluctant; a player that no successful team could afford; a ‘’golden boy’’ too afraid to conform to the unshakable Italian system of Cattenacio.
‘’If you have Rivera, you have to build the team around him’’ Brera wrote. His inability to tackle and refusal to do anything other than score and create unparalleled goals full of inspiration and imagination was the antithesis of everything Brera, and many Italians, held dear. It was iconoclastic, blasphemous, and unsuitable for prideful Italian football.
Sentiments towards Rivera were mercurial. He was lambasted after Italy’s loss to North Korea at the 1966 World Cup and equally loved after winning the Pallone d’oro in 1969. Whether right or wrong, the hostility towards Greaves and Rivera in the 60s and 70s was a symbol of Italy’s deep-rooted sureness of how football should be played.
Cattenacio dominated the 60s in Italy. Requiring each and every player to be tirelessly efficient in both attack and defence, the system birthed some of the greatest complete footballers in history.
It first appeared in Italy under Giuseppe Viani. When becoming manager of Serie B minnows Salernitana after the war, Viani would request that his attackers track back and defend in order to nullify their opponents more potent offensive abilities. This was post war Italian football’s latent Boston Tea Party, their prosaic storming of the Bastille, Calcio was revolutionised.
Cattenacio soon proliferated throughout the country. Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter side of the 60s conquered Europe at a canter using the system. After making his debut for Inter in the 9-1 loss to Juventus in 1961, Giacinto Facchetti would be converted from a centre half to become the undisputed best full back in the league. Revered for his physicality, overlapping runs, and his efficacious touch in front of goal, Facchetti became one of the first complete footballers.
A quick trip across the Ticino River takes you to Turin where Swansea born behemoth John Charles was a living demonstration of the all too infrequent British versatility as the Brobdingnagian of the Bianconeri. Described as ‘’’a brilliant defender, a devastating striker, and voted above the likes of Maradona and Platini as the best foreign player to ever play in Italy’’, Charles was as Italian as Super Mario or the telephone.
Beginning his career as a centre back and described by Billy Houliston as the ‘’best centre half I’ve ever played against’’, he was converted to a centre forward after five seasons of playing in the defence for Leeds United. After scoring an outstanding 164 goals in 318 games for Leeds, playing in both defence and up front, Juventus offered an unmatchable world record fee of £65,000 for Charles. Very few would have prognosticated the success that was to come.
With 28 goals in 34 games in his first season with Juventus, they would secure the Scudetto at the first time of asking. A further three titles and two Italian cups in four seasons, cemented John Charles as the player to which all future exports to Turin were compared. An anachronism that reflected the best of both the English and Italian game and affectionately named the ‘’gentle giant’’, Charles remains a club legend, not only for his unexpected exuberance on the pitch, but for his character. Known for his generosity, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism, John Charles’ willingness to adapt, not only on the pitch, but also outside of it, allowed him to leave a dragon shaped stamp on Italy like no other British player ever has. His malleability, and all round mastery of the game, allowed Charles to transcend footballing and societal cultures and further entrench the Italian fixation with the complete footballer.
As the old empire of the 60s began to fade and the chains of Cattenaccio were cast away, Italy began to embrace a new style influenced by Cruyff’s Ajax, but some old habits proved hard to shake after decades of subjugation. Inter and Juventus became victims to the great Ajax side of the early 70’s and ‘’Italian defensivism’’ was no longer adequate in the heterotopia of global football.
By the time Giovanni Trapattoni took the reins at Juventus in the mid 70s, Cattenaccio was slowly being weeded out by the much more aesthetically pleasing football being played across the continent. Being a disciple of Nereo Rocco, Trapattoni would persevere with an evolution of Cattenaccio known as Zona mista or il gioco all’Italiana, ‘’the Italian way’’.
A tough tackling central midfielder during his playing days, Trapattoni’s Juve side would win every domestic trophy multiple times over during his tenure in Turin. With the combination of attackers such as Michel Platini and possibly the greatest Italian defence of all time, Juventus dominated Serie A for almost a decade, and Zona mista was at the heart of it all. Combining elements of Cattenaccio with intricacies from totaalvoetbal, Zona mista required players to hold their shape through seamlessly interchanging positions. If one player were to move forward, another would track back to cover in order to retain the integrity of their formation, the familiar need for players to be competent in both attack and defence was still ever present.
As trequartistas and fantasistas began to become more prevalent and desirable, Italian football simultaneously evolved while still clinging to the past. No longer were forwards required to be omnipresent, that responsibility now fell upon the midfielders.
Trapattoni’s success at Juventus further instilled the Italian notion that the better-rounded a player was, the more they could service the team. Despite the unprecedented domestic success, Juventus only manged to win one European Cup under Trapattoni in his penultimate season – along with the UEFA Cup in 1977. Italian football needed someone to come and conquer Europe as they had done in the early 60s.
Take centre stage, Arrigo Sacchi. ‘’All my players have to learn how to play in defence and up front, and they must attack space’’ he preached. Sacchi ushered in a new age of footballing philosophy. With Italian football already in limbo between the old and the new, Sacchi took charge of a Milan side who hadn’t won a title in almost a decade. He would break with the traditional five at the back and emphasised a zonal based pressing akin to the total footballing sides of the 70’s.
‘’It was Holland in the 70s that really took my breath away. It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch fully to understand what they were doing and fully to appreciate it’’ Sacchi said. ‘’Italy has a defensive culture, not just in football. For centuries, everybody invaded us.”
Aspects of the old ways still remained, even in Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan side. Just as in Zona mista, players were often ordered to interchange their positions between themselves as attackers were required to defend and defenders given the license to exploit the space. ‘’I always demanded, when we had possession, five players ahead of the ball… and that there would always be a man wide right and a man wide left. But it could be anybody. It wasn’t always the same people.’’
‘’Michelangelo said he painted with his mind, not his hands. So obviously, I need intelligent players. That was our philosophy at Milan. I didn’t want solo artists; I wanted an orchestra. The greatest compliment I received was when people said my football was like music’’ Sacchi said.
No player embodied the shift in Italian football better than Ruud Gullit did. Much like John Charles before him, Ruud began life in defence, playing the libero role – which he would later return to during his time with Chelsea, questionably claiming that ‘’my skills come out better as a sweeper’’. Known for his charging runs forward, Gullit was deployed in several positions during his early years in the Netherlands. He played in defence, wide right, and upfront while scoring a significant 46 goals in two seasons. During his spell with Feyenoord, Cruyff would tell Gullit: ‘’from now on you’re going to take and you’re going to have responsibilities. It’s not only how you play yourself, but also what you can do for the team.’’
Gullit would later move to Sacchi’s Milan for the record breaking fee of 18 Million guilders. With a defence consisting of Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta, and Tassotti, Ruud was permanently used as a forward, playing behind the sedulous Marco van Basten. With flair and explosive ferocity, Sacchi and Gullit’s Milan pillaged their way to the Serie A title in their debut season in 1987/88 and two consecutive European championships in 1989 and 1990. ‘’Arrigo completely changed Italian football – the philosophy, the training methods, the intensity, the tactics. Italian teams used to focus on defending – we defended by attacking and pressing’’ Ancelotti would say.
‘’We’re tough, but we’re also technically gifted. But, most of all, we are the most tactically evolved nation in the world. We have a versatility that nobody else comes close to anywhere in the world’’ explains Marcelo Lippi in Gabriele Marcotti and Gianluca Vialli’s book ‘’The Italian Job’’. Whether it be Ray Wilkins marvelling at the technical ability of the Italian defenders, the dreadlocked Ruud Gullit seamlessly making the transition from back to front, or the use of the 3-5-1-1 formation by Dino Zoff’s Italian Euro 2000 finalists – which is coincidently the same formation Milinkovic-Savic’s Lazio side have used most frequently this season – Italian football has always required versatility and complete footballers which has now transcended into the modern game.
Even today, where Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City sides have become the poster boys of how football should be played, Italy perseveres with what it knows best. Zona mista is still recognisable in Allegri’s current Juventus side, and even more so in Antonio Conte’s previous Juve team. Players like Milkinkovic-Savic, Radja Nainggolan, Marek Hamsik, Miralem Pjanic – honestly the list could go on – still dominate the midfield and the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
I don’t know when, if ever, Italian football will free itself of the confines of its past. All I know is that I hope it isn’t anytime soon. I forever want to watch Radja Nainggolan make the tackle of the season while still celebrating his first time 25 yard volley with a toothy grin. That would be nice.
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