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On pragmatism, idealism, and Italiano’s tactical approach

What we talk about when we talk about a soccer philosophy.

ACF Fiorentina v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

I’ve seen a lot of talk about Italiano’s tactics in the VN comments over the past several months and they’ve really set me to thinking what tactics are. As regular readers will know, I love the tactical side of the game, sometimes almost to the exclusion of the emotional side, and have always been fascinated by how coaches tinker with their sides.

Part of it is wish fulfillment, of course, because who among us doesn’t think that we could put together a brilliant game plan for Fiorentina? But part of it is also pure curiosity, a desire to understand how the game works. Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking very hard about those two things: what a tactical philosophy actually is and how it actually looks on the field.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Argentinian soccer was dominated by two charismatic figures: César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. The former was a long-haired, chain-smoking spider of a man who spoke through clouds of smoke about the necessity of freedom of human expression and decried the creation of “useful idiots that go with the system” while espousing socialist politics and free-thinking, free-flowing play on the pitch.

The latter was, during his playing career, a legendary hardman who allegedly carried pins onto the pitch so he could jab opponents. That calculating cynicism carried over to his coaching career; as the successor to Osvaldo Zubeldía’s anti-futbol approach, he stressed fitness, discipline, and sticking tightly to a carefully-developed tactical plan that was designed to frustrate the other team and grab a goal on the break.

Carlos Bilardo - El Grafico Sports Archive Photo by El Grafico/Getty Images

While their cosmologies about the game and about life were as diametrically opposed as can be, eventually leading to a long-running and public feud, they do share something in common: each coached Argentina to a World Cup, Menotti in 1978 and Bilardo in 1986. The former was celebrated as a romantics’ dream, a team that took risks and backed itself, while the latter defended with seven at all times and relied on Diego Maradona’s genius to get them on the scoresheet.

In many ways, they personify a divide that’s existed since the advent of the professional game. Is it better to focus on what your team does well, or is it better to limit the other team? Each approach comes with its benefits and its drawbacks, but every tactical approach is, at its root, an attempt to answer that question. Since very few managers sit at the extreme ends of the spectrum (Zdeněk Zeman? Diego Simeone?), most are constantly trying to strike a balance, getting the most out of their own teams while limiting their opponents.

We’ve seen the debate between these approaches play out for decades in a variety of arenas, from Johann Cruyff and Louis van Gaal to Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. One side gains the ascendancy for a few years before the other unseats it. You can think of it as a cycle, or a pendulum, or a seismograph, or whatever analogy works for you, but the dialogue between Menottisme and Bilardisme has continued unabated since the dawn of the sport.

And even in Florence, we’re still arguing about it. Vincenzo Italiano certainly doesn’t belong in the same breath as these colossi, at least at this early point in his career, but he can’t escape their shadows as fans and journalists constantly try to figure out why his Fiorentina underachieves, despite what is on paper a talented albeit lopsided roster.

To really bring out the best in these players, he needs to stop emphasizing the short, sterile possession play that kills any attacking momentum and allows opponents to dig their moats and reinforce their walls. Or he needs to order the midfielders and wingers to get into the box more to provide a goal threat rather than lurking outside the area. Or he needs to stop ordering the fullbacks to lump crosses into a packed penalty box.

No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that he insists on pressing too much, which means that the midfield is easily pulled out of shape and leaves the defense exposed. He should order the back line to sit deeper and minimize space in behind. His insistence on throwing fullbacks forward leaves too much space. The goalkeeper and defenders shouldn’t try to pass their way out of trouble, but just boot it over the Maratona whenever there’s a dangerous situation.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I don’t actually believe either side is right. There’s a balance to be struck, but that balance isn’t static; it’s dynamic and require adjustments from match to match, and indeed within each match. There’s no single, overarching philosophy that’s always right, because soccer as a game is inherently chaotic and contextual. What might might be a good decision in one situation—say, a striker running in behind a defender instead of dropping deep to offer a passing option—is a bad decision in another.

That’s the dynamism of the game, and that dynamism is what makes it fun and interesting. Its fundamental unpredictability sets it apart from anything else you can watch: there are 22 players, a referee, a ball, a field, and a pretty simple set of rules. Everything else is up for debate, unscripted, organic, in a way that a movie or a book or even a concert can’t be. While there are patterns and themes that repeat, they’re never identical, never tesselated, never ripples spreading into the vague distance. Rather, they’re permutations, slightly different from each other but still recognizable, raindrops hitting the surface of a pond.

Here’s the thing. Neither the warrior-poet Menotti nor the cynic Bilardo was exactly that. We’re talking about human beings, after all, who are, like soccer itself, complex and dynamic and self-contradictory. They’re both vast. They both contained multitudes. And they hardly embodied idealism and pragmatism, respectively.

Menotti, after all, wasn’t above some gamesmanship—showing up late to the 1976 final so that the 71,483 supporters in the Estadio Monumental could intimidate the Dutch, waiting all alone on the sideline—and he wasn’t some philosopher-king issuing koans from a smoke-wreathed throne. His triumph came from seeing the Dutch destroy Argentina 4 years earlier and recognizing that the workmanlike approach employed by the Albiceleste wasn’t enough to overcome elite competition. He was just as sharp a tactical mind as anyone. And, for all the charismatic professor identity he cultivated, he was quite happy to work for the right wing military dictatorship that ruled Argentina for decades.

Bilardo, too, wasn’t just some thug. While he was certainly an insanely competitive player and coach, his approach was born from Argentina’s failure in 1982, when they allowed themselves to be booted off the pitch. An innovative tactician who popularized the 3-4-1-2 that allowed Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga, and Jorge Valdano to focus on attacking while keeping a solid shape behind them, he was also ahead of his time in terms of fitness training. He wasn’t just a soccer-brained obsessive, either, as he spent several years working as a doctor in a hospital before committing to the sport full-time.

Neither of these men was an avatar of idealism or pragmatism. Rather, they were both doing whatever they could to win games, following paradigms that arose from their specific experiences and the team’s recent history. Italiano, like every other coach, is doing the same. It’s reductive to call him too attacking or too defensive or too possession-oriented because his philosophy contains aspects of all of these things that fit together in a constellation, a web of points whose respective gravities attract each other from every direction but still cohere as a whole.

For example, Italiano wants Cristiano Biraghi to play very high up because Biraghi is a very good crosser and passer; because Biraghi is nominally a fullback, it’s tricky to figure out how to get him from the defensive third to the final third without leaving that entire wing wide open to opposing counterattacks.

Italiano’s solution has been to drop one of his midfielders into that space instead, essentially turning Alfred Duncan or Rolando Mandragora (both also left-footed) into fullbacks when in possession. Since both have a decent range of passing but aren’t great on the ball, the team doesn’t lose much by moving them farther from goal, and moving them deeper means they usually have more time on the ball to pick a good progressive pass.

12th minute. Biraghi (yellow) is getting forward, as per usual. Duncan (teal) is in a normal position for a CM, but as soon as he sees Kouamé passing to Biraghi, he hustles to the flank to fill in as the LB.
And it’s a good thing, too, since Kouamé’s pass is cut out and Sassuolo immediately moves it to Berardi in the space Biraghi has left. If not for Duncan recognizing this and getting across, Berardi would be able to turn and drive forward unopposed; instead, Duncan forces him to pass out of bounds.

Is this a Menottist approach? Getting a defender way up the pitch certainly fits the bill. Or is it a Bilardist approach? Drafting a midfielder into the back line certainly fits the bill. The truth is that the context is what makes it an attacking approach or a defensive one, not the movement itself.

And that’s a very simple, static example, one of dozens or hundreds that crop up in every game. There are similar examples about when the number 10 joins the striker in pressing the defense, or when the rightback manmarks an opposing fullback and leaves the winger to a centerback, or when the striker drops deep to encourage a midfielder running past him. These scenarios aren’t inherently pro- or reactive in and of themselves. They’re solutions that help players solve the series of problems that every match, every situation, every tick of the second hand poses to them.

A determinist would say that Vincenzo Italiano’s tactics, like any others, are attacking when they produce goals and defensive when they prevent them. I refute such determinism just as I refute the Menotti-Bilardo binary. What’s interesting to me is not whether or not Italiano is an attacking coach or a possession-based coach or a defensive coach, because every coach has to consider all those phases; Giuseppe Iachini, as “negative” or “defensive” manager as you’ll find in Italy, has attacking principles, for example, that relate to his defensive and possession ones.

It’s not a matter of adjusting a slider between attack and defense, activity and passivity, idealism and pragmatism, Menottisme and Bilardisme. There is no slider, and there is no Menottisme or Bilardisme. There are concepts that cluster around some Platonic ideal of each, but they’re constantly at play with each other, pushing and pulling back and forth in a manner that isn’t primarily Mennotist or Bilardist but rather depends on the matrix in which they are held.

So that’s really my point, I guess. I don’t think it makes sense to discuss or criticize any single aspect of Italiano’s tactics, whatever they are, without trying to understand those tactics as a whole, because otherwise it’s just a collage rather than a realistic representation of how he wants his teams to play.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t express opinions about whether or not Biraghi should be allowed to spend as much time getting forward as he does; what I’m saying is that we should acknowledge there’s no right or wrong answer in and of itself, but that any idea of right or wrong is based on a larger context, both within Fiorentina’s entire setup but also with how each person understands the game and how it ought to be played, and that until we’re all on the same page, thinking of any different opinion as incorrect is so reductive as to be pointless.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? We’re all here, hanging out on this extraordinarily niche website to read and think about a fairly mediocre soccer team in second-rate league in a country that few of us actually live in. We’re here because we love Fiorentina, yes, but we’re also here because we want to reach out and connect with our fellow humans, to understand them and be understood by them( at least as much as that’s ever possible), and this is a space in which we can do that.

None of us are entirely Menottist or entirely Bilardist, and neither is Italiano, and neither is the universe. If we ever want to come to grips with each other, or the Viola manager, or literally everything else, we need to understand that we need a fuller understanding, and that we can only gain that by talking it out and remaining open to each other’s ideas and trying to obtain a more holistic knowledge. I feel unbelievably lucky that I get to do that with the readers and commenters on this site, and I want to thank you for being so good at it, even when I’m not.