Milton Ceita Da Costa
Andrea Pirlo - Coverciano Thesis 2019/2020
With renewed interest in the famed Italian coaching academy in Coverciano (Centro Tecnico Federale di Coverciano) due to Andrea Pirlo's thesis recently being released, we have decided to take a look at some of those theses*.
Next up, former Juventus and AC Milan player and current Juventus manager, Andrea Pirlo himself.
*With all these theses, the translations are far from perfect but we tried to ensure the coach's meaning was kept while making it readily accessible and understandable. Our own explanations or interpretations are in blue.
You can find our look at Massimiliano Allegri's 2004/2005 thesis here.
We have placed in quotes direct quotations from the thesis (sometimes in Italian sometimes in English). This was done in circumstances where Pirlo’s voice was especially significant to the message or a particular term or phrase needed to be emphasized in its original form.
PIRLO - MY FOOTBALL
“L’idea fondante del mio calcio è basata sulla volontà di un calcio propositivo, di possesso e di attacco.”
“The foundational idea on which my football is played is the desire to play an intentional, possession-based attacking football.”
Pirlo’s goal is to play a collective and total game in which all 11 players are involved in both the offensive phase and the defensive phase.
The ball is essential, the key element. It is the basis of the two principle rules of my football vision : keep and dominate possession as long as possible. Look to recover the ball with aggressiveness and intensity.
Pirlo talks about the ideal context : tactical, technical, physical-athletic and emotional. The game has now evolved from static positioning on the pitch to a more dynamic hybrid in which adhering to defined principles of play and adapting to the situation is the norm.
Noted inspirations : Johan Cruijff’s Barcelona, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Lous Van Gaal’s Ajax, Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan, Antonio Conte’s Juventus
In modern football, the meaning of role has changed. It is no longer based on a fixed position but instead it is made up of the functions and tasks the player has.
The players’ qualities are enhanced by their role (modern definition of role)
In today’s game, we readily see the principal qualities of modern football’s elite players through classic roles.
Modern goalkeepers can no longer rely solely on defending the goal frame. They must be proactively defensive, protecting space in and in front of the penalty area while also being adept and efficient with the ball at feet.
Control and protection of space in front of goal
Adept with ball at feet
Tactically, the goalkeeper is part of build-up and can pick and execute the right pass
This role, along with that of the GK, has changed the most in the past 30 years, defensively and offensively.
Defensively : Historically, the CB focused solely on the direct opponent. Then, with the development of zonal marking, the defender became adept in reading situations and controlling space.
Now, the defender must do both while covering large spaces if the team wants to be offensive and attack with numbers.
Offensively : they are now the first playmakers of the team and must be able to offset the specific marking they face and that they had once implemented. Their line-breaking passes (“passaggi chiave), key passes (passes that play through opposition line of pressure) , are quantifiably on par with that of central midfielders.
This is a very flexible role. These players have varying qualities but modern systems allow us to exploit their abilities through various functions. The attacking fullback will provide width (Raphaël Guerreiro), the defensive fullback can act as a third CB (César Azpilicueta), and the technically and tactually proficient one can even become another midfielder (Philipp Lahm). Their importance has significantly augmented since their inception and now we can even talk about playmaking fullbacks, directors.
“Over the last 20 years, Ancelotti’s Milan, Pep’s Barcelona and Zidane’s Madrid have shown the importance of technical midfielders. The 1990’s were dominated by physical midfielders, but now we have rediscovered the effectiveness of technical players with excellent vision.”
This, of course, needs to be complemented with an adequate amount of mobility in order to perform multiple functions (build-up play, finishing, etc.) and especially a predisposition to the defensive transition phase with a ferocious counter-press at ball loss. (Appropriate and diligent response at ball loss).
Like wide defenders, wide midfielders have much flexibility. Based on their characteristics, there is the possibility of isolating players who are skilled in 1v1’s (a primary feature of elite football) wide in the flanks. Inverted technical players who are able to cut in and assist and create chances are another option, as well.
Here too, there must be players who try to recover the ball immediately at ball loss.
Forwards are often the most talented players and have their own set of unique qualities. Talent and qualities will enhance a collective capable of bringing out the best in the individual.
In Pirlo’s game model, attacking depth is primordial (even when attacking a short playing area) and it is often the attacker who functions with the role of occupying and exploiting this space (although midfielders and fullbacks can attack this space with effectiveness). In attacking football with many offensive players (attacking midfielders and wingers), the attacker must be able to communicate technically and intelligently with their teammates in order to impose themselves.
1. OFFENSIVE PHASE
A clean, efficient out-ball from the initial build-up zone is essential for good play. It is therefore essential to always try to build play with an organized foundation according to opponent pressure.
There are 3 basic options for our player during build-up play :
Increase, through possession, (laterally or indirectly) the time and space available to be able to advance through one of the two previous options
Pirlo’s team will try to, with specific focus, to overcome the pressing opponent using a vertex/pivot (like a 3rd player) to create that which we define the ball “as open as possible.”
In ZONE 1, the team will have a limited numerical superiority (+1) so as not to put an unnecessary amount of players behind the ball line. In this phase, the goalkeeper will be very important, particularly against teams that press us high.
The modern keeper, as mentioned, at the high level (but not just) must play with courage in advanced positions, leaving the frame of the goal and the penalty area. They must be able to find the through ball (key pass) and dribble to provoke pressure from the opposition and thus destabilize the press.
Building internally for several reasons :
To make opponents pressing more complicated and difficult
To export the ball cleanly and efficiently and with more difficulty for the opposition to read. From the center, the possibilities of being dangerous increase and the opposition defensive line is kept more busy.
Pirlo’s build-up play vision is to progress with compactness, playing through a line of pressure without forcing the ball vertically and launching it forward. This principle allows us to keep our structure and subsequently be ready for the defensive transition at ball loss, with an immediate counter-press.
Attack well to defend well.
The goal is to introduce multiple players into the ball zone, that way we can immediately reclaim the ball at our loss of possession and thus delay the opposition’s transition and in order to be able to rearrange ourselves for the defensive phase.
Through rotations and exchanges, possession is dynamic and disruptive, capable of disorganizing the opposition positioning.
Offensive progression performed in two speeds/phases : at the back, it will be patient and preparatory, and further forward it will be fast and direct, after the key pass that frees a player between the lines. (The delivery will be clean and quick).
Obviously, it is the adversary decides what choices are made in build-up play. The more pressure and adversaries in the team’s half of the field, the more space behind them to play.
Base Concept : The ball is always faster than the player. Build advantage through continuous and dynamic movement (without haste but without pauses ; “senza fretta ma senza pause”) with the goal to create space to advance. It is essential that players do not just perform but know to choose the most advantageous option allowed by the opponent.
The most important build-up play principles but also general principles of our in possession game
Creating “a dribble rhombus” around the ball carrier : support, lateral support, and vertex/pivot (vertex/pivot can be behind pressure line). Regardless of role, players close to the ball must continually rebuild this rhombus around the ball. If a rhombus player is marked tight, they can move to go and that spot will be taken by a partner.
Creation and occupation of free spaces : behind the line of pressure, free players wait for the ball, constantly adjusting their position (equal distance from opposition) and posture. Marked players, on the other hand, will move and create space and a teammate can take up this space and be played quickly. If player is marked, they will move again, continuing the process for creating spaces.
It is necessary to recognize the game codes : if the ball-carrier is free with the ball, open teammates move away/get free in finishing/attack the depth. If the ball-carrier is under pressure or in difficulty, teammates come closer to help and advance possession.
In our football, “positional play”, the most important aspect are the positions (the zones that are occupied, not nominal positions). It is necessary to respect the game structure in which the ball comes to the player and not the other way around.
Other important sub principles:
If I have space I carry the ball until an opponent comes out (in this case our vertex/pivot prepares for a 1-2)
If free, the partner must be played beyond the opponent’s line (not always because it depends on whether there is positional or qualitative superiority). Qualitative can mean an advantageous numerical equality or speed/power or strength, dribbling ability, locational danger, etc.
I play right to go left
Play the way you face
Play and move
Play the ball mainly on the ground
Continuously and routinely position oneself on the weak side of the ball
Look for diagonal play
Look for the third player
“The third man is impossible to defend”
In the offensive phase, there is no fixed system but the players’ positioning and movement are determined by the desire to reach the given principles.
“The role in modern football is no longer a position, but a function”
- A. Galgiardi
In particular, the three fundamental macro principles for effectively attacking the defensive line are :
Maximum and double width
Continuous quest for chance creation
Frequent forays into the attacking depth
These three macro principles should be thought as containers that must always be full. They are thus areas that must be filled, no matter the filler. It is even better if done through the players’ constant rotation. The goal is to constantly refill these three containers so as to apply pressure to the defensive line.
“We want one player, and only one, to always be wide and high, to ensure maximum width both on the right and on the left.”
This will force the opposition fullback to make a choice : stay wide and allow space in the center or stay narrow and constantly arrive late for switches of play and wide player’s cuts. The width will be provided by pure wing players, technical, fast and skilled in 1v1’s.
The strikers and midfielders can change the point of attack “with their eyes closed”, the opposite flank will always be wide and high. Play right to attack left. Continually look to play out to the opposite flank.
The width will be occupied by one player per band. Just one so as to stretch the opposition defensive line and so that the remaining players can occupy spaces in the center.
“The main objective of our offensive phase is to find a player in the finishing zone.”
At least two central players will be constantly stationed in this fluctuating zone between the opposition defense and midfield, and frequently, other players will join them.
With the ball in the finishing zone, open and facing the goal, at least two players must attack the depth in behind. Players positioned between the opposition lines must insistently move so that there is always a free passing lane. They must be able to stay out of the opponent’s shadows.
Above all else, attacking the opponent’s depth is key. The forwards, the wingers and midfielders must take turns attacking the defensive line with runs and cuts. There are several reasons :
Push back the opposition, thus creating space in front, necessary for finishing
Keep the opposition defenders “mentally” engaged
Attack the space, receive the ball… and score!
Depending on the players’ characteristics, the team can play with just one central striker or two. In this case, asymmetrical play (one comes short, the other goes long) is used. If the sole attacker comes to or buzzes in and around the finishing zone, the wide player on the weak side attacks the depth (the container must always be full).
Even short depth is connected to the “open ball” code. In possession, the team must be adequately staggered both horizontally, on different lines, and vertically on different, bands.
Especially when attacking the defensive line, 4, 5 or 6 predetermined players must place themselves vertically across the field to attack the line in its full width (the flanks, the half spaces and the central area).
“Regardless of the system, we can see how we could go by occupying all the offensive positions necessary to accomplish the objectives in the attack phase.”
The pivot (the top of the formation) attacks the depth and the wide players stretch the width. The central players push up into the final third and the fullbacks push inside during the build-up phase. The central midfielder reads the situation (one or two pressing opponents) and sits between the two central defenders (if two pressing opponents).
“We will thus position ourselves in a 3-2-5 or a 2-3-5 in the offensive phase.”
However, the movements are not fixed. Based on the players’ qualities, there will be various rotations : the left back can push up in the flank, the wide player can enter the finishing zone and so the central player can stay back during build-up.
1.3 Attacking the Line
Attack the opposing line with at least 5 players (the 2 wide players and the 3 central players). It can often rise to 6-7 players in the attack line.
Simplify the line of attack in 3 main situations.
Player in the finishing zone and searching for a mainly individual solution (1-2, shot from distance, 1v1, disguises and combinations)
Player in the finishing zone and looking to access the space in behind (out-in runs from wide players and attackers, run from deep from central players)
Width with 1v1 and crosses. (In the flanks, the primary goals are to cross or get to the ball line and cut the ball back to the penalty spot)
A direct attack will be used against high defensive lines or ones that struggle to read the situation.
In trying to vary the game and make ourselves as unpredictable as possible, we can alternate between playing short from the back and a sudden attack in behind, even from Zones 1 or 2 (“direct attack”).
“However, we will mainly try to access the finishing zone through structured play.”
With the ball open and facing the goal in the finishing area, at least two players must attack the depth.
The opposition defensive line must be put under constant pressure through various types of runs even if the runs our out of sync.
In general, we will ask our players, when in an offensive position, to attack the goal and fill the penalty area.
We want 3-4 players in the area, with particular focus on the far side wide player who can often successfully attack the back/far post.
When playing football with principles and spaces, it is nonetheless important to add coded plays and movements in the last 30 meters to create greater possibilities and security for our players. These are plays and movements developed to enhance our qualities.
"However, I believe that in the last 30 meters, that individual talent and creativity reign supreme, with players free to express themselves by looking for decisive plays.”
The organization and the game structure combined with principles are of fundamental importance in allowing the team to reach the last 30 meters with players and positioning disorganizing the opposition defense and thus benefiting the decisive play of the most important offensive players.
2. DEFENSIVE PHASE
There are two main objects when pressing
Recover the ball as quickly and as high as possible
“Using that important concept as our starting point, I would like our defensive phase to include not just the act of protecting our goal but also recovering the ball in dangerous areas for the opposition.”
Recovering the ball in the offensive half also has huge mental and emotional value in the battle : “it lessens the courage and confidence of the opposition and raises ours, thus helping us approach the technical and mental domination of the game that is our main goal.”
Counter-pressing : “we want to press the opposition immediately to recover possession. We implement preventive cover and are constantly aware of the situation to occupy the offensive half and to avoid run towards our own goal.” A team that defends on the front foot, going forward.
At turnover, the player closest to the ball presses but the primary goal of this player is not to recover the ball (there is too much chance of getting bypassed) but direct the ball carrier and force a mistake.
“Some studies carried out by me and my staff, show that the top teams counter-presses around 30-35 times a game with a 70% success rate (of immediate ball recovery). The average duration of these positive counter presses is around 5 seconds and evolves around 2.5 players on average.
These players are primarily midfielders. As the most involved players in counter-pressing and the best players in this essential process, they complete more than 12 counter-pressures a game.”
The space with the most occurrences of counter-pressures are the half spaces and the sidelines. It is more difficult to counter-press in the central area (the opponents have more options) and in the opposition penalty area where, even if they recover the ball, it is often immediately kicked away.
“The team will implement two different defending methods depending on the game situation and the situational context. When the ball is in the middle offensive half we will implement high pressure. When the ball is in our half, we will be more calculating using a threshold.
“We press high when the opposition is building from the back, watching and preparing the counter-positioning, moving up and isolating 1-2 players on the weak side.”
The defensive line plays high and aggressively and the goalkeeper is essential in ensuring coverage in depth. If the ball is recovered in the final third, or a few meters out, “we attack the goal quickly (5-10 seconds, if the attack does not materialize, we keep possession and retake our positional structure)”. Isolate the opponent by bringing them towards the lateral line. The attacker gives the signal to press by making the first move, while still advancing and players farther back move up as well when they can.
With the delay in opposition play, “we use a pressing trap” : direct the opponent towards a targeted area or a specific player.
“Also, in this case we have carried out specific studies : the big teams in Europe perform about 45 pressing actions a match for a total of 12-14 minutes of actual play, defending forward. About 60% of these actions lead to a ball recovery and only 10-15% of the time are these teams’ pressing beaten by the opposition’s play. However, when this does happen, the chances of conceding a dangerous action increase considerably.”
2.2 Defensive Position
“With the ball in our half, we restructure ourselves in the are initial positions and alert in covering. We now move from marco-marco (pressing) to marco-copro. We do not want to allow key passes and through balls in the finishing zone (reduced to a maximum by a high line close to the midfield line).”
“We shift a lot in the ball zone.”
If in the last 30 meters, an offensive wide player in the ball zone, sliding towards the center of the field, finds a free opponent between them and the midfielder, they position themselves centrally towards the ball area.
The team must be tight and compact, especially the forwards who must work together and be ready to recover the balls in the final third. Often the threshold line in the team’s defensive half is replaced by a passive defensive phase.
More and more, however, in modern football teams defending low adopt mentalities similar to those used in the opposing half during the pressing phase.
Intensity is almost always associated with impressive physical performance, which is obviously a factor that is not to be underestimated, but the real difference in the big teams is the mental intensity, borne of that ferocious desire to recover the ball regardless of whether in a pressing phase or a waiting phase.
2.3 Defensive Line
A 4-player defensive line that works in specific roles but in relation to the adversaries. High and aggressive forwards pay special attention to goalkeeper’s positioning.
Even in the defensive phase, as well as the offensive, the role of the goalkeeper has completely changed in the past 20 years.
In fact, until a few years ago, this role was almost exclusively based on skill and awareness in the “protecting the goal”. In modern football, it has become indispensable for goalkeepers and their coaches to also pay maniacal attention to the “ball at foot” skills (as seen in the offensive phases chapters) and “protection of space”.
Goalkeepers are tied to their own defensive line; if the line goes up to the halfway line while accompanying the offensive pressing, the goalkeeper must also climb to the edge of the area and beyond, ready to give defenders cover on any counterattacks into depth.
Other important concepts of the defensive line :
Anticipated marking and exploitation of 2v1’s with a defender in front and one covering.
An interesting solution with the ball in the last 30 meters could be that the central midfielder entering the defensive line to compose a line of 5, fundamental to better defend the width and be aggressive centrally.
Here too, the characteristics of the midfielder and thus of the context determine this choice. “We avoid doubling up, particularly those too close to the opponent. Against particular players, we set up a second line of close coverage (5 meters) in case of 1v1.”
“In a wide-ball situation, we will position ourselves by player in the area.” Within the engagement area of the defender, the defender will pressure the opponent, marking him loosely, not tightly (to try to overcome any feints and counter-movements).
“We have divided the area into six zones.” On the wide ball from the right, the central defender is the first to move and is positioned just ahead of the post (varying height) to go cover zone 1. The defender in zone 1 must avoid advancing on the near post and must act as the first screen to block any cross or passes in behind. The second central defender is stationed in zone 2. The opposite fullback occupies zones 3 and/or 6 at a slight diagonal to the central defender. Each player occupying their area adapts to their opponent. The opposite fullback can also come central (zones 2 and 5) when the team is in numerical inferiority.
The central midfielder runs towards the spot and adapts to the opponents in zone 5 and zone 4. The “mezzala” on the opposite side tries to retreat to zone 5 while ready to shift to zone 6. If playing with another “mezzala”, that one then adapts to teammates and opposition in zones 4, 5 and 6.
By now in modern football, transitions have taken on a fundamental importance. It is no longer just a quick counterattacking tool but also and, above all, a connection between the two phases of the game and so often it is situated between two different systems and structures.
Trying to speed up this transitional phase as much as possible is the basis of much study and a possible key element between a good performance and a poor one.
“In expressing our offensive and defensive ideas, we have already widely discussed the situations that make up a transition phase. This is because the game cycle is unique and indivisible and it only for convenience that we have summarized it here by points.”
3.1 Offensive Transitions
Offensive transitions are one of the game situations where the qualities of the available players can and must influence the coach’s ideas and principles. Having athletic midfielders, wide players and forwards facilitates turning turn defense to attack quickly ; on the other hand, with technical and agile midfielders and forwards, it is astute to keep possession without attacking directly in order to begin an attack based on structure and positional play.
Another variant that should be analyzed, is the area of the field where the ball is recovered : in the offensive half, it is preferable to try to counterattack to surprise the opposition’s defense.
Continuing with the idea of a constant and indivisible game cycle, preventive play becomes primordial for both the offensive and defensive transitions.
“By preventive play, we mean movements and attitudes that some players, no longer directly involved in the current game phase, adopt in anticipation of the transition phase.”
In offensive transitions for example, the preventive play of some attackers when defending deep in positional defense, is to anticipate positional mismatches, perhaps behind an opposite fullback who has pushed up. This will allow the player to be found free and be able to exploit the space in the moment when the ball is recovered. “If the opposition central defender comes out to defend him, we will have successfully disorganized their positioning and now can exploit the freed up space.
“Also in our studies, we found that the average dangerous transition lasts approximately 10-12 seconds, with an average of 2 passes per action to arrive at the goal and involves almost three players.”
3.2 Defensive Transitions
“One of our main weapons in defensive transitions is immediate counter-pressing at ball loss, a topic that we have already widely discussed.”
Even in defensive transitions, however, preventive play is important : when in the attack phase, the defenders who are no longer useful in this phase must anticipate the possible defensive transition, marking the opposition attackers, thus preventing the opposing team from counterattacking quickly.
“The so-called preventive marking and covering, are also linked to our counter-pressing phase.” The players nearest the ball close down the ball carrier and closest passing options while the defenders are pre-marking the opposition attackers to stop them from receiving any easy passes.
“Particularly in the preventive marking of the central attacker, we try to exploit a possible 2v1 of our central defenders through anticipation, but more generally, the analysis of our qualities and that of our opposition is fundamental.”
Against structured attackers good at protecting the ball, preventive marking will be more geared towards gaining an advantage in case of an individual duel; on the contrary, against opponents with potentially quick wide players, the priority will be that of preventive cover focused on covering the space in behind.
“I tried to describe and synthesize the football in my mind. A football that comes from my career as a player and from my studies carried out once I hung up the boots.
I believe that a purposeful, attacking and quality football can provide great rewards such as more enthusiasm in the environment and more commitment from players and staff. It is dynamic and is necessary to be able to create the synergy that is the basis of successful teams. I am also convinced that striving for this type of football can lead to more chances of achieving the final victory.
Football is a very low-scoring sport unlike other major sports (from basketball to volleyball). This “small but big” difference dictates that sometimes it is not the team that deserved to win that takes home the final result.
However, numerous studies have show that in the medium to long-term, performances tend to align with results, which is another reason to immediately look to develop a quality playing style that produces numerous scoring opportunities and that, in time, will lead us to victory!
I would like to thank my colleagues and the course teachers for this journey we have taken together, a stimulating journey, especially so for the experiences shared with you.
Thanks also to my staff with whom I shared the ideas of my football project.
Lastly, a note to the teammates who have accompanied me throughout my career and to all the coaches, who each left me something : Moro, Reja, Materazzi, Hodgson, Lucescu, Simoni, Colomba, Mazzone, Ancelotti, Leonardo, Conte, Allegri, Viera. And in the national team: Tardelli, Gentile, Trapattoni, Lippi, Donadoni and Prandelli.
A kiss and a big hug to my family. They are my greatest love and my last thoughts at the end of the day.
Translated, transcribed and interpreted by ToroFoot