Stefano Pioli’s Flexible System




When Vladimir Petkovic was sacked by Lazio president Claudio Lotito after agreeing to take over the Swiss national side the side from Rome turned as so many other Italian sides do to a former coach. Edoardo Reja had initially left Lazio in 2012 after a relatively successful spell in charge and had been replaced by Petkovic. Under both coaches though the criticism from the fans and the media was the same, Lazio lacked a defined tactical identity.

With Reja in charge they were often cautious to a fault playing slow methodical football and failing to take the initiative against teams that would use a low block and compact shape to slow the game down. In part Petkovic was appointed due to his reputation for playing fluid attacking football having set his Young Boys side up in a 3-4-3 system whilst managing in Switzerland. The reality however was somewhat different and Petkovic instituted a strategy that saw Lazio concentrate largely on playing quickly in transitions but still the familiar failings against the low block remained. After Reja left the club for a second time a host of relatively big names were linked to the vacancy, so you can understand the disillusion of the Lazio fans when Stefano Pioli, especially when you consider that Pioli had already experienced failure in his managerial career with spells at the likes of Parma, Sassuolo, Chievo, Palermo and Bologna to name a few.

What the Lazio fans perhaps did not expect was for Pioli to display a level of tactical flexibility and intelligence that belied his managerial career to this point. In terms of systems Pioli started his time with Lazio using almost exclusively a 4-3-3 although at times the attack was left isolated with a lack of a truly dynamic runner from the midfield three. This led to a rethink from Pioli and a switch to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 with two central players in a double pivot providing the base for the attacking players to exploit. No matter which system was employed though Pioli promoted quick, attacking, fluid football with a front three that had permission to interchange and switch positions to take advantage of space in the attacking third. The central attacking midfielder is given licence to roam across the width and depth of the pitch often dropping deep to link with the two central midfielders and leaving a pocket of space for others to move in to. This exciting attacking system has seen Lazio rise to third in the table with one match remaining. If they can avoid defeat then they will qualify for next seasons Champions League. Let’s break down the system used by Pioli so far this season.

Defensive Phase

In the defensive phase Pioli likes to maintain flexibility by using a medium block and neither committing a large amount of resources forward to press the ball nor leaving space behind the defensive block that the opposition can exploit with direct passes. As much as possible Lazio try to disengage their defensive line from pressuring the ball carrier to maintain their shape. That means that the midfielders in particular have to work a lot harder to press the ball and stop the defensive line from becoming overloaded by midfield runners.

defensive support

In this example you can see that the Lazio defensive line has positioned themselves at the 18 yard line. In these deep defensive positions it is normal for the central attacking midfielder to drop deep to support the two central midfielders and as you can see there are three Lazio midfielders set up in a narrow defensive shape. The player closest to the ball will apply pressure to the ball carrier to prevent a dangerous pass or shot whilst the central of the three players will look to support him to prevent the Cagliari player beating him in a one on one situation. The far side central midfielder is then free to track any midfield runners that threaten to overload the defensive line.

There are times however when a medium block can be exposed defensively in that the gaps between the midfield and attack of the defence and midfield can be too large and the opposition can overwhelm the defensive structure by using quick direct passes in transition to attack the space.

No cohesive defensive shape

Here you can see that Chievo have looked to bypass their midfield and used a long diagonal pass to the wide area, the gap between the Lazio defence and the double pivot in midfield is too large and exposed and any Chievo player either dropping in to the space or moving forwards to occupy the space will be in a position to cause a real problem to the Lazio defenders.


Over the last few years there has been a huge movement amongst both amateur and professional analysts to promote the idea that the transition phase is the key phase in the game. The idea is that when you first lose the ball the opposition player that has recovered possession will be exposed without immediate support for a short pass and that therefore if you apply immediate pressure there is a chance of winning the ball back immediately. At the same time the belief is that should you win the ball back in a deep position from the opposition then the other team should be in the attacking phase and not set in defensive positions. A quick direct pass can often lead to an attacking overload and increase your chances of scoring. Lazio under Pioli are very effective with direct transitions.

Bypass midfield

Here you can see Lazio attacking in transition in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The ball has just been recovered and the immediate direct pass to the strikers feet is used and the entire opposition midfield is bypassed. By playing an immediate lay off to a supporting player facing the opposition goal the entire width of the field is opened up. Pioli encourages his wide players to attack the gaps in the defensive line looking to force the defensive line backwards and open up more space to to play in the opposition half.

MC breaks lines

This time Lazio again utilise the direct first pass although this time it is the attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 that has dropped in to a deep position to receive the ball. This piece of movement though has emptied a significant space between the opposition defence and midfield and when the AM drops deep one of the two central midfielders is given licence to move in to more advanced areas. Here you can see that the striker will either look to hold his position or drop in to the space that has been left whilst the two wide attackers attack the spaces in the defensive line.

Attacking Phase

There are two key elements to the attacking play under Pioli, fluidity and support. The midfield setup with a double pivot especially lends itself to lines of support in the attacking movement.

pivot in possession

Here you can see that with Cagliari sitting in a low or medium block the double pivot is ideal in terms of maintaining and developing possession of the ball. There are clear passing lanes between the two central midfielders and the three defensive players that are closest to the ball so that the angle and depth of the attacking movement can be changed easily and quickly without fear that the opposition can pressure the ball effectively.

structural shifts

This is an example of Lazio in a sustained attacking phase when the ball has already been recycled backwards at least once and the opposition have set up in a defensive position. In this instance the central striker has found himself in a wide left position and has moved laterally to a central area. This in turn draws the opposition full back in to a more narrow position and opens up space on the left flank. The Lazio full back is able to exploit the space and the fluid attacking movement is completed by the left sided central midfielder who moves left in to a support position both allowing the ball to move backwards easily and making sure that the opposition can’t exploit space in a quick transition.

This fluid movement and close support make it very difficult to defend against Lazio over an extended period as they are extremely adept at creating and exploiting pockets of space in the attacking movement.

Stefano Pioli would almost certainly have not been the first choice amongst Lazio fans to take over from the popular Edoardo Reja but in his first season he has already experienced remarkable success – success that has seen him linked to the Italy national team job should Antonio Conte be lured back to club football. Juventus are without a doubt the strongest team in Italian football at the moment but there is no reason to doubt that Lazio could be in a position to challenge them next season if the board choose to back their coach with a strong recruitment drive over the summer. Stefano Pioli is another example of a coach that has failed in previous jobs but has the game intelligence to learn from his own mistakes and come back a stronger and better prepared coach. The future is bright for Lazio


FC Twente – How to keep a squad together at all costs

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Let’s face it, we completely overachieved last season. Winning the Eredivisie even when put in to the context of our miserable European display was a fantastic way to end the season. The challenge going in to my second season in charge would be to build on that successful first season and show that we can go on to become perennial domestic challengers as well as making progress in our ability to handle European football.

How though should we be going about that? The financial reality of the Eredivisie is that there is little money out with the likes of Ajax and PSV and we will need a prolonged period of years in European competition to get to the stage that we can spend serious money. Let’s not forget as well that I’m trying to loosely follow the Moneyball mantra and therefore I am going in to my first effective pre season planning to spend markedly more on wages than I am on transfer fees this should allow us to attract quality to the club in the short term.

I’m fully expecting the second season to be more of a challenge than the first. Ajax and PSV especially will both strengthen and to an extent we will be re ranked meaning that the AI will adapt their approach to playing us. I did not however expect the shit to start hitting the fan within a couple of days of the end of the season.

There I was sitting in my imaginary managerial office with my feet on my imaginary desk basking in the glow of my success when my Chilean midfield maestro Felipe Gutierrez wandered in to my office spouting some nonsense about my not keeping a promise that I had made him. During the first season Gutierrez had come to me concerned that he wanted to be playing Champions League football for the good of his career. At this point the Chilean was my stand out player and he was one that I really REALLY didn’t want to lose, I managed to work my silver tongue and convinced Felipe to stick around telling him that I would give him the Champions League football he craved and crucially that we had some excellent young players that I was looking to develop to get us there. This appeased Felipe and he agreed to give me a season to get us there. Now, I fully expected that having not only qualified for the Champions League but having qualified directly for the group stages he would be a happy bunny, but no. Felipe was mad that I hadn’t developed the young players sufficiently…..WHAT? Oudh-Chikh and Tapia alone had come on leaps and bounds and a number of other young player had played significant minutes and contributed to the success of the season. What a dick.

This all stems from an apparent interest in the Chilean from Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich. Let’s be realistic here, if a bid from Bayern was to materialise then could I really justify standing in his way and keeping him at Twente? No I couldn’t. There are two problems here though 1.) THERE WAS NO BID and 2.) He had a chance to show what he could do over two games against Bayern in the Champions League groups stage and he was the worst player on the pitch each time!

Eventually though I was able to appease Gutierrez again along with Hakim Ziyech who was casting envious glances at the likes of Roma, Juventus and……Everton?? This did however reinforce in my mind that I needed a contingency plan for each position and I needed it now. More on that later.

As my second season drew close there were only two significant departures from the first team squad that had done so well the season before. I grew tired of Kasper Kusk throwing his toys out of the pram for one reason or another and he was allowed to leave for Ajax for £3.5M plus assorted add ons. I also sold off the second shadow striker from the first team with Mexican Jesus Corona leaving for Sporting Lisbon for £5M plus add ons again. I took my time in deciding to sell Corona as I really liked his direct style and his ability to beat players but his final product was just too inconsistent so off he went.

This left me in a bit of a bind in terms of squad management as for three attacking players I essentially had Hakim Ziyech, Bilal Oudh-Chikh and at a push the Bosnian Semir Gvodjar to fill the positions. At this point though the Football Manager gods decided to throw me a bone at long last and an email appeared in my inbox from an agent informing me that his client Ibrahim Afellay was available on a free transfer. Even when Afellays notable injury history this was still a no brainer and since there was no transfer fee involved I was happy to pay £16K per week to secure his signature. We were still however light in an attacking sense but this also preceded a tactical change.

In my initial update I showed by slightly unorthodox tactical system with a wide three man defence at the base and a narrow three man attack in the attacking midfield strata. It didn’t feel quite right though and after reading this article by Adin Osmanbasic on positional play and the importance of depth and staggered attacks I changed the system to look like this;


Sometimes small tweaks can make all the difference and in an attacking sense the player in possession of the ball now has more options at different angles and the AI is finding it increasingly difficult to defend against us whether in transition or in more prolonged attacking periods. Using a False 9 in the striker position means that he is still dropping in to similar areas that the shadow striker occupied, he just has more of an attacking threat when on the ball. The change on the other side of the three AM’s was to switch roles from shadow striker to attacking midfielder with a support duty. Now the attack is fully staggered and marking our players is an extremely difficult task.

Using a false nine in my attack though meant a shift of emphasis and although the aforementioned Semir Gvodjar was comfortable in that role I still don’t think he’s quite ready. Cue a loan swoop for the Cameroon striker Jean-Marie Dongou from Barcelona B. Initially I hadn’t planned on using the loan market at all but my own youth team isn’t ready to provide players for the first team so I decided to make use of others youth setups in the short term. I remember hearing an interview with Roberto Martinez once when he was asked about Evertons reliance on the loan system, his point was that if it is a choice between having these players as one year rentals or not having them at all then it’s best to have them for that one year.

I made three other notable moves before the season started with last years player of the season being available on a free transfer as his contract expired I jumped at the chance to sign him up as with Afellay I was happy to pay him slightly higher wages (£13.5k per week) than I would have otherwise because there was no transfer fee. My other main transfer did however come with a fee, and a sizeable one at that with Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj joining from rivals AZ Alkmaar. AZ had initially refused to sell to me but with Gudelj seemingly willing to wait out his contract they eventually sold for a bargain £3.1M. The beauty of the Gudelj signing is that he fits my philosophy of signing universal players and he can fill four different roles within our tactical system although I plan to play him most often in the central midfield role. The third new signing to come in was another loan signing from Barcelona B as Alex Grimaldo came in to add depth at the left back position.

With all those comings and goings I would certainly say that we had strengthened and despite losing the Dutch Super Cup 2-1 to a PSV side led by Memphis Depay we went on an 11 game streak without losing in the league until we came unstuck at home to Groningen losing 1-0. A second defeat in the first half of the season 3-1 away to Vitesse meant that we went in to the winter break trailing Vitesse by 2 points. More pleasingly we managed to defeat Ajax and Feyenoord over the first few months and drew 1-1 away to PSV. We need to stop throwing points away against the ‘smaller sides’ though.

You may remember that we all but disgraced ourselves in the European competition in my first season in charge failing to even progress from a weak Europa League group. This time however things would be very different. We were drawn in a difficult group for my first crack at the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Anderlecht but in the first three games we managed to beat both Anderlecht and Spurs although we completely capitulated in Munich and we were on the end of a 5-0 hiding. Over the course of the second lot of fixtures we drew away to Spurs and once again beat Anderlecht to see us going in to the final group game at the top of the group with the advantage. Unfortunately the team that we faced in the last match were Bayern who were sitting in third spot. In typical Football Manager style we failed gloriously after conceding from an 88th minute penalty we lost 1-0 and the final table saw Spurs and Bayern progress with 10 points each, we finish third…..with 10 points. Bastards, ah well though there is always the Europa League.

At the halfway point I usually evaluate my squad for strenghts and weaknesses although I am always loathe to but in January are there is very rarely any real value in the market. This time though my hand was forced slightly by the ungrateful Samuel Inkoom with my starting right back hearing that Fenerbache were interested he decided to try to force a move. I eventually accepted a bid of £3M plus clauses which for a player that was signed for free and whom seemed to be regressing was a windfall. I also needed cover in the central midfield areas (AP, AM and CM) just to combat tiredness and injury. Both solutions were presented by the side that I put out of European competition with Anderlecht choosing to make Dennis Praet and Chancel Mbemba available for loan and both were brought in until the end of the season.

Over the second half of the season we managed to lose somewhat inexplicably to SC Cambuur (3-1) GA Eagles (3-1) Vitesse (2-1) and Feyenoord (2-0) but somehow we still managed to end the season on top of the table by three points from Vitesse. It was a bizzare stretch of games where no one team seemed to be able to put together any consistent form. I maintain that our form was so poor as a direct result of playing Thursday night football as we progressed in the Europa League. Once again however we managed to beat both Ajax and PSV so there is a positive spin on things. In terms of performance we were only 5th in terms of goals scored but once again we conceded the fewest amount of goals, again showing that the wide three defensive system is much more solid than it appears.


Our run in the Europa League was equally eventful as we finally proved that we can cut it in European football. The first round saw us drawn against Galatasaray and it took a late goal from Dongou to salvage a 2-1 defeat in Istanbul. In the return leg a second half penalty – Dongou again put us through on away goals. Next up were Newcastle United and I was expecting a stiffer test, I was wrong. A 3-0 win in the home leg and a 2-1 win in the away leg put us through comfortably. This time three of the goals were scored by our promising Bosnian striker Semir Gvodjar. The ties however seemed to be getting progressively harder and in the quarter final we drew Shakhtar Donetsk. In the first leg away from home we went 2-0 down in the first 20 minutes and it looked as though we were going to be hammered. In the second half though two goals from Nemanja Gudelj (his first for the club) and one from Ibrahim Afellay gave us a 3-2 win. In the second leg a last minute goal from our talisman Hakim Ziyech just eased the nerves a little bit. Onwards and upwards then and all that stood between us and a European final was Valencia. In the home leg Dongou scored an early penalty but we couldn’t hold on and eventually they were able to break through and score an equaliser, more importantly it was an away goal. In the second leg from out of nowhere we scored twice through Tyler Blackett and Renato Tapia and even though they scored late on it still wasn’t enough. We were in the final!! and the opponents? Marseille.

Just to put the semi final victory in context this Valencia side won La Liga this season!!

We were clear underdogs in the final although you could argue that in Shakhtar and Valencia we had already beaten two superior sides. Frustratingly my side appeared to forget how to score in the run to the end of the season and no matter how many shots at goal we took in this match the ball would just not go in. Marseille had the ball in the net in the second half but it was disallowed for offside. Eventually the tie went to penalty kicks and then from there on to sudden death. The ignominy of being the player that lost us the match came to right back Chancel Mbemba with the last kick of his loan spell. We lost. It’s hard to be disappointed though since I never thought we had a hope of getting as far as we did.

In terms of players of the season it was difficult to narrow it down to just three. Renato Tapia switched to the halfback role when Gudelj came in and made it his own. Nemanja Gudelj himself was imperious in the midfield and Ibrahim Afellay was in sparkling form for much of the season. I did eventually settle on three though.

3.) Jean-Marie Dongou – In 45 appearances Dongou scored 33 goals and was largely responsible for our run to the final of the Europe League. I thought at one point during the season that I may have had a chance of a permanent transfer as he rejected a new contract from Barcelona. Ultimately I was the victim of his success and he signed an extension. He is still very much on my shortlist for the future though.

2.) Tyler Blackett – For a free transfer to have the kind of season that he had was simply phenomenal. He played 51 games with an average rating of 7.79 and made over 500 interceptions over the course of the season. He also only made 5 mistakes that led to goals over those 51 games and for a role that is isolated in my tactical system that is a great return. English sides have noticed now though and he is being followed by over 10 sides. Can I keep him next season?

1.) Hakim Ziyech – 20 goals and 20 assists over the course of 40 games. Ziyech is the conductor of my orchestra and is imperious in the advanced playmaker role. I’ve lost count of the amount of clubs that have placed a bid for him but as of yet he has been happy to stay here and play his football. Long may it continue.

So what does the future hold? In the short term I will be looking to retain as much of our squad as possible and the immediate aim will be to retain the league title again and progress beyond the group stage of the Champions League. I certainly don’t see myself leaving any time soon. So far I’ve rejected interviews with Malaga, Schalke, Inter, Roma, Milan, Fiorentina and Liverpool. I took an interview with Real Madrid but then when they offered me the job I couldn’t do it.

I spend a significant amount of time creating role specific shortlists for first team players and youth players using ideas gleaned from this excellent article by Chris Darwen (@comeontheoviedo) and I strongly suggest that you give it a read and follow Chris on twitter.

Financially we are in an extremely healthy position for such a relatively small club with £48M in the bank. I have already had the board upgrade our training and youth facilities and will be looking to do so again at some point in the coming season.

In terms of the squad I have one player joining on freedom of contract with versatile German full back Anthony Jung coming from RB Leipzig. I will also be looking to strengthen the defence and midfield throughout the off season and of course we will need to have plans in place to replace any of our stars that do end up leaving. This time though I will be willing to spend….


Bayern Munich’s Tactical Gamble


This is not an article that I was planning to write. I saw something in the Champions League semi final that alters the narrative of negative publicity towards Guardiola for me and I wanted to look at it in a bit more detail. This piece will therefore be noticeably shorter than those that I usually write…

As with many others I watched the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona and like the rest of you I was slightly surprised by the defensive weakness displayed on the night by the German champions, that is until I started to look more closely at what the Germans were actually trying to do in order to overturn their three goal deficit from the first leg. Pep Guardiola is famous for his attention to detail in terms of pre match planning. He will watch the same opponents over and over again until he is struck by a moment of genius that allows him to instruct his side tactically. This time around however there was no need for Guardiola to watch Barcelona over and over as their structural and tactical weakness is the same as it was when he was in charge, the half space between the centrebacks and the fullbacks can become too stretched and despite the qualities of Sergio Busquets as a single pivot he is unable to cover the full area of the pitch.

It was at this point that I realised that Guardiola was playing chess with Barcelona and Luis Enrique. In chess a good attacking player will quickly identify their opponents structural weak point and look to exert as much pressure as possible on to that point. This is done for two reasons 1.) The weak point is the most likely place that you will be able to break through the opponents defensive structure and 2.) Pressuring the weak point will eventually lead to your opponent reacting and changing their strategy to protect this point and this will give you momentum in the match. Guardiola was in a position where he had a depleted squad, a three goal gap to salvage and the most in form front three in world football to defend against. He was trying to either break through and score one or two goals as quickly as possible or he was trying to force Luis Enrique in to a defensive strategy that would withdraw the threat of one of the attacking players.

The weak point that Bayern were looking to attack at every opportunity was the half space between Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba as Alba is prone to attacking bursts and is relatively defensively weak. To do so Bayern overloaded the right hand side of their tactical system. The right back Rafinha operated almost as a third centre back for much of the game not looking to overlap of move forwards as much as he usually would. Ahead of him Thomas Muller, Philip Lahm and Thiago would each be stationed more towards the right side of the attack meaning that when Bayern played the ball in to that area they were all able to connect with one another to offer an extremely solid attacking block of players. Robert Lewandowski on the other hand would start towards the left (or weak) side and them look to move centrally to take advantage of any gaps in the Barcelona defense as they looked to shift and cover their left flank.

Bay ovr

Here you can see that as the ball is played out to the right hand flank there are two Bayern players that are closely connected in an advanced position. When the player taking possession of the ball on the flank moves forwards they will create an overload pressuring the left side of the Barcelona defence. This image also shows the movement of Lewandowski who has moved to the centre from the wide area.

bay ovr again

Again in this example Bayern have four players overloading the strong side of the pitch. They are looking to exert enough pressure to cause the Barcelona defensive structure to break and let then in for an easy chance on goal.

The idea to attack in such an imbalanced way is perhaps understandable given that Bayern were missing their two most potent attacking wide players in Robben and Ribery and it also shows a kind of tactical daring from Guardiola as he so obviously sought to force Luis Enrique to alter his system to counter this.

Unfortunately this attacking system from Bayern also had it’s own weak points in the glaring lack of cover on the weak flank. Juan Bernat at left back was left with freedom to attack up the left wing looking to stop Barca from deploying all of its defensive resources to the left side of their defence. Defensively this would be solved by having Xabi Alonso drop in to a classic pivot position between the centre backs with the left centre back Benatia covering across. Unfortunately this was a position against the likes of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi that Benatia was less than comfortable in. He didn’t move far enough out and time and time again Barca were able to put pressure in Bayern in transition by playing the ball along that side of the field and looking to turn the Germans defensive line.

bayr poor positioning

Here you can see the huge gap on the left of the Bayern defence and the poor positioning of Bernat at left back as he is dragged infield by a positional run by Lionel Messi. The two Bayern centre backs were too close together throughout the match when they should have been more split to offer defensive cover across the field.

bay structure week

Again here we can see the start of the structural imbalance as Bernat is already looking to stretch and move in to a more advanced position on the left flank. The space left between Benatia and Bernat was one that was taking advantage of time and time again as Barca countered quickly and used the space to their advantage. There can be further questions as to why Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal wasn’t given more licence to move forward to counter the threat of the pass in behind, whether this was a specific instruction or something less formal we have no way to know.

Theoretically the ideas shown by Guardiola in this match were sound and it made for an interesting tactical spectacle. Indeed there is no way now to know what the outcome would have been if Bayern had not conceded an equaliser so quickly after they had scored the first goal. If they had been able to score again or even move in to another period of sustained attacking play then it is possible that Luis Enrique would have been forced to move Neymar in to a deeper position and then the shape of the match would have changed completely. There is no doubt that there is a link between chess strategy and football strategy and in this match we were able to see this link played out in front of our eyes. The media narrative will still remain that Guardiola failed in this match but it showed us that he is still on the forefront of tactical thinking.