The energy felt at Stadio Renato Dall’Ara on Matchday 30 of the 2022/23 Serie A season was reflective of a team and supporter base in perfect unison.
Even without Stefano Pioli’s rogue decision to make ten outfield changes to his AC Milan side there was already a palpable sense that Bologna could take something from the reigning champions’ visit. Recent history (Bologna not beating Milan since 2016, and not for over 20 years at home) suggested otherwise, but this is no ordinary Bologna.
Under Thiago Motta, the Rossoblu have transformed into one of Serie A’s most tactically astute teams. The draw against Milan might even have felt like a missed opportunity, when considering their opponents’ widespread changes and the crest of the wave Motta’s side are currently riding. Bologna have lost only two of their last 13 in Serie A, and are in a realistic fight for European football for the first time since 1999/00.
So how has Motta transformed Bologna into such an impressive team?
Smashing through their glass ceiling
Since their promotion for the 2015/16 season, Bologna have been a figure of consistency. A highest finish of eighth that season, and until last season’s disappointing 15th place return, finishing 11th in 2016/17 had been their lowest in this era. That said, so disappointing was their 2021/22 campaign that the comfortability of mid-table felt a stretch away.
Winless in five under coach Siniša Mihajlovic, the late Serbian was replaced by Thiago Motta in early September of 2022/23. The former Italy international had steered Spezia clear of relegation last season, but was released ahead of the current campaign. There was a feeling that his work would better translate to a more rounded side than his previous employers.
The turnaround took time to manifest. One point from his first four matches in charge made for alarming reading, and suggested that the underlying issues at Bologna went beyond the coach in the dugout. A first win came against Cagliari in the Coppa Italia, and from there Motta and Bologna have never looked back. Three successive Serie A wins followed, and since defeat to Napoli in his fourth match Bologna have lost only five. It is upon such foundations that Bologna have not only consolidated, but flourished.
Moving away from 3-5-2
Motta’s first change was to abandon the three-man defence utilised by Mihajlovic, immediately turning to a 4-2-3-1 for his debut against Empoli. In his 24 Serie A matches at the helm, Bologna have used flicked between 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, but the 4-2-3-1 used in Motta’s first outing remains the preferred system shape.
Motta famously gave an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport when coaching in Paris Saint-Germain’s academy that he wanted to play in a 2-7-2 formation; something he was largely derided for. The detail in what he was saying was largely missed. Rather than interpreting his teams from back to front, Motta was describing his view from the touchline looking horizontally across the pitch.
In other words, Thiago Motta’s philosophy is to pack central areas and largely leave the wide channels open to the full-backs. Crowding the centre of the pitch performs two main functions. Firstly, it ensures that there are passing options around the ball player at all times and promotes quick interchanges to break through pressure. Out of possession, it also allows Bologna to counter-press quickly should they lose the ball and win it back quickly.
Bologna rank in the top five Serie A sides for tackles won in both the middle and attacking thirds. Grouping players in central areas around the ball to counter-press the opposition when possession is lost is an essential part of Motta’s blueprint.
The Value of the Ball
Motta’s thesis when undertaking his coaching badges at the FIGC’s Coverciano Technical Centre was titled ‘The Value of the Ball’. In it, he described how the very essence of football is centred around controlling and possessing the ball itself, boiled right down to a ball being gifted to him as a child. The ball is everything.
Such a mentality can be a harder one to manifest at a club that does not possess the level of technical players to dominate the ball. Especially one that has struggled in recent years and relied on a more pragmatic approach. Nevertheless, Motta has set about transforming Bologna’s appreciation of possessing the ball.
Goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski is an adept passer over short and long range. From goal kicks, the centre-backs will split wide, and one of the midfielders will move between them to offer another passing route. The other sitting midfielder will slot in where you would expect the full-back to be on the ball’s side, allowing the full-back to pull high and occupy an aggressive position. Doing so allows Skorupski to either cycle play deep and short, or pick a longer pass to the full-back.
It also means one of the wingers, Riccardo Orsolini or Musa Barrow for example, to drift inside and offer support to the lone striker. Again, getting key personnel in central areas is critical to Motta’s plan.
“Losing the ball therefore became a sort of individual and collective football ‘crime'”, says Motta in his dissertation. There is no doubt that his obsession with keeping the ball will become even more obvious in his next coaching step to a bigger side. That he is devising methods to do so at Bologna is testament to his ingenuity.
A side transformed
The fluidity of Bologna’s style is immediately apparent. Motta has moved away from using a traditional number nine, and instead prefers to use Nicola Sansone or even a false nine (he has deployed Lewis Ferguson there at times); a forward who can drop deep to link play and pull centre-backs away from their station, but also run the channels and rotate with Barrow and Orsolini.
Bologna on average take their shots from over 19 yards out – the furthest in Serie A. Possessing ball-strikers of the quality of Stefan Posch and Orsolini is a factor here, but also is the effect of having a fluid forward line that pulls a defensive line around and opens space in front of the penalty area. It is a notable increase on last season, despite taking a nearly identical number of shots/90 minutes.
Bologna have already nearly matches last season’s 46-point haul, and are on track to record their highest-ever points tally in Serie A’s three-points-for-a-win era. That they started the season so poorly, and have been transformed so quickly, is a measure of the quality of their coach.
Were it not for Luciano Spalletti, Thiago Motta would likely be a shoo-in for this year’s manager of the season award.
All stats correct as of 17/04/2023, courtesy of FBRef.com