Beyond the scoreline itself, there’s another aspect that made Bologna’s recent 1-0 victory over Inter totally different from the 2-1 comeback win that dealt a major blow to the Nerazzurri’s title hopes in April 2022. Then, a combative Rossoblu side turned Ivan Perisic‘s opener around to snatch all three points by making the most of a blatant mistake from goalkeeper Ionut Radu, on a night that saw Inter rack up 26 attempts at goal.
As much as it was enough to make the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara rejoice, it had little to do with the dominant outfit that outplayed a team that had crushed them 6-1 just a few months earlier. However, much more than a surprise, their display was the logical consequence of the work that coach Thiago Motta has been carrying out since September.
That was Bologna‘s fifth win from seven Serie A games, but the most impressive part of this process came on the pitch, as opposed to their position in the table. The evidence says that Motta has been able to shape an offensive but balanced team, in which players’ positions and tasks are fluid, depending on the moment of the game.
But a key part of Motta’s job has also involved revitalising players such as Riccardo Orsolini and Jeremy Schouten, in addition to making the most of the brilliant recruitment overseen by sporting director Giovanni Sartori, who joined Bologna in May 2022 after having worked wonders at Atalanta, helping them become a financially healthy and competitive club through his efficient scouting system.
Thiago Motta’s first steps as a coach
Slow. Unresponsive… These were the adjectives that Thiago Motta would often read about himself during his playing days, when many didn’t deem him in tune with a game that was becoming growingly intense and pacy.
It didn’t stop the midfielder from piling up silverware with Inter and Paris Saint-Germain, but chances are that the above traits may have affected his reputation as a coach even before his coaching career could get a proper start.
While his first season at the helm of PSG Under-19 side went largely unnoticed, it took little before Thiago Motta was reminded how difficult it is for a young and modern manager to emerge in the Italian footballing panorama, soaked with tradition and old-fashioned ideas.
When he was appointed by his former club Genoa in October 2019, his interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport in which he underlined the pointlessness of relying on fixed tactical setups ended up generating ironic headlines claiming that he could see his side play even with a 2-7-2 system.
His words were heavily trivialised and seemed to be deliberately misinterpreted by the press, although they contained an element of truth that helped understand the core of Motta’s football, in which occupation of spaces is much more important than rigid positions. For many it may have represented a contradiction to the former midfielder’s playing style, but that would be a reductive assumption – Motta’s intelligence, vision and polished decision-making as a player are indeed the perfect foundation stone for a manager that promotes versatility and taking of responsibilities from their players.
A six-month stint at Genoa and a following season at Spezia forced Motta to work in chaotic environments that made it difficult to get out the best of his players.
All he needed, however, was time, trust, patience and a squad packed with players hungry to learn, which was what Bologna decided to give him after the tough sacking of Sinisa Mihajlovic in September 2022.
How Bologna thrived on Thiago Motta’s ideas
The scepticism around Motta could only be boosted by the news of the dismissal of Mihajlovic, whose health conditions were deteriorating. The Serbian had been able to steer Bologna to safety for four consecutive seasons and with no real hassle, but their perpetual up and downs gave a sense of a side that were never able to reach their full potential.
Motta was officially appointed after the Rossoblu had earned their first Serie A win of the season against Fiorentina under interim manager Luca Vigiani, but the former Inter and PSG player then needed more than one month to get his first victory in Coppa Italia, followed by a Serie A win over Torino three days later, which would spark a three-game winning streak.
By then, the direction Thiago Motta’s Bologna were heading was already clear. Shaped in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, the Rossoblu have developed a versatile but clear identity that allows them to use both collective pressure and build-up from the back as tools to create play, switching from one to another according to what the situation on the pitch requires.
In order to do that, Motta has made the most of his players’ individual qualities, notably in midfield. Jeremy Schouten, Nico Dominguez and Scotland’s Lewis Ferguson provide a mix of dynamism, strength, passing skills and goal instinct that lies at the heart of Bologna’s fluidity – their movements are crucial in providing options for their teammates to help the ball progress quickly, but at the same time they can lead the team’s pressure with the aim of disrupting the opponents’ ball circulation and win the ball back in dangerous positions.
Riccardo Orsolini‘s rise this season is also a shiny example of how Motta studies his players’ features carefully to enhance them – the Rossoblu’s tireless movements and combinations are often aimed at isolating Orsolini against his direct marker, giving the winger the kind of freedom that can make him lethal, as he’s already proven by scoring seven goals from 21 Serie A games.
A 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Inter in November helped Motta realise that, amid this metamorphosis, his side could still lose balance too easily and they learned to handle negative moments within the game with more compactness and lucidity. But the path had already been traced and things have since improved in a way that was predictable.
Bologna’s evolution continued after the 2022 World Cup break and, despite two consecutive narrow defeats against AS Roma and Atalanta as the new year began, the Rossoblu were quick to bounce back and earn five victories from the following seven matches, including wins at Udinese, Fiorentina and against Inter, propelling them in the Serie A top half.
It is now hard to identify Thiago Motta’s Bologna with a specific footballing label, which is arguably the clearest sign that his work is paying off.
Giovanni Sartori’s role in Bologna’s resurgence
Even before Thiago Motta set foot at the Stadio Renato dall’Ara, someone has already been laying the foundation for his work. His name was Giovanni Sartori, whose eight-year stint at Atalanta as a technical director had earned him praise and a reputation as one of the best scouts (in the market) in Italy.
Renowned for being able to make smart signings with limited resources, his profile was ideal for a team like Bologna, whose recruitment in recent years has been chaotic and unfruitful, somehow mirroring their on-the-pitch performances, with a restricted circle of players able to prove their worth and therefore generate value for the club.
Sartori’s approach was exactly what the Rossoblu were lacking – by overseeing a number of transfers, from Franck Kessie to the likes of Dejan Kulusevski, Robin Gosens and Berat Djimsiti, the technical director has sparked a revolution in Bergamo, increasing the club’s competitiveness through the development of the talents at their disposal and allowing them to lure lucrative bids and bring in more young prospects who would follow the same path, creating a virtuous circle that had Atalanta take part in the Champions League an impressive three times and regularly challenge for European qualification.
While his stint at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara is still at the dawn, the fruits of his work are already evident – signings like Lewis Ferguson, Stefan Posch or John Lucumi are already part of the backbone of Motta’s Bologna and have all made a strong impact in Serie A, probably meaning that several big clubs will soon set their eyes on them.
Having joined in May 2022, Sartori has already contributed to changing Bologna’s reputation from a mid-table inconsistent side to one of the major reservoirs of talent in Italy, and chances are that it is only the beginning.