Zaccheroni's Udinese: The Tactical Masterpiece
Where Udinese Emerged under Zaccheroni
On April 13, 1997, Udinese faced Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin for the twenty-seventh matchday of the Serie A season. Before the game, the Friulians held the eleventh position in the standings, and the away match against the league leaders seemed daunting. The reigning European champions, Juventus, were coming off a splendid performance in Amsterdam against Ajax in the Champions League semifinal, a kind of revenge for the previous year's final in Rome.
For Udinese, the match started poorly. Just 3 minutes into the game, right-back Regis Genaux was sent off for protests, leaving his teammates with 10 men. The predictable move to overcome the numerical disadvantage would have been to switch from the initial 4-4-2 formation – Udinese's usual playing style – to a 4-4-1, replacing one of the strikers with one of the full-backs on the bench, Valerio Bertotto or Pier Luigi Nicoli. However, Zaccheroni, surprisingly, did not give up on Oliver Bierhoff or Marcio Amoroso. Instead, he sacrificed left-winger Tomas Locatelli, introducing the Ghanaian Mohammed Gargo, capable of playing both in midfield and defense. With Gargo on the field, Zaccheroni abandoned the 4-man defense, deploying the Ghanaian alongside Pierini and Calori in a back three and forming an unprecedented 3-4-2.
What followed was inexplicable. Udinese, with 10 men, won 3-0, conquering Juventus' field after 35 years, aided by two missed penalties – even though the team was already trailing by 3 goals – by Vieri and Zidane. From that moment on, Zaccheroni was convinced to stick with the 3-4-3, and the team almost literally began to soar. The following Sunday, Udinese won against Parma, the team boasting Cannavaro, Thuram, Crespo, Chiesa, the young Buffon, and of course, Ancelotti, who would challenge Juventus for the title until the last moment. With an impressive record of 6 wins and 1 draw in the last 8 matches played with the new formation, Udinese secured fifth place and qualification for the UEFA Cup the following year.
In its initial version of the 3-4-3, Udinese lined up with Gargo or Bia in defense, Pierini and Calori. The midfield comprised Giannichedda and Rossitto, with Helveg and Sergio as the wing-backs. In attack, Paolino Poggi partnered with Bierhoff and Amoroso. At that time, Zaccheroni, a 44-year-old coach with a modest playing career, had built his career starting from the lower leagues of Romagna.
Zaccheroni, initially inspired by Sacchi's style, favored the 4-4-2 and zonal defense, although he eased up on the offside trap tactic used extensively in previous years. After guiding Riccione from the Interregional to C2 and Baracca Lugo all the way to Serie C1, Maurizio Zamparini hired him at Venezia, where Zaccheroni achieved promotion to Serie B. After a stint at Bologna, he secured a comfortable Serie B survival with Cosenza, which started with a 9-point deduction and was filled with young talents. His experience in Calabria earned him a call from Pozzo to coach Udinese, newly promoted to Serie A. In his first season, Zac reached an excellent tenth place, followed by the fifth-place finish in the season, adopting the 3-4-3 formation in the last 8 matches.
At the time, the playing formation precisely defined a team's identity, much more than today, where positional fluidity is common among all teams. The most prevalent formations were the 4-4-2, often associated with more structured and balanced teams, and the 4-3-3, linked to a more daring and versatile style. In Italy, the 3-man defense was widespread in the 3-5-2 version, mainly successful under Nevio Scala at Parma. Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe, the Dutch-Catalan influence showcased splendid versions of the 3-4-3 with a diamond-shaped midfield and true wingers on the flanks. Ajax, under Van Gaal, for example, had reached the Champions League final twice with that formation in the previous years, winning against Milan and losing on penalties to Juventus, also winning the Intercontinental Cup.
The success of the new playing formation in the final part of the 96/97 season convinced Coach Zaccheroni to stick with the 3-4-3 for the following season. The team strengthened with the acquisitions of Belgian international Johan Walem from Anderlecht, young winger Jonathan Bachini from Lecce, and Danish U21 international Martin Jorgensen from Aarhus. The first two joined the starting eleven: Walem partnered with Giannichedda in midfield, while Bachini claimed the left flank. In defense, the speedy Bertotto completed the backline with Calori and Pierini, positioned on the center-left. Helveg occupied the right flank, and the attacking trio of Poggi, Bierhoff, and Amoroso was retained, with Jorgensen and the talented Locatelli as the first substitutes.
The previous season fifth place earns Udinese a spot in the UEFA Cup. After eliminating the Polish side Widzew Lodz in the first round, the draw pits Udinese against Ajax. Granted, it's not the dominant Ajax under Van Gaal from previous years, but a diminished version entrusted to the Danish manager Morten Olsen. The clash between the two teams proves to be tactically intriguing, highlighting the distinctions between the 3-4-3 with a diamond-shaped midfield played by the Dutch and extensively analyzed in the years to come, and Alberto Zaccheroni's 3-4-3.
Ajax's style is a much more calculated form of football, where the team, through possession, attempts to progress up the field compactly, creating zones of numerical and positional superiority over their opponents. Crucial, in this sense, are the movements of the vertices of the two diamonds that the formation draws in defense and midfield. The lower vertex of the midfield, in this match represented by the Nigerian Sunday Oliseh – former Reggiana player and a future, albeit unsuccessful, acquisition by Ancelotti's Juventus – traditionally drops back to the defensive line during the build-up to create numerical superiority or interchange positions with Danny Blind, the deeper-lying vertex. Further up, the Finnish player Litmanen moves freely from the playmaker area to ensure a passing solution for his teammates. The responsibility of keeping the team short and compact lies in the passing strategy rather than the team's pace.
In stark contrast is Zaccheroni’s three-four-three. The football designed by the Romagnolo coach is much more direct and vertical, and the coach himself has often explained its conceptual origins. The starting idea is to use three forwards and exploit the typical combinations of the 4-3-3, without, however, forcing the two wide attackers into defensive duties, effectively turning the 4-3-3 into a 4-5-1 when not in possession. Constructed in this manner, Zaccheroni's 3-4-3 also avoids the defensive distortions that the more commonly used 3-5-2 can take on, like that of Nevio Scala's Parma or the Germany team that won the 1996 European Championships or Borussia Dortmund, which had just secured the Champions League. These often end up almost inevitably transforming into a 5-3-2 defensively, lowering the team and forcing it to have too low a center of gravity. To overcome what he considers the two main flaws of formations with a back three, Alberto Zaccheroni thus designs his 3-4-3 with a flat midfield line.
The game aims to involve the forwards more frequently and rapidly. The two wide forwards play with inverted feet and, unlike in the orthodox 4-3-3, do not start too wide but rather position themselves preferably in what is now called half-spaces. Amoroso on the left and Paolo Poggi on the right, with curling movements, can receive the ball directly from the vertical passes of the two wide defenders in the 3-man defense, Bertotto and Calori. After receiving the ball, the main option is to bring it towards the center of the field to observe the movements of the center-forward and the forward on the opposite side, both of whom can cut behind or in front of the defenders, attacking depth, or alternately come forward to receive the ball to feet. Even when the ball is with the wide players, Amoroso and Poggi prefer to receive inside, cutting towards the center, limiting their movements in width to areas far from the opponent's goal. Another particularly sought-after offensive solution is the long ball to Olivier Bierhoff, dominant in handling high balls in any area of the field, to flick on to his two strike partners making runs behind him or to play as a target for the movement underneath by one of the two wide forwards. Width is provided by the two wide players, Helveg and Bachini, attacking the space upon receiving the balls from the forwards, allowing them to run onto the cross
The three forwards play a central role in Zaccheroni's strategy, both in the build-up and in finishing, a facet of the game evident in the fact that over 75% of the 62 league goals are scored by the attackers. Leading the charge is Oliver Bierhoff, the European champion with Germany, who clinches the top scorer title with an impressive 27 goals that season. It's safe to say it's not your typical Serie A striker season. To put it into perspective, Bierhoff outperforms the likes of Ronaldo, Baggio, Del Piero, Batistuta, Montella, and Inzaghi.
The rapid combinations between the forwards, supported by the wide players' width, prove challenging for opposing defenses to contain. Bierhoff plays as a complete center-forward, Amoroso showcases his technique and agility cutting from left to right, while Paolo Poggi stands out for his spatial awareness and the quality of finishes with his left foot.
Building from the back is streamlined and focused on seeking vertical passes to the forwards as quickly as possible. The two central midfielders never drop back to the defensive line to play the ball but rather hold their positions, preferably receiving the ball from the wide players or the lay-offs from the forwards. Their plays also revolve around advancing into the attacking third or, alternatively, seeking depth on the flanks by serving runs from the wingers.
Out of possession, Zaccheroni's intention is genuinely to defend with a back three, avoiding as much as possible the wide players dropping back to the defensive line. Thanks to the dynamism of Walem and Giannichedda, who support the action, the team tends to stay compact, enabling good phases of immediate regaining after losing possession. Overall, the team tends to be active in the defensive phase, using pressing as a means of ball recovery.
Giuliano Giannichedda excels in the effectiveness of pressing, while his teammate Walem is more dazzling, with his left foot, in distributing the ball. On the strong side, the two wide players always press high, not worrying about leaving space behind them, which is covered by the wide defenders going out up to the lateral line of the back three. The wide forwards thus remain higher and more centrally positioned, immediately available for a potential counterattack. The opposite wide player controls the weak side, ready to cover a possible run from an opponent behind the last of the three central defenders.
The out-of-possession phase adheres to the principles of space control typical of the zonal system with coded exits, depending on how organized the team is based on the ball's position. Clearly, maintaining width control, with a defense frequently attempting to keep the back three, inevitably forces the wide midfielders to slide outward and interpret each individual action beyond the coding of game situations. Additionally, the back three, thanks to the double coverage, promotes good aggressiveness on opposing attackers in the central area. The desire to keep the team short by raising the defensive line, combined with aggressiveness in the regaining phase, sometimes exposes the team to counterattacks, which the back three manages by delaying and closing internally to protect the goal, redirecting the opponent's play outward.
In essence, Udinese is a direct, intense team that loves to attack early and quickly, putting opposing defenses under pressure by always seeking decisive plays with combinations among the forwards and the movements of the wide players. To support the three forwards and relieve them as much as possible from defensive duties, despite preferring long play, the team always tries to stay compact, reducing the distances between the lines.
Zaccheroni's innovative 3-4-3, successfully experimented within the latter part of the 96/97 season, gifts Udinese a dream season. Udinese secures third place after the twelfth matchday and remains at the top of the table for a considerable time. They defeat Inter at home, win twice in Rome against Lazio and Francesco Totti's and Abel Balbo's Roma. At the beginning of April, there's a slight slowdown, losing in two consecutive away matches to Bologna and against Inter, dropping to sixth place in the standings. However, four victories with 11 goals scored in the last 4 matches bring Udinese back to an historic third place, which, at the time, meant only qualification for the UEFA Cup's final phase.
At the end of the season, Zaccheroni, accompanied by Bierhoff and Helveg, is chosen by AC Milan to replace Fabio Capello. In Milan, the Romagnolo coach dismantles the sanctity of Milan's decade-old back four, bringing his 3-4-3 to San Siro, which during the season will shift towards 3-4-1-2 to optimize Boban's talent. In Udine, Francesco Guidolin arrives, leading the Friulians to a solid sixth place and UEFA qualification after a playoff against Juventus. Marcio Amoroso wins the top scorer award with 22 goals, two more than those scored by Bierhoff at Milan. In the summer, Amoroso and Walem will move to Parma, Bachini to Juventus, Pierini to Fiorentina, and in January, Poggi will be bought by Roma.
In short, after that season, Zaccheroni's Udinese no longer exists. What remains, however, is the memory of that 3-4-3, which in the late nineties constituted a quite unique experience in the football of the time. A style of play born from an original and audacious synthesis that many coaches adopted in the following years and is still frequently used today. Not to forget, it will take another 14 years to see another provincial team on the Serie A podium. It will once again be Udinese, this time led by Guidolin, reaching third place in 2011/12. After that, only Gasperini's Atalanta in the season 2018-2019 managed to insert itself among the elite in the top three of the league.
HOW TO EMULATE THIS TACTIC IN FOOTBALL MANAGER 2024
Recreating the brilliance of Alberto Zaccheroni's Udinese in the virtual realm of Football Manager requires a meticulous understanding of the key principles that fueled their success during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Here's a detailed breakdown to guide you in emulating this iconic three-four-three formation:
Positive Mentality: Setting the Tone
Begin your journey by instilling a 'Positive' mentality in your squad. This serves as the bedrock for an aggressive and proactive playing style, akin to Zaccheroni's Udinese, ensuring dominance on the field while minimizing counterattack vulnerabilities.
In Possession: Crafting the Symphony
Fairly Wide Attacking Width:
Create a fluid attacking dynamic by employing a 'Fairly Wide' attacking width. This allows your team to centralize play while leveraging the width provided by the wing-backs, enabling exploitation of both central and wide areas.
Build from the Back: Play Out of Defense:
Mirror Zaccheroni's trademark style by implementing 'Play Out of Defense.' This essential instruction fosters a patient and controlled build-up from the defense, aligning with Udinese's composed possession play.
Slightly Shorter Passes and Higher Tempo:
Craft intricate passing sequences reminiscent of Udinese's quick, intelligent play. Opt for 'Slightly Shorter Passes' and a 'Higher Tempo' to facilitate rapid ball circulation, catching opponents off guard and creating fluid attacking movements.
Emphasize 'Low Crosses' to replicate Udinese's preference for grounded deliveries. Adjust to 'Floated Crosses' if blessed with three tall forwards known for their heading prowess, ensuring your tactics align with your squad's strengths.
Work the Ball into the Box:
This instruction encourages your team to create scoring opportunities within the box rather than relying on shots from outside. It promotes a patient and strategic approach, emphasizing quality chances over quantity.
Transition: Seizing Opportunities
Counter and Counterpress:
Integrate 'Counter' and 'Counterpress' into your tactics. Zaccheroni's Udinese actively defended, pressing opponents to regain possession swiftly. This dual approach sets the stage for launching effective counter-attacks from advanced positions.
Direct your goalkeeper to 'Distribute to Center Backs' and 'Take Short Kicks.' This aligns with Zaccheroni's emphasis on building play from the back, ensuring a controlled distribution and initiation of your team's offensive movements.
Out of Possession: Defensive Mastery
High Pressing Line and Higher Defensive Line:
Dominate the defensive phase with a 'High Pressing Line' and a 'Higher Defensive Line.' This compact defensive structure limits opponent space, replicating Udinese's cohesive defensive unit.
Trap Outside and Step Up More:
Utilize 'Trap Outside' to force opponents toward touchlines, limiting their passing options. Combine this with 'Step Up More' to implement an effective offside trap and disrupt the opponent's offensive rhythm.
Prevent Short GK Distribution and Trigger Press Much More Often:
Strategically prevent short goalkeeper distributions by employing 'Prevent Short GK Distribution.' Combine this with 'Trigger Press Much More Often' to incessantly press opponents, disrupting their build-up and creating turnovers in advantageous areas.
Bolster your defensive resolve by instructing your team to 'Stop Crosses.' This prevents opponents from delivering dangerous crosses into the box, maintaining defensive solidity.
Goalkeeper: Luigi Turci - Sweeper-Keeper in Support
Luigi Turci operates as a sweeper-keeper in support, and no specific additional instructions are given.
Central Defenders: Valerio Bertotto and Alessandro Calori - Wide-Center Backs in Support
Both central defenders, Valerio Bertotto and Alessandro Calori, are deployed as wide-center backs in support. They are instructed to dribble more to aid in the build-up play and mark tighter to maintain defensive solidity.
Central Defender: Giovanni Bia - Ball Playing Defender in Defend
Giovanni Bia plays as a ball-playing defender in a defending role. He is tasked with covering the central areas and providing support in building up from the back. To ensure positional discipline, he is instructed to close down less.
Wing-Backs: Helveg and Bachini - Wing-Backs in Attack
The wing-backs, Helveg on the right and Bachini on the left, assume attacking roles. To exploit the wide areas effectively, they are instructed to run wide with the ball, stay wider, and mark tighter.
Central Midfielders: Giannichedda and Walem - Box-to-Box and Roaming Playmaker
Giannichedda, positioned as the right central midfielder, plays the role of a box-to-box midfielder with a focus on ball-winning. Walem, on the left, operates as a roaming playmaker, emphasizing distribution. Walem is instructed to dribble more, mark tighter, and move into channels.
Inverted Wingers: Amoroso and Poggi - Inverted Wingers in Attack
Amoroso and Poggi, deployed as inverted wingers, cut inside to play in central areas. They are instructed to sit narrower, roam from position, pass it shorter, tackle harder, and mark tighter.
Striker: Oliver Bierhoff - Advanced Forward in Attack
Oliver Bierhoff serves as the advanced forward in an attacking role. His instructions include dribbling less to focus on link-up play, shooting more often as the primary goal-scorer, and defending with harder tackles and tighter marking.
To bring the magic of Alberto Zaccheroni's Udinese back to life on Football Manager, the emulation journey began with the 1998-99 database in Football Manager 2023, applicable to Football Manager 2024 with a starting date set in July 2022. Despite the database reflecting a period where Zaccheroni, Helveg, and Bierhoff had moved to AC Milan, a bit of managerial maneuvering using the Football Manager Offline Editor was employed. This ensured the return of Helveg, Bierhoff, and other key players to Udinese, recreating the squad of the iconic 1997-98 season.
The results of this tactical homage were nothing short of spectacular. The team clinched the double, securing both the Italian Serie A title and the Italian Cup. However, the dream run in the UEFA Champions League was halted in the Quarter Finals by a formidable Manchester United. In Serie A, the squad boasted the best attack, netting an impressive 135 goals. The defense, though not the absolute best, held its ground with the 6th best record, conceding 50 goals. Bierhoff emerged as the talisman, finding the net a staggering 77 times across all competitions, including being the top scorer in Serie A with 56 goals. Amoroso contributed with 39 goals, Poggi added 10 to the tally, and Helveg showcased his playmaking prowess with an impressive 30 assists.
Statistical insights further illuminate the success of the tactic: an xG of 3.97 per game demonstrated offensive prowess, while a pass completion ratio of 88.31% highlighted the team's exceptional ball circulation. Defensively, the team maintained a tackles won ratio of 76.79%, showcasing their effectiveness in winning back possession.
In the second save I used the current database (upgraded to February 1st 2024) and managed Juventus. I won SERIE A with 88 points (3 points more than AC Milan), 94 goals scored (best attack) and 27 goals allowed (2nd defense) and Dusan Vlahovic with 36 goals is the Serie A Topscorer. With a xg of 2.47 per game we always dominated our opponents playing beautiful football.
In conclusion, this emulation of Zaccheroni's iconic 3-4-3 at Udinese proved to be not only a nostalgic trip down football history but also a winning formula in the virtual realm of Football Manager. The results speak volumes, underlining the potency and effectiveness of this classic tactical approach.
You'll need to Login to comment