Giorgio Chiellini embarked on a bit of a rant last week, pinning the blame for his perceived decline in Italian defending at the feet of Pep Guardiola, a man who only ever played two seasons in Serie A and who has never coached in the country.
“Guardiolismo has ruined many Italian defenders a little bit,” the Juventus centre-back claimed at a press conference for the Azzurri’s World Cup play-off with Sweden. “Now defenders know how to dictate the tone of play and they are able to spread the ball around, but they don’t know how to mark. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. When I was young, we used to do drills to get a feel for the man you were making. Nowadays, Italian defenders – and I can only really talk for Italian defenders, as I’m only relatively interested about foreign players – don’t mark their man. It’s a great shame because we’re losing our DNA a little bit and some of the characteristics that made us excel.”
There are several points to address from Chiellini’s comments, but the main one has to his claim that Guardiola’s style of play is the reason for the perceived decline in the art of Italian defending. Never mind the fact that being able to pass the ball well should not be mutually exclusive from being able to stick with your man at a corner, if we look solely at the numbers then Guardiola’s decision to move into the world of coaching doesn’t seem to have had any impact at all, positively or negatively, on Italian sides’ ability to keep the ball out of their net. In the eight years before the Catalan took the Barcelona job in 2008, Serie A matches produced an average of 2.61 goals per game. In the eight years since? It’s exactly that same, at 2.61 per match.
Perhaps, then, Chiellini has been influenced by recency bias, given that last year’s Serie A campaign produced 2.96 goals per game, the highest total for any season this century. Napoli and Maurizio Sarri had a lot to do with that, as their matches conjured up an average of 3.50 goals, the second-most in the league behind Torino and their 3.61 – which had as much to do with the calamitous Joe Hart as it did with defending.
But Sarri is not a Guardiola disciple and to claim so would simply be chronologically wrong. The 58-year-old has been working in full-time coaching since 2002, when Guardiola was still a player. The two have often been compared given their attacking styles, not least when they came up against each other in this season’s Champions League, but Sarri did not learn his ways from Guardiola, nor did the Catalan follow the Italian’s lead. Instead, they were both independently influenced by Johan Cruyff, and both readily admit so.
That’s right. Cruyff. The revolutionary who started coaching before Chiellini had even reached his first birthday. So why is Italian defending only said to suffering now?
Perhaps it the arrival of foreigners into Serie A, a claim made by Ternana coach Sandro Pochesci as part of the nationwide post-Sweden post-mortem. “Italy used to be a team that could beat others physically, but now we’re the ones who get beat and now we cry about it,” he said. “This is what happens when you bring these foreign players to Italy. Italian football is finished, as we’re all spoiled.”
While the notion that there needs to be a cap on foreign players in Sere A comes across as jingoism, it is true that the number of foreigners in the league has gone up from 236 to 295, an increase of 25%, in the years since Pep Guardiola began coaching in 2008. That, though, is simply a natural evolution and one which has been experienced to a similar extent in every major European league, especially given that more relaxed rules on transfers between EU nations were introduced in 2008.
The change in style, whether or not it has been influenced by the arrival of foreign players from more attacking leagues, is also a natural evolution. Football tactics are cyclical and are always inching in one direction or another, irrespective of whether or not a prophetic coach introduces a radical change, as Chiellini seems to be implying that Guardiola has.
It also takes time for a new footballing mentality to become the norm and we probably haven’t even seen the full effects of Guardiolismo on youth coaches and on up-and-coming defenders yet, given that he hasn’t even been coaching at the top level for a decade yet. In fact, it could be argued that the current generation of Italian players are influenced more by Arrigo Sacchi than by Guardiola. Sacchi was also a disciple of Total Football and Italy has since produced a number of players who could pass, who could zonal mark and who could play the offside trap just as well as they could win an agricultural tackle, including Chiellini himself.
It is folly to assume that Italian defencing in 2017 would have resembled the blueprint for their 2006 World Cup triumph had Pep Guardiola never come along. Footballing philosophy is like flubber. It’s always moving, even in the absence of tactical revolutionaries like Cruyff, Sacchi or Guardiola.