The best emerging coaches in football: Thiago Motta, a fascinating tactician

This is the first article in a six-part series looking at some of European football’s most innovative emerging managers.


Thiago Motta knows a thing or two about success.

When your CV includes two La Liga titles, one Serie A title, five Ligue 1 titles and two Champions League medals, you tend to command instant respect within a dressing room.

That said, few people need reminding that a successful playing career does not directly translate into a successful coaching career – so, what about Thiago Motta, the manager?

The 41-year-old has transformed Bologna from struggling in Serie A to one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in Italy. With just nine games left this season, the Rossoblu find themselves in fourth place and within touching distance of the Champions League for the first time in 60 years.

Motta’s stock has never been higher, but tenacity and commitment during difficult times have already shaped his early managerial career.

Life as a top-flight manager began with something of a false start after Motta was sacked after just nine games at Genoa in December 2019. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that he had a full season to show his coaching credentials to the fullest. keeping relegation favorites Spezia in Serie A in a season against all odds.

A move to Bologna followed in September 2022, where things didn’t start according to script after taking over from much-loved Sinisa Mihajlovic in controversial circumstances. Without wins in the first four matches, Motta had to gradually earn the trust of the Bologna fans, repaying their faith by leading the club to ninth place in 2022-23, the club’s best for over 10 years.

With the support of Giovanni Sartori (technical director) and Joey Saputo (Bologna owner), Motta was tasked with implementing his tactical ideals: but what exactly are those tactical ideals?

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Motta wasn’t shy about sharing his philosophy during his first coaching job with PSG’s Under-19 team in 2018. It was here that he garnered unnecessary ridicule for discussing a 2-7-2 formation – which was incorrectly interpreted as a structure extending from back to front, rather than from left to right.

“I consider the goalkeeper one of the seven players in the middle of the pitch,” Motta said. “For me the attacker is the first defender and the goalkeeper the first attacker. The goalkeeper starts the game with his feet and the attackers are the first to apply pressure to recover the ball.”

It’s fair to say that Motta has successfully molded Bologna in his image ever since.

This can be seen from the data reported below by observing the evolution of the rossoblù’s playing style, which analyzes the parameters of a team compared to the top seven European championships.

In specific reference to Motta’s philosophy, one can see a notable increase in the Bologna striker’s defensive work rate from 2022-23, rarely allowing opponents to build a sequence of passes before making a tackle (Intensity, 80 out of 99 ).

As a result, Bologna’s defensive base is one of the strongest in Europe this season (chance prevention, 92 out of 99), with just 0.8 expected non-penalty goals – a rate only bettered by Torino, Juventus and Inter in Serie A TO. .

Particularly interesting is the way in which Bologna prefers to build from the back (Deep build-up).

Usually in a fluid 4-2-3-1, Motta encourages his centre-backs to push forward and act as a pivot player when in possession – in a similar way you might see Manchester City’s John Stones rolling into midfield.

With goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski considered the “first attacker” in the build-up phase, the central idea is that there should always be a free man to pass to when advancing the ball through the third.

An example of this can be seen from the first minute during Bologna’s match against Inter earlier this month. While Jhon Lucumi has possession, his fellow centre-back Sam Beukema ventures into a central area in front of the ball to provide a passing option to a different attacking line. Beukema’s positioning helps Lucumi receive the return pass in space before releasing right back Stefan Posch on the right wing.

Later in the first half, it was Lucumi who pushed into midfield to receive the ball as Bologna formed a three-man defence, this time with midfielder Michel Aebischer (20′) coming onto the pitch. On this occasion Lucumi does not receive the ball, but his positioning drags an Inter player with him to make space elsewhere, with Bologna continuing to have a free man under construction.

What differentiates Bologna from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is that Motta encourages Both the centre-backs drift into midfield, with the full-backs dropping in to be… all the way back.

Whether it is Lucumi, Beukema or 21-year-old Riccardo Calafiori, this approach is fundamental to the fluidity of Bologna’s play and is based on a strong technical profile among Motta’s central defenders.

In his thesis on the UEFA Pro License, entitled “The value of the ball“, Motta considers collective “technical trust” to be a key part of his philosophy, where each player is given the freedom to make the decisions he deems most advantageous for the team in a given situation.

It is not surprising that possession is central to the decisions that are made.

Only Napoli boast a higher share of Bologna’s 58% of ball possession in Serie A this season, with Motta keen for his team to patiently work an opening with their dynamic positional rotations.

As demonstrated by the season’s playing style wheel, Bologna’s high ranking in “Circulation” shows that Motta’s team are not quick to advance the ball forward, but will instead make short, sharp passes to move the opposition’s structure and attract the press before working an opening – not dissimilar to Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton.

Motta is also a great admirer of Marcelo Bielsa’s extensive work and will often focus on third man combinations and running without the ball as a key part of Bologna’s progression up the pitch.

An example of this can be seen during Bologna’s match against Roma this season, where Beukema draws pressure down the right wing with teammates huddling closely together. A blind run from midfielder Remo Freuler saw Beukema slot the ball into space to quickly advance, with winger Dan Ndoye subsequently cutting back for Nikola Moro to complete the counterattack which Bologna took care of themselves.

The penetrating actions of Bologna’s attackers are a key theme in Motta’s style. As you can see from their “central progression” rating (98 out of 99), Bologna are not frequent crossers of the ball – only Frosinone average fewer than 13.4 crosses per 90 – but they will use pace and cunning of Ndoye’s dangerous wings. , Alexis Saelemaekers and Riccardo Orsolini to advance, shoot or create from advanced positions.

Ultimately, Bologna’s main attacking threats come through the center of the pitch, with versatile Scot Lewis Ferguson able to slide into a number 10 position behind the gifted Joshua Zirkzee.

The two have formed a powerful partnership together and are responsible for over a third of Bologna’s goals in Serie A this season.

“I play next to Joshua. He technically he’s really, really good,” Ferguson said Atletico last year. “He’s strong, fast, powerful. He has everything you would want from a striker. It’s fun to play with him. We bounce off each other. If he does one run, I do another.”

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Although Zirkzee’s 10 goals in Serie A (eight non-penalty goals) pave the way within the Bologna squad, the 22-year-old Dutchman is not the typical number 9. Beyond his technical abilities, Zirkzee is more appreciated by the his teammates for his ability to bring others into play – regularly dropping into a false 9 position or blocking a center fielder to free runners in front of him.

To judge him on his goals alone – he has yet to record a shot from inside the six-yard box this season – would be to misunderstand his role within the Motta system.

Bologna’s recent goal against Empoli brings together many of the topics discussed about how Motta prefers his team to play in the opposition’s half. As Empoli’s central defender brings the ball into the central area, Moro pounces to clear the ball. As he falls to Zirkzee, he blocks the defender with his back to goal before throwing the ball to Orsolini who makes the overlapping run. The Italian enters the area and converts emphatically.

From regaining possession of the ball to breaking the deadlock in no more than seven seconds.

If Motta manages to get Bologna into the top four this season (even fifth place could be enough), the prospect of leading the rossoblù to their first European Cup season since 1964-65 will surely be the highlight of his early managerial career of Motta. .

The reality is that Motta’s contract expires in the summer and there are already many top European clubs who are in the market for an exciting young manager ahead of the 2024-25 season. Bologna chief executive Claudio Fenucci has been understandably wary of the possibility of losing his coach in the coming months.

“Thiago is very happy in Bologna,” Fenucci said recently in a radio interview. “It’s like he has a longer contract than he actually has.”

Whatever the outcome of the summer, Motta has proven to be one of the most attractive managerial prospects in European football.

Wherever he goes, success usually comes.

(Top photo: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)