Push Notification


Alberto Aquilani: Why his De Zerbi-like philosophy with Fiorentina U19s makes him a promising coach for the future – tactical analysis

Alberto Aquilani‘s career promised to be one of the most interesting in Italy, being one of the midfielders with the most potential of the decade when he began to show his talent at AS Roma. After a brief stint at Liverpool, expectations and reality began to decline and he did not fulfil the great potential that was expected of him. However, he always showed details of his technical quality, which was what he stood out in the middle of the pitch for, but also for his pressure retention, good treatment of the ball and a lot of calm.

When he retired as a player after a season in Spain, with UD Las Palmas, Aquilani was 34 years old at the time. Just a year later, he began his coaching career, living his first experience as head coach of Fiorentina U18s and then as Giuseppe Iachini’s assistant coach in the Fiorentina first team. In 2020, he was appointed as the coach of the Fiorentina U19s team and is the manager of the said team to this day in the Campionato Primavera, the Serie A youth league.

Throughout almost three years, he has served as coach of the youth team in more than 80 games, standing out with his fast, fluid and dynamic possession style, as well as rotational in his formations and player roles, in which he has found a lot of resemblance to Roberto de Zerbi in what the Brighton manager has been showing in his latest experiences as a professional coach.

We are going to carry out a tactical analysis, of what Aquilani has shown as a coach, his tactics both in the offensive and defensive phases, and how interesting his coaching ideas have turned out to be.

Attracting pressure from deep

One of the first things that stand out about Alberto Aquilani’s philosophy is how his team seeks to draw attraction from the first line of passing, usually using their goalkeeper or central defenders to progress through the central channels. There are many times in which the players in these positions, as well as full-backs, keep the ball at their feet for several seconds waiting for rival jumps to create spaces to pass the ball behind the rival backs.

All this first draws attention because of the similarity to what Roberto de Zerbi has and is looking for in his tactics: The players even step on the ball to invite the pressure to come, thus making the rival create spaces where if the pass can be connected well and there is a subsequent fast-combination, they will progress very easily and the team will raise its position to the last third with great dynamism and speed.

This can be seen in the first phase of game creation for Aquilani’s Fiorentina, normally with three players at the base and the goalkeeper. The right-back joins the central line in order to create superiority against teams that defend with two or equalise against others that look to press with three players up front.

Alberto Aquilani at Fiorentina U19 2022/23 - scout report

The use of three players in the first line of passes, in this case, the centre-backs, have similar roles with some differences. The full-back who tucks into the line can advance meters into space to support in combinations, while the central centre-back and the left centre-back seek more of these types of attractions and on some occasions, there may be rotations between them.

As we can see in the image above, it is the common positioning of Fiorentina U19s, at least in the current Campionato Primavera campaign. A back three in the first phase of possession that the players have integrated with great intelligence and understanding among themselves to make it dynamic.

Alberto Aquilani at Fiorentina U19 2022/23 - scout report

This figure is one of the most important because of the meaning of the resource that Lorenzo Lucchesi, the LCB, uses in the search for the first progression by the central defenders. A tool that has been talked about a lot in the world of modern football, partly because of coaches like Paulo Fonseca or Roberto de Zerbi, as well as, to some extent, Luciano Spalletti, Aquilani’s former coach at the time.

The young defender has put his foot above the ball. All with a simple reason, to invite the rival to put pressure on him so that when he starts to run to the man on the ball, he’s directly creating space behind him, where Fiorentina’s midfielders can appear more comfortable if the ball moves inside, which is what regularly happens inside Aquilani’s side.

All this is something extremely simple, but it requires a lot of technique, composure and nerves of steel to play in what is your own third, a few meters from your goal. But also, this adds incredible details to the players’ development, because they can better understand and at an early age, at least at Fiorentina, how to handle pressure and timing to release the pass from deep. This ‘foot above the ball’ detail has been looked at De Zerbi’s Sassuolo and Shaktar Donetsk when he was their manager, and it’s now being seen in the tactics of his compatriot Aquilani.

In the image that we can see below, it is another example of how, one of those in charge of these first passes, calmly waits for the rival pressure to jump, in order to move the ball aggressively to the middle or to the side so that the next receiver that is, the one that – usually first-time – executes a pass to the central lane to one of the players that make up the double-pivot.

Alberto Aquilani at Fiorentina U19 2022/23 - scout report

This sequence below is another sample of what Aquilani’s team is looking to do in their first ideas with the ball. The wait for the rival pressure is clear, but the other team’s defender has well-shadowed the Fiorentina midfielder behind him. Therefore, the defender on the ball decides to move the ball to the side, to his fellow right-centre-back.

There, another pressing jump occurs, while the player who first started the pressing also moves there, freeing up the midfielder behind him who will soon receive a pass from the RCB and can easily turn the game completely to the flank or perform a 1-2 combination to progress inside if a teammate makes the off-the-ball movement at the correct moment.

Alberto Aquilani at Fiorentina U19 2022/23 - scout report

All of this has been executed greatly thanks to the players of Aquilani’s team, who really, in possession of the ball, have fulfilled the expectations of what is expected, at least in these first passes of the team’s offensive phase. At such a young age, the quality and potential of many in this area are impressive.

Dynamic double-pivot and progressions to the flanks

Alberto Aquilani’s team after the first progression seeks to connect from the inside and then out. The layout further on is with two midfielders in the double-pivot, two players as attacking-midfielders in the half-spaces, a more central striker and two wide-open players – the left-back on his side fully launched into the attack and a wide-open winger on the right.

After the first wait for the pressure, the search for Fiorentina U19s is clear. If the situation is clear and it can be done, the ball progression is through the central lane with the double pivot, which is extremely dynamic in its movements, maintaining a diagonal posture between the two so that the build-up is in one touch and quite fast.

The movement between both midfielders is constant. One enters and one leaves, another descends and another raises his positioning, and sometimes they even rotate between attacking midfielders in the half-space, with one of them entering this triangulation on the inside and the other leaving. The idea is that many off-the-ball movements are generated there so that the rival cannot contain them and in the pressure of it, spaces are generated.

After receiving inside, the body posture must always be progressive. A midfielder receives and already knows the next pass he has to make, normally diagonally with his double-pivot partner, and he then goes towards one of the attacking midfielders who, after his teammates are pinning the opponent in central lanes, he has a lot of space to move and run with the ball.

Sometimes, as in every team, not everything is stipulated as Aquilani’s brain thinks, and the important thing is that in many of the plays of the Fiorentina U19s, the individual creativity of the player is rewarded and sought, in addition to their problem-solving capacity. Therefore we see how sometimes they can omit certain passes to be more direct and advance from one to the other third if they see the opportunity.

As for example in the figure below, the LCB has executed the pass to the middle for one of the midfielders who, after seeing the space in which one of the attacking midfielders is positioned, the passing lane is clear and free. Therefore, he makes the decision and the team passes above rival pressure in seconds. All this is normally executed within one or two touches of the ball from the players that enters the triangulation.

However, some things can always happen differently. The same idea of playing inside does the job of overloading that area and makes central defenders also able to skip passes and connect in one go with the player waiting isolated on the wings, who, after reception, carries the highest threat of the team, seeking to penetrate the area with ball-carrying, 1-2 combinations on the edge of the box and dribbles to later either shoot or assist.

Aquilani’s principles at Fiorentina have a hallmark. The players always try to finish from the outside to the inside. After the progression in the central channel from the midfielders, when the players at half-spaces pick the ball, the natural next pass is always towards one of these wingers, who receive and dribble as well as being aggressive in looking for the penalty area. But one of the positive things is how someone in the team, normally the attacking midfielders, always accompanies them to perform overlaps or underlaps and that way they are not so lonely in the wing to solve attacking situations.

Let’s pay attention to the following sequence below the text because it has the complete blueprint of what Aquilani is looking for in his possessions.

Faced with much higher pressure than they are used to, they move the ball to the left-back first. He returns the ball to the LCB, which is what we are seeing in the first image. One of the midfielders approaches the first line, while the other understands the movement and knows that the turn there is difficult, so he changes his positioning to the other side.

After the midfielder receives the pass from the LCB, he turns his body and vision, acknowledging that his double-pivot partner has taken his place, which facilitates the pass and everything emerges with tremendous fluidity after this. The midfielder connects with the attacking midfielder and then carries the ball and executes a pass to the winger isolated on the right, who waits for his rival to face him in a 1v1 and also has support from the one who just gave him the pass.

Fiorentina U19s have also adopted other contexts, being more direct, with the same idea of fixing players and attracting low the high-pressing, to then launch long balls to these attacking midfielders or to the forward with great hold-up-play to retain the ball with his back. The number of resources that they have collectively managed, as well as the idea that players have freedom in their decisions and do not integrate tactics 100%, have been key for the team.

Oriented pressing and defensive issues

Alberto Aquilani, despite being a player under the mandate of coaches with pragmatic ideas as far as what to defend was concerned, has opted for a more proactive idea to win the ball back in the final third, if the rival team wants to build up from the back. The man-oriented pressure, seeking to move the ball normally towards one of the full-backs of the team.

The pressure, however, is not common to see when the rival forces them to go back further. The aggressiveness is lost and a more zonal balance is sought, turning all the offensive chaos into an organized 4-4-2 in principle, trying to close the spaces well with the lines quite close together.

Let’s first take an example of how they seek to press high against their rivals at times. We can see how two players in front try to force the ball to move to the side with their postures, which is what has already been done in the figure below. There, the full-back has no options because the midfielders are closely man-marked. If the ball is wanted to be executed through the wings, the full-backs from Fiorentina’s side are also very aggressive to go off their line and get the ball.

Then, as we can see, if the opposition wants to have the ball and circulate it calmly, they offer more space and a higher rival position, but Fiorentina U19 tries to feel comfortable with this, being more zonal and achieving a more linear and organised balance to that their rivals do not return between the lines.

This figure shows us exactly how the 4-4-2 is set up, with also the right-back/centre-back defensively becoming a more wide player in this phase than on the inside when they have the ball.

However, there are many errors in this aspect for Aquilani that must still mature in his next matches and jobs over time. The search to change the aggressiveness to a more zonal behaviour requires a lot of hierarchy and work to understand this positioning. And not only that, but the balance in counterattacks has also been poor, in addition to some mistakes that their players make when playing with such a risky football idea.


In this analysis, Alberto Aquilani has shown in the Campionato Primavera since he has been with the Fiorentina youth team that he is one of the coaches for the future. His idea of how his team needs to be handling their fluid possession and the number of rotations and movements with freedom that he wants to see in his players is quite positive and modern.

In addition to adding high-pressing at some moments, that has come in handy in different games where he seeks to accommodate not having the ball and be more direct, something also to applaud is the chameleonic way that he looks to prepare their matches. With coaching inspirations of tremendous offensive quality, the potential is very high for Aquilani within his ideas.