Rebuilding Sampdoria: Inspecting Andrea Pirlo’s potential approach to the tremendous challenge – tactical analysis
Following a long and very successful playing career, Andrea Pirlo is now beginning his third coaching experience with Sampdoria after starting his coaching career at Juventus and leading Fatih Karagümrük for one season. Pirlo is one of the best midfielders ever and had some unique abilities and skills that made him an exceptional player throughout his footballing journey, whether at Milan, where he won everything possible or at Juventus, where he found his late excellent run of form again after being excluded from Milan’s project.
Known for his outstanding vision, passing, shooting and set-piece mastery, the Italian legend started his coaching career with a surprising first opportunity at Juventus. He led a group of experienced players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo Bonucci and other big names, and he was able to win Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana in 2020.
During that same season, he was able to apply his ideas to some extent, and the team played well on most occasions. It didn’t lack identity, which is something that shouldn’t be underestimated or under-evaluated because it is never simple to put an impact on experienced players and impose one’s ideas in a brief time while still winning titles and challenging for the Serie A title with Inter and finishing among the top-four below Milan and Atalanta.
This first considerable coaching experience helped Pirlo learn a lot, make mistakes and acquire experience as a Serie A coach before moving to Turkey and starting from “zero” with a club that strives to develop and challenge for more advanced spots in the Süper Lig standings. Following a more complicated yet useful experience in Turkey, Pirlo has returned to Italy, specifically to Serie B, where he will strive to get Sampdoria promoted to Serie A again — historically, the team’s fitting place.
Sampdoria have been facing some ups and downs over the last few years. With the arrival of new management, a new head coach and a new head of performance embodied in Nicola Legrottaglie, the whole Genova atmosphere is witnessing a rejuvenation and a great desire to work to get Sampdoria back to where it belongs, to Serie A and especially to playing progressive football in Serie A.
In this tactical analysis article, our primary focus will be on Pirlo’s footballing philosophy, ideas, and how he wants to manage teams. Moreover, a section will be reserved for assessing Sampdoria’s recruitment strategy under Pirlo and Legrottaglie to identify the teams’ needs and evaluate their first few signings and the actual squad. Also, the analysis will look at Sampdoria’s most suitable formation and line-up to predict the team’s tactics in Serie A this season.
Pirlo’s progressive football
This progressive football can be guaranteed under the management of someone like Andrea Pirlo, who expressed on several occasions his desire always to play progressive and attacking football in which his team needs more possession, more passes and more chance creation numbers per game. He strived to impose this strategy at Juventus and was relatively successful despite the numerous problems surrounding the club and the dressing room at that time.
In his UEFA Pro Licence thesis, Pirlo expressed that he aims to have 11 active players in both the defensive and the offensive phase while having possession for as long as possible and trying to recover as quickly as possible when losing the ball. This style combines the ideas of Cruijff’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s, Van Gaal’s Ajax, Ancelotti’s Milan and Conte’s Juventus.
Inspired by these ideas, Pirlo’s offensive phase is characterised by a continuous resistance to high pressing and intelligent usage of build-up from the back to avoid that pressing and then aim at passing between the lines to overcome more defensive lines without losing compactness while attacking as a unit.
Moreover, the build-up relies on guaranteeing numerical superiority by adding goalkeepers or using a midfielder or a full-back who moves towards the centre to provide a passing possibility that can help overcome the high pressing line. “My idea of the construction is to climb compactly, overcoming one pressure line at a time without forcing verticalisation or launches.”
Once in the opponent’s half, Pirlo gives a lot of importance to movements without the ball and quick and powerful passes that break defensive lines. He also prefers diagonal passes whenever possible and pushes his players to always provide a passing option, especially inside the final third. This is valid for attacking players and midfielders since we saw how impactful midfielders can be under Pirlo’s management when he was at Juventus.
The following example from the match against Barcelona highlights the midfielder Weston McKennie’s attacking impact since he was the one providing the pass to Juan Cuadrado, who crossed the ball, and McKennie was at the receiving end of the cross to finish it with a beautiful volley. This can only stress that Pirlo always wants his players to move a lot without the ball, even after providing key passes, knowing that this would guarantee more possibilities for the player holding the ball and, therefore, more goalscoring chances.
In addition to these ideas, Pirlo likes to rely on strikers with excellent goalscoring instinct who constantly ask for the ball at the back of the defensive line, providing attacking depth and ensuring that the defenders are “mentally disturbed”. These characteristics can be found partially in Gabbiadini, who is not naturally a striker. But following the departure of the veteran Fabio Quagliarella, Sampdoria will have to either buy a new reliable striker or count on one of the youth strikers.
If these solutions fail, Pirlo can opt for Gabbiadini as a striker, knowing he remains a dangerous player with a long experience in Italy. His left-footed shots from distance can always be hazardous, and Sampdoria will undoubtedly have to exploit his qualities as a right-winger, a second striker or a central striker. At Sampdoria, a trio composed of Borini as a right-winger, Léris as an advanced playmaker and Gabbiadini as a right-winger would be excellent.
In this case, all that remains is to buy a reliable striker and use a few backup players from Sampdoria’s youth system, such as Di Stefano, De Luca, La Gumina, Leonardi, Montevago and Stoppa.
Recruitment strategy and needs
Regarding the recruitment strategy, it should be said that Pirlo always looks for technical players who are also good in one on one duels. Therefore, it will be vital for him to find the most technical players in the team in the youth squad as well as on the transfer market. Pirlo has already started forming his squad since the team have recently signed Fabio Borini and Matteo Ricci, who were both former Pirlo players at Fatih Karagümrük. Therefore it will not be challenging to integrate them or work with them.
An experienced player like Borini can add much to the team, given his long career and experiences at Chelsea, Parma, Roma, Milan, Liverpool, Sunderland, Swansea City and Hellas Verona. Plus, he can be considered a versatile player who adapts to different formations and playing styles, as he can play as a full-back, a winger, and an advanced playmaker.
Given that Pirlo prefers to rely on modern goalkeepers who are open to taking risks and participating actively in the offensive phase and specifically in the build-up from the back, he will most probably opt for Ravaglia as a regular goalkeeper since he is characterised by better passing abilities and accuracy than the Falcone and the rest.
For defence, the team lacks a solid centre-back to play on the left side and one or two backup defenders who can be found in the youth system. For the rest of the defensive positions, the squad looks good, especially if no surprising departures occur.
For the urgent need of a left centre-back, numerous possibilities are available at the moment. This table shows some of the most adequate centre-backs who may be open to joining Sampdoria immediately since playing in a team that plans to promoted to Serie A represents an upgrade for most of them and especially Sylla, Renan and Koulierakis and Johan Bångsbo, since the three of them are tall left-footed left centre-backs who would most probably not cost much to Sampdoria.
The team already has Askildsen, Benedetti, Léris, Malagrida, Paoletti, Verre, Vieira, Vitale, Yepes and Ricci for midfield. Therefore il Doria can start the season without making urgent signings in this area. Nevertheless, a quality attacking midfielder would help, especially in order to alternate with Léris in this role.
Moving to attack, Sampdoria needs a reliable striker urgently, as mentioned above. And to find a suitable candidate for the role, we tried to find 10 strikers with characteristics similar to those of Quagliarella. The following table includes the findings. Rennes’ Ibrahim Salah and Santos’ Rwan look like the most suitable possibilities for the role, given their age, height and abilities. Nevertheless, it would be essential to see whether these players are open to negotiations with Sampdoria. If not, Sampdoria will have to rely on one of their talents or attempt to sign a Serie B striker.
Sampdoria’s possible formations and line-ups under Pirlo
With a player like Gabbiadini being with the team, Pirlo will more likely try opting to play with two strikers upfront, especially if they succeed in signing Fabio Quagliarella’s replacement very soon. Knowing that Pirlo doesn’t mind using a striker accompanied by a second striker upfront, as he mentions this idea in his thesis, Gabbiadini’s role as a second striker shouldn’t be underestimated in this case, and the player can be very dangerous when alternating movements with the striker and surprising defences with shots from distance especially when the main striker is being marked.
Suppose Sampdoria fail to sign a new reliable striker; opting for Gabbiadini as the main striker would also be a logical idea since he has already played in this role. At the same time, it is clear that Pirlo plans to rely on Matteo Ricci as one of the midfielders while Borini would play on the left wing most of the time.
The best possible formation for Sampdoria would be the 4-2-3-1 since they don’t have the necessary players for the 3-5-2 formation right now. The 4-2-3-1 would most likely be composed of: Nicola Ravaglia in goal (preferred over Wladimiro Falcone and Audero mainly thanks to his more accurate passing), Alex Ferrari and a left-footed centre-back, Bartosz Bereszyński as a right-back (with a slight advantage over Andrea Conti), Augello as a left-back, Ricci and Ronaldo Vieira (or Kristoffer Askildsen who can represent an excellent option especially from a defensive perspective, given his superb physical abilities) as central midfielders, Fabio Borini as a right-winger, Manolo Gabbiadini as a left winger, Mehdi Léris as an advanced playmaker and a striker to replace Quagliarella.
Another possibility would be to opt for the 3-5-2 formation, which Pirlo coped well, especially as a player under Antonio Conte’s Juventus. Nevertheless, this formation will require acquiring two or three solid additional centre-backs urgently.
Therefore, the 4-2-3-1 formation would suit Sampdoria a bit more since it will require only two urgent signings: a left-footed centre-back and a striker. Also, using the 4-3-3 formation would be possible as well since it would only require adding a central midfielder (like Vitale, Verre or Benedetti) to Ricci and Vieira while turning Ricci into a defensive midfielder (which is his natural position).
Andrea Pirlo’s challenge at Sampdoria will not just be centred around being able to form a powerful squad or not. His challenge will also be conditioned by his ability to adapt his ideas to Serie B teams’ playing styles. Would his progressive and possession-based football generate the needed results and the expected promotion to Serie A? Or will this type of football fail to succeed against teams relying more on physicality and aggressive defensive tactics? If the second hypothesis is true, Pirlo will have to adapt his principles according to the team’s needs to get results without necessarily changing the whole system but by making a few tactical adjustments based on opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. That being said, Pirlo’s project looks promising so far and has a high chance of success with the Blucerchiati.