From West Sussex to Udine: The tactics that shaped Hellas Verona’s new head coach Gabriele Cioffi – tactical analysis
In recent years, the managerial division of Serie A has become a never-ending carousel.
While new and exciting coaches are always being imported into the likes of the Premier League, Ligue 1 and La Liga, Italian clubs have been relatively closed off from appointing managers that haven’t tasted the delicious nectar of football in the Mediterranean country.
Quite a lot of Italian managers have seemingly taken this stance too. Despite there being a lot of interest from abroad for tacticians such as Massimiliano Allegri and Gian Piero Gasperini, there are a lot of coaches who have yet to try their hand in another country.
Nevertheless, not everyone has found themselves caught in this bubble. There are some Italian managers who have gone elsewhere in the world to gain some valuable experience before returning to their home country with a wealth of newfound knowledge.
One of these coaches is Gabriele Cioffi, who has just replaced Igor Tudor as the manager of Hellas Verona. Having coached in Australia, twice in the UAE, and twice again in England, the 46-year-old’s appointment is one to keep an eye on.
This article will be a tactical analysis, previewing Cioffi’s tactics. It will be an analysis, looking at how Verona can expect to be set up under their new manager’s guidance.
From Adelaide down under to West Sussex before taking a brief stop in Udine, Cioffi has been all over the world applying his trade. However, most if it has been as an aide to the manager.
From 2015-2021, Cioffi worked as the assistant manager in five of those years, notably acting as the number two to Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola at Birmingham City in the 2016/17 campaign.
Cioffi’s first major managerial job was as the head coach of League Two’s Crawley Town. However, after 72 matches at the helm, the Italian was sacked, leaving with a 29.17 percent win record.
Nevertheless, Luca Gotti soon came calling, offering him yet another chance to be an assistant manager, this time at Udinese. Eventually, Gotti was sacked and Cioffi got his first taste of Serie A management even though it was short-lived.
One thing that was certain is that Cioffi had no settled formation during any spell as a manager, proving himself to be quite tactically flexible:
Looking at all of the formations deployed by the Italian boss during his stint at Broadfield Stadium in the 2018/19 season, the 3-5-2 was his most used, with Crawley setting up in this structure in 32 percent of their games in all competitions.
Regardless, the rest of the time, the Reds positioned themselves within a 4-1-4-1, 3-4-3, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and even with a midfield diamond at times.
Last season, Udinese were not as flexible as Crawley Town in 2018/19, but still showed some tactical versatility.
However, most of these structures were used by Gotti. When Cioffi took over as caretaker, there was only one game in his 24 match tenure where Udinese didn’t set up in a 3-5-2.
Logically speaking, Cioffi will look to use the 3-5-2/5-3-2 in Verona. In the 2021/22 campaign under Tudor, Hellas Verona predominantly used a back three 85 percent of the time and so the team are used to playing within this formation already, making it an easy transition for the new boss.
As a true ode to Italian football history, Cioffi’s preferred defensive tactics will be observed first. In days gone by, Serie A managers came from the Catenaccio school of coaching, built on dogged defensive systems to keep clean sheets.
Nowadays, in modern Italy, coaches have been forced to adapt and keep up with the demands of the modern game. While there are still some hangers on to the old ways, most managers now demand that their teams press high to force the opposition to make mistakes high up the pitch.
Interestingly, last season, Udinese and Hellas Verona both sat on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum to each other.
Cioffi’s side were the lowest pressing team in the league. Udinese averaged just 30.3 pressures in the attacking third per 90 in Serie A across the 2021/22 campaign. While Hellas Verona’s 31.2 per 90 was not overly superior, Igor Tudor’s men did top the table for having the highest challenge intensity with 7.1.
The challenge intensity metric measures how many defensive actions a team makes per minute of their opponent’s ball possession. In contrast, Udinese were at the bottom of the scale with a rate of merely 5.3.
Despite possessing many of the modern day principles within his philosophy, Cioffi is still reluctant to allow his side’s to go full throttle during the high pressing phase, often instructing his players to just mark the closest passing lanes instead of applying pressure to the ball-carrier.
Here, Internazionale are playing out from the back through their goalkeeper. Udinese are defending in a high block, using a man-oriented marking system. However, nobody is closing down the goalkeeper who plays long to the physically present Edin Džeko for easy ball progression.
Most of the time, Cioffi’s side don’t even press high. Instead, the manager is keener for his players to drop off into a defensive mid-block and compact the centre of the pitch. This was the approach taken by the head coach during his stint with Crawley Town.
In this example, Carlisle United are building out from deep in their own half of the pitch. Crawley, under the guidance of Cioffi, are more than happy to allow them to have the ball with their backline, choosing to cut off access into the space between the lines instead.
In this phase, Cioffi’s tactical principles are constant. His players must remain narrow, blocking off the possibility for the opposition to play through their defensive block, while angling their body shape so to force the player in possession backwards or down the flanks.
These principles apply even when Cioffi’s team are defending further down the pitch in an even deeper defensive block.
Here, the wide-man on the ball has just two options as Crawley Town have denied any ball progression options in the middle of the park. He can either play down the side to his winger in a congested area where Cioffi’s men are ready to pounce, or else he can play backwards to recycle possession.
If the defending players in the frontline and midfield fail to protect the space in front of the backline, Cioffi’s defenders must be aggressive in stepping out and closing down the ball receiver before they can turn and cause damage.
Analysing the tactics that Cioffi has usually opted for whilst in management is quite interesting, particularly since he is leaving the lowest pressers in Serie A for the highest. Will he undo the good work of Ivan Juric and Tudor in Verona and make the Gialloblu more passive out of possession?
Charles Reep’s Italian son
For those that are not familiar with the work of Charles Reep, he was a statistician, one of the first in the United Kingdom and in the world, often credited with the invention of the long ball game. To football purists, Reep is the equivalent to the creators of the atomic bomb.
Reep’s studies throughout the 1950s onwards found that the fewer the passes each team averaged while in possession, the more goals would be scored, beginning a slippery slope that would define the English game for more than half a century.
There are remnants of Reep’s work throughout the beautiful game from all corners of the globe. In an era where managers prefer to have possession, dominate games with the ball and play twenty, thirty and sometimes forty passes before scoring, there are still some coaches who continue to reap the fruits of the long ball game, pun intended.
Regarding the subject matter of this article, Cioffi’s time in West Sussex was shrouded with long passes. This was helped by the fact that the Italian could rely on the services of the 6ft 5 Ollie Palmer up front.
This image shows the passing network from a game away at Carlisle United back in the 2018/19 season under Cioffi. The passing link from Crawley’s goalkeeper to centre-forward, Palmer, was one of the strongest during the game for the visitors.
Across that entire campaign, Crawley played the one of the highest number of long balls in League Two, averaging 58.32 per 90 with an accuracy of 49.8 percent.
Interestingly, the Reds also averaged 60.88 passes to the final third per 90 in England’s fourth division in 2018/19 with an accuracy of 59.9 percent. So not only did Crawley play quite a high volume of long balls under Cioffi, but they were also good at it.
Cioffi wanted players to support in front of the ball as well as in behind, offering Crawley the option to retain possession in two different ways.
The 46-year-old did not have the most technically proficient defenders in his side and so instead of taking a massive risk playing out from the back, going long to Palmer was always the safest, and arguably the best attacking option for Crawley.
Ultimately, managers need to adapt their tactical beliefs to the strengths of their players and Cioffi did exactly this at Crawley. However, last season, Udinese were the opposite of this.
The Bianconeri averaged merely 43 percent ball possession in Serie A but attempted the second-lowest number of long passes per 90 with 36.42, boasting an accuracy of 57 percent.
At Udinese, there was more of a focus put on playing out from the back than there was at Crawley Town. The reason for this is obvious, of course, since the Udine-based club have excessively more quality in their ranks.
Nevertheless, Udinese also lacked a target man up front to aim for and so going long would have been a pointless strategy.
Generally, Udinese played out in a 3-2 shape with one of the wide centre-backs pushed slightly higher to act as an outlet for Cioffi’s side to move higher up the pitch, as can be seen from the image above.
Looking at this pass map from Udinese’s penultimate game of the season, the wide centre-backs are pushed higher up than the central centre-back as Cioffi demands the pair operate as the instigators for the team to progress further up the pitch.
As Hellas Verona played with a back three last season, it is likely that we will see something similar under the new manager. Moreover, in the same manner as Udinese, Verona lack a physically-built striker and played the tenth-lowest number of long balls in Serie A last season.
Perhaps Cioffi will purchase a target man in the summer to allow his new side to play a bit more direct.
Wide overloads and crosses
Finally, keeping in line with having his wide centre-backs push forward, Cioffi’s teams create wide overloads on the flanks with the sole purpose of getting into good crossing positions.
The wide centre-backs are important to this as the Italian typically asks them to push forward, even as high as the final third, in order to add an extra number to the overload, and sometimes they will even put crosses into the box themselves.
For instance, here, Crawley’s right centre-back has bombed on up the right flank to form a triangle with his right wingback and right-winger. Generally, the nearest central midfielder would shift across too to complete the overload.
From these positions, Cioffi wants his players to constantly move around, trying to get away from the opponent so that they can use the free man to cross into the box.
In the 2018/19 season under the new Verona boss, Crawley averaged 16.28 crosses per 90, one of League Two’s highest, with an accuracy of 28 percent. Coincidentally, in the 2021/22 campaign, Udinese averaged the lowest crosses into the box per 90 with 9.59 and the fourth-lowest accuracy for crosses of 30.1 percent.
However, these numbers were massively deflated because of the lack of times Udinese actually had the ball in the final third which was just 37.69 times per 90. Regardless, Cioffi did still try to implement the idea of creating wide overloads to cross.
With a rising star like Matteo Cancellieri in the side, who is capable of putting a delicious ball into the box, it’s likely that Verona will be creating wide overloads to cross into the box next season under their new coach.
As luck would have it, this isn’t too dissimilar from the style of final third play that was embedded into the side under Tudor’s reign.
At the risk of making the entire analysis piece redundant, nobody really knows how Hellas Verona are going to play next season under Cioffi’s tutelage. There are so few similarities between his time with Crawley Town compared to his reign in Udine that guessing how his Verona will play leaves much to the imagination. However, there is a beautiful ambiguity to this.
Cioffi has shown that he can adapt to the personnel at his disposal and since Verona won’t have endless streams of cash, this is a wonderful trait for any head coach. Nevertheless, the cryptic nature of his tactical philosophy makes Cioffi’s appointment at the Marcantonio Bentegodi Stadium one of the most intriguing in Europe this season.