Why Monza may need to be more pragmatic or else prepare for relegation from Serie A – tactical analysis
A debate has popped up regarding the structure of Serie A in recent times. Like in the Premier League, three teams are promoted from the second division while three drop out. It’s a simplistic format.
However, the system has become quite tedious over the past few seasons. Generally, newly-promoted sides have found it extremely difficult to stabilise in the top-flight division and have commonly dropped straight back down.
It has even been prominently suggested that the league should be cut to an 18-team format as seen in the Bundesliga.
This pressing issue has been evident already in the 2022/23 campaign. Lecce, Monza and Cremonese were all promoted from Serie B for this season. So far, the three sides have picked up merely three points combined and make up three of the bottom four in the league. None have won a game, and already look primed for the drop.
Howsoever, this tactical analysis piece will focus on Monza who are by far one of the most entertaining teams in Serie A. Unfortunately, for the Biancorossi, they have been unable to pick up a single point thus far and desperately need to get some numbers on the board quickly.
This analysis and scout report will focus on Monza’s tactics under the colourful and ever-vibrant Giovanni Stroppa. We will take a look at which areas the Italian minnows need to fix the most in order to try and change their fortunes.
Have Monza changed formation?
One of the factors that change the most when a side is promoted is that the team take a more pragmatic approach. Of course, the reason behind this is that they will be coming up against better opposition where their opponents will most likely be the protagonists in games instead.
There are exceptions to this rule. Leeds United crashed into the Premier League in 2020/21 without respect for any opponent, playing in the same manner which had seen them earn promotion the season prior.
The club owned by the former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, have taken a similar approach. Last season, during Monza’s promotion campaign from Serie B, Stroppa favoured the 3-5-2 formation as a fulcrum to employ his possession-based style.
Monza set out in this classic Italian formation in 79 percent of the side’s matches, which includes the 5-3-2, followed by the 4-3-3, although this was used in merely 4 percent of the side’s games.
So far this season, there has been no room for tactical flexibility in relation to the team’s base formation. Despite losing all of their opening games thus far, Stroppa has remained loyal to the structure which earned his men promotion in the last term.
The 3-5-2/5-3-2 has been utilised by the 54-year-old manager in 94 percent of the team’s games.
The only time Stroppa switched the shape was for the final hour of Monza’s 3-2 victory in the Coppa Italia against Frosinone when Gianluca Caprari dropped behind his striker partner Dany Mota to create more of a 3-5-1-1. Not too much difference there, nonetheless.
Interestingly, Monza’s possession statistics have actually improved so far this season compared to the previous campaign. Currently, in all competitions, the Biancorossi have boasted an average of 56.82 percent of the ball. Last season, this figure stood at 55.84 percent.
Has Stroppa’s lack of compromission to his ball retention principles cost his side in this term? Let’s take a look.
Hell-bent on possession
Atalanta have made a name for themselves as one of the possession kings of Europe during Gian Piero Gasperini’s flamboyant reign. La Dea led the country’s footballing renaissance from old-school Italian pragmatism to fast-paced sports entertainment.
However, in a recent outing against Monza, despite coming away with a 2-0 victory at the Stadio Brianteo, Atalanta were forced to suffer and cede their regular principles. Monza dominated the game, coming away with 59.42 percent of the ball.
But even though Stroppa’s side boasted the lion’s share of possession, the Biancorossi had a strange pass map from the match.
The structure is evident from the image above. We can quite clearly see that Monza were playing within a 3-5-2 formation. Nevertheless, normally when analysing passing networks of a possession-oriented team, the links from the backline, the wingbacks/fullbacks and the goalkeeper are all strong. This was not the case with Monza.
To understand why, it’s important to observe the team’s shape in possession. When set up in a settled positional attack, looking to break down the opposition’s medium-level defensive block, Monza are extremely fluid.
Usually, the three centre-backs will morph into a lopsided back four with the left centre-back pushing out to the touchline and acting as an auxiliary left-back. Meanwhile, the other central defenders will move more towards the middle, representing a typical two-man defensive partnership.
The most important ball progression method for Monza though is by circulating the ball around the backline until a gap opens up behind the opposition’s first line of pressure.
In order to create passing lanes, the three central midfielders constantly move around in the space behind the opponent’s forward line, looking to receive the ball. Quite a lot of midfield rotation takes place during this phase.
Patience is one way to describe the team’s build-up. In actuality, Stroppa’s side build-up in a similar manner to a team coached by his compatriot Roberto De Zerbi.
Often, Monza’s centre-backs stand on the ball and wait for the opponent to either jump them through pressing, creating openings in the defensive block, or else for the midfielders ahead of the play to execute their rotations and create a passing angle to receive the ball behind the first line of pressure.
This can be seen in the above image. Single pivot, Nicolò Rovella, has moved out of his original space, dragging the Atalanta player with him, while allowing one of the more advanced central midfielders to drop to receive.
These rotations disorientate the midfield, pulling them around and creating space for Monza to progress into. However, Monza’s main source of ball progression is generally just a first-time pass from the midfielders to the right wingback.
As can be seen from this passing network against AS Roma recently, there is an emphasis on playing the ball out to the right wingback, Samuele Birindelli.
Birindelli is arguably Monza’s most threatening player in the final third. This can be seen from the player’s actions this season so far in Serie A. The 23-year-old is constantly bombing up and down the right flank, providing crosses into the penalty area.
Unfortunately, for both Birindelli and Monza, the wingback is heavily relied upon for chance creation in the final third. This is particularly noticeable when analysing the passing maps of both of Monza’s most utilised advanced midfielders, Euro 2020 winner Matteo Pessina, and former Internazionale star Stefano Sensi:
The two images show all of the passes played by both midfielders this season in Serie A. Between the two number ‘8’s, they made one pass into the penalty area thus far.
With little creative contribution coming from the midfield, Monza’s wingbacks and centre-forwards are left to pick up the heavy burden of trying to create and score goals. Two goals so far in the league would suggest that the burden is too much to bear.
Monza look wonderful in possession and have the capabilities to break down any side’s high block. The Biancorossi are inventive, fun and wonderfully imaginative with their positioning. However, once the ball reaches the final third, their imaginations are killed. It’s not the persistent ball retention which is causing Stroppa’s side to struggle, but instead, the lack of ideas and predictability in the final third.
Rest defence has quickly become one of the most important tactical components of any side looking to dominate the ball. Sides that are keen to have the ball all the time need to be prepared to win it back when it slips from their grasp.
Rest defence and counterpressing go hand in hand. Rest defence is when a side sets up in an attacking structure in a way that will help them defend transitions upon losing the ball. Of course, being a possession-heavy side, Monza adhere to this blueprint of positional play.
Nevertheless, the team’s rest defence structure relies heavily on having the centre-backs step high up the pitch as quickly as possible to try and nick the ball back.
This visual displays Monza right centre-back Marlon’s defensive territory from the current league campaign. As is evident from the visual, the Brazilian defends extremely high up the pitch.
This is the case for both of Monza’s wide centre-backs in the three-man defensive line. If the team’s initial counterpress is broken, they act as the second protective net to try and either curtail or nullify the counterattack.
Here, Monza’s first counterpressing attempt against Roma has failed and so left centre-back Luca Caldirola has stepped out towards the attack in order to stop the break from becoming more dangerous.
Of course, there is a massive issue with this. If the centre-back fails in his attempt to either delay or prevent the transition, Monza are left with just two players at the back.
In this example, highlighted in the previous two images, Atalanta broke out from their deep defensive state and played directly to the forward line.
Marlon jumped out of his position to try and press the attacker but did not get close. As a result, the Atalanta player turned him easily and switched play to the far side where Gasperini’s men developed a 2v2 counterattack.
Counterpressing is a dangerous game to play, and Monza’s positional structure is far too dispersed for the team to do so successfully. In the first couple of games thus far, Stroppa’s keenness for the side to counterpress has actually caused more problems for themselves than the opposition.
There are two main types of pressing in football. Firstly, a team can press zonally, with players applying pressure to different zones of the pitch, depending on the situation and the opposition’s set-up from their build-up.
With this type of pressing, the defending side will position players at a point between two of the opponent’s players. They will then press the player which makes more sense according to the situation at hand.
Last week against Arsenal, Manchester United pressed this way with their centre-forward and two wingers.
Marcus Rashford would press the Arsenal centre-backs and goalkeeper. When applying pressure to one of these players, the United forward would angle his run to cut off the passing lane to the players behind him, forcing Arsenal into one area of the pitch.
Meanwhile, Antony and Jadon Sancho zonally and situationally pressed the Gunners’ fullbacks and centre-backs.
However, Monza don’t subscribe to this methodology. Stroppa follows the more bonkers school of pressing taught by the masters Marcelo Bielsa and Gasperini.
Here, we can see Stroppa’s side employing a man-oriented system against Udinese’s lopsided build-up shape with the right centre-back pushed high up behind the first line of pressure.
Monza’s Passes allowed Per Defensive Action rate this season in Serie A has stood at 12.01 which is one of the highest in the division. This is a steep decline from last season’s 8.17 in Serie B. The Biancorossi do boast a challenge intensity of 5.4 which is actually one of the highest in Italy’s top flight.
It is clear that Monza have taken their foot off the gas a little this term and are a little more conservative when pressing than last season. The step up in quality from the two tiers is the main reason. Howsoever, opponents are still finding it incredibly easy to play over Monza now as their man-orientated pressing system has not changed.
They are pressing in the same way, but less intensely, and against a higher class of opposition. This is a recipe for disaster. Often, Monza’s opponents are bypassing the press by lobbing the ball over it and going man-for-man against the centre-backs.
Roma scored twice by taking advantage of this lapse in structure. As highlighted above, the Giallorossi’s wingback has latched onto a lateral pass played to him and simply hit the ball over the top of Monza’s man-marking midfield and forward line.
As the three centre-backs are all occupied with their own individual battle, there is no cover provided in the case that the central defender loses his duel. In this instance, Tammy Abraham was able to win the battle, run directly at goal, and eventually take a shot which was rebounded into the net by Paulo Dybala.
In the next match against Udinese, an incredibly similar situation occurred, although the Bianconeri were unable to take advantage of the glaring opportunity as Roma had done so expertly.
The idea of man-orientation is that the defensive side go toe-to-toe with the opposition and try to win each individual battle. If you are an Atalanta or even a Leeds, this is maybe more realistic but when you are a side like Monza, with such a vast gap in quality between yourselves and better opposition, this seems like a rather foolish approach.
It would be a true tragedy if Monza were to be relegated. Stroppa is attempting to play some of the best football in the league and actually succeeding at doing so. But results are not coming.
Nevertheless, if you can’t learn to bend, then you will break. The manager needs to decide whether he will tweak his approach, or risk bringing the ship back down after just finally reaching shore because right now, Monza are a stunning Ferrari with the engine of a Ford Focus.