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Master Motta

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February is usually the signal of the start of the business end of a football season. So, having a perfect record this month can provide a massive boost to any team looking to finish the season on a high. Thiago Motta’s Bologna have taken this mantle by heart after winning all their previous five games.

The Petroniani have now got into the top four and find themselves in an intense title race for the European places. With Motta, the team possesses one of the most innovative minds in the game, and this season has been a true reflection of that.

Motta was born in Brazil and, throughout his career, played in Spain, Italy, and France. The Italian has thus picked various traits from this nation’s footballing philosophy to craft his tactics.

So, how did Motta and Bologna produce a winning combination in the current Serie A season?

Bologna 2023-23 tactics 

Bologna’s tactics are an amalgamation of several philosophies. These are the Gegenpressing, the counterpressing (Germany 2014), Tiki Taka, and Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics at Leeds. For starters, during his time in Spain, he learned that the main objective of any game is the ball. So, the main focus was to keep the ball for as long as possible and, if lost, to recover it as quickly as possible.

However, he has combined this with the Italian tactics of exploiting spaces. And this is reflected in Bologna’s stats. They perform better than the Serie A average on Field Tilt and possession. They also are among the top teams in the league on metrics such as total passes (1st) and accurate passes (3rd).

The stats till now perfectly show us a side that loves to have the ball thus allowing their opponents to have as little ball as possible. However, there is one flaw in this assumption: Bologna does not have the quality of players across the squad that can play this system at the same tempo for the entirety of a game.

This means they lose the ball often and also give the opposition plenty of chances in their half. Motta has, therefore, made a brilliant defensive strategy to counter them. The club have made the most tackles in the league. On top of that, they have also conceded the third least goals per 90 minutes (0.88), the third-best in the league.

Thiago Motta Bologna tactics


The reason behind their impressive defensive stats is Motta’s reverence of the counter-pressing method successfully deployed by Germany at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euro under Joachim Loew. In his thesis titled ‘The Value of the Ball – The Instruments of Exchange in the Heart of the Game,’, Motta stated that he was highly impressed by Germany’s willingness to position themselves 5-10 metres near the opponent as soon as they lost the ball.

In his thesis, Motta further stated that ‘the ball is always the focal point of my attention, because I believe that when the team positions itself in a consistent and homogeneous way with respect to the position of the ball, not only do the tactical options of the opposing team automatically reduce, but above all the tactical and physical effectiveness of your team is increased.’

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Bologna 2-7-2 and off-the-ball work 

Five years earlier, Motta caused a stir when he recommended that he would prefer to play with a 2-7-2 system where the goalkeeper should operate as an outfield player, helping his team with passes to conjure up play from the backline. However, Motta’s 2-7-2 was not vertical but rather side to side. This means that the two full backs, along with the wingers, controlled the two wing zones while the two centre backs, the two pivots, and the two central attackers controlled the central zone along with the goalkeeper.

Motta preferred to play the ball more centrally to ensure his team had the maximum possession. And it has worked to significant effect for the team. We have to understand that Motta will sacrifice the speed of his transition for more possession of the ball.

The manager has also brought a new evolution to the game: roaming centre-backs. Pep Guardiola has assigned this role to John Stones at Manchester City, but at Bologna, both the centre-backs are tasked to move forward based on the situation to ensure the team keeps its tactical shape.

Thiago Motta Bologna 2-7-2 tactics


When the keeper starts the ball, Motta will position his centre back to stand on either side of him inside the box. However, one of his midfielders in the double pivot will move forward, leaving his position. However, as soon as the ball starts rolling, one of the defenders rushes forward to fill the space. The motto is simple: dominate spaces and minimise the chances of losing possession.

This is where we return to the three fundamental principles he mentioned in his thesis.

  • A) To obtain a dominant kick, you must not be afraid of the ball.
  • B) For an attack kick you have to want and get possession of the ball.
  • C) The defensive phase must be aimed at the fastest possible recovery of the ball.

We have tackled Motta’s tactics in depth, but now we need to focus on the men successfully implementing this on the pitch.

Thiago Motta Bologna tactics

Bologna players stats 2023-24 season 

One of the main men in the Bologna team is former Bayern Munich man Joshua Zirkzee. The Dutch striker has been a workhorse for the team. His role takes us back to Motta’s thesis, where he made an interesting observation. He argued that at several clubs where he played, he saw technically gifted players looking down upon others who might not be as proficient as them. This led them to play in a way that allowed the so-called less talented players less time on the ball, thus causing stress on the team’s system.

Motta continues stating that this feeling caused attackers not to put in effort for defensive work because they deemed it not as necessary as scoring goals or creating them. Motta said minimising these situations was the key to a team’s success.

Zirkzee is the perfect example of that, as he is tasked with being the first defender of the team, counter-pressing the opposition centre-backs as soon as they have the ball. He has also formed a good partnership with Riccardo Orsolini, the team’s top scorer.

Orsolini is the perfect embodiment of the 2-7-2 system, as is evident by his heatmap. He runs up and down the wing and only comes into the box when he sees a clear opportunity, which he is very good at.

Other top performers include Lewis Ferguson, who has made the middle part of the pitch his own. He is the team’s enforcer and leads the league in most fouls won for his team, which shows his dedication to not losing the ball, something Motta values above everything.

Sam Beukema and Jhon Lucumí have also made the centre-backs spot their own, with the latter being the second-most accurate passer in the entire league.

What Thiago Motta has achieved at Bologna is nothing short of amazing. And if the club qualifies for Europe, teams across the continent will face a team armed with tactics they have never encountered. This could lead to teams picking up a thing or two from them, and that right there is the biggest compliment for the rising giants from the Serie A.

Saumy Deepak Tripathi
A Bayern Munich fan who is deeply in love with football statistics. Has a soft spot for goalkeepers! (well only he knows why). You’ll find him vibing on 70’s classic songs and spends an abnormal amount of time cooking.

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