Vincenzo Montella experienced his first taste of Serie A management last season when he took charge of Roma after the downfall of Claudio Ranieri, things didn’t quite go to plan though. His record at the club was just about positive, but not enough to convince the new ownership of the former youth coach’s credentials and he was left looking for a new flame in June.
Montella turned up at Catania with positive ideas and, despite his experience being called into question before he’d had a chance to do anything, he has had a relatively positive start to the season so far. However, at one point it looked like the side may have had the carpet swept from beneath their feet before they could even start the season. A disagreement between president Nino Pulvirenti and sporting director Pietro Lo Monaco saw the talent finder, Lo Monaco, attempt to resign before being persuaded to return.
After 13 games last season they had accumulated 17 points, with the help of 4 wins – none of which came away from home – and 5 draws. This season they had already equalled that points tally with one game less, and have already won a game away from home – two weekends ago against Lecce. Quiet confidence would be a reasonable stance to assume. Under the, dour, defensive, and now unemployed, Marco Giampaolo the side scored fewer goals as well – 11 compared to Montella’s 14 – though they had conceded fewer as well. So far so good for the Elephants then.
Tactically, Montella had been expected to retain blind faith in a 4-3-3 formation, but he has shown a great deal of versatility since arriving at the Sicilian club. Catania have turned out in 3 different formations in the last 12 games. The first four games saw the expected 4-3-3 but since then they have played in a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2. The coach has asked them to maintain a high tempo throughout their games and they have pressed with lots of intensity.
Catania’s defensive line provides an interesting base from which to begin dissecting the side. The defensive line has been the Achilles heel, or gaping hole, of the side – particularly away from home where they have conceded 13 out of 18 so far. For the majority of the season so far they have played as a back three. They haven’t yet looked comfortable or organised so far this season and this has caused the majority of goals to be conceded. The heavy defeat to AC Milan (4-0) was underlined by the chaos in the defensive ranks whenever the Rossoneri attacked.
While Legrottaglie is now 35 years of age, his reading of the game is still very good and the rest of the regular back line are young enough to get about: Giuseppe Bellusci (22), Nicolas Spolli (28) and Giovanni Marchese (27). Communication and organisation appear to be a problem, but there have been some encouraging signs. There was evidence of their flexibility against Fiorentina where they morphed between a back three and a back four. In this instance Marchese (left wing-back) and Bellusci (right centre-back) picked up Fiorentina’s wide players when defending, but Marchese pushed on when Catania had possession.
Another concern for the fans, and quirky decision from Montella, is that Davide Lanzafame has been playing as a right wing-back in the majority of the Juventus loanee’s appearances. Lanzafame has been more commonly known to play as an attacking midfielder or winger and this has shown through in his games for Catania. He isn’t disciplined when tracking back and regularly wanders a long way in-field, on every possible occasion. When Lanzafame hasn’t played, we have seen the 28 year old Argentine midfielder, Mariano Izco, who is only a little more defensively sound. This is a problem position for Montella, a problem he may look to address in January.
An unorthodox midfield
Catania have played with a three man midfield in all of their games this season, but it hasn’t been a conventional three man midfield. The expected make-up of a three man midfield is to have a destroyer, a runner and a creative player. Catania don’t have a destroyer, opting instead to play two creative players – Sergio Almiron and Francesco Lodi – alongside the shuttling Gennaro Delvecchio, usually.
Delvecchio, now 33, has come under a hail of criticism for his, admittedly, poor technique and at times shocking footwork. But the man who enjoyed his best spell at Sampdoria a few years ago has a tremendous amount of stamina, and his ability to get forward into space without the ball that adds to the team’s overall attacking play. Defensively he is the closest they have to a destroyer/defensive midfielder, but his tackling lacks the accuracy necessary for this role.
Last season at Bari Sergio Almiron was playing at the base of a midfield diamond. The Argentine can be regarded as something of an incredibly poor and destitute man’s Juan Sebastian Veron. Almiron passes the ball well, his dribbling is also very good – and he’s bald, what more do you want? For Catania Almiron is a player who arrives late into the penalty area looking to get attempts on target or pick up scraps, but he is also instrumental in linking play between the forwards and the rest of the midfield.
The conductor of the side
The star of the midfield trio though is undoubtedly Francesco Lodi. The former Empoli midfielder was nicknamed the ‘Maradona of Catania’ by the Gazzetta dello Sport – a title he has rapidly dismissed as folly, I should add. Lodi has been the Sicilians’ chief orchestrator, and a joy to watch since joining in January 2010.
Lodi possesses the relevant attributes to play in the centre of midfield in front of the defence. According to Massimo Lucchesi’s ‘Attacking Soccer: a tactical analysis’, a central midfielder in a 3-5-2 should have:
“good technical skills, allowing him to organise play” and he will be “tactically intelligent”
From the base of the midfield three Lodi collects the ball and despatches it to all parts of the field. As you would expect, Lodi has the made the highest number of passes attempted of the whole side (680) at an accuracy of 82.8%. They haven’t all been short sideways passes either, with 112 of his attempted passes being long balls of which 90 have been accurate.
His set pieces are also particularly potent, Catania have scored 8 out of 14 goals from set pieces this season. Last season against Lecce he made the difference when Catania were 2-1 down with two goals from free kicks. Lodi admitted that his favourite goal was a free kick he scored against Juventus to level the scores at 2-2 in the 95th minute. Lodi said that it remained his favourite “because I scored it against a champion like Buffon”. Surprisingly, Lodi doesn’t spend as much time as you might expect honing his free kicks:
“When I train during the week, I’ll take more or less ten free kicks, just to keep my foot warmed up”
A robust and diverse attack
Catania’s attack has been what quite predictable, whether playing as a 2 or a 3 man strikeforce. A target man (usually Gonzalo Bergessio , but occasionally Maxi Lopez) flanked by one or two support strikers who will pick the ball up in deeper positions and probe the wide areas.
For the last two seasons much of the responsibility for scoring the goals was on the shoulders of Maxi Lopez. This was a role that often saw him isolated, up to 40 yards away from team mates at times, but he still bagged 19 goals in those 2 seasons. Montella hasn’t chosen Lopez as often as his predecessors, but there have still been rumours linking the Argentine to a mid-season move to AC Milan.
Lopez is very good at holding the ball up and inventing goalscoring opportunities from thin air. He tends to play on the shoulder of the last man and this leads to lots of offside decisions being given against him. His ability to inter link with his team mates is poor though, because his passing isn’t very good. He does, however, produce the odd peach of a goal.
Gonzalo Bergessio secured a permanent move, though, scoring 5 goals in 13 appearances in the second half of last season – vital in Catania’s struggle toward safety. When Bergessio was bought permanently, it appeared that he would be replacing Maxi Lopez – who was due to move to Fiorentina, but while Lopez is still in Sicily, Bergessio has usurped his compatriot’s starting spot.
For Catania Bergessio plays almost exclusively as the most advanced player. Playing on the shoulder of the last man he is able to stretch the pitch for Catania, which contains the opposition defences and produces plenty of space for his midfielders to work in.
A willing runner, who is always ready to gamble, Bergessio doesn’t have blistering pace but makes up for it with superb movement and anticipation. A lot of his goals come from tap-ins because he arrives to meet a cross before the defenders have picked out its trajectory. His 5 goals for Catania last season depict this perfectly.
As well as these poaching tendencies, he has also done very well when holding the ball up and often drifts to the right wing and looks to cross once his team mates arrived. His crossing needs a little more work before he can be satisfied with that skill.
Diamond in the rough
Fans of most mid-table clubs have little to look forward to on match days. Alejandro Gomez, though, is reason enough for anyone to get excited. The 23 year old Argentine joined from San Lorenzo before the start of last season and has been a fixture in the side since. Gomez won the U20 World Cup in 2007, together with the likes of Emiliano Insua, Ever Banega, Maxi Moralez and Angel Di Maria.
Gomez has played just behind the striker and on the right of a forward three this season. The short (164cm) forward is a wonderful dribbler of the ball, with two very quick and skilful feet. He can play his way out of trouble and has provided the second highest number of key passes for the side, though he has just a single assist to show for it so far.
Montella’s first real go at management has been a pleasant and successful surprise so far. The youngest manager in the division has been able to get his side to adapt and play in various formations and at a high tempo. It remains to be seen whether he will retain Maxi Lopez in January, but Bergessio appears to have filled the void anyway.
The fixture list also looks very good for them now that they have played six of the top sides: Juventus, Inter and Napoli at home as well as Fiorentina, Lazio and Milan away. The upcoming games, though, will be against the teams they usually scrap with for positions in the mediocre nether regions of the table. If Catania fail to win enough of these games Montella will come under some considerable pressure, but if they remain focused a top half finish should be the goal for the rest of the season.
You can follow Rocco Cammisola on twitter (@rcammisola).