“…the league in which it is more difficult to score is the Italian one”.
This was the verdict given by Juventus frontman Cristiano Ronaldo to the media when quizzed about which league presented the toughest challenge to the goal scoring machine. Having played in three of Europe’s best football leagues in the English Premier League, the La Liga and now Serie A, while boasting more than respectable scoring figures in each of them, his words must contain some element of truth.
Can we really take CR7’s words as the gospel truth? Is this really a fair verdict of Europe’s top flights or is it merely the justification of a man who has fallen far behind his rival Lionel Messi in this season’s European Golden Shoe race?
The claim that the Italian Serie A is the hardest to score certainly appeals to intuitive logic. After all, the Italians are the founders of ultra-defensive football, originating from the teams of Padova and Internazionale in the 1950s to 1960s. Italian Catenaccio was the term given to the ultra-defensive tactic featuring a five-man backline with four man-marking defenders and one sweeper who clears up any loose balls that slipped through. Catenaccio literally translates to door bolt, and this Italian defensive philosophy has given rise to many world class defences and defenders in Italian football.
Taking a glance at the Serie A champions from 1996 to 2003, it is hard not to notice their remarkable defensive records, as on average, the champions from the period shipped a total of 28.5 goals in a season of 34 games. Iconic defenders of the game were born in this period, with the likes of Juventus’ Lilian Thuram, Inter’s Javier Zanetti and Milan’s Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta taking turns to win the Scudetto.
This prevalence of this defensive philosophy meant that Serie A has traditionally been the stingiest league when it came to goal–scoring, especially when compared to the possession based attacking football widely employed in the English and Spanish leagues. Consequently, Italian teams have the reputation of having ironclad defences in European competitions. Although rarely employed in its whole in today’s game, Catenaccio is still the go to tactic for many Italian teams when push came to shove in the biggest matches and crunch ties.
Currently, if we examine the statistical data of the five big leagues in a 10-year span from 2007 to 2017, Ronaldo’s narrative still holds true. From the table above, the average goals per game ratio for Serie A is the second lowest amongst the five leagues, standing at 2.642 goals per game, which is the lowest compared to the Premier League’s 2.712 and the La Liga’s 2.777 goals per game. However, on the two ends of the spectrum are Ligue 1’s 2.443 goals per game and the Bundesliga’s 2.889 goals per game.
These polar figures can be explained by Ligue 1’s drastic financial inequality as well as the German footballing philosophy in the Bundesliga. In Ligue 1, Qatar funded PSG are heads and heals above the rest of the league when it comes to financial power. To put things into perspective, their Ligue 1 compatriots Guingamp only have an annual transfer budget of £26 million whilst PSG’s capture of Neymar alone commands almost eight times that in one transfer window.
Foreign club ownership is a rarity in the French league, where only top sides such as PSG, Marseille and Monaco have the luxury of transfer war chests. As a result, the lack of investment means the rest of the league do not have the players required to play sophisticated and fluid attacking football. The smaller clubs often employ defensive tactics against the top sides, knowing that it presents the best chance of securing an unlikely result due to the glaring gulf in player quality.
The Bundesliga on the other hand, is known as the breeding ground of German football, with all the clubs boosting amazing youth facilities, coaches and infrastructure to produce next generation German footballers. It is no wonder that the clubs display a same footballing philosophy as their national team with the number of German players in their squad. Efficiency, team movement and possession based attacking football are traits shared by both Bundesliga teams and the national team. As such, games in the Bundesliga are often highs scoring with the belief in efficient attacking football, executed by Germany’s best with the likes of Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, Timo Werner all playing in their nation’s premier football league.
Interestingly, if we were to take a closer look at the figures, the average goals per game for Serie A has increased rather exponentially in the more recent five years between 2012 and 2017, featuring two seasons within the period where they ranked second or better on goals per game ratio amongst the five leagues.
This statistical shift is a direct reflection of tactical changes within the way Serie A teams are now playing. Italian teams are now no longer obsessed with defensive tactics, but are employing fast attacking football in their plays.
This change is embodied none more so than by the rise of Napoli as a powerhouse, from the reigns of both Rafael Benitez and Maurizio Sarri. Benitez laid the foundations for Napoli’s attacking trio of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, while the implementation of ‘Sarri ball’ under Sarri which cultivated Gli Azzurri into a possession based attacking unit, with intricate short passes between passing triangles enabling them to play out from the back seamlessly and to overwhelm oppositions with their one touch football.
Milan are also playing an attractive 4-3-3 under club legend Gennaro Gattuso while needless to say, Juventus’ football has also evolved, often playing with a back three as they look to fully utilize exciting attackers such as Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa.
Besides the top teams, other Italian teams such as Sampdoria and Lazio are also increasingly employing attacking football. Sampdoria under Marco Giampaolo utilities the high press when the team loses the ball, combined with their high defense line. Lazio, on the other hand, plays a back three with midfielders – Senad Lulic and Adam Marusic acting as wing backs on the left and right respectively.
Hence, while the Serie A may just continue to rank amongst the biggest European football leagues in having the tightest defenses, a paradigm shift in the Italian style of football is taking place. If the trend in statistics and tactics are anything to go by, it won’t be long before they join the others in a free display of fast, exciting and attacking footballLeave a comment