Benevento could well be the most in-form team in Italy. Unbeaten since November and comfortably top of the Serie B table. This tactical analysis isn’t about right and wrong or an opinion. It is about winning and how it is achieved. It will look at this remarkable run that Filippo Inzaghi and Benevento have been on and whether that run is notable for more than just the winning. It will look at the process behind how they find themselves top of Serie B, 20 points clear of Crotone in second place and the game model, tactics, and philosophy Filippo Inzaghi has implemented that has meant only one defeat in 28 games.
The objective facts of football will never change. Two teams of eleven players try to prevent and score goals to win games.
From here, the subjectivity of the coach and the football club takes over. How you achieve the ultimate objective is cultivated by a belief in the way the game should be played by whichever coach is in the hot seat. If winning is the highest priority then does it really matter what it looks like? If success is paramount to your club do you care if that success clashes with your beliefs on how the game should be played?
In short, this two-part tactical analysis will aim to answer the following questions;
- How do two teams have the same amount of the ball during a game and yet there is such a discrepancy between the outcomes at each end of the pitch?
- What does it really look like when teams mirror their coaches in identity
Club History and Coaching Context
Gli Stregoni or The Sorcerers were promoted to Serie A, for the first time in their history in 2017, after winning the Serie B playoffs. You may remember, they set a record for the worst start to a season in any of Europe’s top five leagues by losing their first 14 Serie A matches. This streak famously ended with a 95th minute equalising header from goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli for a 2–2 home draw against A.C. Milan. Benevento’s time in Serie A lasted one season and they were relegated after a last-place finish in Serie A, although they ultimately won six of their last 23 games.
Filippo Inzaghi took over in June 2019. A world-class, former striker for several Italian clubs, who spent the most notable spells of his club career with Juventus and Milan, winning two UEFA Champions Leagues and three Serie A titles. He is the 7th highest scorer in Italian football history with 313 goals.
Inzaghi started his coaching career at the beginning of the 2012–13 season as the Head Coach of Milan’s reserve team. He was promoted and named manager of Milan’s first team after the dismissal of Clarence Seedorf. From there, Inzaghi guided Venezia to a fifth-place finish in Serie B, finishing in the playoff positions to earn promotion to Serie A After losing in the semi-finals he moved to Bologna, however, following a record of two wins in 21 games, he was dismissed.
It is not an understatement to suggest in this analysis that Benevento has some stats that are quite remarkable that have already been mentioned. As always, these stats tell very few lies and we will look at the major ones with the ball now.
- With the ball Benevento average 1.97 goals per game. This average comes from a chance creation of six per game. Therefore a third of chances created on average end in goals. We will look into this outstanding conversion rate later.
- From an xG standpoint, the figure per game stands at 1.78. Benevento perform slightly above where they should be according to the amount of goals they have scored. This
- They averaged 48% possession so far this season. Less of the ball than the opponent would give you the view that they are a deep to counter attack style team. Their dominance in the final would have to suggest otherwise. Their reliance on longer passes against high pressing teams such as Perugia mean that there are almost two Benevento’s that distort this number a little.
The standard 4-4-2 system has been used by Inzaghi for most of the season. The odd flick into 4-3-3 in one or two games aside it has been normal to find system on show each week.
Christian Maggio and Gaetano Letizia have been almost ever-present on each side of the back four while captain Luca Caldirolta has played in every game to date at centre back. Nicholas Viola and Pasquale Schiattarella have anchored the midfield together for the second half of the season while Roberto Insigne has been a key contributor from right midfield. Massimo Coda has led the line in every game so far and has been a huge part of the attacking threat Benevento poses from crosses into the box. Continuity has been key for them but it is hard to change a winning side. Players like Perparim Hetemaj have made key contributions throughout the season in central midfield, mostly from the bench.
Possession Through the Zones
How they build
Serie B is a league with high energy, excellent defensive structures and organisation and a large emphasis on direct play. This emphasis on the direct play is a result of the high energy and the focus on pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers for chances. Benevento built up under high pressure on 473 occasions across the season to date. This is only on average six times per game. The best way to think about Inzaghi’s process in this third of the pitch is “no risks”. Benevento uses their build-up to play around the opposition rather than through them with a focus on width. This is largely down to the opponent shape, for the most part a midfield diamond with a high pressing focus with two players in the first line of pressure. This lends itself to being easier to go around rather than through.
It is not unusual to find the goalkeeper to play long into the wide forward or a striker coming off the line, usually under pressure from the pressing front two. However, it is the use of the Benevento fullbacks that we will focus on for this area of the pitch.
When they do play out under pressure, this picture is a standard view. Creating distance between an organised pressing team is the key and by going around a compact midfield it enables Benevento to control the pitch and the opposition due to the distances they have to cover to press effectively. They do this by flattening off the fullbacks. In the image above the right full-back is so flat, you cannot even see him. He is in this position to force the left-hand side of the opponent diamond out of position to press the player her would normally be pressing in a more neutral position. Notice the double pivot central midfield players against the opponent #10, these become more important when the ball progresses into the middle third. More of that soon.
Here, the ball now with the fullback in his deeper position you can see the opponent #10 picking up the ball side central midfield player and the ball side of their diamond pressing aggressively. This creates space into the channel where the fullback plays directly into the wide midfield player up against the full-back.
Here in this image, you can see the depth of the backline and how they create distance between the opponent lines. Creating an overload in the first line of possession by using the full width of the pitch is clever as it gives the opponent midfield a tough choice once the ball reaches the fullback. Do you press, covering big distances and risk getting played past, or do you stay compact and give Benevento a free ball carry into the midfield. Those teams that continued to press had some joy as it is difficult to progress the ball forwards from these areas without coming back inside. As we will see later, it is difficult to press together when Benevento loads the top line with numbers in this moment.
Here you can see that Benevento has used their flat fullback on the far side of this picture to release the centreback beyond the pressing front two from Perugia. You can see the tight defensive diamond protecting the centre of the pitch so again the process is to around using the fullback or even bypassing him completely to play into the top line as soon as possible. You can see the ball side diamond player from Perugia already on his way to press the fullback should the ball arrive to him from the centreback.
How they create
Benevento gets the ball into this area of the pitch using the methods stated above. Either longer from the goalkeeper to avoid high pressing teams and the associated risks or by playing around with their fullbacks then progressing the ball forwards from there. In this third it is all about getting the ball into their preferred positions to cross from or get in behind the opponent to create chances to score.
Again the emphasis is on the wide areas but there is a little more influence from the two deep-lying midfield players with the fullbacks now pushing on allowing the wide midfield players to move inside, creating at times a very loaded top line.
It is almost exclusively about getting from these sorts of positions into crossing areas which we will come to next. The two deeper central midfielders control the majority of Inzaghi’s build-up and with the fullbacks pushing higher up the pitch it gives the wide midfielders the chance to move inside and create a midfield box by acting as #10’s.
This image shows exactly this instance. Central #6’s dominating the ball switching to the weak side and encouraging the full-back forwards. Wide midfield player inside, into a pocket of space which encourages the opponent fullback to press the Benevento fullback. The key detail here is the Benevento front two which pin in the opponent backline in and allow the wide midfielder to pick up the ball between the lines. This happening on both sides of the pitch means that Benevento is constantly getting numbers into the box to threaten the crosses that the fullbacks provide.
This attacking structure allows Benevento to also slice open teams when the opportunity arises.
Here, in this image you will see a slight variation. On the ball side, a double up with the full-back and wide midfielder in the wide channel. The opposite wide midfielder inside as a #10 as above. Now though, on the ball side because of the double up in the wide area, the striker comes off the line into the pocket to support the forward progression. Dragging the centreback out of the line could create an opportunity to cross early for a two on two moment inside the box with this scenario.
How they score
This is a graphic of every shot that Benevento has had so far in Serie A. 437 shots in total. What is striking straight away is the density of those shots taken and scored from within the confines of the penalty area. There are 178 efforts on target, the vast majority of those efforts come from crosses into the box from wide areas.
As we explore the ways in which Benevento has created these chances, it is important to have this quote in your head. “That lad must have been born offside”. Sir Alex Ferguson is so famously quoted as saying in relation to Inzaghi’s capabilities as an unconventional forward who cunningly and skilfully snuck in behind defensive lines preying on mistakes or lack of concentration to finish ruthlessly from six yards out over and over again.
If ever a team was created in the image of their leader, Benevento would be right up there with the big names right now. Sure they are less than fashionable and not one for the purists but the ruthless efficiency they create and score with is hard to match.
If you buy enough tickets to the raffle you can win, but its always better to stack the odds in your favor.
It took 89 shots from within this area to produce those 31 goals. Just a tick under one in three goals/chances created which is a gold standard mark for chances created in the top five leagues. What makes that even more remarkable is that only four of those chances were deemed to carry an xG of 0.6, these chances had a 75% conversion rate. Thirty-Eight of those 89 chances carried an xG of 0.2 and below with five goals coming from those chances. Of the thirty-eight mid-ranged chances, twenty-six were on target and fifteen of those were converted. This should give you a much better understanding as to why Benevento has been so much more productive than their opponents, week in and week out and why they possess the record that they do this year. It is also clear that Inzaghi as a player and the team he currently coaches are one and the same in terms of style.
There are three major themes. Crossing, Incisive play to forward runs, set pieces.
As outlined previously in how they create, they get the ball to certain areas of the pitch to create chances in ways that show they have a clear understanding of their game model and work endlessly to achieve the ultimate outcome.
We will now break down each of those themes and look at some key principles within them.
21 goals from a cross. 38% of goals this season have their origins from a ball delivered from wide areas either deep to the far post, where the majority of chances were from second balls or cutbacks to finishes from runners from the second or third lines.
This image shows a scenario played out over 200 times throughout the season. An opportunity created by the Benevento wide midfielders and full backs to deliver the ball from deep into a packed penalty area. There is a real commitment to load numbers into the box in anticipation of balls delivered from these areas. Once it is on its way there is a real trend that the first contact is made by the runners from the second or third lines. The highest line, usually the front players are responsible for knockdowns, poor clearances and outright mistakes to pounce and score. There is an obvious emphasis on tap ins from following up the goalkeepers and for that reason the image below is very telling.
The same themes can be seen again in this image. Cross from deep wide positions with weighted numbers in the box within the width of the goal. Layered attacking lines to give more chance of picking up any knockdown or poor clearance.
Here is a slight variation on the previous chances. The same principles still apply. Runners from within the width of the goal. The runner from the second line makes the first contact. The highest player, currently offside is responsible for knockdowns and tap ins as happens here. Goalkeeper makes a good, low save before seeing the striker, offside, not involved and therefore unmarked at this moment smash home the rebound.
The second variation of crossing style can be seen here. The chance originates from the same area as the chances previously. This is shown by the pass made by the fullback to the runner, usually the wide midfielder who has taken up the pocket position as mentioned in how they create. The constant delivery into the box from this same position allows Benevento to create a second chance like this one. Notice the two runners circled in the box, width of the goal again. The deeper of the two runners, in the second line scores the goal.
Forward runs onto incisive passes
This image, similar to the one previously is another constant theme to the chance creation Benevento has been so effective with. The ball is again played into the widest channel but now is not partnered by excessive numbers in the box at this moment so a runner from deep through the centreback/fullback channel meeting an incisive pass is the answer. Here it results in a goal from the shot. In the later images you will see cutbacks to runners from deep, like the ones pictured in this image.
Here the threat on both shoulders of the ball carrier is the key. He plays his right shoulder for a cut back finish for the two players making it into the penalty area or plays his left shoulder for another chance within the width of the goal. He chooses his left shoulder as the option. Forward run from deep onto an incisive pass for the finish.
Benevento has made set pieces a key aspect to their attacking threat during the season. 264 set pieces that have resulted in 39 shots on target for 11 goals scored. 14% of set pieces resulted in a shot on target. Nothing special about that however, 11 goals from 39 shots still puts Benevento in and around that one in three conversion rate. When you dig deeper, 4 goals from 20 shots come from within the width of the goal, to continue with the same principle as earlier from corners alone but of the 9 that were on target, they scored 44%, an impressive number when none of those chances carried an xG of greater than 0.6.
Three key themes come out from their set-pieces this year. Pods, separation and short options. Without any significant depth to the analysis, these next three images provide a snapshot of opposition defending at corner kicks against Benevento. Mainly zonal in this first image, notice the separation between the runners and again in different lines to create the biggest space possible for the Benevento players to attack. The player at the near post scores the goal here, you’ve guessed it, a rebound off a defender.
Here, again a short option to take another number out of the box. Three separate pods with four different lines of runners, separation between the pods. First contact made by the deepest line before the goal, two shots from rebounds from the two players closest to the goal in this image.
Here, Benevento uses the short option to score. All runners in the width of the goal. Four lines of runners, the separation is now created for the ball carrier with the narrow line. Goal scored by the closest player to the goal. A rebound off the goalkeeper.
Wide free kicks
Benevento treats their wide free-kicks like a free cross. Get numbers into the box, separate the defenders out and create space. The principles don’t change. In these images you can also see the cunning and deception that were hallmarks of their coach’s career.
Here, the key players are the deepest two lines. The two players currently offside are key in the final finish, resulting from a knockdown from the deepest central runner whose run matches the deep inswinging cross about to be delivered. As an aside, it is amazing that opponents are prepared to defend so deep against Benevento in these moments and allow them the opportunity again to buy a ticket to the raffle.
Here the free-kick is delivered from the standard Benevento crossing position. Numbers in the box, first contact made by the deepest runner who heads into the corner after the highest pod, circled create space for him to attack into to meet the cross.
At times of possession Benevento shows themselves to be more than capable of dominating possession in order to carve out chances. The use of the fullback to create the overload in the first line is a nice variation and allows them to spread the pressing opposition out across the pitch. At times it is difficult to progress the ball from these deeper, wider positions hence their reliance and more direct play at times. However the distance opponents have to cover to press in these areas allows Benevento to execute their preference to dominate central areas in the middle third through their box of midfielders. This action attracts pressure to the central areas in order to release the progressing fullbacks into positions to cross from into dominant numbers making their way into the box.
Once the ball gets into the box, either from incisive fullback passes into forward runs from the pocket or from deeper crossing positions, this is when Benevento show their true qualities. Ruthlessness in front of goal is the major difference between them and everyone else. The numbers they get into the right areas and the efficiency they get the ball into these areas is really something. The desire to pick up rebounds and mistakes is linked so heavily into Inzaghi’s style it is strikingly obvious that it is a major part of their weekly work.
Are they enjoyable to watch? At times, when the opportunity arises for sure. They are not for everyone but you cannot help but admire their commitment to the process and their desire to implement the playing style the manager has put in place for them.
In part two, next week, we will explore the other side of the ball, how they have maintained such a watertight defensive line through the season and how much this has contributed to their overall dominance leading into the lockdown.