After two years in the Serie B wilderness, Hellas Verona returned to the top-flight of Italian football for the start of the 2019/20 campaign. Newly-appointed manager Ivan Juric was embarking on his first season with the side and tasked with the sole memo of safety.
But prior to the Coronavirus postponement of football, Hellas Verona were enjoying a fruitful return to Serie A. 8th in the league, four points off European football and with a game in hand, Verona were the underdogs that had taken nearly everyone in Italy by surprise.
The desire to defend
An evident feature in Verona’s success, the want to defend is the fundamental reason for conceding just 26 goals this campaign, the fourth best defence in Serie A. Without this mentality, all ensuing points made in this tactical analysis piece would simply be redundant. The sheer necessity to put bodies on the line, to collectively give everything for the cause, takes precedence over anything else.
At the time of Serie A being suspended, Verona were 8th even with the caveat of a regression in results since February. They had only won once out of their previous five matches, drawing three. But due to their unwavering do-or-die like approach when it comes to defending – which will be highlighted later on in the piece – they had only lost one of those and conceded just three goals in that period.
While it was inevitable a drop-off in results would come, considering Verona are a small side that had been punching well above their weight, their combative, all-action approach has rarely waned. Verona are fourth for distance ran with an average of 109.7 kilometres per game and are joint top for clean sheets (9).
What has made Verona’s defensive solidarity all the more impressive is the consistent changing in formation and personnel. Specifically applying to the modern game, it is generally assumed a successful defence is a stable one. Consistency allows the team ample time to build solid understandings with one another; all of which is conducive to a watertight backline. But boss Ivan Juric perceives that notion differently. Instead, he regularly switches formations and tactics, differing from a 5-2-3 (with various subtleties in attack), to a diamond midfield or even a rudimentary 4-3-3. No matter the formation, the essential principle of defending remains the same for those Verona players.
When Juventus are in comfortable, sustained possession, Verona operate in a defensive middle block, which aims to condense the central areas of the pitch. They can do this due to the short distance between the defence and the forward line, as illustrated in the image. The strikers drop in to add extra pressure to the ball while the backline is resolute in refusing to drop deeper, staying out of the 18-yard box. This, in turn, enables blue shirts to swarm Juventus.
In the second phase of Juventus’ attack, they do manage to get into zone 14 – the area of the pitch that notoriously produces the highest volume of chances. But Verona’s intensity in closing down disarms the threat and the ball is passed back.
13 seconds later in the same attack, Verona’s persistent harrying causes Juventus to lose momentum in their offensive rhythm. Working and hunting in packs to close the ball down, Juventus are forced to go back and find themselves by the corner flag – a much less threatening position than moments previous.
With Sassuolo, Verona are third for successful actions per pressure rate – 29.6%. The peak of those engagements coming in the middle third. Naturally, this is due to their middle block shape out of possession.
A deep-rooted tactical nuance within Verona’s game is their fearless attitude towards defending. It is a unique distinction that has grown to become a feature in every game of Juric’s side. It is a frenzied, chaotic take on the modern front-foot style of defending, where they rely on triggers and inherent confidence in defending 1v1. Within a matter of seconds, Verona’s middle block often goes from being content to sit in shape, to out of nowhere, springing an all-out craze to win the ball back.
From the outside, their helter-skelter style may be perceived as unnecessarily risky, especially if it goes wrong. But for Verona, it is a thoughtful, chaotic form of defending, which has had proven success this season. Verona have the fourth highest tackle rate against dribbles this season at 36.3 percent.
It is also in direct contrast to their pragmatic offensive approach, where they’ve continually found producing chances troublesome. This season, they rank 18th for efforts at goal and have only managed to amass 29 goals in 25 games. Their less than economic production rate only emphasises how significant yet unusual Juric’s interpretation of defending has grown to become.
As stated, triggers play a vital role in the planned anarchy. This season, Verona’s triggers are commonly used when the opposition attempts to play forward.
Demonstrated in the image below against Lazio, Verona are defending in a middle block, condensing the central areas of the pitch. This is led by the tight positioning of the three centre backs and the wing-backs tucking in no wider than the width of the box. They also continue to maintain their reluctance to drop into the 18-yard-box.
But as soon as Lazio attempt a forward pass, Verona’s remit of just to sit in shape and apply gentle pressure, changes. Lucas Leiva’s pass acts as a trigger to press and hunt in packs. Note how the Verona players suddenly become proactive and on the front foot to engage the ball.
Juric’s trigger-based style has had a striking effect on Sofyan Ambrabat, who is a key component to Verona’s out of possession work. Amrabat is 7th in Serie A for defensive actions for players who have played a minimum of 10 games this campaign. This metric is based on accumulating the number of tackles made (Amrabat’s is 1.98 – almost two per game) engagements and blocks on the ball.
For any Verona player, carrying out defensive due diligence is crucial for the team’s overall success. With the side spending just 22 minutes on the ball per game, the role out of possession grows in significance. Each player has to cope with the physical running demands placed on them, combining intensive sprints when closing down and positional outstanding when sat in a shape, to perfection.
Perhaps this was best exemplified in their 2-1 win against Juventus. Verona are constantly gaging the threat of the opposition when out of possession. When Matthijs de Ligt has the ball, Verona are content to defend in their middle block.
But as soon as the ball is played forward, Verona’s trigger movements have already begun.
By the time the ball has reached the intended target, blue shirts surround and go hunting in packs, with six players stepping out of position. It leaves a 1v1 situation at the back against Cristiano Ronaldo. It can be a precarious strategy, especially if Juventus are able to resist the initial burst of the press. But in this game, it caused Juventus’ passing rhythm to be thrown off-kilter.
The emergence of Marash Kumbulla
Counting Man United and Inter Milan as reported admirers, the performances of Marash Kumbulla have been somewhat of a revelation at Hellas Verona this season. Despite only being 20 years of age, Kumbulla is already an integral cog in Juric’s defensive machine. In the games Kumbulla has played in Serie A, they have conceded just 14 goals in 17 games, an efficient rate of just 0.82 per game. In the eight fixtures Kumbulla has missed, Verona have conceded 12 goals, which is a significant increase to 1.5 goals per game. Taken in isolation, that’s virtually twice as many goals Verona have shipped in without Kumbulla on the pitch.
Kumbulla is an archetypal modern defender: composed in possession, an astute reader of the game and blessed with the necessary aggression all Verona players must have. Under Juric, Kumbulla thrives within a three centre-back system, where his progressive passing range often generates attacks. He is the most expressive defender amongst Verona’s ranks, and this season, has been given the licence to carry the ball from deep, thus creating overloads in midfield. Although he’s right-footed, he is mostly utilised on the left side of the back three and has proven to be comfortable in doing so.
Off the ball, Kumbulla typifies Verona’s kamikaze yet deliberate style of defending. He relishes physical tussles and has an unerring desire to be involved in as many defensive duels as possible. Kumbulla engages in twice as many defensive duels per 90 minutes than Matthijs de Ligt. Verona’s academy graduate is involved in 11.58 per game, whereas de Ligt’s defensive battles are more than halved at 5.3 duels per 90. Both have an identical success rate in those duels, winning 70% of them.
Kumbulla’s fearless approach is exemplified in this case against Juventus and Ronaldo. Verona’s left wing-back is out of position which means Kumbulla opts to go across and cover. This results in a 1v1 situation against Ronaldo.
Rather than delay and wait for the wing-back to recover into shape – a decision you would expect a young defender to take – Kumbulla is instead aggressive in his closing down, getting tight on Ronaldo. This forces the ball being played backwards.
But Kumbulla’s bold choice has meant he can now anticipate the pass and make the tackle.
In his 19 games played, Kumbulla’s aptitude for being calm when in direct combat is tangible, and that is shown when observing his tackling metrics. Per 90 minutes, Kumbulla goes to ground at an average of 0.12 per 90, more than six times fewer than Lazio’s Luiz Felipe (0.85). This in itself, underlines Kumbulla’s defensive characteristics of front-foot defending, where he anticipates, rather than reacts. This is not commonly attributed to a defender of his type, where aggressive tacklers are often viewed as erratic or costly. This season, Kumbulla’s discipline statistics suggest he is the exception to the rule, picking up just four yellow cards.
Off the ball recoveries
A striking result of Verona’s refusal to wilt is the frequent nature of their recovery runs. If the original press gets bypassed, Verona’s players have shown an exceptional desire to regain their positions and protect the defence.
Against Leece, Verona commit six players forward but lose the ball high up the pitch. Leece attempt to spring a counter-attack with a direct pass, which takes out all six of the Verona players in the image below.
But within nine seconds of the turnover, three of the players that had been bypassed, make up to a 70-yard recovery and get behind the ball. This ensures the defence is protected and avoids threatening overloads.
The speed of which Verona recover is shown in the example against Juventus below, where a quick turnover in possession has left the Verona backline 2v2. Take note the distance away Verona’s midfield are from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet, despite Ronaldo being widely regarded as one of the quickest, most successful dribblers in world football, Verona’s central midfield pair swiftly cover the ground and catch up with the forward. And through the duo’s ability to put ample pressure on him, it curtails the amount of dribbling space available to Ronaldo.
Quick recoveries enable Verona to recover from an ominous 2v2 situation, not only recovering in balance, but in fact, having an overload defensively. This results in Marash Kumbulla making the tackle and Verona regaining possession.
Pinpoint high-pressing moments
While the Veneto-based side mostly defend in a middle block and place their trust in triggers to create a turnover, they do utilise scenarios in which they can press high.
This is perfectly demonstrated in goal kicks. Before the ball has even left Wojciech Szczesny’s foot, blue shirts are already on the front foot, anticipating the pass out to de Ligt.
Immediately after the centre-back gets the ball, Verona’s forward line has already closed the space down, forcing a hurried clearance. The subsequent pass is loose and provokes a turnover in possession.
Aside from goal kicks, Verona do have another expansion on their customary middle block press. When the ball is in the opposition’s defensive third, Verona attempt to regain possession high, when they feel is appropriate. This creates ball engagements all over the pitch, as shown below.
In the same spell of Juve possession, Verona continue their urgency in winning the ball back as fast and as high as possible. Kumbulla supports the press by moving into a zone you would expect a midfielder to be in. This forces Douglas Costa to receive under pressure, with his back to goal.
Verona’s prolonged pressure and the numerous ball engagements all over the pitch eventually forces Juventus to wilt, and through Costa’s inaccurate pass, Verona regain ownership of the ball.
The 18-yard barrier
Drawing direct comparisons to their desire while defending, when Verona’s middle block shape is breached, they then present another set of problems for opposition attacks. Almost with a degree of ease, Verona habitually form a robust defensive wall, packing the 18-yard box with bodies.
Their steadfast barrier was unmistakable in their 0-0 draw away to Lazio. In the example below, Serie A’s top assist maker Luis Alberto is identified as the creative threat of Lazio, so Verona opt to stay compressed within their 18-yard box and are aggressive in their closing down of the playmaker. This prevents any space for Alberto to exploit.
This happens again in the second half, as Verona’s defence and midfield suppress Alberto further. Having desensitised the threat of Alberto, this causes a direct knock-on effect for Ciro Immobile – Serie A’s top scorer – who becomes starved of service.
The image to epitomise Verona’s attitude to defending is illustrated at this moment against Leece. Despite being on their way to a comfortable victory, Verona once again re-affirmed infallible pride in keeping goals out and in consequence, keeping clean sheets. Nine Hellas Verona players swarm the Leece forward and throw their bodies in the way to collectively make the block. This results in the ball being cleared to safety and their clean sheet intact.
Hellas Verona’s surprise success has been built upon an innate desire to defend and a never say die attitude, where every single player under Ivan Juric is willing to put every ounce of energy into their defensive responsibilities. It is now a tried and trusted formula that utilises good old-fashioned defending whilst incorporating the modern day phenomenon of pressing with triggers and hunting in packs.
Hellas Verona’s defensive cohesion is a motif that is consistently identified in every game, where they just seem to have more shirts on the pitch than the other team. Verona have shown no matter who they are facing, there is a constant thirst to secure total hegemony over their counterparts. Bolstered by individual quality from the likes of Marash Kumbulla and Sofyan Amrabat, Verona are an aggressive, physical side that have supreme confidence in simply being able to outlast any opponent in Serie A.