Going into game week 26, SPAL were on a poor run of form losing their last four league games, with only bottom of the table club Brescia having a worse form than them. Nevertheless, a win against Parma would revitalise this SPAL side and give them much needed hope in their pursuit of Serie A survival.
Parma, on the other hand, went into this game following a mixed bag of results with two wins, one draw, and one loss rewarding them with a position just above mid-table in 9th with a game in hand over their neighbours Bologne who sat 10th.
Due to the uncertainty regarding the Coronavirus, many thought this fixture and indeed the whole game week in Italy was going to be postponed until a further date, however for this weekend all fixtures within Italy were given the green light to go ahead, with the slight adjustment that games would be played behind closed doors which means it was played without any fans. When taking this into account, I believe that the match preparation for both teams would have been significantly impacted and hindered due to the concerns and confusion surrounding the ongoing situation. Also, the home advantage for Parmigiani was no longer much of an advantage due to the non-existent atmosphere which, when watching, sounds demoralising at best. Even so, this tactical analysis will break down the tactics and systems used by both teams as I analyse the effectiveness and strengths within their different approaches.
In this analysis Parma lined-up in their usual 4-3-3 formation featuring Matteo Darmian and Riccardo Gagliolo acting as overlapping full-backs helping to support both Dejan Kulusekvski and Gervinho in the wide areas. Meanwhile, Andreas Cornelius was deployed as the target man, tasked with holding the ball up in the final thirds and using his aerial ability to give his team possession through knockdowns and flick-ons.
On the other hand, SPAL lined up in Luigi Di Biagio’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation offering them with a more compact midfield and greater flexibility defensively, with the added bonus of greater passing combinations and progressive through balls via the five midfielders helping to make them a real threat on the counter. The attacking line was led by Andrea Petagna who was entrusted to take charge of the game and show for the ball as often as possible in order for SPAL to play in between the lines and have a passing option when trying to get the ball out of dangerous areas within their own half.
From the get-go, Parma looked to press the struggling SPAL deep into their own half forcing them to play either backwards or sideways and thus preventing any forward passes. For instance, when SPAL were playing out from the back they were immediately put under immense pressure from the opposition and as a result were boxed in, unable to play the ball in a more favourable position.
Specifically below we can see Kulusevski pressing the ball carrier, while simultaneously his team-mates (in this case Alberto Grassi and Cornelius) are looking to block the passing options. And as a result, the LB has no options but to either clear the ball or take on Kulusevski with the latter being a lot riskier leaving his side vulnerable on the transition if the ball is lost.
Yet even with the pressure on Arkadiusz Reca, he opts to play the ball to his CB in which the same outcome is achieved: all passing options are marked and the ball carrier is being pressed. The end result of this is that Francesco Vicari is forced to clear the ball in order to relieve the pressure off his team. In light of this, we should pay special attention to the pressing formation of Parma, with three players behind Cornelius (the presser) blocking the passing options making it harder for Vicari to find a simple pass and instead he is forced to play long.
We can see a similar example again with Cornelius pressing the goalkeeper while three other Parma players are looking to block all other easy passing options. As a result, Etrit Berisha is forced to kick the ball up-field in the hope that a SPAL player is able to win the aerial duel. It is important to note that this type of pressing intensity helped Parma make 81 recoveries throughout the game, illustrating the potency and efficiency of this system against their opponents.
Furthermore, within their own half, Parma’s pressing is still evident except this time the intensity has somewhat increased with a total of three players pressing the ball.
With the case below we have Darmian, Kulusevski, and Grassi all working together to suffocate the ball carrier of any space forcing him to either play a miss-placed pass or be disposed through a tackle from one of the pressers, allowing the Parma players to play on the transitional break in which they can exploit the spaces left by their opponents. Similar to the last two pictures the additional passing options are once again blocked, this time it is by Gaston Brugman and Jasmin Kurtic who are both doing an excellent job to help with the press despite being some distance away from the ball.
Unlike Parma, SPAL drifted towards a more cautious approach with two blocks of players in the middle of the pitch which helped to prevent Parma from playing expansive football.
This was predominately achieved by blocking the passing options and slowing down the pace of the game. The case in point can be seen below with Parma’s front three acting as the initial block as they cut off the passing lanes. Whilst the second block can be seen with four of the five midfielders who again are closing off any passing options.
Equivalently when the Parma players progressed the ball into the opposition’s half, the SPAL players continued to drop-off replicating the two blocks of players yet again. In the context of the image, the block helped to nullify both Kulusevski and Cornelius by ruling out any potential passes to the forwards and consequently making them redundant in this play.
Due to the positioning of the SPAL players, Parma were forced to play long balls in order to bypass the two banks of players and get the ball in behind the defence. Typically, this was done via overlapping full-backs who looked to stretch the SPAL defence in order to create openings for a penetrating pass or they would look to get into a position where a dangerous cross could be whipped into the box.
When taking SPAL’s defensive positioning into account upon the turnover of possession Parma would look to immediately play long balls into their striker Cornelius with the hope that he could then flick the ball on to a teammate running from deep.
However, in this case, the ball was over-hit allowing Berisha to easily gather the ball. Even so, if the pass was more accurate we can see the possible runs available for Gervinho and Kulusevski to run into in which a shooting opportunity can be created, with the majority of the SPAL players out of position from the previous phase of play.
We can see just how potent this method was for Parma when pulled off.
In the image, once Cornelius receives the long ball the majority of the SPAL players have been by-passed leaving only the back-line in a position to interrupt the play. Effectively a 5 v 4 has been created in favour of Parma and so the chances of a clear-cut opportunity being produced have gone up considerably.
Contrastingly during SPAL’s transitions, they looked to immediately attack the wide areas seeking to exploit their opponent’s attacking full-backs. Due to Parma’s over-commitment during phases in possession, when the ball was turned over the SPAL midfielders would look to break and join the attack, helping to create numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch as well as a chance for combinational play to occur.
Nonetheless, during this counter-attacking phase SPAL were slow to act allowing Parma to get back into their defensive shape. Yet, even with that in mind SPAL had still created a 2 on 1 opportunity against Darmian, in which the ball carrier (Alessandro Murgia) had an opportunity to draw in the full-back, freeing up room for his teammate Mohamed Fares to run onto a through ball.
In spite of this Murgia opted to instead pass to his winger, which consequently meant that the 2 on 1 was now gone.
When in possession Parma would predominantly line up as shown below with a wide back-line offering a variety of passing options in which to build up from. It was also with the addition of Brugman who would often drop deeper to provide additional support.
Looking at the press adopted by SPAL, the positioning of Brugman is vital as when he receives the ball the SPAL press would be temporarily withdrawn from the game, allowing Parma to further progress the attack.
Once their attack had progressed into the opponent’s half and the long ball towards Cornelius wasn’t on, Parma directed their approach into getting the ball out wide to their full-backs where crosses into the box could be made. With that in mind, it’s also important to consider the other passing options that were available for Parma which had the underlying impact of ensuring that the SPAL players couldn’t read where the next pass was going to be played, gifting Parma with a freer rein in possession while simultaneously opening up more options for the players to exploit.
When on the attack SPAL looked to penetrate the Parma defence through quick passing combinations and clever movements off the ball in order to draw in players and create space in the central and wide areas. In the image above the SPAL players are all relatively close to each other in the middle of the pitch which allowed for good link-up play and advancing movement towards the opposition’s box. Notably in the image, the central players have mimicked the shape of a triangle which provides a more durable and influential attacking structure due to the accessible passing angles and opportunities for one-twos to materialise.
This attacking structure can be recognised again with the same triangular framework in place, once more creating gaps and opportunities for the ball to be advanced into.
With regards to this, we have to take particular interest in the significant role of Simone Missiroli during the attacking build-up of SPAL. The Italian midfielder tends to drop in between the defensive blocks, acting as a pivot for his team with the sole purpose of the progression of the ball. It enables Leonardo Semplici’s team to play in between the lines where breakthroughs can be created and balance can be maintained in the midfield area.
This point is further exemplified when Missiroli again drops in between the lines offering support for his team albeit in a much deeper position. Nevertheless, this time his support seems more appropriate due to the positioning of Reca who is isolated and in a vulnerable position next to the touchline, hence how the added passing option provides a vital opportunity for SPAL to maintain possession while simultaneously getting the ball out a dangerous area.
We can also see Missiroli checking over his shoulder looking for passing outlets meaning when he receives the ball the passing motion will already be in process, as the receiver would have been picked out by Missiroli. And even if the passing option isn’t available Mirko Valdifiori has also dropped deep to provide him with further support.
Finally, in the build-up to SPAL’s awarded penalty, the combination of effective passing and of- ball movements allowed the visitors to penetrate the Parma defence and get the ball into the box. It was where they were then able to successfully overload the opposition, leaving them with no choice but to commit the foul. As highlighted earlier, SPAL utilised a triangular formation to create these passing combinations in which dynamic runs could be created off. As a result, a penalty was awarded which was calmly slotted into the net by Petagna giving SPAL the 1-0 lead.
To conclude, despite Parma’s dominance of the game with 55% of the possession and a superior xG of 1.38 compared to SPAL’s xG of 1.07, they were unable to break down the opponents and as a result, they became complacent and overconfident. This allowed SPAL to gradually take control of the game and dictate the tempo in midfield, consequently meaning they created more chances and became a far greater threat to this Parma side.
Overall, it was SPAL who were able to devise the better chances thanks to brilliant combinational play and clinical finishing up front, which gave the Serie A strugglers the edge over their opponents and a much-needed win.