Thiago Motta has become one of the most promising coaches in European football, transforming perennial strugglers Bologna in a little over 12 months.
Despite boasting an illustrious playing-career, Thiago Motta’s emergence as a coach was anything but plain sailing. The 2010 treble winner was widely ridiculed following a 2018 interview in which he discussed the idea of playing a 2-7-2 formation, but Motta was in fact referring to the lineup horizontally, with seven players – including the goalkeeper – through the centre of the pitch flanked by two on either side. The misinterpreted quotes were quickly taken out of context to mock the ex-midfielder and they’ve followed him throughout his managerial career.
This placed great pressure upon Motta ahead of his first senior management role at Genoa in 2019, and the former Italy international was sacked just nine league games into his reign – something that was certainly not an anomaly at the Marassi under the tumultuous ownership of Enrico Preziosi. Motta then took charge of relegation-touted Spezia for the 2021-22 season, leading the side to safety despite a transfer ban. His team recorded 10 victories (including scalps at both Milan and Napoli), their outright most in a single Serie A campaign.
Motta, however, was still largely underestimated when appointed as Bologna head coach in September 2022. The club dismissed the late great Siniša Mihajlović, much to the fanbase’s disdain, after winning none of their opening five league games of 2022-23. The ill-feeling grew when Motta was unable to win any of his first four matches, causing an almighty stir at the Dall’Ara.
The Rossoblù had dropped to 17th in the league table, but things soon clicked for Motta. He gradually earned the adoration of the Bologna faithful last season, steering the side well clear of the relegation zone and into the top half. He’d implemented a completely new style of play in Emilia-Romagna, with his possession-based philosophy attracting many plaudits. And rightly so, as Bologna sealed ninth spot in Serie A last term, their highest top-flight finish in 11 years.
Remarkably, Motta’s team have kicked on even further this season, as they occupy fifth place and sit just a point off the top four. In fact, their total of 32 points after 19 games is their best tally at this stage of a Serie A campaign in the three-points-for-a-win era (since 1994-95). This is despite the departures of key players Marko Arnautović, Nicolás Domínguez and Jerdy Schouten last summer. The seven-time Italian champions have been reinvigorated by Motta and the workings of technical director Giovanni Sartori, the architect of the Atalanta team that reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2019-20.
Bologna have developed into one of the most progressive teams in Italy under Motta, who shifted from their previous 3-5-2 system into a dynamic 4-2-3-1. His side look to dominate games and exert pressure on the opposition through control of the ball, with Bologna boasting the third-highest possession share in the division this season (56.8%) while attempting more passes than any other Serie A side (10,175).
Their possession is facilitated by continuous rotations to utilise space and provide progression between the lines. They’ve had 280 open-play sequences comprising 10 or more passes, with only Inter recording more in the league (296). Motta deploys several modern principles, with his side constantly moving to create third-man combinations and provide numerical superiority over the opposition. This enables them to bypass their opponents’ press and work the ball into dangerous positions, with only three teams recording more forward passes than Bologna’s 3,070 in Serie A across 2023-24, and they’ve completed more passes in their own half than any other side in the Italian top flight (4,938).
The team’s patterns of play under Motta are geared towards maintaining possession and acting as protagonists with the ball, explaining how they’ve had the second-most ball touches of any Serie A side this term (13,557), behind only reigning champions Napoli (13,580). Bologna operate with a clear identity and adopt a patient build-up to lure opposition pressure, which is partially demonstrated by them having the second-lowest direct speed upfield in the division this term (1.65 metres per second), with only Monza going about their business in a more considered manner (1.62m/s).
However, after consolidating possession, Bologna then seek to transition with intensity. Their centre-backs are integral as they invert into midfield to create passing lanes, which has been extremely well executed by defender Riccardo Calafiori. The 21-year-old has been one of the revelations of the season at the Dall’Ara. Signed as a full-back from Basel in the summer, Motta has transformed Calafiori into one of the most sought-after central defenders in Italy. He and his central-defensive partner often advance into the opposition half with neat interchanges to set their side on the front foot, though that does not mean Calafiori shirks his defensive responsibilities as only Alberto Dossena (128) has won possession on more occasions than Calafiori (108) among defenders.
Motta’s side then look to attack proactively with vertical passes and rapidly transition from back-to-front. Forward Joshua Zirkzee expertly leads the line, providing a constant out-ball with his terrific hold-up play. He conducts forward moves by dropping deep before threading passes into the paths of forward runners or simply bringing teammates into play, with his 34 successful layoffs this term second only Marcus Thuram’s 35. The 22-year-old’s quick feet allow him to operate in tight spaces as well, prompting many of Bologna’s instinctive free-flowing forays forward.
Key to the Dutchman’s great start to life at the club has been his on-pitch rapport with attacking midfielder Lewis Ferguson. The Scotland international plays just behind the striker and constantly drifts into the half spaces, dragging markers out of position to create space for Zirkzee. But Ferguson offers a considerable threat in his own right. Having recently overtaken the great Denis Law as the highest-scoring Scot in Serie A history after netting his 11th league goal for the Rossoblù, Ferguson has the highest non-penalty expected goals (xG) total (3.84) and joint-most shots (37) among midfielders in Serie A this term.
Meanwhile, Bologna’s wingers maintain their width by hugging the touchline and isolating defenders one-on-one, ensuring only Napoli (26.2 metres) have a greater absolute width per sequence than Motta’s side this season (25.8m). And with Zirkzee operating as a false nine, their dynamic wide players attempt to flood the space left in behind with penetrative runs.
In fact, this ability to alternate attacking movements that instil doubt and disorganise opposition defences is a key facet of Motta’s setup. Bologna boast the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition’s half in Serie A (80.2%), which showcases just how decisive they can be in transition, and yet they manage to maintain a high level of control and resist most urges to go long, with a staggering 91.4% of their passes kept short, the joint-highest percentage in the Italian top-flight (alongside Milan); they are consistently intentional with the ball as they attempt to dictate games rather than rush into decisions. Unsurprisingly then, they have played the third-fewest long passes (872) in Serie A across 2023-24.
But they’re not infallible. Probably their biggest issue this term has been a degree of bluntness in the final third. They have only the 10th highest non-penalty xG (20.1) in the division, the sixth-fewest touches in the opposition box (354) and have played the fewest passes into the box (416).
Furthermore, Bologna have only registered more shots than seven other Serie A teams this season. Sure, their 83 shots on target is the seventh most and they boast the second-best shooting accuracy (50.3%, behind Milan on 52.5%), evidence of them actually being quite effective when opportunities arise, but the overarching issue is a lack of creative ingenuity or subtlety that could be their undoing in the long run.
Certainly, there doesn’t look to be much danger of Bologna’s defence being a problem at this point, as they’ve been one of the most solid sides in Italy’s top tier. They’ve conceded the third fewest goals in the division (16), which is their lowest at this stage of the season since 1979-80 (15 goals). Motta’s team are extremely well organised and tough to break down, conceding the third-lowest xG against this campaign (16.9). They deploy a low block, which is unusual in comparison to the modern concepts that they adopt in possession, and are one of just three sides yet to make an error leading to a goal in Serie A alongside Napoli and Fiorentina. They’ve also faced the fourth-fewest shots on target (64) and their eight clean sheets in Serie A is already as many as they managed in the entirety of last season.
But it’s not just the backline that’s responsible for their impressive defensive record. Bologna defend from the front with their pressing, aiming to suffocate opponents into mistakes. This doesn’t necessarily translate into lots of turnovers in the final third, or high turnovers (115, ranked 15th), because they are often quite deep, but on average Bologna allow their opponents just 11.6 passes before engaging with a defensive action (PPDA), Fiorentina (10.7) and Napoli (11.3) being the only two Serie A teams to press with greater intensity. The Rossoblù have attempted more tackles (326) than any other side, though, further evidence of their spirited approach off the ball.
All the various nuances of their tactical style help identify the reasons behind what has been the best season – so far – for Bologna in recent memory. Three league defeats is their fewest at this stage of a campaign since they last went on to win the title in 1963-64 (one defeat in their first 19 games), and their 10-match unbeaten streak earlier this term was their longest in Serie A since a run between December 1979 and March 1980.
Their assault on the top half of the table, coupled with the fact Motta only has less than six months remaining on his current deal, has turned the heads of several big clubs around Europe. However, Motta is adamant his focus is fully on securing European football for Bologna for the first time since reaching the last 32 of the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup; the Opta supercomputer gives them a 41.1% chance of maintaining their form and finishing in the top six.
Nevertheless, it’s only natural that the ever-dwindling term on his contract at the Dall’Ara contributes to uncomfortable uncertainty for Bologna. All they can do is hope to keep reaping the rewards of one of the most promising head coaches in European football for as long as they have him.
Only one thing’s for certain; no one’s mocking Motta now.