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Zona Mista: When Catenaccio Met Totaalvoetbal

Different football styles inspire many things in us. There is Brazilian Jogo Bonito with its almost sexual joie de vivre. Makes you want to dance samba just watching it. Then there is German Gegenpress with its cold-blooded efficiency. And Italian Calcio which to me personifies romanticism of a simple bygone era. Also Italian football just made sense to me, even as teenager who knew little about football. Score goals and don’t let the other team do it. Actually Calcio from 70s-90s is one of the best jump in points to learn about the complex sport. Even before I got into Football Manager, watching Serie A, made me appreciate the importance of different player roles. In fact, Zona Mista‘s structured approach lends itself perfectly to a computer game recreation. So lets find out what Zona Mista is and why it’s so easy to set up in FM21?

The Italian Game

Those who have been reading my articles for a while probably know of my obsession with Italy. Aside from my blatant Total Football fixation. My love affair with Italian football began in 1999, the year my childhood idol Andriy Shevchenko joined AC Milan. Here he is holding one of the many trophies he would earn while playing in The Boot of Europe. And it was the Italian Game that made him into a star.

To a kid, words in a foreign language evoke a sense of mystery and adventure that transcends the mundane world. To my 13 year-old self that was the case with Italian football. Especially when I watched broadcasts of Rossoneri’s matches. Over time words like Mezzala, Regista, Trequartista, Libero and Fantasista became forever etched in my young impressionable mind. At the time these terms encompassed my whole football world. Simply because Sheva played in Serie A, and Serie A was Calcio. And to me Calcio was football. The only football that mattered. Playing football the Italian way, with its Narrow Diamonds, Christmas trees and three-men defences, made perfect sense to me. In 1990s, I wholeheartedly believed that the best football was played in Italy.

By early 1990s, Zona Mista became commonly known as Gioco all’italiana or simply the “Italian Game”. The literal translation is of course “The Mixed Zone” which alluded to both its defending style and the hybrid nature of the system. Technically “Mixed Zone” name refers to the how this tactical system was an amalgamation of the earlier Catenaccio with its rigid man-marking system and the free-flowing zonal marking of Dutch Total Football. Similarly to Totaalvoetbal, the players were expected to mark zonally and interchange positions with other players. So as one player left his intended zone, his team-mate would cover the newly uncovered area. At the same time Zona Mista retained the strong defensive structure of classic Italian football where defenders (especially Catenaccio’s signature libero) had to double-mark opponents.

Thus this newly evolved system was able to combine the best of two worlds, more flexible zonal marking with the highly structured Catenaccio formation where each player performed a highly specialized and unique role. But this brings us to the question; what exactly was Catenaccio, the predessor of Zona Mista?

Catenaccio – The Art of Winning through a Lethal Blow

Catenaccio, “door-bolt” in Italian, has often been wrongfully associated with “Park the Bus” football. Yet when first implemented by Helenio Herrera at Inter, it was far from his intention to play ultra-defensive anti-football. In fact, when he first took over as the manager of Inter Milan, Herrera came into possession of one of the best teams in the league. A squad with enough offensive talent for a serious title challenge.

I’ve been accused of being tyrannical and completely ruthless with my players but I merely implemented things that were later copied by every single club: hard work, perfectionism, physical training, diets and three days of concentration before every game.

Helenio Herrera

Always a man of extremes and almost unyieldingly religious in his principles, Herrera envisioned a playing style of utter perfectionism. He wanted his team to win, and to win every time. With absolutely no room for error, or giving any chances to the opponent. To Herrera the perfect Catenaccio was always about a lean counter-attack, whereby your first goal essentially spelled the opponent’s doom. Like in fencing, only absolute perfection allowed. And winning through deeper positioning with the final intent of dealing a mortal blow. Not hunkering down in your own penalty area and hoping for a lucky goal.

To illustrate this, we can compare the three football styles traditionally regarded as “defensive”. Possession football when played right could be just as hard to break down as Catenaccio or Park the Bus. Except where Possession Football is an “On the Ball” defensive strategy and Parking the Bus – “Off the Ball” one, Catenaccio is a purely counter-attacking strategy. And I believe its bottom-heavy shape lends itself perfectly to this way of playing. Essentially Catenaccio, and later its Zona Mista evolution, was an Italian take on the good old 4-4-2, which in itself is an ideal formation for launching deadly counter-attacks.

In Trapattoni’s Zona Mista, as in Herrera’s Catenaccio before it, there were typically four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers. Initially that is, since the defining characteristic of “Mixed” system is what lend it its strength, allowing some roles to act both in defence and attack and vice versa. As well as somewhere between the two. Zona Mista may have looked like a simple 4-4-2 on paper, but in action it was a whole different beast. In some ways, through hard work and role flexibility it could achieve some of the characteristics of Total Football, it emulated.

So with that I set the stage for this experiment. Next, we will take a closer look at Zona Mista’s origins. Followed by a peek at two of the specialized roles in a typical Zona Mista.

Misunderstood Genius of Herrera and His Legacy

One cannot discuss Giovanni Trapattoni’s Zona Mista without first looking at the original Catenaccio tactic that it evolved from. And I think Helenio Herrera, the grandfather of Zona Mista, said it best when describing his controversial playing style:

I invented catenaccio, the problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my catenaccio included. I had Picchi as sweeper, yes, but I also had Faccheti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward.

Helenio Herrera

Much of the negative reputation of Catenaccio has come from misunderstanding of its central counter-attacking principle. As mentioned above, it was never an “anti-football” or “park the bus” strategy. At least not in Herrera’s original conception. He was never concerned with drawing a game so his team would not lose. His aim had always been to win easily and efficiently, and win every time. Thus Catenaccio, and later Zona Mista, were never tactics designed for the underdog to draw out a game. Instead the elite Italian clubs of their time, such as Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, used this style to amass a record trophy haul between 1960s to mid 1990s.

Using Zona Mista, Juventus played some of its finest football ever, setting a domestic record of six league titles and two cups in ten years. Juve also carried this success to the international arena. In less than a decade between 1977 and 1985, the club won the UEFA Cup (made even more impressive by the fact that their 1st Team didn’t include any foreign footballers), Cup Winners’ Cup, European Champions Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. This unprecedented achievement made it the first, and so far only, club to win all possible official international competitions.

So that was the legacy of Catenaccio. Something that we forget when we attribute the “anti-football” label to it today. Similarly to his tactics, Herrera himself was often misunderstood. His peers and critics viewed him as a singularly tyrannical and obsessive manager. When in reality he was probably one of the first truly modern managers operating at a time before the era of statistical analysis and VAR. Highly competitive and an utter perfectionist, Helenio Herrera was able to amass quite a trophy cabinet with Inter Milan. All in a mere three years between 1962 and 1965. His wins included 3 Serie A titles, 2 European Cups and a single Intercontinental Cup. And all of these came from using his famous Catenaccio tactics. To maintain this success, Helenio wanted to isolate the winning formula and remove the element of luck from the sport.

I hate it when they ask about being fortunate. I don’t believe in good luck. When someone has won so much in twenty years, can it be fortune?

Helenio Herrera, when asked about luck in sports towards the end of his career. By this time he had 16 domestic and international trophies to his name.

This idea is not so foreign to most current managers who these days benefit more from a course in mathematical statistics then football tactics. While sometimes this single-minded focus on winning carried Herrera into the realm of esotericism (how about shamanistic bonding rituals and pre-game herbal tea?), his focus on player nutrition and conditioning was ahead of its time. To him everything was controllable or could be made better. In the end he simply wanted to give every advantage to his players while neutralizing every opposition chance. All in order to make the probability of winning as close to 100% as possible. Which is to be expected from any manager. But is no simple feat, even today.

“Parry and Riposte” Football

Parry and Riposte – The parry riposte uses the strength of one’s own blade to avoid the opponent’s. After performing it, the fencer then counters the attack with a full-out attack aimed to force the opponent to parry, and allowing you to counter parry the opponent’s blade, and penetrate their next parry to win.

Classical fencing tactic, 18th century

Unfortunately with the passing of time, it’s the ruthless, hard-tackling defending that Herrera’s Inter became famous for. While it was really a means to an end, a first step in the two step approach. Besides the team’s defensive organization when off the ball, the other essential elements of Herrera’s Grande Inter was its use of vertical football and very quick, efficient counter-attacks. These quick aggressive ripostes allowed them to score clinical goals, using as few passes and touches as possible. In complete contrast to their defending, Inter’s counter-attacks, fueled by Herrera’s innovative use of overlapping fullback/winger hybrids happened quickly and suddenly.

This is why I chose fencing imagery to illustrate Catenaccio. Both are not really about defending as much as choosing the right moment to deliver that one lethal blow. Winning a fencing match is all about a perfect counter-attack timing, parry and riposte if you will. You can’t win by purely defending. It is the same with Catenaccio. The formation’s solid defensive core is key because it’s required to “parry” the opponent’s attacks, preventing them from scoring. But to succeed with this style you need to have a perfect striker pairing. One that cannot be stopped once the opposition exposes themselves to your “riposte”. To give an example, let us first look at an example of one such lethal pairing in FM21.

The Beauty and The Beast

Herrera did not want his teams to obsess over dominating possession. He summed up his style as:

A small number of short, very quick passes to get to the opposition’s goal in as little time as possible. There is almost no place for dribbling. It’s a tool, not a system. The ball always moves further, and more quickly, when there isn’t a player behind it.”

Helenio Herrera

Typical in any counter-attacking strategy, the striker pair needs to be able to operate independently, at maximum efficiency. They need to be able to pounce on any chances or half-chances as well as sometimes create their own. Thus ideally their skillsets need to compliment each other and cover all the areas of creation and finishing.

At Herrera’s Grande Inter, the partnership of Sandro Mazzola and Peiro was central to the functioning of the whole tactic. Mazzola’s Secunda Punta position in the team was especially important. On paper he was tasked with filling the Secondary Striker role, but it was actually more complicated then that name might suggest. Because in Calcio, secondary supporting strikers were not like the traditional #11 in English football. In fact later in Zona Mista this became the spot where you played your Fantasista. A creative player like no other, whose very name was inspired by the magic he created on the pitch. Creativity personified if you will. If you are still wondering what exactly fantasista is then take a look at this article or my own examination of the role in FM19.

Sandro Mazzola creating his magic from the front.

Mazzola was indeed a fantasista, a fantastically creative player whose golden touch was only exceeded by his outstanding pace and agility. His main job was to receive and control long passes from the midfield regista and/or libero. And then to immediately feed them to the primary striker, Peiro. Sometimes Mazzola would shoot on goal himself. He actually was a rather prolific goalscorer, due to an excellent eye for goal, and a powerful and accurate kick. Inter’s system relied upon maximum efficiency from its two strikers, as they had to make the best of every chance. But it was largely down to the fantasista Mazzola to turn half-chances and long-shot passes into clear-cut opportunities.

So while the Seconda Punta is creativity and beauty of football personified, the #9 role or the Prima Punta can best be described as “The Beast”. If you have a giant of a Targetman then that is where he should go. Ideally he could use his strength and height to bully opposition defenders when fantasista’s golden touch is not enough. If your Primary Striker also possesses clinical finishing and is quick on his feet then that’s an added bonus. Essentially you want a well-rounded complete striker without actually getting into playmaking territory. In that respect, Seconda Punta should compliment your Beast with his dribbling, technique and creative vision.

Example from FM21

So together your two strikers should be a great team by themselves. To illustrate this lets take a look at Jadon Sancho and “Beast” from the North, Haaland. At Dortmund, they compliment each other perfectly. And if played together can form one of the deadliest striking partnerships in the game. It is not surprising seeing how their attributes look in FM21.

The Beauty:

And The Beast:

Pretty self-explanatory. So now that I defined the kind of football I want to achieve with this experiment, the next update will focus on all the roles within a typical Zona Mista tactic. Thanks for reading and hopefully you guys will stick around to see what made Zona Mista so special.

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Written by crusadertsar


Leave a Reply
  1. Excellent article, I found you through the Shadow Striker article and the stuff you post is genuinely a fun insightful read.
    When it comes to FM though, I wish you can provide more thought on tactical instructions for the team such as patience and tempo or the combination of tempo and directness. I love that you don’t talk about the rest of the roles because it leaves it up to us to set up the rest of the squad accordingly but I would love to know how on the ball tactics can make or break the attack.

  2. Hi Crusadertsar! I often follow your articles but lately I can’t read the comment!

    By the way very good idea, this system seems to be the shape of the future for the european football. Atalanta and Lipsia had developed a very good version of the 3412/3421 with many of these concepts and very clear strategy of player’s recruitment.

    Maybe you can look their match or analysis your formation on the internet. Are very interesting in my opionion.

    Good luck, an Italian fan 😀

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