Il Calcio Italiano is a game of great players, great teams and great myths. It is also a game of great language. As Sam Griswold points out in his article for These Football Times, it’s not a game of positions and passes but of ruoli(roles) and dialogo (literally to dialogue, in football to pass). It’s a language worthy of the many artists that have been described by it, of its registas (conductors) and its autore del gol (goalscorers). Italian football has been so influential that parts of its language have made it into international football’s lingo. However, that means sometimes things can be lost, or mixed, when translation occurs. Such was the case of the role that gets our attention today, the Mezzala.
Words of the game
Few languages have loaned so many specifically coined words to international football language like Italian. Sure, we have German’s gegenpress, Spanish’s galacticos and French’s ballon d’or, but none comes even close to the amount of influence Italian has exerted. The reasons for this are very clear. On the one hand, Italian clubs and the National Team have been incredibly successful. On the other, unlike Spain or France where anglophone words (off-side) or phonetically adapted loan words (córner) are sometimes preferred over translations (fuera de juego and saque de esquina respectively). The question then becomes, why has Italy developed such a wide and specific football language? The answer lies with two very dissimilar sources: fascism and Gianni Brera.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Italy was a fairly young nation with a long story of divisiveness. The fascist party that took power in the early 1920s thought that a great unifier was needed, and turned to sports to do so. The idea of replacing English terms with Italian ones was already present before the arrival of fascism, with La Gazzetta dello Sport suggesting in 1907 that the word “Football” was replaced with the Italian “Calcio”, something that was put in place in 1909 when the “Federazione Italiana del Football” became the “Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio” under president Luigi Bosisio.
Under the fascist regime, however, that process took a whole new dimension. Part of the process known as L’italianizzazione (literally, the Italianization), anglophone words used in the game were replaced by Italian equivalents. Even club names were affected, as Milan Foot-Ball Club (a club that was founded by British ex-pats and therefore used the English word for the city) became Associazione Calcio Milano. It was a fairly innocent change, considering the process forced people and areas with names of foreign origin to change it into an Italianized version, as well as closed any newspaper or publication in different languages and outlawed the use of any tongue apart from Italian. It got to the point where the government ordered to translate all the foreign terms contained in music records into Italian, meaning you could get the latest from Louis Armstrong, as long as you asked for his Italianized self, Luigi Braccioforte.
However, unlike so many processes of similar intentions (ask around how many French speakers use the mandated “courrier electronique” over the good old “email”), this one mostly stuck. To this day, almost 80 years after the fall of the fascist regime in Italy, when a striker falls inside the box, the fans clamour for a calcio di rigore. This means that whilst most football lingo developed around the same words, Italian was doing its own thing.
There is where a visionary like Gianni Brera comes into play. We previously mentioned him as the inventor of the libero, but his influences stretch long and wide across the language of Italian football. Did a manager play mind games in the press conference? Brera would say he was doing pretattica. Did a midfielder leave the striker with a clear cut chance? That was a palla gol in Brera’s words. But perhaps his greatest contribution was the invention of the centrocampista, the midfielder.
Whilst it would seem a fairly common word, the key is in what it describes. Unlike a regista, an incontrista or a fantasista, a centrocampista plays a position and not a role. Most Italian words describe a specific role a player plays within a team, and not necessarily where they do it. Perhaps this is why, when the Mezzala made it into the international football discussion, it was taken to be a role. It was not, at least originally.
A Mezzala, in the strictest of terms, is a midfielder playing on the inside channels the pitch, often offensively like an Inside Forward in a WM, but also like the Halfbacks behind them. When the word came into popularity in recent times, it was used to describe the play of players like Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and (then Juventus player) Paul Pogba, who would maraud from an outside position in a midfield three into the attacking third or into wide spaces. But it was their position that made them Mezzalas (or Mezzale in Italian), not their movement or role.
It’s a curious phenomenon that when you investigate the Mezzala, most of the references go back to Football Manager, and not its original, or current use. Whilst it’s nice to see the influence that FM pulls on the world of football, it made the writing of this article quite harder. How could I pick a Mezzala to analyze when the word could be used to describe wildly different players? It was used to describe Donadoni, who mostly played on the wings in either a 5-3-2 or a 4-4-2, cause he often cut inside to move in the half-spaces. Others used it to describe Seedorf or Davids, fantastic players no doubt but who played largely different roles on largely different set-ups. In the end, I decided to go for a player that was not that often called a Mezzala (I’m guessing most would say he was either a Regista or a Fantasista), but whose play was very similar to FMs Mezzala: Gianni Rivera.
The home of the golden boy
It may be up to debate whether we should call Rivera a Mezzala (I think he was, in the FM definition of the role). What cannot be doubted is what Brera called him, Il Abatino. Inspired by Romantic poet Ugo Foscolo’s line Abatini animum vicendi non habent (The Little Abbot lacks the spirit of conquest), he marked with it his doubts about Rivera’s frame and his capabilities to impose himself in the game. By the time Rivera retired, he had earned a different nickname: Il Bambino d’Oro, the golden boy.
Born in the Piemontese city of Alessandria on the 18th of August 1943, Gianni Rivera was a prodigious talent. Those who saw him play at a very young age describe a player of exquisite ability, who controlled the ball with ease and played with intelligence. After shining with the team of his local church, he was signed by Alessandria Calcio in 1958. He would debut with the club in Serie A at the age of 15 years and 288 days, becoming then the second youngest player to play in the division. By 1959 he was already a staple of the first team and AC Milan would sign him the following year to replace the ageing Juan Schiaffino.
It was under the guidance of Schiaffino himself and Milan manager Nereo Rocco that Rivera would grow into the role of the side’s main playmaker. In that role, he would thrive in Rocco’s Milan fast counter-attacking side, going on to win the 1962 Serie A title and the 1963 European Cup. In between, he would take part in his first international at the age of 18, at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, although he would not play a major role.
As Rocco left to manage Torino in 1963, Rivera became the club’s golden boy, celebrated not only for his feats on the pitch, but for how he carried himself, and the standard to which he held anyone related to Milan. For Rivera, some things, some attitudes, some ideas, were not worthy of the club, the fans and the city, and he would publicly stand up for these beliefs. He defended his home; he loved the city and the city loved him back.
With the Azzurra, however, things weren’t as clear. A dismal performance for Italy in 1966 brought once again critics for the slender built Rivera, despite being arguably the best player in Italy’s infamous defeat to the North Koreans.
By 1967 Rocco returned to Milan, and success returned with him. With Rivera at the helm, one of the all-time great Rossoneri teams would win a Serie A and Cup Winners’ Cup double in 1968, followed by a 1969 European Cup title and then Intercontinental glory later that year. Rivera would also play a key role in the Azurri winning the 1968 European Championship. His injury in the semi-final vs. the URSS however, would prove problematic. When facing the loss of one of his best players, manager Ferruccio Valcareggi decided that his best chance was using Inter star Sandro Mazzola (usually played as a Trequartista) on Rivera’s spot. Mazzola shined, leaving the question mark as to who’d play in midfield for Italy two years later, at the 1970 World Cup.
Entering what would be his third World Cup at the age of just 26, Rivera was expected to shine. However, things quickly turned sour. AC Milan’s Giovanni Lodetti was dropped from the squad at the last minute, with Rivera accusing the Italian Federation and the Head of National Teams Walter Mandelli of starting a campaign to take him off the team. “They didn’t want me on the team”, said Rivera years later, “But then they realized they couldn’t leave me out. I was fit and playing well. It wasn’t Valcareggi, it came from the Federation”.
Whatever the case, the manager’s solution to the weird conundrum of having too much talent would come to be known as the Staffetta, the relay race. Mazzola would play the first half, Rivera the second. With Rivera with “stomach problems” for most of the first stage, it would only come into play in the second stage. Il Abatino would come through fantastically, scoring one and assisting two vs. hosts Mexico, and then again in the Semi-Final vs. Germany. Logic dictated that he’d play in the Final vs. Brazil, but when Italy most needed his creativity, he was left on the bench until the 83rd minute and Brazil won 4-1. “I was worried that Rivera would come on”, later said Pele, “I thought that with Rivera Italy would be more dangerous”.
Whether Rivera, a man who’s said that winning the Milan Derby only meant “being able to spend a week in peace and without controversies”, would’ve wanted to become the icon of a World Cup-winning side remains impossible to know. For him, the game was just a place to be himself, to be free. “Each one of us looks for a place of freedom”, he once said, “Absolute freadom. We all look for it and only a few find it. I find it in football. On the pitch I do what I want, I am truly myself. That’s why I love playing. Football is a game, but life simply cannot be a game”.
The art of simplicity
As I mentioned previously, in picking Rivera I wasn’t looking for a player who carried the “Mezzala” tag, but one who moved and played like an FM Mezzala. It’s not that he was never branded one, but probably that his skill and freedom of movement often granted him more illustrious labels.
Rivera was, however, a Mezzala, and often played like one. Particularly with Italy, where the traditional slanted 4-4-2 of Catenaccio still ruled supreme, he was often used as the left-sided Mezzala in front of the back three and the screening midfielder. Milan’s setup was more of a mix between a traditional 4-4-2 and Catenaccio, but he’d still move into the wings and launch counters from the attacking third.
In the 1969 European Cup Final, Rivera finds space to dribble on the left flank (1). When marked, he cuts inside and spots Angelo Sormani running into space ahead (2) and launches a pass to find him (3).
With the ball at his feet, he would drive forwards in control, either overlapping on his flank for a cross or mixing it with the other midfielders (often Mazzola or Domenghini with the Azurri or Lodetti with the Rossoneri). When getting into the attacking third, he’d look for a pass into space for a striker or look to beat his marker and shoot or lay it off to a free teammate.
Trapattoni spots Rivera overlapping with a run into space (1). Rivera receives the ball and dribbles into the box for a cross (2). Some time later, Rivera starts a counter from Milan’s defensive third; in the background, Lodetti starts his run (3). Rivera cuts inside as the Ajax defence block and press him and spots Lodetti (4). Waiting until the last possible moment, when he’s well and truly surrounded, he launches a pass for Lodetti into acres of space (5).
He would often roam the midfield whilst in defence, looking to remain in space to launch a counter-attack. He wasn’t a workhorse of a marker, but he would still press and haunt ball carriers in his area of the pitch, often recovering the ball by reading the play or taking advantage of bad touches.
In the 1970WC quarterfinals vs Mexico, Rivera follows his men into the left flank (1). When the Mexican player takes the pass, Rivera presses the receiver who had just taken a bad first touch (2), forcing the player to try to dribble his way out of trouble, and allowing Giacinto Facchetti an easy clearing (3).
What comes across whenever you watch Rivera play is the subtlety of his touch, the minimalistic nature of his game. There was no excessive flair, no unnecessary movements; the beauty was in his simplicity to make things happen with little to no fanfare. Take his involvement in Milan’s 2nd goal vs Ajax in the 1969 European Cup Final. The transmission almost misses it, but with one simple touch he’s away from the defence, passing the ball to a teammate and running into space. No hold-up play, no gratuitous step-overs; just a touch, and off he goes. Seconds later, a backheel to assist Prati’s shot was pure art. That was Rivera’s game.
The Mezzala on FM21
Simplicity can be a fantastic thing. It can also be a mess to replicate. We can all through lots of ideas around until something sticks, but how to replicate something that’s so essential, so effortless? How to replicate Rivera’s simple game in Football Manager? Let’s start with the attributes, and build up from there.
We’re looking for a player with masterful control of the ball, who can both cross, pass and shoot, so Crossing, Dribbling, Finishing, First Touch, Passing and Technique will be key. We’ll also need a player who has the smarts and the agility to make those effortless moves, so we’ll add Agility, Anticipation, Balance, Composure, Decisions, Flair and Vision. Lastly, we need someone who’ll be a team player and not a diva, who’ll be able and willing to move and find spaces, to help defensively to the best of his capabilities, adding Off the Ball and Teamwork to the mix.
Our best option, apart from the usual elite players, was Real Betis’ Sergio Canales. The former Real Madrid and Racing de Santander young star has been able to put his irregular form of the past and make a good career out of his indubitable talent. More importantly to us, he matched Rivera’s type of skill set, and his slender, unimposing frame.
For the tactics, I decided to try and replicate AC Milan’s asymmetrical 4-2-4 as we had already taken a look at the Azzurra‘s 5-3-2 on the Libero article. This is what I came up with…
At the back, once again a fairly standard back four, as Italian sides started to move away from Catenaccio. The right-Back is instructed to tuck in and limit their move forwards, whilst on the left we have something more akin to the traditional Terzino Fluidificante, this is, an attacking wing-back. In the middle, the duo of Mezzala and CM-D is joined by a withdrawn Winger on Support to offer width on the right without breaking the shape too much; slightly ahead, an Inverted Winger on Support is meant to cut inside and mix it up with the Mez and also create space for the left-back. Up top, a DLF-S joins the midfield with the attack, whilst a Poacher keeps the defence honest and looks to exploit balls into space.
For the Mezzala, I’ve also added the instructions to look for more direct passes, take more risks when passing and dribble more, to make him a more dangerous creator and dribbler like Rivera was. I initially tried the Mezz on Attack Duty, but then decided to scale it back to Support so he wouldn’t run forwards so aggressively as he was getting too far away from the ball.
Got the moves like Gianni
So how did Canales did in his Mezzala role? I have to say once again I’m very happy with the results. With the team set up to recover the ball in their own defensive third and counter, Canales would often get the ball in deep and run forwards just like Rivera, looking for a pass, shot or lay it wide.
He’d also become the pivoting point of the team, with deep runs from the winger on one side transitioning with Canales into the wing-back on the left, destabilizing in the opposition as the ball swerved quickly from end to end.
Canales was also great at dropping from the attack to help his teammates get out of tight situations, pulling the strings either from the attacking third or the centre of midfield. Not only was he great as a passing option, but would also make fantastic one-two movements and one-touch passes to split the defence open. That great playmaking ability, mixed with the freedom and movement of the Mezzala role, meant he was leading assist charts for both La Liga and the Copa del Rey by the midseason point, with 6 assists on each competition.
If I had to make a single criticism, it’d probably be his lateral movement. Unlike Rivera’s more all-around pitch coverage, Canales would almost always stay on the left flank of the pitch, with incursions into the right side very unusual. This probably has to do with the Mezzala role having strict lateral movement rules in FM, but it also may have something to do with Canales being left-footed, meaning his movement was always going to favour that side. I suspect a right-footed player might’ve cut across to the middle from the left more often.
Gianni Rivera was a fantastic player. Replicating his game to some extent was always going to be a tough ask, but I’m happy with the results. However, as we learned before, his game was not the game of the Mezzala, but that of a Mezzala, an extremely talented one for that. That’s what’s great about that role. From the genius of Rivera to the non-stop dynamism of someone like Davids, and then to the versatility and creativity of Paul Pogba, they can all be described as Mezzalas. As someone who has used the role on several different tactics and teams, I think that magic is perfectly captured by the FM role. Every player brings their best into the role, and that’s something that makes it very special.