The Italian Roles: The Trequartista

Since this Italian Month started, we have moving forwards through the tactics blackboards of il Calcio Italiano. We commenced at the back, talking about the Libero, its defensive excellence and its free runs. We then moved to the defensive third and discussed the Regista, its artistry with the ball and its playmaking creativity. And lastly, we advanced into midfield and examined the Mezzala, its dynamism and its versatility. As this series comes to an end, we venture into the attacking third, or should I say the three-quarters mark, to discuss another artist of la palla di Calcio, the Trequartista.

Death and Rise of the Trequartista

“Trequartista”, like “Mezzala”, is a term that describes a position and not a role. Traditionally, the Trequartista would play in the spot behind the opposition’s midfield, what has now come to be known as the hole or “Zone 14”. They’d use their superior technique and ball control to pull the strings of the attack, and became also known as “Fantasistas”, magic makers.

Serie A during the 80s was almost unfair…

This was possible because the deep defences of the pre-War era and then the 50s and 60s granted them the space and time necessary to orchestrate the attack. The appearance of pressing schemes in the 70s meant spaces started to shrink all across the pitch; yet, the Italian game, with its low block defences and risk-averse game, remained a Trequartista’s oasis well into the early 80s. Il gioco all’italiana even regained elite status when new developments like Trapattoni’s Zona Mista appeared. 

That all ended when Arrigo Sacchi’s revolution brought rigid system-oriented tactics to Italian football in the late 80s. No longer could a player exist outside their team’s plan. The 4-4-2 was the name of the game and Trequartistas were to adapt into roles as second strikers or wingers, else risking becoming outcasts.

Unsurprisingly, the man for whom the system was the key (Sacchi) and the man for whom letting his talent express itself was vital (Baggio) didn’t get along very well.

However, by the dawn of the new millennium, things had once again changed. Sacchi’s protégé, Carlo Ancelotti, had sold Gianfranco Zola whilst Parma manager and refused the signing of Roberto Baggio to replace him. By the time he reached his peak as AC Milan he had given in to utilizing not one, but two Trequartisti in Rui Costa and Kaká.

It was short-lived. By the late 2000s, the eminence of the Anchor Man defensive midfielder had all but killed the Attacking Midfielders of the 4-2-3-1 era, with a move to deep-lying passers (such as Pirlo or Toni Kroos) finding more space to create. With the 3-man midfield still very much one of the favoured schemes, players that would’ve been once considered top Traquartistas like Kevin De Bruyne or Kai Havertz needed to adapt to today’s game. Modern trends have had Attacking Midfielders become much more dynamic, and now rule the half-space, thriving as Mezzalas on the inside channels.

Just 10 years after the borefest of Italia 90, the Euro 2000 was the peak of the modern Attacking Midfielder.

However, we turn back the clock and return to Euro 2000, the height of that new golden age of the attacking midfielder. The likes of Zidane, Rui Costa, Bergkamp, Rosicky, Hagi, Wilmots and Zahovič are taking to the pitch. Italy, however, was probably the best equipped. Repeating a Mazzola-Rivera kind of duopoly, the Azzurri manager Dino Zoff had two mercurial talents at the spot in Juventus Alessandro Del Piero and the man who we’re gonna focus on today, AS Roma’s Francesco Totti.

No other colours

Very few times does a player come to embody a team’s identity so clearly like Er Bimbo de Oro (The Golden Boy) personified the Giallorossi. Totti’s life seemed to be linked with the club and the city itself from his birth. He was born on September 27th, 1976, in the neighbourhood of the Porta Metronia, a third-century gate at the Aurelian Walls of Rome.

From a young age, he was obsessed with the sport, playing inside his house and on the streets. He was already in love with his colours too, a poster of AS Roma legend Giuseppe Giannini hanging on the walls of his room. Whilst playing for smaller sides like Trastevere and A.S. Lodigiani he received offers from AC Milan and even Lazio, but young Francesco wanted none of it. In 1989 the offer he had been waiting for arrived. Ermenegildo Giannini, Giuseppe’s father, was working as a scout for the Giallorossi. “You play like my son”, he told Totti, “You’ll be a champion too”.

Totti debuted with the AS Roma first team on the 1992/93 season, still only 16 years old. By the 1995/95 season, he was a first-team usual, regularly sharing the pitch with his hero Giannini. Il Principe Giuseppe would leave at the end of that season, and after a troubled 1996/97 under Carlos Bianchi, Totti would inherit his number 10 shirt with the arrival of Zdenek Zeman to the Giallorossi.

Under the Czech coach, Totti would reach the peak for the first time in his career, and gained the captain’s armband that’d be his for the next 20 years. He played 61 games in Serie A and scored 25 goals across the two seasons Zeman managed AS Roma. Many hoped these performances would get him a spot in the Italian squad for the 1998 World Cup, but he was snubbed by Cesare Maldini. The next Italian Head Coach would not commit the same mistake. An inspired Totti was key as Italy got into the Euro 2000 final under Dino Zoff.

Totti was sublime during Euro 2000, but nearly drove Italy captain Maldini mad when he announced his intentions of pulling a cucchiaio (a Panenka) to Edwin Van der Sar during the semifinals penalty shoot-out. Of course, he nailed it.

Back from that disappointment, Totti would once again play a vital role as the fulcrum around which the Giallorossi built. Helped by a brilliant side managed by Fabio Capello and featuring the likes of Batistuta, Walter Samuel, Cafú, Candela, Tommasi, and Montella, Totti had brought AS Roma to the cusp of a first Scudetto since in 18 years. Only needing a win to claim it on the final day of the season, Totti has recanted how the travel from the Trigoria training ground to the Stadio Olimpico, often a sluggish drive thanks to the Rome traffic, was done in just 20 minutes. The reason was simple: the stadium doors had been opened early and a crowd of 75 thousand people was waiting for them. They all invaded the pitch when the final whistle was blown on the 3-1 win over Parma that sealed the title.

That would be Totti’s best moment with the Giallorossi. He would go on to win the World Cup with Italy in 2006 (a tournament he nearly missed due to injury), but win no further league titles with AS Roma. Following the 2000/01 Scudetto, the team began a slow collapse towards the end of the Franco Sensi ownership, the economic cost of that championship a toll too high on the club’s finances. 

However, through all of it, Totti’s loyalty would never come into question. He received many lucrative offers, most notably from Real Madrid in 2004, but just as when he was a kid, he wanted none of it. In 2016, nearing his retirement, he visited the Santiago Bernabeu for the last time, so he brought jerseys for all the Merengue squad and board. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, who had tried to sign him during his first spell at the club, asked for a special message. “Dall’unico giocatore che ha detto no al Real Madrid”, signed Totti, “From the only player who said no to Real Madrid”.

Three quarters all the way

Like with the Mezzala article, picking a player to analyze was tricky thanks to Football Manager’s interpretation of the role. This time, however, the problem wasn’t to choose one of a set of players that had played different roles in the same position; rather, I had to find a player that had played the same role in different positions. 

This is because unlike any of the roles we’ve looked at so far, the Trequartista exists in FM in one of four possible spots, that is the AMC (central attacking midfielder), the AMR (attacking midfielder on the right), the AML (attacking midfielder on the left), and the STC (central striker). Simply analyzing one would’ve felt incomplete; to extrapolate how it might work on the other positions based on a single observation would’ve been worse. 

What do you mean this isn’t the right way to test it?

My original plan was to focus on three different players, which would’ve been effectively thrice the work; Totti, who played those three of those positions at different stages of his career, came as a blessing. So that’s our plan. We’re gonna look at Rome’s Golden Boy develop his game throughout his career, as a left-side winger under Zeman, as an attacking midfielder with the Azzurri, and finally as a false nine under Spaletti.

Totti under Zdenek Zeman

The Czech miracle worker arrived at AS Roma following a stint with their derby rivals Lazio for the 1997/98 season. The Giallorossi, recovering from a relegation scare the previous season, needed a revolutionary. Zeman, with his all or nothing, score-one-more-than-them style was precisely that. Most importantly, however, the chainsmoking coach played a vital role in settling Totti’s status in the Romanisti first team, something that had come perilously close to disappearing under Carlos Bianchi.

Zeman’s high pressing, dynamic, passing style remained a constant throughout his two years at the helm of the Giallorossi, with long stints of great football being hurt by an occasional lack of decisiveness and moments of tactical naivety. The switch from Argentinian Abel Balbo to the more dynamic Marco Delvecchio unlocked their attack and gave Totti one of his first great partners.

Totti played as a right-footed winger on the left. “I played Totti on the left so as keep the centrebacks guessing”, Zeman said years later. “From there we could take advantage of his long shots and also protect him from harsh tackles. When he became a forward years later, it didn’t go well for him as he suffered many more tackles”.

Totti receives from a wide position (1) and cuts inside (2) for a long range effort (3)

From the left, Totti would often look to receive in space and use his dribbling skill to wrong-foot the fullback and cut inside for a cross, a shot or a pass into space. AS Roma left-back Vincent Candela took advantage of this movement brilliantly, often overlapping Totti and creating overloads for the opposing defence.

Totti receives from a missed Lazio free kick, and looks to loses his man (1). As he gets swarmed (2) he twists and turns with the ball in close control and manages to draw the foul (3)

Totti would also roam into different positions depending on where space was to be found. He’d also often keep hold of the ball for a moment, allowing teammates like Di Francesco or Cancela to overlap him for a pass or simply hide the ball and take an easy foul for his team.

Totti cuts inside to receive from an overlapping Di Francesco (1) and looks to send a long ball (2&3) for Marco Delvecchio in the box (4)

His inexperience, however, would show, as could Totti can pretty much disappear from the match when the ball isn’t played to him. He was at times unable to take over the match like he would do later in his career. He’d get better at it…

Totti with the Azzurri

It’s highly debatable whether it was Totti’s loyalty that cost him a more laureate career or simple bad luck (Roma did miss on the 2001/02, 2007/08 and 2009/10 titles by 3 points or fewer each time). What it’s clear is that his performances with the Azzurra certainly showed how dominant he could be when surrounded by top talent. However, unlike with the Giallorossi, with National Team he’d always play as a Trequartista. Since we’ve already looked at the 2006 World Cup-winning side, I decided it’d be more interesting to take a look at Totti during his first big tournament with Italy, the Euro 2000.

Dino Zoff’s side played a 5-2-1-2 that looked more like a 5-2-2-1 when Fiore played instead of Del Piero or Montella. Rather unsurprisingly, it drew a lot from Catenaccio and Zona Mista. This was, of course, the goalkeeper that had lifted the European Cup and the World Cup with a sight of Scirea sweeping in front of him, he wasn’t about to play some fancy 4-3-3 and a high press.

Totti’s role largely revolved around finding the right spot to be on at the right moment. From attacking midfield, he’d drop deeper to dictate, move into each flank to facilitate overlaps by Maldini or Zambrotta, or sit on the shoulder of the opposing defenders and play one-twos with the likes of Inzaghi or Delvecchio.

Totti receives a pass into space from Albertini (1). He dribbles forwards with the ball (2) in control and unleashed the ball at the last possible moment (3) to leave wing-back Pessotto with a chance for a clear cross (4&5)

The Final vs France was his masterpiece. With Italy sitting very deep all match long, Totti pulled the strings all over the pitch and was key in every counter, either sending it long for a teammate to run into or dribbling forwards to control the attack on the attacking third. 

After a quick recovery from Italy, Totti gets the ball and drives forward from deep (1), unleashing for Delvecchio (2) who spots Pessotto in space (3). Totti gets the ball immediately (4) and spots Delvecchio, who’s running into space behind the French defense, so he attempts to find him with a scooped pass (5)

He provided a fantastic backheel that started the play for Delvecchio’s goal and set up both Super Marco and Del Piero with clear chances each to make it 2-0 for Italy well into the second half. Bad finishing from his teammates, however, left the match open for a France comeback. Rome’s Emperor would get his revenge six years later.

Totti under Luciano Spalletti

Nowadays, the topic of Totti and his relationship with Luciano Spalletti is an incendiary one. The former Inter and Roma boss is now remembered most for his role in Totti’s last season, when the 40-year-old Capitano was cast into the shadows of the bench, only used sparingly. Ten years before that, however, Spalletti would be the mastermind behind one of the most creative uses of Totti’s skill set.

Around midway through the 2005/06 season, Spalletti (who played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1) found himself with all his striker options injured. Unwilling to compromise on the system or play someone from the reserves, he decided to play with Totti up top, keeping the shape but allowing Totti to withdraw to midfield. 

Having effectively made the formation a 4-6-0. Il Capitano excelled in the role, scoring 15 goals in 24 Serie A matches, and was cemented as the first modern false nine, a role with a history going back to the Wünderteam of the 30s and its star, Matthias Sindelar.

Pulling many of the same tricks he did as an Attacking Midfielder, the difference was in his movement. Totti would decide when to stay up and when to drop into space, dragging the opposing defenders with him and creating space for Mancini, Perrotta or Aquilani to exploit. The wingers would at times lead the attack with the 4-2-3-1 turning into almost a 4-2-4.

Totti drops as Roma recover the ball and receives from Pizarro (1&2). He looks up and finds Perrotta running in behind (3), and sets up a long ball into space (4).

Defensively, the team would sit deep, with Totti staying up to receive a long ball to hold as the counter launched. He wouldn’t press high but rather allow the play to pass him by and then collapsing from behind the ball carrier when the midfield press activated.

Defensively, the team would sit deep, with Totti staying up to receive a long ball to hold as the counter launched. He wouldn’t press high but rather allow the play to pass him by and then collapsing from behind the ball carrier when the midfield press activated.

AS Roma’s 4-2-4 with Totti dropping. I know there’s 8 players in the image, imagine the CBs are between the fullbacks in the back line, it’s not my fault widescreen television hadn’t been invented.

With that very system, AS Roma would come might close to a Serie A title in 2007/08, and achieve three of Totti’s five titles with the club, two Coppa Italia in 2006/07 and 2007/08, and the 2007 Supercoppa.

The Trequartista in FM21

So far we’ve got the story, we’ve got the man and we’ve got the tactics, but how can we take what we’ve learned to the game? Time to find out. 

The first thing we need is a player profile. What type of player we’re looking for? Well, we’re going to need someone with Totti’s dribbling and ball control ability, so we want someone with high attributes for Dribbling, First Touch, Technique, Flair, Agility and Balance. We’re also going to need someone who can replicate his spatial awareness and passing quality, so we add Passing, Anticipation, Off the ball Teamwork, and Vision. Finally, we take a look at Totti’s great goalscoring and set-piece taking skill, so we want Finishing, Composure, Bravery, Decisions and Corners and Free Kicks.

With that, we’ve got some candidates. I was undecided on whether to look for a single player who could take on all the assignments or go for a different player for each role; in the end, I concluded that picking different individuals, and particularly different teams, would allow us to see how the role mutated in different environments instead of having it limited by a single factor. 

Trequartista at AML: Jack Grealish

Aston Villa’s maverick Jack Grealish was an easy choice for an early-days Totti replication. His slim frame and height match a young Francesco’s body and his skillset looks capable enough of pulling the same tricks and movement Er Bimbo de Oro did.

To do so, this was my stab at Zdenek Zeman’s tactics

I’ve got to say I’m pleasantly surprised. Having never used a Trequartista on the wings, I was unsure whether its movement would be in any way similar to that of Totti under Zeman, but it worked very well.

Grealish would often receive wide and deep and then look to make runs into the final third on the inside, allowing the left-back to overlap and create havoc for the defence.

Jack’s touches and passes vs. Everton

He’d also get consistently into positions from where he could create chances either for himself (either looking to take a shot from long range or dribble past the defence) or for others with through passes and crosses. 

Jack’s touches and passes in a win vs. Chelsea

Something that caught me off guard was how often Grealish would run forwards in control during a counter and draw fouls from the opposition, something a young Totti was fairly adept at and I didn’t expect at all. Overall, it was a really interesting experience using a role in a position I previously hadn’t.

Trequartista at AMC: James Rodríguez

This was one that I worried about. Two factors made me uneasy. The first was that since my experience with my Enganche article I was very aware that, following the aforementioned modern trends, the latest FMs have been very “unrewarding” towards pure creators on the AMC spot. Despite adjustments to the ME from FM20 to FM21 to address this issue, I’ve still found certain roles and certain skillsets less productive in that position. James Rodriguez, one of the purest número 10 in the current game was our man for the test.

The second factor was our tactics. I had been made aware during the test of the Regista article how the risk-averse systems of il gioco all’italiana could harm the performance of some of these players. However, try we did; with our Zoff tactics ready, we moved ahead.

This time results weren’t so positive. I found that most of the time James was too far away from the action, either by game developing down the wings, where the wingbacks often thrived or simply because, much like Zoff’s team, we didn’t keep hold of the ball for long enough stints of time.

However, when things clicked, we did get a lot from the Trequartista. James would pick up the ball deep around the centre circle and conduct the counter, dribbling into the defence and pulling the strings on the attack.

James in an iconic 4-0 battering of Liverpool. He was everywhere and proved a key contributor

These stints, nonetheless, proved too few and far between. Contrary to Totti, who acted like a magnet and often stood at the right spot at the right time, the action seemed to move around James, like he was a spectator with the best seats.

James on a bad day could prove essetially a shadow of himself

Much like with the Regista, I feel the setup might’ve been hurting the player, but my experience with AMCs on FM21 tells me there’s not that much to be gained. Either way, it was clear proof that time has moved on from pure creators, and FM has moved with it.

Trequartista at STC: Josip Iličić

We’ve come to our final test, and this was probably the one I was the most curious about. I had previously used a Treq at the STC as part of my FM20 Nacional save, but that was as part of a front two and ended up being very unsuccessful; how would the Trequartista work as a lone striker? I selected Atalanta’s Josip Iličić for the job.

The obvious thing to point out is that the role in which Spalletti’s use of Totti was lauded, the False 9, already existed in FM. That left me wondering how the Trequartista would perform there. Would it be marked by its attacking tendencies and high mentality or would it come closer to what Totti actually did on the pitch? Having found in Iličić someone with the right attributes for the role, this was my take on mid-2000s Spalletti-ball

Results were mixed. On the one hand, I was pretty surprised to see how quickly that 4-2-4 we mentioned formed, with the Mezz taking almost a striker position. However, on most occasions Iličić wouldn’t drop deep enough, operating most of the like a False False 9, where his contribution was mostly supportive but his positioning was quite striker-like.

When the ball did get to him in that spot, however, I did see a lot of what Totti would do with that Roma side, allowing the IW-S, the Winger and the Mez-A to attack the space behind the defence and orchestrating game. He would also often play very pleasant one-touch football, another characteristic of that side.

Josip in a key match vs Inter

Defensively, however, we saw the worst side of the Trequartista role, with very little contribution and very fixed positioning, once again looking like something of a Poacher on Support and not a False 9. I’d be interested to see how it would work with a proper strikerless formation, but I’m hardly a specialist in those and this article is already long enough.

To Conclude

By the time Francesco Totti retired at the age of 41, he was AS Roma’s all-time leading goalscorer, both in Serie A and overall as well as their all-time record appearance maker and tied for all-time Derby della Capitale record goalscorer. He had gone from a kid in Rome with a poster of his hero on the walls of his room to the hero in the poster of hundreds if not thousands of kids. Was he Italy’s greatest modern-era Trequartista? Perhaps not. Baggio’s talent seemed overwhelming, while Del Piero had a more successful (if less spectacular) career. It’s a distasteful conversation to have, and it doesn’t really matter. Totti was, however, the one who performed perhaps the role to its fullest, and more importantly, he loved doing it and did it for a club he loved doing it for. As Zeman himself has said, “He always had something different to the rest. Something perhaps today we are missing: joy. He always had fun playing, no more, no less”.

Published by fromero92

Argentinian writer and journalist

One thought on “The Italian Roles: The Trequartista

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