UC Sampdoria has impressed many this season with their entertaining style of play and also their ability to pick up results to establish themselves as a top half team. Under the guidance of Marco Giampaolo, Samp has consistently lined up in a 4-3-1-2 shape with a diamond in midfield. Almost identically to his work with Empoli last season, a side he also led to a top half finish while playing entertaining football, the football Sampdoria play is always enjoyable to watch. Here we take a look at the tactics deployed by the Italian tactician who has successfully implemented his positional play on yet another team.
Giampaolo’s side is extremely compact, both in possession and out of possession. The formation perfectly suits the players at Giampaolo’s disposal. Especially among the midfielders in the squad where Giampaolo has quality options at each position. Young Uruguayan playmaker Lucas Torreira competes with experienced ball-winner Angelo Palombo (also an option at centre-back) and deep-lying passer Luca Cigarini for the holding midfield spot. Karol Linetty, Edgar Barreto, Dennis Praet and Ricardo Alvarez are options for the central midfield slots while Bruno Fernandes, Alvarez and Filip Djuricic competes for the number 10 role. Up front, Luis Muriel and Fabio Quagliarella have been complemented by Czech forward Patrick Schick. There are interesting options in defence too with left back Dodo and new Polish defender Bartosz Bereszynski challenging the starting defence of Jacopo Sala, Matias Silvestre, Milan Skriniar and Vasco Regini.
Build up play
Sampdoria are very methodical when building attacks from the defence. They use an interesting mechanism in that the full backs remain deep in the build up. Most teams using a diamond use their full backs to bomb on down either side to provide width and only leave the two central defenders back. Giampaolo did the same thing with Empoli last season though. The full backs remain deep, probably mostly a defensive idea in case Samp lose the ball when trying to move it forward. The four defenders gives the side a solid base and creates access to either wing where central midfielders or the strikers can move to pick up the ball in the space that would otherwise be filled by the full back. Additionally as I mentioned, if the ball would be lost Samp have four players ready to slow down the opposition counterattack and negate the threat.
The defensive midfielder, regularly Torreira, drops deeper than the wider central midfielders to give the central defenders an option. The other midfielders also make receiving movements towards the defenders to get on the ball. This movement attracts marking or pressure from opposition midfielders which opens up the space between the lines that Sampdoria wants their number 10 to exploit. The midfielders are also free to make moves in behind the opposition’s midfield to exploit any vacated space.
Here you see the deep positioning of the full backs and the movement to receive from the three midfielders. Space opens up in front of the right back behind the pressing Juventus-player and Barreto makes the run to empty space. Quagliarella then moves wide from his central position to attack the defender 1 vs 1.
Here is an example of how Sampdoria use short passing to create openings to play the ball in between the oppositions defensive and midfield lines.
Short passing and combination play are key components to everything Sampdoria do in possession. The compact positioning of the players naturally creates the possibility for short passes. The formation also naturally creates triangles and diamonds which see Sampdoria utilise the concept of the third man consistently. The third man’s meaning is very important as this player is also usually “free” from opponents as they focus on the man in possession and the receiver of his pass. If the third man can be reached by the next pass there’s a huge opportunity for him to exploit gaps in the opponent’s defensive structure, as can be seen in the video example below.
Torreira in possession getting pressed and passes to Fernandes who instantly lays it off to the third man Praet.
In this video we can see the same concept again on a number of occasions as Sampdoria quickly move the ball to find the third man in lots of space. In the last part we see how they counterpress, but more on this later.
Creating space between the lines
I’ve already touched on this briefly with the way the three central midfielders drop towards the back four to receive the ball to attract pressure from opponents in order to open up space between the oppositions defensive and midfield lines. The goal is to create space for the number 10 or midfielders between the lines from where Samp will attack quickly with sharp, short, passing combinations. One way to create a passing lane into this space between the lines is through movement from the central midfielders to drag opponents out of position.
In this clip we see how the midfielder moves wide and takes his marker with him. This in turn creates a passing lane from Silvestre to Quagliarella and the midfielder now becomes the third man and can attack from a position between the lines in the right half-space. Also note how the full backs, especially the ball-far full back, pushes on to create width and give an opportunity to switch the play. In this video, the cross comes from the right back.
In this example we see how the movement to receive from Sampdoria’s midfield three attracts marking from Inter’s midfielders. This opens up a huge space from Bruno Fernandes between the lines and Silvestre lifts the ball in to the Portuguese. Although nothing came from this particular situation, the basic concept is clear to see.
As they progress up the pitch, the passing combinations to create free men faced forward becomes extremely important. Torreira can regularly be seen pushing passes through the midfield line of the opposition to try and find teammates in space to receive the ball in a position from where they can combine. The below video is a terrific example of how it can look when it works.
The central positioning of the players mean Samp regularly can be seen with three or more players attacking the penalty area from crosses or cutbacks, which make up a big part of Sampdoria’s chance creation.
Sampdoria create chances from either crosses from full backs, cutbacks after deep runs from midfielders or strikers or from central combinations between the players. Surprisingly perhaps due to the lack of wingers, Samp does use quite a lot of crosses. The following videos show the main way they use their wide play though, cutbacks or low crosses into the penalty area. The strikers are often seen making deep runs into the channels to attack defenders 1 vs 1 and then deliver hard passes into the box.
The last example is a typical attack under Giampaolo as they methodically move the ball around before opening up space in the right half-space channel which they utilise to create a goal scoring opportunity and a goal.
Sampdoria also use central combination play with superb results. The close proximity between the players, the superb movement and timing of their runs make Samp an extremely effective team in both attacking transition and controlled attacks.
Look at that movement from the attacking players.
Quick passing on the left side to attract the defence to the ball and then finding the third man in space after the successful overload.
This is perhaps the most “Giampaolo” goal Sampdoria have scored this season. Fantastic pass through Inter’s midfield to the free man between the lines from where a few quick combinations lead to a shot and goal. Superb central combination play.
Defensively, Sampdoria uses the same 4-3-1-2 formation which can change into 4-3-3 when pressing high up the pitch based on the position the attacking midfielder picks up. In the same way Giampaolo wants the attack to remain compact in regards to their attacking positioning, he demands the same from his defence. Giampaolo uses a zonal marking defensive style, where Sampdoria focus on controlling the central areas (both half-spaces and the central zone) while leaving both wings free. The minimal space between the midfield and back four means Sampdoria are almost impossible to play through.
In this clip you see the compactness of Sampdoria in defence. The back four keeps a perfect line which is a trademark quality of a Giampaolo-coached team. He reportedly works extensively on the movements of his back four and the results are clear to see.
Perfect line again as Icardi is played offside.
In this clip we see how Sampdoria defend crosses. The ball-side full back closes down the attacking player and attempts to block the cross. He is being supported by the ball-side central midfielder. The closest centre-back covers the front post area while the other centre-back defends the central area in front of goal. The ball-far full back defends the back post area with the remaining two midfielders ready to defend cutbacks and win second balls.
Further up the pitch when starting their press, the number 10 sometimes slots in between the two strikers to change the defensive formation to 4-3-3. The forwards block central passes for the opposition and forces them wide where the full back and one midfielder can press aggressively while the rest of the team quickly shifts across to remain compact.
Giampaolo’s team also set pressing traps where they invite switches of play which they intercept and then counterattack quickly.
As those two videos show, when Sampdoria win the ball high up the pitch or anywhere in the attacking half they look to quickly transition from defence to attack with vertical runs and passes to penetrate the opponents unbalanced structure. In these two examples there were two individual runs to exploit space but it could also have been from vertical passes to quickly transition towards the opposition goal. In their own half, Sampdoria tend to want to stabilize the first few passes to gain control.
In defensive transition, Sampdoria sometimes counterpress aggressively as in one of the first videos in this article. I feel they should look to this more often than not since the positioning of the players make them well-positioned to collectively counterpress immediately after the loss of possession. At the moment, there seems to be more the individual action of the closest player when the team actually does counterpress. Instead, Giampaolo have installed a collective approach where Samp retreats into defensive positions to maintain their compact formation and avoid being counterattacked against. It would be intriguing to see whether a more counterpressing approach could be developed further next season as they look well-suited to this style of defensive transition based on the compact positioning of the players.
Marco Giampaolo’s work at Sampdoria has gone largely unnoticed this season but his performance in steering them to a current ninth place is very impressive. Along the way, Giampaolo has led Samp to a derby double over Genoa, winning both matches against Inter and beating Roma at home. The fact he’s managed these results while implementing a very entertaining and tactically fascinating style of positional play makes him a very interesting coach in Italian football. After an excellent season at Empoli last year, Giampaolo has continued his impressive work at Sampdoria. Giampaolo recently signed a contract extension until 2020 so hopefully we’ll see him continue his work at Sampdoria for a few more years before he looks for a new challenge.