Last summer saw significant managerial change in Serie A, as eight of last term’s ten top-half teams entered the new season with new head coaches patrolling and prowling along their technical areas. For some, such as at Inter and Napoli, it was to continue existing sporting projects with a consistent core kept on the pitch to achieve this, and for others, like Lazio and Roma, it was a change in philosophy and style for the pursuit of bigger and better things, like bringing Champions League football back.
For clubs who opted not to release their managers, had they played their cards right it represented a chance to capitalise on potential adaptation periods of newly-incumbent coaches around them. It was an opportunity to traverse up the table, to develop existing assets while integrating new ones, to maintain the feel of familiarity around the place, to enhance the style and to keep signings in line with the plan in place.
At Bologna, that is exactly what happened. The 2020/21 season ended in a 12th-place position with 41 points from 38 matches, but this term they already have 24 points after the 16th Giornata. It is, therefore, worth delving into what has inspired this uptick in fortune, and what about them captivates this writer so much.
The decision to keep the popular Siniša Mihajlović on has proved sensible, as he approaches a full three years in charge in his second spell with the side. A famously no-nonsense centre back in his playing days, his ideas as a coach carry a similar sense of intensity and bravery, being front-footed on the ball and allow the freedom for personalities to be expressed on the pitch. His status as a leader and mentor also shines through, and his Rossoblú side are well-communicated with directives listened to as one instructs another to be at any given moment.
Furthermore, he has overseen the amalgamation of a recruited core of young talents, blended with a set of experienced assets. The value of trusted leadership figures like Lorenzo De Silvestri and Gary Medel in supporting on and off-pitch a wide range of up-and-comers cannot be overstated, the kind with a fire in them that rubs off on those around them to make this group such a collective.
Favouring a 4-2-3-1 throughout his tenure, Bologna often went to a back-three in construction. This was achieved by the fullbacks breaking symmetry, with the right back, usually Takehiro Tomiyasu or De Silvestri last season, holding back to play as a supporting right-sided centre back as the right winger moved to keep width in a 3-2-5 setup overall. On other occasions, it was a more conventional back-four system with both fullbacks moving up at the same time, the shape resembling a 4-2-4 with the wingers able to move in as said fullbacks took the wider spaces.
Two-and-a-half years of trying-and-testing have formulated this season’s style, the back-three system upheld with De Silvestri as that supporting centre back, and Aaron Hickey cementing his spot as a starter being a forward-thinking, attack-minded left back moving up on Musa Barrow’s outside. It made a shift from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1, with more natural flanking centre backs, a seamless move.
Bologna were also clever in the transfer market. They kept the first-team core consistent with only a handful of major arrivals and departures, including confirming the permanent arrivals of Barrow from Atalanta and centre back Adama Soumaoro from Lille on the back of sound initial loan spells.
Adding to them were fellow centre backs Arthur Theate and Kevin Bonifazi from Belgian side Oostende and Italian second-tier outfit S.P.A.L. respectively, as well as the European homecoming of Austrian firebrand Marko Arnautović from the Far East, and none of these acquisitions have gone to waste.
Even with Tomiyasu’s departure late in the window to Arsenal, seasoned performer Soumaoro has stepped into the right-sided spot of the 3-4-2-1 and offered a balance with 21-year-old Belgian Theate to the left. Theate’s positivity with the ball has earned Mihajlović’s trust quickly, possessing an ability both to carry out of defence into space in front of him if the opponent opposite is not pressing tightly, while in situations where the room around him is restricted, he has the level-headedness and composure on his left foot to thread passes through tight gaps. In November 2021, his impressive form was rewarded with a senior debut for Belgium against Wales.
Arnautović meanwhile is going down as a bargain buy. For a reported €3m fee, his personality is a perfect match with Mihajlović, and in addition to six league strikes his status as a focal-point has opened new avenues for the Veltri to go down. Where Rodrigo Palacio before him frequently drifted to wide-left spaces as Barrow moved on his interior, both in the left half-space and the centre, Arnautović’s rotations with the Gambian forward are lighter as he occupies more central and left interior spaces while affording more licence for Hickey to overlap beyond. Palacio scored five league goals last season, which Arnautović has already surpassed and Barrow has matched.
In midfield, there is a settled partnership between Nicolás Domínguez and Mattias Svanberg in continued growth. Domínguez, the primary pivot, is regularly man-marked but is able in early build-up phases to draw his marker one way and create spaces for the likes of Theate to play out from, and when beyond this stage has the on-ball composure and range to influence direction of play and dictate tempo.
He is adept at zonal defending and covering the blind-side of others moving to press and handles direct dribblers without being put on the back-foot, a nice complement to the energetic, vertically-minded Svanberg who can give a short lane to Theate to carry out from and allow Hickey to hold position or advance in this phase. The Swede is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the division, able in shooting from range as well as making runs on the defensive blind-side to connect to crosses, while in reserve is Emanuel Vignato and Jerdy Schouten who give different dimensions in their own rights.
The main position where Mihajlović is still looking for a mainstay is at right wingback, where De Silvestri and two usual right wingers in Andreas Skov Olsen and Riccardo Orsolini have featured since the back-three shift, but the majority of positions on the pitch are occupied with a good grip. Moreover, a tally of 27 goals conceded is still a bit much despite having more bodies behind the ball than before, and the space behind the wingbacks has been exploited by direct runners, but structurally it is improved on before where there was often abundant room to break.
Bologna’s highest finish since their return to Serie A in 2015 is 10th-place, achieved in Mihajlović’s first half-season with the side in 2018/19, but this squad is talented enough to seal another top-half finish this term. He has been allowed to experiment, to nurture collective growth and to take tactical ideas that work into one, and the show of faith by Joey Saputo to keep his coach when so many others switched is paying dividends. Recently made an honorary citizen of Bologna as a sign of how endeared he is to the people of the city, the hope is strong he can take them to new strengths.