When Empoli returned to the Serie A last season under Maurizio Sarri they did so in style, playing an attractive and attacking game which entertained the neutrals and which lead to Sarri being appointed Napoli manager. Under his successor Marco Giampaolo, Empoli has continued entertaining in a Sarri-like 4-3-1-2 with a midfield diamond.
Empoli have impressed all season with their entertaining passing style and finished the first half of the season with five straight games unbeaten, a sequence which included four straight wins and a draw away at the top of the league Fiorentina. They haven’t been able to withhold those results through the winter months, but are now slowly getting results again. At this present moment they are 12th, an upgrade on last seasons 15th place under Sarri. It makes for an outstanding performance by the club with one of the league’s smallest budgets.
I’ve already touched on the entertaining style and Empoli have been one of the best teams to watch in the Serie A this campaign. Their short-passing quick possession game has been great to follow, and the style revolves around their midfield diamond and the numerical advantages they gain in midfield. Here we take a look at that style.
The shape can easily be seen above. A flat back four, a midfield diamond and two strikers. The positioning of the strikers is what catches the eye, with them splitting quite wide in the defensive phase and the build-up phase as we’ll come to later.
The key to Empoli’s defensive game is compactness. The team is very compact all over the pitch, at all times, to make it difficult for their opponents to play through them. Whether they press high or retreat into a low-block, they’re always compact and close to each other as we’ll see below.
In the game against Juventus, where Empoli dominated for large spells but lost 1-0, Giampaolo set his team up to press Juve high and disrupt their own build-up play. Juve also started with a back three, which made it natural for Empoli’s forwards Massimo Maccarone and Manuel Pucciarelli (both in yellow) to split either side of the trequartista, Riccardo Saponara.
Here we can see them pressing all the way down to Gianluigi Buffon, with Maccarone pressing the goalkeeper and stopping the chance for Buffon to switch sides, Pucciarelli goes tight to Chiellini out wide and Saponara marks the midfielder coming to get on the ball. The positioning of left centre-midfielder Marcel Büchel in the middle of the image stops the pass into another midfielder should Juve get out of the initial press.
Here we again see the starting positions of the strikers and the midfield quartet. See how close to each other they are, with no more than twenty metres between left centre-midfielder Büchel and right Piotr Zielinski. Leandro Paredes anchors the midfield between the two of them.
In the above image, Empoli have forced Juve to their left. Here I want to highlight the compactness between the players, from Pucciarelli pressing Chiellini to the back four (left back Mario Rui is just out of shot). The distance between the midfielders and the defensive line is spectacular, making it impossible for Juve to find passes in the space inbetween.
Chiellini is forced into a longer pass, but the high line of the Empoli defense has already played both Alvaro Morata and Mario Mandzukic offside. Every Empoli player except Maccarone is in this square of 20 x 25 metres, highlighting the compactness of the side. They use a very high line, but they are so well-drilled that they can still feel confident about stepping up.
The problem that will arise when defending in a 4-4-2 diamond is the space outside your midfield in front of your full-back. Normally you will come up against teams playing a full-back and a winger against your lone full-back. Empoli encourage the pass out wide in order to remain compact in the centre, and then the closest midfielder goes out to help the full-back. Above we can see how Zielinski moves out wide to help right-back Luca Bittante, making it 2 v 2 instead of 2 v 1. This type of movement from the wider central midfielders means they must be very fit and energetic in order to keep this kind of workrate up for 90 minutes. Fortunately, Zielinski and Büchel can.
Again, Zielinski out to help Bittante with the rest of the team shuffling across. The distances between midfield and defense are still very short, and the proximity of all the Empoli players makes it difficult for Juventus to play through them.
This is on the opposite side but the same principles, close the middle and force them wide. Midfielders positioning spot on. Paredes always picks up a great position to control the midfield area.
At some point in every game, you will be forced to defend your box. As we can see above this is how Empoli (and most other teams) do it. Right back Bittante is trying to block the cross, with Zielinski giving him support. The first centre-back, Lorenzo Tonelli, covers the first post area, with the second centre-back, Andrea Costa covering the middle area and Rui the far post area. Paredes picks up a position around the edge of the box to prevent a potential cut-back to an onrushing midfielder.
While well-drilled and effective defensively, it is Empoli’s attacking play that catches the eye. They pass the ball well, quickly and with a purpose to move forward. In tight situations they always try to play out, and they do it very well. The back four is all comfortable on the ball, but Tonelli and especially Costa is very good at building up the play. Their main job is to get the ball into the regista Leandro Paredes who is always looking to get on the ball behind the opponent’s forwards.
This is how we normally see them, nothing spectacular or revolutionising at all. The full-backs aren’t overly attacking, and simply move the ball on to the centre-backs, and Costa in particular, to start the attacks.
Paredes about to receive the ball from Costa, behind both Morata and Mandzukic, and is ready to turn and go forward.
Here he is again, now properly turned and facing the Juve midfield. With Juve playing three in midfield, Paredes always found space to turn and was looking to make passes forward. Zielinski, Saponara and Büchel are looking to get on the ball or get in behind the midfield, as we’ll discuss later.
Paredes on the ball again, Saponara has gone deep and drawn Marchisio with him which opened the space for Büchel to run into. Their goal in this phase of their game is to get in behind the Juve midfield to attack the defense, and they do it effectively as you can see here. The numerical advantage centrally help them dominate midfield in this game.
Here Costa plays the ball through instead of Paredes, but note the positioning of Saponara and Zielinski behind Juve’s midfield trio of Roberto Pereyra, Marchisio and Pogba.
Zielinski on the ball here, Büchel (circled) making the run in behind as Marchisio is occupied by Saponara’s position and Pereyra is caught ball watching.
Büchel again making a run in behind as Saponara comes deep. These runs from midfield and the general movement of the quartet makes them so hard to get a grip on and must be a nightmare for opposition midfields to sort out.
Riccardo Saponara is the star of Empoli with 5 goals and 10 assists this season. He plays in the trequartista role at the tip of the diamond, and his movement and understanding of space is spectacular. Here he peels off the shoulder of Marchisio to get on the ball in a dangerous position. Saponara is rumoured to leave Empoli at the end of the season to join Juventus, and has been fantastic all season for the Tuscan club.
As Saponara went off injured in this game, he was replaced by fellow trequartista Rade Krunic, who straight away showcased his knowledge of finding space.
In the final third, it’s common to watch Empoli attack as seen below. Lots of players in a tight area for short passes and combination play to create chances.
Again, Paredes on the ball, looking to make things happen.
Saponara, Pucciarelli and Zielinski all between Juve’s midfield and defense.
If it’s to tight and closed off, Empoli aren’t afraid to work the ball wide for a cross as seen below where Bittante came up on the right. Four players making runs into the box for Bittante to aim at. Maccarone headed this one just wide.
To conclude, Empoli has been a revelation over the last two seasons in the Serie A since being promoted in 2015, and they succeed thanks to an extremely tight and compact defense and an imaginative, creative, energetic midfield. The team is full of confidence and with quality like Saponara, Maccarone, Zielinski and Paredes in the team, Marco Giampaolo’s men will continue to entertain until the end of the season. What happens next year is up in the clouds, as players like Zielinski, Paredes, Büchel and the goalkeeper Skorupski only have loan deals at the club. Additionally, the likes of Saponara and Tonelli are expected to leave in the summer. If they can keep them two, and perhaps one or two of the loan players as well as sign some quality replacements, we might be seeing a top table finish or even a push for Europa League next season. Whatever happens though, Empoli have entertained, and showed Italy how you use a midfield diamond in terrific fashion.