HomeFootballBologna’s Remarkable Rise | Inside Thiago Motta’s Champions League Quest

Bologna’s Remarkable Rise | Inside Thiago Motta’s Champions League Quest


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Bologna have been the biggest surprise in the 2023/24 Serie A season so far. Last season, the Rossoblù finished in ninth place but manager Thiago Motta’s side have found themselves battling for a spot in the Champions League next season. How have Bologna managed to accomplish this and what is Motta’s role in the recent success?

Bologna are currently in fourth place, three points clear of AS Roma in fifth. Juventus, placed third in the league, aren’t even out of sight yet for the Rossoblù. A spot in Serie A’s top four guarantees Champions League qualification, which means Bologna really have a chance to qualify for the world’s biggest club competition. The fact that Italy is currently leading the race for an extra spot in the Champions League next season, only makes things look better for Bologna.

Manuel Minguzzi, a journalist for Tuttobolognaweb, follows and has been following Bologna for a while. He spoke to Get Italian Football News and he states that he didn’t expect the Rossoblu to be in the top four at this point of the campaign.

“Absolutely not”, he replies. “Last year the team had already changed pace, but they finished ninth, just a few points behind the Conference League spot. That they could progress to fourth place was unthinkable. Credit to the club, who, in the face of three departures – Arnautović, Domínguez and Schouten – still managed to improve the squad. And to Thiago Motta, who’s is doing an extraordinary job.”

The fact that Motta plays a big role in Bologna’ success, is something most people agree on. Motta has been one of the most popular managers in football recently and his impact has been noted far outside of Italy.

“At the start of the season we talked about Bologna because they’re an interesting team and we’ve always seen the potential there”, Serie A commentator and Forbes Sports writer David Ferrini says.

“Motta has been able to identify in each and every player what was needed. He’s all about confidence and structure and wants each player to focus on an their individual game but with a wider view of a team collective.”

Ferrini’ statements get backed by data. Motta is largely working with the same squad as last season, but some key players have, although minimal, made statistic improvements. Scottish midfielder and captain of the Rossoblù Lewis Ferguson, for example, is definitely one.

Ferguson (26) has improved in almost every area of his game compared to last season. The Scott also scored six goals and gave three assists. Juventus are rumoured to be one of Ferguson’s admirers and could make a move for Bologna’s midfield leader this summer.

Riccardo Orsolini (27) has been a regular at Bologna for a few years now. With nine goals and two assists the Italian winger once again proves to be an important factor in Bologna’ success. Orsolini biggest improvements come in the area’s of ‘successful dribbles’, ‘non-penalty goals’, ‘key passes’ and ‘offensive actions’.

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But the players who have improved most, might not even have been discussed yet – Joshua Zirkzee and Riccardo Calafiori. Zirkzee has already managed ten Serie A goals in his second season in Emilia Romagna and his hold-up play has helped Bologna a lot.

“Joshua took advantage of Arnautovic’s transfer to become a starter, changing his mentality and becoming a technical leader”, Minguzzi states. “I call him an attacking midfielder in the body of a centre forward. He has the vision to produce assists but also enormous scoring ability.”

Calafiori is a more recently buy and he only joined Bologna last summer from FC Basel, but the 21-year-old has managed to grow into one of the best defenders of the season so far in Serie A.

“Everyone loves an Italian wingback, but at Roma and Genoa, Calafiori wasn’t fulfilling his potential”, Ferrini says. “Even in Switzerland, he didn’t do that well. Bologna took him on and Motta has been able to make his self-belief increase and his structure is making it easier for players like Calafiori to perform.”

Structure seems to be a key word in Motta philosophy. “His first idea is: let’s not risk doing things that will give an advantage to our rival”, Minguzzi says. “We always bring the game to our principles, we don’t force certain plays if they are not possible. Defensively, if we have the ball, others don’t.”

Minguzzi also thinks Calafiori is one of the big surprises at Bologna so far. “He immediately established himself as a central defender by providing Motta with great defensive readings, but especially an extraordinary ability to initiate action from the defence.”

Motta’s role in the bigger picture

Motta has obviously received a lot of credit for Bologna’s recent rise. And clearly, with him as a manager, many players at the club have managed to reach a higher level. But the question remains as to how much of that is down to the ex-player of Inter, PSG and FC Barcelona?

“It all starts with Motta”, Minguzzi thinks. “The secret is credibility. Clear rules for everyone, without distinction and you earn your starting jersey in training. This has stimulated internal competition and raised the bar.”

Ferrini argues that most players at the top level of most leagues have the potential, but that it just needs to be unlocked. “Motta has been coached by other greats, who are basically psychologists but technically coaches, like Mourinho. He’s been able to unlock it. Gasperini is another coach that been able to do it.” Mourinho and Motta shared some time together at Inter, while Gasperini coached Motta at Genoa. “Motta has been able to take little pieces that he’s learned from these coaches and moved them into his philosophy.”

It brings up an interesting question. Since Motta has been able to maximise the potential of Bologna’ squad, could he do something similar at Juventus, Milan or even Barcelona, clubs he has been linked with. Teams with not a lot of money – at the moment –  but clear potential.

“When you go to a club with players who already are the best in the world, you have to win their respect”, Ferrini thinks. “If you go to Frenkie de Jong for example and try to tell him what to do, you need the CV to back it up. As a player, Motta does, because he’s won a lot of trophies and he played for these clubs.” As a coach, Ferrini is not sure if Motta is already that far in his career.

“If he goes to Milan, I can understand, because they want Zirkzee as well. If he’s bringing the best out of Zirkzee and takes him to Milan to coach him there, I can understand that. Maybe Milan in the best fit”, Ferrini thinks.

Minguzzi says he only sees Motta at clubs where there is a clear technical plan and a well-defined hierarchy. “He wants to have a say and would not accept a big club just for the name. He already turned down Italian Champions Napoli last summer. If you want Motta you have to be clear with him, but convincing him will not be easy at all. And perhaps, I am one of the few who still believe in him staying at Bologna.”

A longer stay at Bologna?

The thought of Motta extending his stay in Emilia Romagna is not as crazy as it seems. Like noted before, there’s a big chance that Italy’s whole top five qualifies for the Champions League next season. “The ultimate test would be to see him in the Champions League against bigger teams and see if he can keep the players performing”, Ferrini states. “But it also depends on if Bologna gets picked apart by bigger clubs in the summer.”

First and foremost, Bologna has to manage to qualify for the world’s biggest club competition. “A lot will depend on the matches against Roma and Napoli away, but Bologna will have to try to score as many points as possible in the upcoming matches against Salernitana, Frosinone and Monza”, Minguzzi argues. “I believe that any qualification for Europe would be a historic event, since Bologna has been missing there for more than twenty years. In case of qualifying for the Champions League, it would greatly increase revenue and this would allow Bologna to be able to convince the best players to stay. That argument also applies to Motta.”

Jurre van Wanrooij | GIFN

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