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ZONA MISTA - The Lost Art of Counter-Attacking

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On 06/01/2021 at 04:01, crusadertsar said:

Zona Mista: Trapattoni's Masterclass in The Dark Arts

Or How To Play Disruprively in Football Manager


Zona Mista was not simply a counter-attacking tactic. It was a whole system centered on tactical disruption. That is disrupting, "mucking up" your opponent and generally preventing them from crafting anything productive on the ball. In retrospect, it's unfortunate that this aspect of Italian Game is the reason for its infamy and hate from opponents. But it is also the reason why it was as effective as it was for three decades. It brought multiple trophies to Zona Mista's most successful proponent, Juventus. And its manager Giovanni Trapattoni, the Master of The Dark Arts.

Old Fox and The Creation of Zona Mista

Ideologically, Zona Mista and its biggest proponent, Juventus' manager Giovanni Trapattoni were opposites of Ajax' "Church" of Total Football and its "archbishop", Johan Cruyff. Not surprisingly, Trapattoni and Cruyff hated each other. In a way that is understandable from the philosophical perspective. Their two philosophies were as far apart as possible. And it was a rivalry that was born in their playing days. Famously, Trapattoni recounted that when he faced against Cruyff, and his Total Football-playing Ajax side, he had to resort to "dirty" tactics of pulling on the Dutch star's shirt. Not that Trapattoni was an inherently "dirty" player or manager. He simply believed in a very pragmatic, almost Machiavellian approach to football.


Image: The Battle of Styles: Giovanni Trapattoni's Catenaccio Versus Johan Cruyff's Total Football

As a player he excelled in playing as both a defender and a defensive midfield. He possessed discipline, sportsmanship and, above all, selflessness in his approach to football. His work-rate, ability to win back possession and ball distribution allowed his more offensively-minded teammates to shine. Finally, Trapattoni's man-marking skills were exceptional.

During his playing career with AC Milan, Trapattoni had his education in the dark arts of catenaccio under the manager Nereo Rocco. Rocco was a staunch believer in catenaccio and he transferred this devotion to his protégé. After-all Trapattoni knew from experience that even the best players like Pele or Cruyff could be man-marked out of the game. But at the same time the pragmatist in him knew that for the Italian Game to continue dominating world football, it needed to evolve. Especially in order to deal with the new way of playing and defending (with zonal marking) that Total Football unleashed on the world.


Image: Giovanni "Old Fox" Trapattoni the Manager

So "Old Fox" decided to make Gioco all'italiana more like Totaalvoetbal in order to beat teams playing this way. Thus he introduced the main element of Total Football, its zonal marking, into Catenaccio. And the New Italian Game, Zona Mista (Mixed Zone), was born.

Mixing It Up, Italian Style

"Our football is prose, not poetry." - Giovanni Trapattoni

The mixed marking style is easier to recreate in FM than Catenaccio's pure man-marking system. In Zona Mista it makes sense to have a moderate "closing down" set for the whole team. This instruction will reflect the partial zonal marking employed by Trapattoni's Juventus. At the same time you could tell some of your players like the centrebacks and wide players to man-mark specific players. This will ensure that you shut out the most dangerous opposition out of the game. Usually when faced with 4-4-2 I would tell each of my centrebacks to mark one striker. Then the CWB can focus on their right winger and my right flank tornante will mark opposition's left winger. When faced with a formation employing three forwards (4-3-3) the the centrebacks can mark the two inside forwards and the libero can man-mark the central striker. And my wide players can neutralize their fullbacks.

At the same time as the back four are engaging in man-marking, my four-men midfield will engage in more intense pressing, that is zonal marking. They won't have a specific player to mark but instead will hunt as a pack, trying to recapture possession and launch a counterattack as soon as possible.


So those are the instructions that I will use to recreate this "mixed" marking style.

With that out of the way, I can now focus on the other key elements of my Zona Mista tactic. However I wanted to get one important side-note out of the way first. Although I drew a lot of inspiration from Trapattoni's tactics, this project is not a pure recreation of his style. The Italian Football style as played in the 90s will need to be adapted somewhat in order to be more viable today. Especially against the more prevalent modern high-pressing "gegenpress" systems or ultra defensive park the bus strategies used nowadays. If we did the most accurate recreation possible then it probably wouldn't do any better than original Catenaccio did against Total Football. Although I won't go as far as transforming it into a full high pressing zonal system. That would be closer to what Arrigo Sacchi did, and is a topic for a future experiment perhaps.

Some might ask why I am not using Cautious or Defensive team mentality. Well, I wanted to refute the false claim regarding counter-attacking that I have seen pop up on FM forums. Cautious team mentality does not automatically equate "counter-attacking". In fact you can create counter-attacking style with any team mentality. And instead what is more important to creating counter-attacks is the combination of instructions, roles and most importantly formation's shape.


Finally, I wanted to stay true to my inspiration even if I would try to adapt his tactic for the modern world of football. That is because some of the things that Trapattoni idealized have remained as relevant now as 30 years ago. So here are some of his ideas that I want to integrate into my tactic:

  • "Tactics focused on pressure to recover the ball and then quickly develop the offensive action" - Exerting intense pressure on opposition to recover the ball in your own half. This is the Dark Arts portion of his tactics. Without necessary diverging into "dirty" territory the players need to exert themselves upon the opposition by tackling hard, constantly harassing them and generally making the 90 minutes as unpleasant as possible. In other words, disrupt the other team's game plan to the max. Essentially, "disruptive" tactics can be implemented through the use of such instructions like “Tighter Marking,” “Close Down Much More” and “Get Stuck In". The final aim is to prevent the opposition from asserting their own playing style on the game.


  • "Vertical and violent offensive transitions" - So once the ball is won through disruptive tactics, the team needs to move quickly into offence. The ideal result being quick vertical football with no time wasting. Fluid counter-attacking through the central areas. 
  • "Vertical Play (Gioco Verticale) - Ultimate goal of verticality achieved through very fluid counter-attacking and focus on central play.
  • "Central Play at all costs" - The central area of the pitch, where statistically most possession occurs, needs to be won at all costs. Instead of focusing on the wings, Zona Mista exploits the open spaces behind the opposition's backline through quick "vertical play". This is why the two playmakers, libero and regista, were key element in Trapattoni's plan. Once the ball is won, they ensure that central verticality is maintained. 
  • "The special genius of standout players should also be encouraged and harnessed to the fullest" - Allow full freedom to your creative geniuses to do what they do best. Trapattoni had opportunity to work with both Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio at their prime. And he always ensured that they were given full creative license within the constraints of his very disciplined tactics. We can recreate this by using some creative roles like Roaming Playmaker, Libero and Trequartista. You need to give such players more freedom to roam around and effect the game. Sometimes it might be necessary to switching from our usual disciplined approahc and use "more expressive" instruction to increase the influence of such players even more. This would hopefully help us in breaking the parked buses that we are bound to face in Serie A.

  • Finally Trapattoni always gave special attention to set-pieces. In a way from a statistical perspective it is the one situation where the manager has most influence over a favourable outcome. Something that Helio Herrera would probably agree with. So I will attempt to use set pieces and dead-ball situations to the best of our advantage. 

And here is the final product with all of its instructions which I hope can reflect some of the above ideals of Zona Mista. 


Hope you enjoyed this as much as did it creating it :D All future feedback is welcome! 

Now all I need is to find time to properly test it. But hope that some will find other perfect teams where Zona Mista can flourish again. Ciao!

One thing I am interested in is the libero. May be wrong on this but doesnt it work best with a 2 man central midfield and no playmakers. In this system im not sure hed really be effective. But then is that straying too far from the premise of the tactic?

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Another tip from the Pairs & Combinations guide linked at the top of this forum - the Ball Winning Midfielder doesn't really fit in a shape based system. You are regrouping, deep line, etc. That role is made for a pressing system.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Joey Numbaz said:

Another tip from the Pairs & Combinations guide linked at the top of this forum - the Ball Winning Midfielder doesn't really fit in a shape based system. You are regrouping, deep line, etc. That role is made for a pressing system.

Good point. But I wanted to have destroyer that wasnt a holding midfielder at the same time. BWM on support seemed like best choice. Didnt seem to make sense having a holding midfielder in front of libero. 

And I'm actually using a Mid Block and not deep line "park the boss" block. Look at my instructions. It's supposed to be a mix between a pressing system and a more structured system. The whole point of Mixed Zone.

Edited by crusadertsar
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Just now, crusadertsar said:

Would love to do another one soon but I'm quite involved with my Total Football save. 

Oh ok, just wondering since I saw that you started a new post(love it BTW) before "finishing" this one so I started to get worried that this was over

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11 minutes ago, HurkaDurk69 said:

Oh ok, just wondering since I saw that you started a new post(love it BTW) before "finishing" this one so I started to get worried that this was over

No I intend to go back to this. Just need time to properly test it. Right now I have too many saves and not enough free time :(

Edited by crusadertsar
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Hello there, 

I enjoyed a lot this thread as I used to watch a lot of Italian football since 1991 until 2006. I am back to FM after a long hiatus (last I played was 2009 I think) so I started low with a Romanian newly promoted first division club which I turned into Cup Winner (3 times), Champion winner (first in 2028) and now Champions League groups' team.

My main tactic is largely inspired from Atletico's Simeone because I simply don't like the gegenpress and 4-2-3-1 formations which seem to be the most fashionable. 

However, now  I "built" some academy players to suit a "more Italian" approach. I even had the wide midfielder that created so much debate, there are quite many other Italian players that filled that role (think Zambrotta, Di Livio at first glance). He's an academy product, a complete wing back on attack, sometimes as wing back when I am more conservative. I built him from a very talented FB which played as a starter in my squad from 17 yo mainly midfield roles, including regista/roaming playmaker. Sadly the damn board sold him for a big offer. Anyway, I digress.

Now I am looking to play more in an Italian fashion and build my 3rd tactic based on Italian historical style especially because I have some players that can play in this manner, however, instead on trying to re-create an historical team, I've draw ideas from them and adapted it to a 4-4-2 instead of the system with 3 central defenders, mainly because I might need to switch between tactics during the match without many changes and secondly because I don't like asymmetrical defense (it's fine with attack).

So my team looks like this so far:


                                                   AF (or Poacher or Press)

                        TRQ (AM)


IW                                                                    Winger (Su)

                     Regista               BWM (DM)


                CD-Stopper      BPD-Cover     FB-defend


The FB is used on marking and defensively and acts as a second stopper at times and the winger is closing down opponent and participate a lot in attack. 

I can't use libero in a 4 men defense, however my BPD is also natural as DM/M C and it's going up looking to pass quite often and sometimes is going up and next on the pipe I have a 18 yo BPD central defender as great prospect and he likes to go forward whenever possible hence I'll have a second player able to fill this role.

So far I have mixed results but more because my team is very young  (Regista is 19) but I am still experimenting with the central midfield part. I know a BWM looks odd in an Italian structured team but it's team's captain and it is the position where he shines, also I'm pondering between keeping him on defense setting and let him go a bit up because of his excellent long powerful shot. 

Another thing I consider to pair it with the Regista is to move up my Libero who is a truly remarkable player for his age (20) and it's natural both as CD or DM, to use it as was Desailly was used at Milan in defensive midfielder role.

It is still work in progress but I enjoyed a lot of your thread and I will give it a more careful read, maybe I can draw more ideas out of it. 


Edited by CharlieTZR
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I think the problem is getting the FM libero to work like the actual libero in these tactics. A BPD on cover was definitely something I'd consider. I have noticed in other tactics that BPD can tend to make Registas a little bit redundant as they, more often than not, bypass them completely which then makes the role a bit pointless. Just some things to consider anyways.

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33 minutes ago, Wavelberry said:

Am fancying this as a formation maybe.


What do we reckon?


You said BPD on Cover and then used a Stopper. To recreate a libero you need a sweeper role such as BPD with cover duty

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31 minutes ago, crusadertsar said:

You said BPD on Cover and then used a Stopper. To recreate a libero you need a sweeper role such as BPD with cover duty

Yeah I put the wrong one in like an idiot. :D

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Okay, I have a side that is expected to do poorly in the 7th tier and have just played higher division Chelsmford in a friendly with a tweaked version and the counter-attacking was pretty damned good...






Made a lot of good opportunities and have changed the Treq to a SS because I wasn't getting anything from them as a Treq and have removed the playmaker role as it really wasn't working either. Lots of the best stuff came from my RM combo and I stuggled to get my wingback into the game until I focused play down there and looked for an underlap. Still a work in progress though.

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