GdS: False nine, flying full-backs and the ‘pivote’ – Lopetegui’s tactical identity explained

By Oliver Fisher -

It is looking increasingly likely that Julen Lopetegui will become the new head coach of AC Milan, a report claims, and his tactical evolution is one of the factors that has convinced the club.

This morning’s edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport claims that Lopetegui is now the big favourite to replace Stefano Pioli and that Gerry Cardinale has even approved his potential appointment, but how do his teams play?

Lopetegui uses variations on the theme of 4-3-3 and comes from the Basque school that has been doing very well in recent years looking at Xabi Alonso, Arteta, Emery, Iraola, Imanol Alguacil and so on. Lopetegui has suffered ups and downs, things have gone very well and quite badly for him, but no one can accuse him of tactical negligence, or of not understanding football.

On the contrary, he was able to get his teams out of very complicated situations. Three examples above all: Spain after Del Bosque, Sevilla after Emery and Wolverhampton who had sunk into the relegation zone.

He has always set about his tasks based on footballing principles, bringing out the best in players who worked much less elsewhere. The most striking example? Isco.

Formative years

In 2012 and 2013 he won first the U19 European Championship and then the U21 European Championship, the second in the final against Italy.

It was a 4-2 victory, with the following line-up: De Gea; Montoya, Bartra, Iñigo Martinez, Alberto Moreno; Thiago Alcantara, Illarramendi, Koke; Tello, Morata, Isco.

As you can see, there are many players who have since gone on to have excellent careers. Even though it was early in his career, is an excellent example of Lopetegui’s football thinking.

With or without a No.9

We can immediately introduce one of the main tactical characteristics of the Basque coach: the ability to play with or without a pure centre-forward. There was Morata, at Sevilla there was the Dutch great Luuk De Jong (or the Moroccan En-Nesyri), at Porto Jackson Martinez or Aboubakar.

However, with Spain Isco, David Silva and Asensio alternated in the position of false nine, while in Madrid there was Benzema, who is a separate case entirely given he is one of the best strikers of all time.

Lopetegui always adapted to what was available to him. With Spain without a great striker of reference, they reached 20 games without defeat, including 16 victories. Isco in the Bernabeu’s 3-0 defeat of Ventura’s Italy seemed messianic.

At Sevilla, Lopetegui was chosen by Monchi to regenerate a depressed club and to give shape to a team revolutionised by the arrival of 15 new players. Julen rolled up his sleeves and in a few months led the Andalusians to victory in the Europa League in the final against Inter.

Flying full-backs

The second very recognisable characteristic of Lopetegui’s style is the full-backs which push forward, and in a four-man defence this involves greater risks and requires application from all players.

Martin Montoya (who had a brief spell at Inter) and Alberto Moreno were two great promises who made less progress than expected, but in the national team they were two greats.

The likes of Carvajal and Jordi Alba, Marcelo and Jesus Navas, Danilo and Alex Sandro plus Reguilon deserve a mention too. Some of them played their best football under Lopetegui.

The ‘pivote’

A direct consequence of the full-backs pushing up is that a defensive pivot who is able to cover a large portion of the pitch is needed, ideally one who is very intelligent tactically and with great vision of the game.

Lopetegui was the first to fully appreciate Casemiro’s enormous talents when he had him on loan from Madrid at Porto. In the U21 team there was Illarramendi, for whom Madrid paid €40m, initially preferring him to Casemiro. And then obviously Busquets in the national team, or Fernando in Sevilla.

The ‘pivote’ drops between the centre-backs to start the build-up, and jumps to pressing in the event of a loss of possession. If the full-backs push, the wingers move centrally, both in the possession phase and when they have to defend.

This leads to strong and immediate pressure in case of loss of the ball, and to a fluid and rapid circulation of the ball in attack, which is why playing without a pure striker can work.

Tags AC Milan Julen Lopetegui


  1. OK, it says that he beat Inter in a cup competition, which by default makes him an upgrade over Pioli. And that was Conte’s Inter, too.
    I still hold hope for Motta, though. Until he is officially introduced as a Juventus coach, there is still a chance to get him.

    1. Well Pioli does have a couple of wins over Inter and Lopetegui beat an inter that barely started improving with a club that seems to always win the Europa League.
      I’m not really sure how much we should trust a coach who took over a club who as just won 3 UCLs (minus C.Ronaldo) and got himself sacked before November with just 6 wins in 14 games.
      I think Motta is the best coach among those who are rumored to take us, but it seems that the management is more focused on trying to get an obedient pawn who won cause them trouble rather that a figure who might elevate the club.

  2. I guess all of you have followed his work and he has succeeded in all the clubs he coached.. I swear if these rumours are true we are truly pathetic- Giampaolo repeating all over again. And to the writer of this article – comparing him to the likes of these coaches is hilarious. Saying Carvajal and Alba played their best football under him is hilarious as well. He was sacked from everywhere he went to because his level of understanding football is same as Piolis. And we will take next winter when all of you who are now approving him , will flip the pan and get on the OUT train.. It’s as up to the management as to the fans who out next coach should or shouldn’t be- because it is mostly us who make the cash flaw to the team. Let’s hope we don’t get to the banners from the past – Inster coin to save Milan!!!

  3. Giampaolo was also introduced as the next big thing after Sacchi. This guy is Spanish Giampaolo, AS Roma level coach.

    But not to be all negative, he does play a system that requires a pivot player so we can at least hope to see a proper DM coming. /s


    1. ABATE





  5. Lopetegui, who couldn’t make it in an actual Big club in a league he is supposed to know like the back of his hand, and now is gonna try himself in a league he doesnt know that is 10x harder tactically, I dont even know what everyone in the club is even thinking. Managing a team in tournament and in league are two very different Jobs. Lopetegui is a good tournament manager, awful in league. Conte is the opposite. I would go for a good league manager than a tournament manager. We need Scudetto more than we need UCL at this moment.

  6. I’ll be honest, I’m not excited by this appointment if it goes through. But I’ll reserve judgement until I see what he does with the team.

    The roster is more or less in his favor but we are missing a “flying” fullback on the RT. And our midfield pivot isn’t defensive.

    But more importantly can he bring the best out of our inconsistent players?

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