Pitchside Europe

Do late goals equal Serie A excitement?


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What makes a football match entertaining? It's different to everyone of course, but late goals - unless they're either of consolation or add to an already unassailable lead - are one of the game's best dramatic devices.

Think of football's most memorable moments of the last 15 years and one of the reasons why they're so unforgettable is because of the last gasp, now or never quality they possess, from Manchester United's remarkable stoppage time turnaround against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final to Manchester City's own stunning comeback against Queens Park Rangers on the final day of last season.

Of course the abovementioned examples stand out because of the context. Everything was at stake. That's why they remain etched in the mind. But if we can all agree that late goals in most, if not any situation, are a principal generator of excitement and spectacle, then Serie A, in stark contrast with its perennially misleading 'boring' stereotype, is certainly the place to be right now. Or is it?

When Claudio Marchisio scored Juventus's winner in the 85th minute away to Siena on Sunday, he not only extended his team's remarkable unbeaten record to 46 matches, he perpetuated an overall trend across Italy's first division.

According to a interesting study by Francesco Saverio Intorcia in La Repubblica, of the top five leagues in Europe, Serie A has seen the most goals scored in the final 15 minutes of matches this season.

In some respects, there's a tradition of this in Italy. There's even a famous phrase for it: the zona Cesarini, named after Renato Cesarini, who scored a last minute winner for Italy against Hungary in 1931. But that was an individual case. This is a league as a whole.

The number of goals scored in the last 15 minutes in Serie A matches this season is over a quarter [27.3% to be exact] and is more than Ligue 1 [24.6%], La Liga [24.1%], the Premier League [22.4%] and the Bundesliga [18.3%].

Which leads to the follow-up question: what's behind it?

When asked former Cagliari and Palermo coach Davide Ballardini said: "We're talking about a phenomenon that happened in smaller percentages in the past. This year, the number is accentuated because more than half the teams in Serie A play with a three-man defence, which in practice is five at the back."

True enough. Ten of the league's 20 teams have used systems of that nature. But what's that necessarily got to do with it?

Well, Balladini added: "There's a greater pursuit of balance between defence and midfield and this makes it more difficult to open games up. Then, in the final stages, the team most in need of points picks up courage and risks everything either finding a goal or leaving space open [in behind] for the opposition."

There's logic to his explanation, though it must also be said that the trend has been on an upward curve now for the last four years, which pre-dates the re-emergence of three-man defences in Serie A. It's perhaps more about mentality then, which Ballardini did at least allude to as well.

"First we think about not conceding… then, later on, about scoring goals. You can add that when us coaches make a change we are more open to putting on fresh strength in attack than in defence and this explains the increase in late goals, when tiredness sets in."

It's an admission that has provoked something of a backlash and a predictable one at that from the former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi. For him, this is yet more evidence of Serie A clubs' reactivity, their reluctance to seize the initiative and take the game to their opponents right from the start.

"No one has ever asked for a show to be put on in Italy, so there isn't one," he said. "We have what the people want. The only thing that counts is results."

There are a few threads to pull from this discussion. First, that late goals aren't necessarily an indicator of excitement after all, but maybe a relief instead if, as Sacchi claims, nothing has happened for the preceding 75 minutes.

Second, regardless of Sacchi's opinion, it's actually quite refreshing that teams are playing to the final whistle rather than settling for a result.

And third, if you allow a brief digression, there's a growing sense that the standard of defending in general, not just in the final stages of matches, is declining in Italy. Juventus aside, it's particularly difficult to name another outstanding backline, especially now that Milan's centre-back partnership of Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva has been broken up.

That isn't to say there are bad defenders in Serie A, just that the bar has always been so high and where there was once many world class centre-backs across so many teams there are now but a few.

It's certainly something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle

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