The legends of Italian football have always been players with incredible technical ability and were often fielded as second strikers (seconde punte); the Gigi Rivas, the Alessandro Del Pieros, the Antonio Di Natales. Indeed, the Italian national side was, in the past, so overflowing with talent that the likes of Gianfranco Zola were only able to notch 35 caps.
Francesco Totti’s recent 40th birthday saw him frequently referred to as ‘the last of his kind’, though this is hardly surprising, a combination of immense talent and loyalty to a club is rare to see in this era. Yet, what truly marks him out as an endangered species is his playing style as a seconda punta.
This is not new information. Italian football analysts have been commenting for years about a lack of creative strikers. However, if the issue became more obvious following the Euros (Graziano Pellè and Eder are hardly shining beacons of technical ability), Juventus’ recent tepid form took it to new extremes.
The injury to Paulo Dybala forced Max Allegri to field Mario Mandzukic up front alongside Gonzalo Higuain, both of whom are unequivocally prime punte. Playing a centre-forward alongside another is roughly similar to trying to eat a meal with two knives and, for example in the first game with Lyon, had about the same level of success.
This is not a criticism of either player, or the style in which they play. The fault lies with Allegri’s decision to play them as his front two. During the 90s, when the 4-4-2 formation was at its most popular, the conventional set-up involved one big, physically gifted striker, a prima punta, partnered with a technically gifted player to provide support, the seconda punta.
This period witnessed many great partnerships in this mould. Christian Vieri and Roberto Baggio were a perfect example at international level, whilst the Gianluca Vialli-Roberto Mancini duo won the Scudetto at Sampdoria. Whilst undoubtedly great players, Higuain and Mandzukic do not have the same dynamic.
Perhaps the lack of seconde punte can be attributed to 4-4-2 falling out of fashion, having been replaced in recent years by formations that utilise a lone striker, such as 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
Playing as a lone striker requires the prima punta style, meaning players that are less physically capable are overlooked, regardless of technical ability. This would go some way to explain the underwhelming careers of players such as Sebastian Giovinco, Giuseppe Rossi or perhaps even the anti-hero Antonio Cassano.
Instead, players in the seconda punta mould have been encouraged to play out wide, or in the ‘Number 10 role’. Of this style player, Italy has an abundance. Whilst it may be a stretch to compare them to the seconde punte of old, the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Berardi have displayed the flair and creativity of their predecessors, operating from the flanks.
However, it seems that playing two up front is making a resurgence, not just in Italy, but worldwide. It was a 4-4-2 formation that saw Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City win the Premier League, whilst Antonio Conte utilised two front men throughout Italy’s European Championship matches. Of course, the 3-5-2 formation has been an ever-present in Juve’s five consecutive Scudetti and using two strikers seems to be catching on.
Hopefully then, as demand increases, Serie A will again start to supply the world with talented seconde punte. With Dybala returning to fitness, his partnership with Higuain will have the chance to blossom into another example of how effective a prima and a seconda punta combination can be. Who knows, maybe it will even be the key to getting the best out of the inexplicable Mario Balotelli…