Diamanti needs to shine for Bologna
All eyes were on Giampaolo Pazzini when Milan showcased their new striker in their week two visit to Bologna on Saturday evening.
Pazzini obliged by scoring three times - once from a penalty he had earned by grabbing his opponent's shirt and then diving once the shirt pull had been reciprocated - to celebrate his return to Cesare Prandelli's plans for the national team ahead of the first two qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup.
Bologna had outplayed Milan for most of the second half but, as they had shown at Chievo six days earlier, they seemed to be missing the finishing touch - the flash of genius that a tiring Alessandro Diamanti, the side's best player by far both against Milan and for the previous year, was struggling to provide.
Some Bologna fans, then, may have wished that Gaston Ramirez was still there to help his team-mate. Ramirez, the 21-year old Uruguay international, had been sold to Southampton 24 hours earlier, leaving an emotional and tactical void that Bologna will have to work hard to fill.
So hard, in fact, that they will have to change their shape in order to compensate for his departure. Under coach Stefano Pioli, who had replaced Pierpaolo Bisoli after five matches (one draw, four defeats), Bologna last year went from a 4-3-1-2 to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 after Christmas, a move that changed their fortunes and helped them maximise the squad's talent.
With Marco di Vaio up front, Ramirez would either partner him, moving across the front in order to shake off man-marking and pull defenders out of position, or move deeper and create a match-up nightmare alongside Diamanti.
Pioli's biggest feat was talking both Diamanti and Ramirez, who had been known as ball-watchers when not in possession, into working hard at getting the ball back by pressuring and harassing defenders and midfielders. That was the main reason both players were taken off more than anybody else in the side last year - by the 75th minute, they were often tired, having covered more ground and had greater responsibility than most team-mates.
The 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-1-2 worked because of Diamanti and the left-footed Ramirez, with great help from the central midfield pair of Diego Perez and Gaby Mudingay -who provided excellent cover, ball-winning, ankle-biting ability and positional sense - and from the flank players, who often picked the right time to push forward, making Bologna's front, at times, a five-man unit that would stretch defences and improve the side's chance of scoring.
Ramirez's departure, though, deprived Bologna of a huge technical option, a player who could win a match by himself with a single touch, as he did last year with a flying backheel against Fiorentina.
Not a great goalscorer but often a scorer of great goals, the Uruguayan could play in three different positions and was described in one newspaper, when he joined Bologna in the summer of 2010 for €3 million, as a "left-winger or inside-left, often compared to Pavel Nedved". It is a description that hardly fits what we know now, especially the Nedved part (for one thing, Ramirez does not roll around as dramatically when fouled).
With Bologna, though, he mainly became what is known in Italy as "punta di movimento" - a forward who treads whatever patch of the field he deems necessary in order to increase his goalscoring or goal-making potential while still conforming to the tactical needs of his side, which are obviously different from those of Uruguay, for whom he is often played as an inside left.
Not the fastest player, his dribbling ability can still take him past defenders and provide the tactical equivalent of speed, an attribute he should try to use at Southampton.
The way he left, though, irked Bologna fans. After an incident-free debut season, he spent part of the summer of 2011 complaining about his contract and once even called Bologna's then-deputy chairman, Maurizio Setti, asking for a pay rise, only to refuse to pick up the phone when chairman Albano Guaraldi tried to talk to him.
As the summer transfer window approached its final days, he was allegedly on the brink of moving to Fiorentina in exchange for defender Felipe and an undetermined amount of money, but Felipe turned down the move and Ramirez stayed.
While Bologna fans always knew he'd move on as soon as a good offer ("nothing less than €20 million" was the directors' mantra all season) came, the latest chapter in his transfer saga did not go down well with them: having impressed Pioli and his team-mates by flying back to start pre-season work as soon as Uruguay were knocked out of the Olympics, he then began feeling uneasy again.
On August 16, he was quoted in a newspaper as saying he would be leaving the next day, Bologna having accepted Southampton's offer. Guaraldi hit the roof, as no deal had been agreed at that point. As the days passed, Pioli left him out for the Coppa Italia match against Varese - he said it was his "duty not to name him in the squad", largely because of his restlessness than because of the ankle injury he was nursing. Ramirez became more and more detached from his team-mates until the deal with Southampton was struck for a rumoured €14 million, taking into consideration the fact his former club, Penarol, are entitled to part of the fee owing to the sell-on clause that was included in the original contract.
But Bologna fans reserved their venom more for Guaraldi, whom they accused of lacking a clear transfer strategy, than for Ramirez: after all, Bologna are, and forever will be, a selling club - like 90% of Serie A clubs. Udinese, though, are another, and they still managed to finish third last season, which is why Rossoblu fans wonder why their side never seems good enough to go for even a place in the Europa League.
Last season's squad managed to amass 51 points, a very good outcome considering those four defeats in the first month but, as the summer days passed without a significant signing, and with the defections of Mudingay, Di Vaio, goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet, defender Davide Raggi and vice-captain Daniele Portanova - who was given a six-month suspension for his failure to report a match-fixing attempt he had turned down - Pioli made it clear that fans and the media should forget about last year and concentrate only on those who are part of the squad now.
In the end, Bologna did not do too badly: the arrivals of Alberto Gilardino, Tiberio Guarente, Marco Motta, Cristian Pasquato, Manolo Gabbiadini and Roger Carvalho on loan, coupled with the signings of Michele Pazienza, Cesare Natali, Mathias Abero and the promising playmaker Martì Riverola from Barcelona's B side, mean Pioli has some depth to work with. The international break, while taking some of his players away, will help him develop a new strategy.
For the opening game at Chievo, which Bologna lost 2-0, the coach went for a 3-4-2-1, which left Diamanti, flanked by the up-and-coming Saphir Taider, with the burden of linking the midfield with the lone striker, Robert Acquafresca - lone being the operative word, as you could sense the poor guy could hardly see, let alone receive passes from, his team-mates.
Against Milan, it was 3-5-1-1, with Diamanti again the main threat, and a clear improvement when Gilardino came on for Acquafresca, which brings us to the current situation.
Will it be 3-4-1-2, with Gilardino up front paired with Acquafresca and Diamanti covering space behind them as a trequartista, or 3-5-1-1, hoping the wing-backs and Taider can push forward often enough and effectively enough to provide a threat? With Gilardino in the middle, wing play and crosses would become ever more crucial in any case.
Whichever way we look at it, one man seems to hold the keys to Bologna's future: Diamanti may not be forever, but he needs to be his creative, strong-willed, quirky self again if Bologna want to avoid looking anxiously over their shoulders as they've had to do too often in the past.