The perfect result: The history of the goalless draw in Italian football

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Annibale Frossi was short sighted. As a member of Italy’s gold medal-winning team at the 1936 Olympics, the whippet-like winger - once clocked running the 100m with the ball at his feet in 11.4 seconds - had to wear a pair of round-rimmed spectacles.

When they weren’t falling off and being deliberately trampled on, as they were by Juventus defender Mario Varglien during a match against Frossi’s Inter, a scoreline could be read on his face: it was 0-0.

Frossi is often forgotten as the originator of a phrase more commonly attributed to Gianni Brera, the influential pipe-smoking chronicler of the game in Italy who shaped the language and style of football on the peninsula from the pages of his books and newspaper columns. “0-0 is the perfect result,” Frossi said, “because it is the expression of total balance between the attack and the defence of the two teams.”

From his point of view last weekend in Serie A must have been easy on the eyes, as for only the fourth occasion in history and the first time since the era of three points for a win, there were a record equaling five 0-0s in a single round of the championship.  “HELP! The goals have disappeared,” cried Monday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport.

Frossi certainly wasn’t your average footballer. A studious-looking man, he graduated with a law degree and became a director with Alfa Romeo once his playing days were over. Yet the game continued to have a strong hold over him and he became a coach after the Second World War. Though he advocated for difensivismo, Frossi was among the first in Italy to invert the W of the W-M and use an M-M in which wingers, like himself, would push on and establish a fluid front four.

Hardly a complete conservative then, but nonetheless, Frossi’s words have been taken to represent the essence of Italian football. Popularised by Brera in his definition of the gioco all’italiana, the number of goals scored in Italy declined by almost 300 per cent between 1950 and 1970, and it wasn’t until the emergence of a certain Arrigo Sacchi that things changed for the better.

When Sacchi arrived at Milan in 1987, an average of just 1.92 goals were scored in each game. When he left four years later, that average had risen to 2.29, a figure that translates to an extra 113 goals per season.

That ratio is still the same today. Admittedly, it’s behind the Bundesliga’s and the Premier League’s at 2.8, but then that’s nothing particularly new.

What’s different is the steady rise of 0-0s in Serie A. There have been 11 in just six rounds of the championship so far– that’s up from eight, seven and four respectively at this stage in each of the last three seasons.  At this rate there are nearly two 0-0s a week in Italy and as one columnist noted that’s enough to make people turn off Serie A, which is a real cause of embarrassment for a league as inflated by TV as this one where clubs are more dependent on broadcast revenue as a source of income than anywhere else in Europe except perhaps Spain.

So how can this trend be explained? The consensus among the Italian media is that Serie A is mediocre, that there is no longer a huge gulf in class between the big clubs and the small ones.

Sure, the league gives off the impression that it is competitive. Thirteen teams are separated by just four points, with Juventus and Udinese sitting top on 12 a piece. That’s great for the neutral.  But it’s also the lowest total for a league leader at this stage of the season since that watershed moment in 1994 when three points was introduced for a win and the draw was devalued.

“Are we so different from normality?” asked Gazzetta. The answer is yes and no. There were 12 coaching changes in the summer, a further three have been made since the season started, and the knock-on effect of that is more teams are in transition than usual.

It must be said there wasn’t much luck around Serie A last weekend either. Alessandro Del Piero headed against the post for Juventus in Verona, Cristobal Jorquera saw his shot rebound off the woodwork as Genoa drew at home to Lecce, Roberto Guana and Antonio Candreva both rattled Fiorentina’s crossbar for Cesena and were it not for a Man of the Match display from goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, 10-man Udinese wouldn’t have kept Atalanta at bay either.
Of the attempts at goal on Sunday only 28% were on target, evidence perhaps of a dip in the quality of finishing in Serie A.

The presence of Sebastian Giovinco, Rodrigo Palacio and German Denis at the top of the scoring charts is revealing in that sense. Not one of them has a history of being prolific, while it should also be noted that Italy no longer prefer to play with a classic No 9 at international level, reflecting a change in the times and tactics, but also the absence of one available to Cesare Prandelli, perhaps with the exception of Giampaolo Pazzini.

There’s no denying the sun is beginning to set on a generation of great goalscorers in Serie A too. Del Piero plays fewer and fewer minutes and, according to Juventus President Andrea Agnelli, is in his last season at the club. Pippo Inzaghi doesn’t come off the bench anymore and was left out of Milan’s Champions League squad. Christian Vieri has retired, Luca Toni’s career is approaching its end and Francesco Totti plays further away from goal. Alberto Gilardino and Marco Borriello, meanwhile, have yet to convincingly take over from any of the above, while Mario Balotelli now plays in England. 

With David Trezeguet gone last year and Samuel Eto’o this summer, Serie A has to some extent compensated for their losses with the additions of Miroslav Klose and Diego Forlan, though at 33 and 32 the curiosity lies in seeing how much longer they can keep producing the goods, an argument that’s just as valid for Diego Milito, Fabrizio Miccoli, Marco Di Vaio and reigning Capocannoniere, Toto Di Natale. 

Undoubted class remains in the form of Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who along with Alessandro Matri and Gilardino are the only players aged 30 or under to score more than 20 goals in a single season in Serie A. When one thinks about it, the number of members in that group is actually pretty healthy and were it not for the 13 injuries he has suffered in the last two years, Alexandre Pato might have achieved that feat by now too.

So it would be reductive to lay the blame for the 0-0s solely at the door of the strikers. After all, Serie A clubs are, by and large, conceding fewer shots on target this season and retaining possession better. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. If it’s the opposition doing both then it’s certainly harder to score goals, while the inherent narrowness of teams in the division mean that the need for central playmakers like Wesley Sneijder and Hernanes to pick up the slack and create chances is greater still, which can of course be limiting. 

A few have blamed the international week for Sunday’s series of stalemates. That line of thinking excuses some of the players, notably those who faced long journeys to and from South America, but not the Italians who had already qualified for Euro 2012 with two games to spare.

Make no mistake about it, the increase in 0-0s in Serie A is not an anomaly, it’s a tendency. One man’s mediocrity, however, is another man’s perfection. And his name, lest we forget it, is Annibale Frossi.