For those who regularly watch Italian football, Sassuolo have become somewhat of a tactical analysis enigma within the structured and objective world of Calcio. Since the ’60s, and the introduction of catenaccio, Italian football has been based on the objective notion that it is easier to stop a goal than create one. This has been the backbone of football within Italy for 50+ years and has brought us superstars such as Scirea, Baresi, Maldini and Nesta. The small town of Sassuolo nestled in the heart of Italy between Parma and Bologna is breaking the mould and now has a worldwide following within football hipster circles due to its use of the ever-popular method of play ‘Juego De Posicion.’
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), there are already a large number of articles, videos and analysis pieces on JdP, its underlying concepts, benefits and drawbacks. As such this article won’t focus on these but instead look at Sassuolos change in fortunes over the season and why its implementation of certain positional play ideas have led to this small town leaving a big impression on Italian football.
Since De Zerbi came into Sassuolo in June 2018, he has introduced his own version of positional play to the club with a strong focus on being able to hurt the opposition through a dramatic change in tempo and aggressive vertical passing when certain spaces and superiorities open up in the game. In some ways, it could be considered similar to Setien of Real Betis in their aggressive pursuit of looking to break multiple opposition lines with vertical passes. De Zerbi has utilized a number of formations and structures throughout the 2018/19 season, with a focus being on the balancing and rebalancing of his wide players dependent on the phase of the game.
Initial phase in possession
Recently, De Zerbi has favoured a 4-1-4-1 look out of possession, that transitions into a 2-3-2-3 in advanced areas or phases of secured possession.
This change from a more traditional 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 that had been used earlier in the season seems to be in response to the teams struggles defensively, and not being able to manage the counter space well enough in transition. The addition of pushing the full-backs into the second line during possession has not only provided the team with a better base from which to press, but also recover balls that have been played longer towards the central defenders.
This base of six players in a 1-2-3 shape generally gives Sassuolo a numerical superiority compared to the opposition. The most commonly used shapes against Sassuolo are the 3-5-2 and the traditional point down 4-3-3. Against both of these Sassuolo’s build out shape allows them to generate numerical superiorities in the first phase.
By pinning opponent full-backs with their wide players, and making sure that the midfield three engage the oppositions central and half spaces, Sassuolo force their opposition in a decision when it comes to managing space. By remaining +1 in their defensive line, Sassuolos opponents concede to be numbers down against the first and second lines.
Sassuolo look to take advantage of this numerical superiority by rationally occupying as much of their own half as possible. Their full-backs stay touchline wide, the centre-backs split and the six maintains a central position but making sure that he stays blindside of the opposition’s attacking line. By occupying all five of the vertical channels, it spreads the opposition out to a point at which they become disconnected in their own shape, allowing Sassuolo to take advantage of gaps that appear in the defensive structure.
These gaps are the trigger for Sassuolo to change their tempo and look to break opposition lines with driven vertical passes. Due to the width and depth created by Sassuolo’s forwards and full-backs in the initial phase, they remove the opposition’s ability to mark two players through the use of cover shadows meaning that if defensive lines can be broken with one pass, the receiving player should be able to receive and turn, or play a third man pass to a teammate that is already travelling forward.
For this to be able to work, positional superiority is key as is the ability for teammates to be able to recognise patterns in play so that the team are able to advance the ball as a unit.
Overloading and rotation in the third line
One of the keys in Sassuolo’s success so far this season has been their ability to retain positional fluidity in advanced areas of the field. With Italian defensive lines being more suited to a man marking scheme in which they all have their own defensive duties and areas to account for, the movement and rotation from Sassuolo’s front-three and attacking midfielders has caused some teams real issues.
Here, you can see Sassuolo drawing the opposition towards them with a number of short passes. This ability to attract the opposition into a concentrated area of the field is key and allows them to open up the space needed to utilize their third line rotation.
The key to Sassuolo opening up space in the third line is their insistence on keeping their two players high enough to engage and push back the opposition’s full-backs. In their initial positioning these spaces are occupied by their wide players (in this case Druicic and Berardi) this is fairly standard in today’s game and can be seen by many teams across the world.
Forward in most people’s mind’s right now is the utilisation of Sane and Sterling at Manchester City, and how they are able to hold their width during play. Like Pep and Manchester City, De Zerbi and Sassuolo occupy these spaces as play builds, unlike Manchester City, however, who tend to combine in these areas using one of Silva or De Bruyne, Sassuolo look to combine in these spaces using their central striker, leaving the central channel open, which is occupied by any attacking player in the attacking line.
In this instance, you can see Duricic making sure his mark is close before checking the the ball and opening the wing space in the top line. This opens space for Babacar to move into and combine with Duricic. The key in both of these movements is that the opposition (Cagliari) defenders have stuck to their marks, meaning that the right-sided central and wide defenders are now both caught out of position with open space in-behind them. This is possible because Berardi has maintained his position in the wide right wing space, meaning that the Cagliari left-sided defenders cannot cheat over to cover the space now open on the left-hand side of the field.
With the speed of the movement and attack, Sassuolo now find themselves in an 8v8 attacking situation against a disorganised Cagliari back line.
Issues in possession
This ability to advance as a team rather than attacking without structure has been the Achilles heel of this team. The switch to a focus on the rational occupation of space rather than attacking at all costs has helped Sassuolo become more efficient in possession but has also allowed them also start to implement a more successful pressing phase of play. In earlier games of the season, the press would be led by the wide player, with a lone forward, usually, Kevin Prince Boateng, shifting across channels to cut off a central pass.
If they were able to force play outside through the oppositions full-backs and wide players, then the ball-side attacking midfielder was able to step across and double on the ball with the wide forward. If they were two slow in forcing play to remain in the wing space, however, the opposition were able to use their central channel to break through Sassuolos pressure and attack their back line. Due to the massive gap that was left between the pressing lines of Sassuolo and the low defensive block of the back line it allowed the opposition to flood the central and half-spaces with forward running players without the risk of being countered themselves. This disconnection of Sassuolo’s own structure when in possession of the ball is one of the key areas that De Zerbi needs to look to address if he wishes to push Sassuolo forward in the remainder of their season.
Principles v patterns
One of the criticisms of De Zerbi’s team is a refusal to change their game plan when they find themselves up against it or when they are playing a perceived superior opponent. Some may see this as foolish on the part of De Zebri, but this is the true definition of principles within football. Principles are not something that change game to game, or even team to team, they are a set of core beliefs inside each person, which define how they believe the game should be played. Think of them as the bones inside you. Although your exterior appearance can change, the underlying foundations (bones) never alter. The same goes in football. Your playing principles are set of foundational beliefs that do not change, no matter what you come up against. Your playing style, tactics, formations etc can all be adjusted but these are really nothing more than your exterior appearance.
This is what we see with De Zebri, although their shape, possession percentage and game plan may change week to week, their principles as a team do not change. They maintain their insistence on a slow patient build up, the desire to play aggressive vertical passes when available and an insistence on not taking low percentage shots outside of the area.
On top of these foundations, De Zebri has layered a number of patterns of play that his players look out for during games. Like the previously described third line rotation and their following ability to open up the wing spaces, there are a number pre-described patterns of play that each player looks out for. These have been identified and then practiced during training to give the team the best chance of winning individual games.
In Sassuolo’s case, it is important to differentiate between principles and patterns, as this will be the key in their potential success in the remainder of this seasons games. In terms of their attacking play, Sassuolo remains principle based and the addition of new tactics or patterns of play could provide them with the extra goal scoring opportunities needed to keep their push for Europe alive. Currently outperforming their xG by a small amount, 0.05, they need to continue to create opportunities in the second half of the season, and provide their attackers with more clear-cut chances.
Defensively however, it seems that so far, Sassuolo are primarily pattern based, and in this area, teams who are exploiting their inability to manage the central counter-space are undoing them. By ingraining a principle-based approach into his players out of possession, De Zerbi could find that as a collective unit they are able to control games far better than 11 players acting out pre-determined ideas are.
Sassuolo are a fascinating case study with Italian and indeed European football. A small town from central Italy has found their home in Serie A, and in doing so has attracted a forward thinking manager, a crop of young talent and a following that should allow for them to only grow in popularity.
De Zerbi’s approach is based in a loose following of a positional play model, and is extremely entertaining to watch from a neutrals perspective. Whilst they are not a true all out attacking or counterattacking team, they do remain focused on in possession work and the execution of aggressive, high risk, high reward, passes.
If De Zebri can work on their ability to stop opposition counter-attacks and add an additional central striker follow Kevin-Prince Boateng’s departure to Barcelona, then who knows, the rest of Europe may get to watch Sassuolo sooner than anticipated.
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