Before the match, Empoli were in 18th place in the Serie A table. Sassuolo was in 11th place. The match was important for both teams, especially for Empoli. Every point is important in their relegation battle. With three points, Sassuolo could close to the gap on a position guaranteeing their appearance in UEFA competitions.
Empoli didn’t secure a win in their last eight Serie A matches. They won only two points in those eight games. Sassuolo’s wasn’t ideal too. They recorded only one win in their last eight games. Sassuolo recorded two heavy home defeats against Atalanta (2-6) and Juventus (0-3).
Giuseppe Iachini has played a number of formations this season. But, always without wingers. At the start of the season, Empoli usually played in a 4-3-1-2 formation. But, when Iachini became their manager, he switched to the formation with three central defenders. In this match, Empoli played in a 5-3-2 formation. It was debut game for defender Cristian Dell’Orco. He joined Empoli this winter transfer window on loan from Sassuolo. 18-year-old midfielder Hamed Traore stayed on the bench. Diego Farias, who joined Empoli from Cagliari in January on loan, took his place in first 11.
De Zerbi loves his team having the ball in their possession. At the start of the season, Sassuolo often played in a system with three defenders. Later, Sassuolo switched to formations with four defenders. Boateng left Sassuolo in this transfer window, joining Barcelona. Merih Demiral joined Sassuolo on loan from Sporting Lisboa. He stayed on the bench. Now, they often play in 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 formations. Sassuolo played in a 4-1-4-1 formation. De Zerbi loves to use as many players as possible. Gian Marco Ferrari and Domenico Berardi stayed on the bench.
Sassuolo had no solution for Empoli’s defence
Bennacer was a key player for Empoli’s build up play. His role was to distribute the ball to centre midfielders, Krunić and Acquah. Sassuolo don’t usually press teams highly. Sassuolo played in 4-1-4-1 formation in both the defensive and attacking phases of the game. The gap between midfield and defence was huge, especially when Sassuolo lost the ball in the final third. Empoli wanted to exploit that gap. Usually, Krunić exploited the space between those lines and other players tried to pass the ball to him.
Sassuolo had huge problems in attack. They couldn’t deal with Empoli’s defensive strategy. Empoli played defence in a 5-1-2-2 formation in the middle block. Empoli’s strategy was to block the central area of the pitch. Two strikers stayed close to each other. Their task was to block passing option to central midfielders. They didn’t close down the centre backs. Usually, they left them to pass the ball to each other. When central backs couldn’t progress the ball, defensive midfielder Sensi dropped between them to help. Sassuolo wanted to invite Empoli to press. But, Empoli’s players didn’t care. They kept their positions and blocked the central area.
Generally, Sassuolo defence players didn’t have an option. They had to pass the ball to the wide area. Pass to the wide area was pressing the trigger for Empoli’s players. Near side central midfielder closed down Sassuolo’s side back and side back closed down Sassuolo’s winger. Sassuolo tried to avoid this situation. Central midfielder Locatelli dropped down and positioned himself as a right centre back. Right back Rogerio went forward. But, Empoli’s players showed great teamwork and level of communication. In that case, right back Di Lorenzo closed down Rogerio and right centre back Veseli closed down winger Boga.
Sassuolo’s attacking formation was 4-1-4-1. They dominated possession in the first half with 60%, but their attacks generally weren’t dangerous. Their wingers, especially, Brignola, were unsure about his attacking tasks. Wingers usually stayed wide together with side backs, so Empoli had numerical superiority in the central area. When Sassuolo broke the first pressing line, Empoli defended in a 5-1-3-1 formation. Caputo stayed forward and Farias dropped deep in line with Acquah and Krunić.
In attack, Empoli used switching the ball to other flank option. They overloaded one side, usually left and then defensive midfielder Bennacer switched the ball to the right side, usually right back Di Lorenzo. Bennacer was defensive oriented and he didn’t go forward often. Right midfielder Acquah played in the wide area and left midfielder Krunić had a different role. In build-up play, he positioned himself between lines and when Empoli went to final third he joined Caputo in the penalty area. The right side was key for Empoli’s attacks. Cooperation on that side was fantastic. Right striker Farias was very important. He moved himself to right and together with Acquah and Di Lorenzo overloaded that side. Sassuolo played defence in a narrow formation. They were ball oriented. That allowed Empoli to exploit the right side with ball switching. Farias and Acquah, with their movement, wanted to isolate Di Lorenzo.
Empoli’s second goal. A fantastic combination of Farias, Acquah and Di Lorenzo. Farias moved to the right side. Sassuolo’s left centre back Peluso followed him and left back Rogerio followed Acquah. Free space stayed behind them. Empoli exploited it and scored a goal. Acquah passed the ball to Farias. Di Lorenzo and Farias exchanged one-two pass. Acquah runs diagonally into the penalty area. Farias passed the ball to him and he scored the goal.
Empoli finished the job with the third goal
At half time, De Zerbi made a double substitute. Berardi replaced Brignola and Bourabia replaced Duncan. Sassuolo also switched to a 4-3-3 formation, Berardi playing as a right-winger. Empoli had a 2-0 lead and they continued in the same rhythm. In the second half Sassuolo dominated possession again. Like in the first half, Sassuolo had 60% of possession.
Empoli‘s full-backs were more careful in the second half. They didn‘t go forward like in the first. Empoli applied the same defensive principles. They played defence in a 5-1-2-2 formation in the middle block and 5-1-3-1 in the deep block. In the second half, Empoli was concentrated on counter attacks. Their goal was to avoid conceding, so they often played defence in the deep block. Sassuolo played more offence than in the first half. Their two centre midfielders moved higher. Wingers secured width and full backs played in half-space areas.
Empoli didn‘t take a risk in build-up play. Even they had numerical superiority they go long. Like in first half Empoli closed down central area and forced Sassuolo wide. Then they overloaded the wide area with side back, near side central midfielder, near side central back and if necessary with a defensive midfielder.
Sassuolo pressed higher than in the first half. They pressed with six or seven players (all attacking and midfielder players plus near side back). Sassuolo played down the flanks. They wanted to use their wingers’ skills. But, wingers didn’t have many spaces often. Berardi dropped deep often to receive the ball.
Empoli scored their third goal after a counter-attack. Bennacer stole the ball and run with it. He passed the ball to Farias who scored. After the third goal, Sassuolo didn’t press high anymore. Empoli dealt with their press easily. In attack, Sassuolo went long to Babacar or played to wingers. Concentration and desire of the whole team were on a low level.
On these maps, we can see Sassuolo’s problem in attacking phase of the game. Most of side back’s passes were back passes. They couldn’t find a solution for Empoli’s defensive strategy. Also, offensive players had the same problem too, especially Boga and Babacar.
Empoli’s passing game was better. Bennacer dictated the tempo. Krunić had a great game too. Farias’ wide combinations were important too.
Empoli deserved this win. They played a great game, especially in the first half. The defensive strategy was great and exploitation of right side also. Very important three points for Empoli in their relegation battle. Sassuolo played a bad game. Their attacks were neutralized. They couldn’t find a solution for Empoli‘s strategy.