It could be Captain Picard despairingly gesticulating at an unseen colleague, or a few lines of text undercut by a subtitled image from a popular Netflix show. Either way, internet memes take all shapes and forms. Naturally, football’s mass following means that ample amounts of humour are drawn from games. Atalanta’s inability to take all three points against Empoli last month was also, rightfully, enshrined into meme lore. The game ended 0-0, with Gil Orobici unable to score despite having an abnormally high xG. It was incredulous.
Whilst using xG can be controversial, it can highlight areas where sides are lacking potency. In this tactical analysis, we shall see that Empoli’s recent increase in xG conceded is not necessarily a new phenomenon. We will demonstrate this by using examples from three games in particular: their lowest xG concession of the season (vs. SPAL), their highest (vs. Atalanta), and their most recent and moderately-high xG conceded game (vs. Bologna). Analysing these will allow us to see consistent and harmful defensive and attacking trends in Empoli’s performances.
The myth of a new Atalanta
Firstly, however, we have to contextualise the data in front of us. Admittedly, we shall be investigating the rise in Empoli’s xG concessions. Statistics prove that this has increased since they last played Juventus in March. Yet, we should acknowledge that the game with Atalanta has done a great deal to skew recent data.
In this game, Empoli racked up their biggest xG battering, despite still managing to come away with a point. According to understat.com, Atalanta recorded a very impressive xG of 5.06. The Lombardy side are the Serie A xG leaders with 67.36 xG across the season. They average a phenomenal 1.99 xG per game. Needless to say, this match was an anomaly. Naturally, it will have a knock-on effect on how we conduct this tactical analysis.
We can also look closer at Empoli’s overall season-average xG conceded per game. We quickly realise that they have actually been rather consistent. As the graph shows, in the first half of the season, this statistic bounced high and low from week to week. The match against SPAL negated the rise against Udinese, for example. Further into the season, fixtures against Sassuolo, Milan and Roma saw even lower xG’s, bringing their average conceded down.
Nonetheless, there has been something of a peak since the game against Juventus. Following these games, averages have still not necessarily dropped to pre-Juve levels. This is despite Atalanta giving these statistics an artificial boost. With this in mind, a tactical analysis on Gli Azzurri’s defensive insecurities across the season may show consistent concerns. These could be becoming increasingly obtuse, however.
Business at the front, party at the back
If Empoli were a hairstyle, they’d most likely be a mullet. In attack, they can be scintillating. They’re a passing side well drilled by Aurelio Andreazzoli. In Italian football, the recently re-appointed Head Coach is hugely respected. Andreazzoli built his reputation on the back of the attacking legacies of Luciano Spalletti, Luis Enrique and Zdeněk Zeman. He served under each of these as an assistant during his days at Roma.
Understanding Empoli’s emphasis on an intricate attacking play is important in order to understand their defensive limitations, however. In the three games analysed explicitly in this investigation, we can see that some of their highest-profile xG conceded incidents come from a desire to launch attacks in numbers.
SPAL and Bologna both gained crucial attempts on goal as Empoli often over-committed in attack. Empoli’s poor transition into a defensive formation saw them often caught on the back foot. The retraction from a flowing attacking shape into a defensive counter-balance is not sound, and this is often how they are undone. The below graphics demonstrate this. Each of these counter-attacks down the right side led to goals.
The examples demonstrate how the determination to attack in numbers can leave them extremely vulnerable at the back, particularly in the full-back areas. We can also ask questions of the central defensive trio’s inability to fully cover their backline. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that the inclusion of three central defenders should act as an insurance policy. In the cases seen, however, they’ve overcommitted and they’re defending far too high to offer adequate protection.
A question of shape
Feeding into this concept of over-commitment, we can analyse the shapes which Empoli set up with. Some may argue that Empoli’s changing starting shape over the season has led to this change in xG concession. In each of the games looked into in detail, Empoli deployed a 3-5-2. Noticeably, however, changes of shape somewhat correlate with a downturn in the Tuscan side’s concession of xG.
Prior to their poor form at the back, Empoli had used a 5-3-2 formation around 47% of the time. Since then, it has only been deployed 16% of the time. Empoli have also shaped up in the 3-5-2 slightly more than usual. They used this formation 33% of the time previously, and 36% of the time since the Juventus game. One could assume that the switch from a more defensive set-up on paper would rightly harm their rear guard.
On the contrary, Empoli’s 3-5-2 has still been deployed in an incredibly defensive fashion. As a matter of fact, against an aggressively high-pressing Atalanta, Empoli were reluctantly forced into a 5-3-2 for most of the game. Discussing Empoli’s switch to the 3-5-2 is therefore somewhat irrelevant to the overall tactical analysis.
Atalanta forced Empoli’s wide midfielders into a deeper defensive line. Defensively speaking, Empoli’s token midfield five were often unsure of their ideal shape. The below graphics demonstrate the build-up for a high (0.54) xG chance for Duván Zapata. Hans Hateboer, the Atalanta full-back had pushed high, and his counterpart was caught in the awkward position of trying to push into the midfield line whilst keeping the defensive compact.
Defensive frailties and set pieces
Empoli also appeared vulnerable when defending set pieces. They often struggled to completely clear their lines, even if the opposition set piece was poorly taken or was initially cleared. Dead ball situations and potential transitions simply spooked the Tuscans.
Empoli are noticeably slow at closing down the ball from outside of the box. Against Atalanta, we saw Empoli effectively penned into their own half for long periods of the game. The away side was unable to pierce La Dea’s pressing and counter-pressing. Yet, they also struggled to alleviate pressure after facing set pieces. A tactical analysis shows that following dead ball situations, they sat extremely deep, allowing Atalanta to play at will. One of Atalanta’s best opportunities (another 0.54xG) in the game was an early header from Hateboer. The chance originated from a free-kick which was never cleared.
Atalanta drew out their build-up play for this opportunity. Empoli allowed their hosts time and space to dazzle them outside the area. Atalanta’s attackers were not closed down effectively. Their attackers switched the ball easily from flank to flank without hindrance. Alejandro Darío Gómez, in full control, manipulated the depth with which the Empoli midfield three defended. The trio were rendered useless as a defensive screen.
Against Bologna, the home side’s opening goal likewise reflected this inability to close down play. Empoli once again struggled to drive their opposition out of their own half. In this instance, Roberto Soriano faced little pressure. He moved inside with ease and delivered a wonderful cross to the far post for the unmarked Riccardo Orsolini.
Aside from the aforementioned game against Atalanta, Empoli have had a rather consistent season in terms of conceded xG. It would be unfair, therefore, to say that Empoli have suddenly collapsed in terms of their concession of xG in recent weeks. However, they have recently struggled slightly more than earlier in the season. Atalanta’s bizarre prolificacy and Empoli’s decent form prior to playing Juventus have only exacerbated concerns.
Despite all of this, Empoli are not solid when defending. Through this tactical analysis, we have seen what may cause this. They currently occupy the final relegation spot, just four points behind a precariously placed Udinese. As a result, Andreazzoli’s side appear naïve. In attack, they like to commit men forward in numbers. When defending, they like to get bodies behind the ball. To survive Serie A, however, teams must circumnavigate the nuances of each. If given another chance next season, Empoli must look for balance in their game strategy.
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