Struggling Sassuolo hosted a very much in-form Lazio side in a Serie A clash at the Mapei Stadium on Sunday, 24th November 2019. This pitched Roberto Di Zerbi against Simone Inzaghi, and many were intrigued to see how Di Zerbi would try and change his fortunes against Inzaghi’s side, as Sassuolo had notably struggled against Lazio in the last couple of seasons.
Lazio were coming off four straight domestic wins prior to this match, as their bid for Champions League football is beginning to take real effect. Marksman Ciro Immobile had been firing from all cylinders to boot, with 14 goals in his last 12 Serie A matches. Sassuolo, meanwhile, have been struggling this season and have been flirting dangerously close to the relegation places with only two wins from their previous six. The pressure has become ever more telling for the Sassuolo boss, Roberto Di Zerbi.
The hosts, Sassuolo, were missing key forward Domenico Berardi with a thigh injury as well as the nimble frontman, Gregoire Defrel, which left Di Zerbi without arguably his two most gifted attackers. Despite this, Di Zerbi’s Sassuolo lined up in what was a 4-2-3-1 without the ball with Francesco Caputo leading the line. Conversely, Lazio lined up in their synonymous 3-5-2/5-3-2 with Joaquin Correa playing alongside Ciro Immobile in the front 2.
Sassuolo’s attacking organisation was interesting. Although their defensive structure replicated that of a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 shape, their attacking organisation began with a three-man defence with left-back Peluso tucking in alongside the two centre-backs. Young right-back, Jeremy Toljan, pushed up and acted more as an attacking wing-back. Sassuolo’s attacking organisation now represented more of a 3-2-4-1 shape. It is quite common that sides do this against Lazio as they defend in a very narrow shape. As shown in the image below, lining with three centre backs allowed Sassuolo to try and progress the ball using their wide centre-backs as the Lazio midfield would have to shift over to press from their very narrow midfield set up.
As shown in the image above, Sassuolo found it very difficult to progress the ball central through their two 6’s as they were surrounded by a cage of Lazio defenders, who would look to win the ball centrally and immediately transition forwards. Furthermore, once receiving the ball, Sassuolo’s wide centre-backs would look to play vertically. However, Lazio’s 8’s in midfield, Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto, used their cover shadows excellently and blocked passes from finding Sassuolo’s high and wide 8’s are positioned in the half-space during their build-up. Passes would often circulate to Sassuolo’s wing-backs, who were tightly man-marked by their Lazio counterparts, Lazzari & Lulic (See below).
Di Zerbi’s Sassuolo were very man-oriented in their defensive organisation, with Manuel Locatelli specifically shadowing of the movements of Lucas Leiva who was sat in the six position. Sassuolo’s wingers either side would loiter in the position between Lazio’s wingbacks, using their cover shadows to block passes out wide. Consequently, Lazio initially to struggled to progress the ball from the 1st phase (see below).
Lazio then adjusted to the opposition’s press, with the help of the excellent distribution of goalkeeper, Strakosha. As Sassuolo’s wide forwards positioned themselves between Lazio’s wide centre-backs and wing-backs, Strakosha would play lofted passes over the head of the Sassuolo’s wide forwards and to the feet of Lazio’s wing-backs. Lazio also dropped their two 8’s slightly deeper for the 1st phase of their build-up, with Strakosha playing some excellent drilled passes to the feet of Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto (See below).
One of the key principles of Lazio’s attacking organisation is overloading the opposition, whether it be in central areas, wide areas or in the half-spaces. The image below showcases the left-sided centre-back, Acerbi making an overlapping run past the wing-back, Lulic, to try and occupy the Sassuolo defender and leave Lulic 1 v 1.
An example of Lazio cutely overloading specific to occupy the Sassuolo defenders is also shown below. Here, the two Lazio central midfielders position themselves in the half-spaces but still in the eye view of Sassuolo’s defensive midfielders. Sasuolo’s 6’s become occupied with Lazio’s midfielders which opens space centrally; Correa then drops in the space to receive the ball. In this instance, Sassuolo’s centre-back, Marlon, is quick to react and follows Correa’s movement, which forces Correa into an error.
Inzaghi’s Lazio possesses a unique defensive organisation. The two forwards and three midfielders of Lazio stay extremely narrow in order to block Sassuolo progressing the ball through the central areas.
This narrow set up can occasionally leave Lazio exposed in the half-spaces, however, the 2 Lazio 8’s again show important they are to their system with their clever defensive movements to ensure they do not become exposed. Here, Milinkovic-Savic immediately presses the Sassuolo centre back as he receives the ball using his cover shadow to block any passes into the half-spaces and make it difficult for Sassuolo to progress the ball in these areas (see below).
Therefore, this places a lot of physical pressure on the two 8’s of Lazio to shift over quickly to try and block passes into the half-spaces. As the game went on, Lazio’s 8’s defensive intensity dropped and Sassuolo began to progress the ball in these areas as shown below.
Di Zerbi’s tactical tweaks
One of the first changes Di Zerbi made came just after half time with the score at 1-1. Di Zerbi instructed Peluso, who spent the first half as a left-sided centre-back, to push further up the pitch and act more as an attacking full-back. This pinned Lazio’s wing-backs back into the defensive line and Sassuolo began to overload Lazio in the wide areas (see below).
After Sassuolo’s short spell of success, Di Zerbi switched to 5-4-1. This allowed Sassuolo’s wing-backs to mirror the movements of the Lazio wingbacks. With Lazio beginning to be more aggressive, their wingbacks began to play higher up the pitch and therefore limiting the freedom of Sassuolo’s wide men. With a 5-4-1, however, it meant Sassuolo were less likely to be involved in 1v1 battles out wide, with the wide midfielders often shuffling back to assist in pressurizing Lazio in the wide areas.
Despite Sassuolo’s proactive changes, they would go on to lose to a Felipe Caicedo injury-time minute winner. It was a game with not many clear-cut chances for either side however Sassuolo will take some confidence in how they played compared to their recent performances. For Lazio, however, their quality finishing won them the three points which made it five wins from five in the Serie A. Inzaghi won’t be thrilled with how his team performed and some improvement will be needed for their next domestic fixture which takes place against Udinese at the Olimpico.
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