After an extraordinary season’s start and the win against Napoli last week, Sassuolo hosted Udinese in a match that, at least on paper, should have been easier than the last one.
Roberto De Zerbi’s team got back their captain Domenico Berardi and their most important striker Francesco Caputo after their injuries. But, even if Sassuolo have already proved to be an amazing goal-machine this season, the match ended up nil-nil. Luca Gotti’s team, who didn’t have a great start this season so far, proved again all their defensive strength.
In this tactical analysis we will see how these two teams faced up in a huge tactical battle, where they almost nullified each others.
Roberto De Zerbi, after the 3-5-2 formation experiment against Napoli, changed the shape again, presenting a 3-4-3 formation. Andrea Consigli was in goal, Marlon, Kaan Ayhan and Gian Marco Ferrari were the defensive line; Domenico Berardi, Manuel Locatelli, Maxime Lopez and Rogerio played midfield, and Hamed Junior Traoré and Jeremie Boga supporting Francesco Caputo up front.
Luca Gotti returned to his classic 5-3-2 formation after the game against Milan in which he tried a 4-3-3 formation. Juan Musso came back in goal after the injury; Jens Stryger Larsen, Rodrigo Becão, Bram Nuytinck, Samir and Marvin Zeegelaar were the defensive line; Rodrigo De Paul, Tolgay Arslan, Roberto Pereyra started midfield, and Ignacio Pussetto and Stefano Okaka were the strikers.
Sassuolo’s build-up phase
In the build-up phase, Sassuolo, unlike what we saw in the analysis of the match against Napoli, have always started with the three centre-backs, but with the full-backs very high on the pitch. Locatelli played as a defensive playmaker, while Lopez moved forward to play between Boga and Traoré behind Caputo, as we can see in this image.
With Locatelli being the most important source of play, Udinese decided to leave a lot of space for Sassuolo’s defenders, marking the midfielder very closely. Both strikers dropped to close each passing line for Locatelli, as we can see in the following image.
Locatelli’s greatest ability, which made him so important for Sassuolo in these years, is his speed of thought and vision of the game. His passing lines for the players on the attacking third allow Sassuolo to make a very quick and effective offensive transition. In this match, thanks to the work of Gotti’s strikers, this was missed a lot, and it is no coincidence that Sassuolo was very ineffective in their attacks.
With Locatelli often forced out of the build-up phase, De Zerbi had to find alternative solutions to start his actions. During the initial stages, some vertical passes were tried for Caputo, but with the physicality of Udinese’s centre-backs, they were never really effective. Realizing this, Lopez abandoned his position in the attacking third, and dropped to play with a more usual build-up phase for Sassuolo, with a double pivot, as we can see in the image below.
Udinese’s defensive masterpiece
Last season, Sassuolo never managed to score against Udinese, losing both games, 1-0 and 3-0. Once again, Gotti proved how well he can defend against De Zerbi, blocking what was currently the best attack in Serie A in this season so far.
With a very defensive and compact 5-3-2, Sassuolo players’ ability to play between the lines was almost nullified. As we can see in the following image, the midfield and defence lines were tightened a lot, forcing Sassuolo to play wide and face 1-on-1 duels between the full-backs.
Throughout the entire match, when out of possession, Udinese kept all 11 players behind the ball line. As we said before, the midfielders dropped a lot, to leave no space for men between the lines. This was also made to keep the marking on Sassuolo’s midfielders and prevent backward passes, which would have allowed them to play cross-field passes and create danger, because even Udinese’s strikers dropped a lot. As we can see from the following image, Sassuolo’s midfielders were not only man-marked in the build-up phase, but also in the offensive phase.
Sassuolo’s offensive solutions
With their players in the attacking third having limited space, Sassuolo were forced to change their classic attacking shape. Although they always brought many players in the opponent’s half, the vertical or diagonal passing lines were almost always closed. Also, as we can see from the following image, Caputo was always left alone against Udinese’s centre-backs, who were physically much stronger than him, and was never able to work behind them and take advantage of his greater agility.
The real threat for a perfect defence like Udinese’s one was for sure Jeremie Boga. Known as one of the best dribblers in Serie A, in this game he was almost the only solution for Sassuolo to find a numerical advantage in some areas of the pitch. Even if his starting position was more central, almost working as a number 10, during the game he was forced to play in wider areas to find space, as we can see in the image below.
During the match, despite the lack of space, the Ivorian made eight dribbles playing only 64 minutes. However, many of these dribbles took place in the wider areas of the pitch, where he could only make crosses, and Udinese’s centre-backs were better than Caputo inside the box. As we can see from this image, realising the danger of Boga, Gotti’s team have always double-marked him, with midfielders cutting the passing lines in support, forcing him to risk difficult dribblings.
Thanks to this work, Boga completed only 50% of his dribblings, all too far from the goal to create real chances.
Long passes: the only real Gotti’s weapon
Playing such a defensive match, inevitably Udinese’s offensive phase struggled a lot throughout the game. As mentioned earlier, the attackers also dropped in the defensive third to contribute to the defensive phase. Consequently, even when the ball was recovered, the offensive transition was very ineffective. As we can see from the following image, the only option used by Udinese was the long ball for Okaka.
The Italian player who was physically dominant, held the ball, giving the team time to raise the centre of gravity. But even in the build-up phase, despite the fact that Sassuolo’s pressing was never very intense, Udinese never really tried to build-up from the back. Midfielders and full-backs tried to move forward immediately, waiting for long passes of the centre-backs, as we can see in this image.
Not surprisingly, Udinese’s centre-backs were the players who made more passes for the team, even more than the midfielders. And 11.9% of these were long passes, a double amount compared to Sassuolo’s, which describes the progress of the game very well.
In a match with a very low rhythm, and with the teams shooting only once towards the opponent’s goal, the only possible result was a nil-nil.
It was an unexpected stop after the incredible start of the season for De Zerbi’s team, but it will still allow them to be ahead of great teams like Inter and Juventus at the international break.
It was also an important draw for Udinese who are still having troubles in the offensive phase, but who were able to stop such a good attack like Sassuolo’s one with Gotti’s defensive tactics.