After a good first-half, Lazio hosted Zenit in a very important match for the qualification to the Round of 16. The Russians, with only one point, extremely needed a win to keep their hopes alive. But eventually, after a match played with both teams’ maximal determination, Lazio won 3-1. The three points were secured and the qualification now became really close for Inzaghi’s boys.
In this tactical analysis we will see how thanks to a perfect tactical approach and to the quality of his players, Lazio managed to get this very important win.
Lazio played with their traditional 3-5-2 formation, and without two important players like Sergej Milinković-Savić and Thomas Strakosha. José Manuel Reina started as a goalkeeper. The three-man defence was formed by Patric, Wesley Hoedt and Francesco Acerbi. And Manuel Lazzari, Marco Parolo, Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto and Adam Marušić played in midfield. And lastly, Joaquín Correa played alongside the European top scorer of 2019/2020, Ciro Immobile.
Semak’s team used a little bit more defensive formation, the 4-4-1-1. Michail Keržakov started as a goalkeeper, the defence consisted of Daler Kuzjaev, Dejan Lovren, Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Jurij Žirkov. Wílmar Barrios and Douglas Santos were the midfield duo, with Aleksandr Erochin and Andrej Mostovoj on the flanks. And Malcom was the offensive midfielder, supporting Artëm Dzjuba.
Lazio’s build-up phase
In the build-up phase, Inzaghi’s team showed all the abilities that led them to get to this level of play in the last few years. Zenit often tried to press high on the pitch, but were never really effective and well-coordinated. And in these situations, Lazio’s defence ability to get out of their own third with fast and accurate vertical passes was crucial.
And one of the best midfielders in Europe in terms of vertical passes is undoubtedly Luis Alberto. With Zenit’s pressing becoming more focused on the centre-backs, and even though Alberto usually has a more offensive attitude, he dropped a lot, forming a double pivot midfield with Lucas Leiva. As we can see from the image below, in these situations the other midfielder, Parolo, moved forward, trying to stretch the opponent’s midfield and open more space for the Spanish.
Another important role in the build-up phase, pretty surprisingly, was Immobile’s one. As we said before in this analysis, the pressing brought by Zenit’s players on Lazio’s centre-backs was high. The passing line for one of the midfielders was not available every time, and sometimes they were forced to play more long passes. In these situations, Immobile played a lot between the lines, working almost as an advanced playmaker, as we can see from this image.
With Immobile dropping a lot, Correa was the highest player on the pitch. The Argentinian was always ready to take advantage of Immobile’s work and vertical passes, with his pace and dribbling ability in open spaces. And, as we can see in this image, that’s exactly how the second goal was born.
With such a helpful attitude for his team, Immobile’s numbers were even more surprising. He is not only a classic centre forward who is just focused on scoring goals, he is absolutely part of Lazio’s build-up phase, and with that he was still able to score 36 goals in the league last season.
Zenit’s offensive options: a Dzjuba’s work
At least on paper, the technical difference between the two teams was pretty big. And one of the aspects where this difference was more evident, was for sure the build-up phase.
In non-possession, Lazio’s pressing was very high, but more focused on cutting passing lines to the midfielders. The midfield was incredibly tight, and the only available option was the pass to the flank. As we can see from this image, a lot of space was given to the defenders, but the midfielders had no space to work in the centre of the pitch.
With such a busy midfield, the only real way to get to the opponent’s last third was the long ball, performed by the centre-backs or the full-backs. And in these long and high balls, obviously the main target was Dzjuba. The “Russian tower” played a fantastic match working as a lone striker, as we can see from this image in which he was left alone to play an aerial duel against two centre-backs.
His work was incredible, but the reason why Zenit’s offensive phase struggled a bit was probably the lack of support given to him. Lazio’s defending players always outnumbered Zenit’s players, and all the chances were created by Dzjuba by winning his duels against Lazio’s centre-backs. And Zenit’s goal was obviously born from one of those duels, as we can see from this image.
Lazio’s trademark: the fast offensive transition
We already mentioned Lazio’s ability to play good and fast vertical passes to get in the attacking third. But these transitions were so well-executed that they deserve a better focus, to understand even more why they were the key of Inzaghi’s tactics in this match.
With Zenit attacking with not many players, Lazio always kept at least three players high on the pitch even in non-possession. And when the defenders were able to get the ball back, this allowed the team to perform incredibly fast counterattacks with lots of players. As we can see from this image, none of Lazio’s midfielders stayed back to cover, they just started running forward, almost like a rugby team.
And another Inzaghi’s surprise for this game was Acerbi’s role. Even though he was one of the three centre-backs on paper, he worked all the time as a kind of “added full-back”. Zenit’s defence was really narrow, scared of Lazio’s ability to play between the lines in central areas. So Inzaghi understood that many chances could come from the flanks, and he tried to get a numerical advantage all the time, as we can see from this image.
With this Acerbi’s run on the flanks, Marušić cut the pitch to force Zenit’s right-back to play even more narrow in order to avoid a numerical advantage in the box. The reason why Lazio didn’t score from any of these situations is probably related to the absence of Milinkovic-Savic. His ability in aerial duels would have been helpful for sure, but the tactical intuition of the Italian coach was a real deal for Zenit’s defence to face.
With one of the best performances of this season so far, Lazio stepped forward to the qualification to UEFA Champions League’s round of 16, also fighting Borussia Dortmund for the first place in the group. Inzaghi’s team, despite their average start in Serie A, proved how good is their playstyle in Europe, and now all European teams have to really consider them as a true outsider in this competition.
Zenit instead got knocked out of the competition with two remaining games to play, with the only hope to get a place in the UEFA Europe League by ending up third in the group.