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Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio: Finding new purpose in Rome

Lazio

Lazio and Maurizio Sarri. Both have suffered bruising departures in recent years. yet together they can blossom, and elevate the other to new heights.

For all his idiosyncrasies, and occasionally frosty front facing persona, there is a will within most footballing circles for Maurizio Sarri to succeed.

His rise and trajectory to the top of the European game is almost unrivalled for it’s path. The opportunities afforded to him have not been based on past playing glories, nor name or legacy. Sarri has forged his own career through earned rewards. Plus, inherently owning a brand of play that few can match for it’s swift beauty.

Yet rather jarring junctures have taken away from what made so many fall in love with Sarri’s style. His move to Chelsea always appeared to conflict with the club’s principles of win above all costs. Sarri’s need for time and trust to implement a philosophy just didn’t fit with this template. Even a Europa League triumph could not suture those preconceived flaws.

Then came Juventus. An arranged marriage forced out of both’s availability. Chelsea were keen to release Sarri, and Juventus had limited options to improve their own style after Max Allegri had been shown the door.

Again, it felt like Sarri wasn’t, well, Sarri. His first league title was won, but there was little evidence of the qualities that had made him stand out as a coach at Napoli. Another divorce ensued.

Now he is back in Italy, with a side that in many ways mirror his own disgruntled, unappreciated demeanour. Lazio had suffered their own enforced separation in the summer, when beloved coach Simone Inzaghi left for Inter Milan.

So here they both stand. Parties of respected standing, hurting from recent bruisings. Yet such collisions can breed great beauty, as the early matches of Sarri’s tenure are showing.

Succeeding in Sarriball

The Napoli side modelled in Sarri’s image between 2015 and 2018 was a model in attacking thrill and incision. In his first season in Naples, Sarri was undoubtedly helped by the presence of a record-breaking Gonzalo Higuain season. Yet with the Argentine sold at the end of that season, Sarri set about establishing his radical side templates further.

Dries Mertens was shifted into a central role and finished second in the league top scorers charts. This showed Sarri’s principles of attacking play were firmly around the quality of chance created, and not necessarily the quality of player-created for. Lorenzo Insigne also hit eighteen goals for that season, as Napoli finished third, but scored a remarkable 94 league goals.

Chance creation, and an almost simulated automaton-like routine of creating said chances, is the Sarri mantra (when successful). Pivoting around a single midfield passer (a la Jorginho at Napoli and Chelsea), Sarri is happy to keep and hold the ball in any location on the pitch. Drawing the opposition forward or wide, Sarri’s side aim to penetrate directly with an aggressive forward pass or diagonal switch. Like a game of cat and mouse, the patience in possession can lure a frustrated press, through which the attack can play through.

Such ideals of play are possible only through certain components. A goalkeeper and centre backs that are comfortable and controlled in possession. Full backs that can hold width and combine with the midfield. Wingers who can involve themselves in build-up, but also attack half-spaces in the final phases of play. Finally, a forward who can drift deep to pull centre backs away, but also ruthlessly finish the plethora of chances created for them.

A small criteria it is not. However, the less tangible aspect is Sarri’s will to liberate his players of any weight or burden. The will to allow players free expression, and ultimately enjoy playing this system, precedes any of his tactical demands. Such a philosophy might not establish a “winning mentality” so craved at the clubs he managed post-Napoli. However, when executed, it is hard to rival a Maurizio Sarri side for its’ attacking verve and vitality.

Early hallmarks

After a scintillating derby win over rivals Roma, Lazio find themselves sixth in Serie A and level with Atalanta. That performance alone was enough to perk interest in the blue half of Rome’s direction.

Yet beneath the surface there are signs that the wider picture Sarri aims to create, can be fulfilled.

Famed (and in England, occasionally ridiculed) for a possession heavy style, Sarri already has Lazio dominating the ball. Only Napoli have completed more passes this season in Serie A, and only the Neoplitans can boast a higher average possession than Lazio’s 57.5%.

This is already 4% higher than last season. Inzaghi’s Lazio were set up as a counter-attacking unit, maximising the speed of the wing-backs and clever forward movement to hurt opponents. Sarri’s 4-3-3 is inherently more of a ball dominating system than Inzaghi’s 3-5-2, but to see an almost identical group of players execute a very different gameplan is impressive.

The directness of the previous system can be seen in the SCA/90 counts. The Lazio of this season are producing 0.20 fewer shot-creating actions than the last term. This is perhaps more of an indication of the directness and verticality of Inzaghi’s style, and less about that of Sarri.

There exists a group of players within the squad that can seemingly adapt to the Sarri mantra. In Lucas Leiva, he has a safe and dependable operator as the deepest midfielder. In Luis Alberto, Lazio possess a gifted creator from deep and advanced zones, who can feed exquisite and ambitious forward passes. Ciro Immobile, as well as being one of the league’s deadliest finishers, is also a tireless presser from the front.

These are not alone in being Sarri-esque components, however.

Maximising midfield personnel

Lucas Leiva is a fascinating part within this system. Sold to Lazio in 2017, and deemed to be unsuitable to the physicality of the English game, the Brazilian was an ever-present under Inzaghi.

His role was as a safety blanket and to offer a dependable out-ball to the defence. In many ways, it mirrors the role that Jorginho has played throughout his career. Simple and quickly recycled passing to keep the ball in motion. Such a player requires an elevated degree of dynamism around it. In Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Sarri (and Lucas) have the perfect ingredients.

At Chelsea, Sarri’s midfield lacked the balance between ball security and attacking incision. A three of Mateo Kovacic, N’golo Kante and Jorginho offers many qualities, but that speed and thrust required to bypass a high opposition press was lacking.

At Lazio, the midfield seems perfectly suited to such demands. Milinkovic-Savic is a powerful midfielder, capable of bulldozing into the opposition penalty area to receive crosses. Equally however, he can display a subtlety and touch that aids build up centrally. His size and physicality can protect the ball from pressure, a perfect fit for the Sarri midfield.

Then there is Luis Alberto. The Spaniard is a luscious and elegant ball player from deep. Since his arrival at Lazio, perhaps only Papu Gomez can rival the Spaniard in being Serie A’s best creator. Alberto is a threader of exquisite through balls, and can execute the direct and vertical trigger to set the forward line free.

Assuming that these three will occupy the Lazio midfield three for the foreseeable future (until Lucas is eventually replaced), the midfield will hold its own against any in the league.

The Higuain of Lazio?

To compare the effect of Ciro Immobile to any other striker is slightly redundant. Immobile is the Laziali’s all time top scorer, and has either won or threatened the golden boot title in every season since his return to Italy.

His record (and form) is enough for it to be assumed that his inclusion will be enjoyed by a new manager. Similarly, the way that Sarri adapted his Napoli side to become even more potent after Higuain’s departure, might indicate that his own philosophy is not dependent on the individual profile of his striker.

Yet there is a Sarri-ness to Immobile. A potency in front of goal that few in Europe can match. The willingness to link play and run the channels to allow the wingers to narrow and threaten goal especially. In new signing Pedro, Lazio have a goal focussed winger that enjoys his best moments in front of goal. The Spaniard was Chelsea’s second highest scorer in their season under Sarri.

On the other flank id Felipe Anderson. A gifted and beautifully technical winger that presses diligently, and creates for fun. Anderson is more of a creator than goalscorer, and depending on the side of the pitch he starts on, could easily end up drifting centrally to create behind Pedro and Immobile.

Six matches in, and Immobile as the side’s top scorer. Whilst Lazio are a mid-table side in terms of shots taken (12.50/90), Immobile will make the most of the high quality chances made for him. The Italian has also taken more shots than any other Serie A player this season. This is a player that will feast on crosses and through balls, but will also endeavour to fashion their own openings.

The Sarri-Lazio link

There had been a few links for Sarri in the off season, with jobs across Europe. Tottenham were supposedly interested, and the poor form of rivals Arsenal had made Sarri a candidate to take over there too.

However, there is a connection that binds Sarri and Lazio, beyond any idea of job fulfilment. Both parties have been dealt rough blows in recent times. The departure of Inzaghi, a former player and adored son of Lazio, hurt the club and fans.

Similarly, Sarri’s removal from both Chelsea and Juventus will have damaged his own professional confidence. He had delivered silverware to both, yet neither believed in his methods nor vision enough to see them fully flourish.

At Lazio, Sarri has a support network that will trust and back him. The club will be in no rush to release manager of his quality, after enjoying such a long and winding ride with Inzaghi. Sarri’s own journey with Napoli, with a group of players that share many similarities to the one he inherits in Rome, will inspire and excite many a Lazio fan.

The strength of the league’s top six make it a tough ask for Sarri to crack. Yet this alone should not define his tenure. He has the ability and prowess to continue the club’s progress, and even threaten to push new heights.

Either way, this marriage can bring both parties out of their rose tinted melancholy. They might not be what the other had hoped for, but they can definitely prove to be what they need. An exciting undertone to this new, intriguing relationship.

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