Cagliari’s Icarian Flight

Cagliari has been one of Serie A’s biggest surprises. Under manager Rolando Maran, they have been able to overperform expected goals to an extent that has rarely been seen before. In their last three games – all losses – the inevitable regression raised its head, but how did Cagliari obtain such a “cheat-code” in the first place? Or was it all a fluke?

Written by Kareem Bianchi.

As football’s globalization progresses, with big clubs stretching their reach to attract fans and sponsors from around the world, the industry has seen a capitalistic approach working towards an unbreachable barrier that gradually leaves small businesses behind. 

While the walls rise in stature to separate the rich from the rest, the smaller clubs struggle to find ways to escape the shadow, eventually falling under the razor-sharp claws carefully crafting their traces in their granted territory. Living off player-trading and awaiting a beam of light that might usher them out of the shade, only to eventually fall under the same inexorable grip that hauls into the darkness, forced to crawl back into their sorrowful slum where no light dwells, is the same fate every “feeder club” awaits.

In recent years Europe has witnessed some of the most astonishing fairy tales with the likes of Leicester City winning the Premier League, Ajax being one minute away from a Champions League final after knocking out two powerhouses in Real Madrid and Juventus. Yet, the following year has appeared grim for both clubs as their main talents departed, setting the flying heights lower as the pressure mounted, pinning down the once free-flowing sides. 

Italy has its share of advancing smaller teams too. Atalanta for one slowly climbed up the ladder to imprint their name in the league’s uptown, expertly cultivating their wealth for future stability. 

An unexpected plot

Cagliari’s story is a little different. 

Manager Rolando Maran was appointed after four years at Chievo, where he made a team full of grit and created an annoyingly sturdy defense despised by the league’s biggest forces for its antagonizing resilience. With his arrival, many expected Cagliari to – at best – find the stability they yearned for.

Instead, the Sardinian side surprisingly found itself competing with the league’s first class, in a comparably antagonizing run to Chievo’s defensive exploits that has seen Cagliari pull a rabbit out of a hat in numerous games. Carried on the backs of João Pedro’s shadow-striking and Radja Nainggolan’s long-range efforts, Cagliari’s transfer market activity was backed by efficient execution in Maran’s “cheat-code” strategy, leading to a campaign start worth remembering for its statistical anomaly. 

Since their release, expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. statistics have seen two major forms of public use. One is to describe the underlying performances on  single match level to see how the final score lined up with the presumed strength displayed in the ninety minutes at hand. A second application, closer to the original idea behind the model, is to estimate team strength based on a larger sample in order to predict future developments. 

Over the years we have seen numerous teams break the general assumption that teams don’t significantly deviate from expected goals numbers in larger samples. By definition, based on gathered data regarding the chances of a shot ending in the back of the net, the average shooter will eventually fall under the same scoring mean as other average footballers. Conversely, players of superior abilities often find their way around the metric by bypassing the model’s mean. Ultimately, depending on the sample size, conclusions on the player’s goalscoring tendencies and related sustainability can then be traced. 

Cagliari currently sit on 33 goals scored, with only 18.1 expected goals created, a mammoth overperformance that appears even more staggering when considering the dynamics of each goal. Defensively the overperformance is also seen, albeit to a less stellar degree, with only 27 goals conceded despite 32.2 expected goals allowed. Cagliari somehow managed to pair the underlying numbers of a lower bottom half side with the goal scoring record of a top four team, most notably before the three most recent games served as a reality check.

Early December Cagliari even held a top four spot for a moment.

On player level, most of this offensive overperformance comes down to Nainggolan and João Pedro. Whereas throughout his career Nainggolan has been capable of slightly exceeding expectations each season, courtesy of his impressive long-range precision and power, João Pedro’s goalscoring record portrays a fairly antithetical picture, raising doubts around the player maintaining such form. Incidentally, Cagliari’s most unforeseen exploits were led by the Brazilian shadow-striker’s rampaging goals – eleven in total, two of which from penalties – which either added fuel to the comebacks or ignited them in the first place

Just before the Serie A Christmas break, Cagliari’s tide started turning as they lost to two injury-time goals against Lazio and were defeated by Udinese five days later. Two weeks prior they had overthrown Sassuolo’s lead with an 89th minute equalizer, in what might have been the final exploit of run that had lasted surprisingly long considering Cagliari’s actual merits. In the first match after the break, Cagliari surrendered to Juventus too, in a 4-0 steamrolling

The Maran-way

Upon landing in Sardinia, Rolando Maran organized his Cagliari in a 4-3-2-1 / 4-3-1-2 shape that allows him to employ both his ace cards in João Pedro and Nainggolan. 

By doing so Cagliari can achieve consistent support between the lines from the two attacking midfielders while the striker pins the center-back, freeing them for drifting movements in the process. 

This allows Maran’s men to combine in wide areas, and if they cannot progress instantly then they will switch the play until an opening through the wing is found. Although they try to use combination play to progress, when pressed Cagliari do not shy away from playing the ball long, as the striker or attacking midfielder either drops towards the ball or makes a run to collect the long pass.

Facilitated by the natural positions in the 4-3-2-1 shape, Cagliari are provided with a variety of solutions that allow Maran to divert from the previous campaign’s monotone and obsessive strategy solely focused on reaching the fullback wide for crosses into target man Leonardo Pavoletti. While the offensive principle still consists in freeing a man wide, the options do not just lie on the wing anymore but in the central channels as well, with rotations happening between interior and attacking midfielder, plus Radja Nainggolan ready to receive between the lines and hit the target from range. 

Once the ball reaches wide areas, then Cagliari makes sure to attack the penalty area with numerous bodies. One man attacks the far post, one stays in the center of the box and another makes a run on the near post, while in addition a player stands just inside the box, waiting for the cross’ developments.

Despite the increased options when organizing the play, the final pass and scoring attempts both rank amongst the less likely to lead to quality shots, jeopardizing their creation. With crosses being the least effective tool to assist, plus shots from range ranking low on the expected goals scale, it comes as no surprise to see where Cagliari stand. Cagliari’s shot quality – expected goals per shot – from open play per ninety minutes is the lowest amongst the top six and thirteenth in the league at 0.087. In terms of shot volume the picture looks the same, as with 7.9 attempts from open play per match, Cagliari rank fourteenth in Serie A.

All-round overperformance

Without the ball, Cagliari maintains its shape in a 4-3-2-1 low to medium block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. that emphasizes the cover of central areas due to its structure. Subsequently, with the center covered and the opposition’s holding midfielder trapped in Cagliari’s midfield box – the structure formed by the three midfielders and two attacking midfielders – they force the possession wide. Once the ball reaches the wing, the trigger for the interior to step out is activated, instructing him to step out on the fullback. If Cagliari are forced to defend deep in their half, then it is the ball-near attacking midfielder who intervenes, otherwise, if the interior is simply pinned, the fullback can push up instead.

Cagliari's medium block structure in a 4-3-2-1 shape.

Cagliari’s medium block structure in a 4-3-2-1 shape.

The intention in these actions is not to recover possession, but rather to congest spaces with the help of the touchline, prevent access into the center and thus force the opposition’s circulation back in order to move forward as a collective. Therefore, even if a line of pressure is bypassed then the closest player on the line below will disturb the receiver by preventing him from turning and developing the play further inside.

To close down spaces even further, Cagliari’s defensive structure shifts aggressively to the ball-side, with the ball-far fullback and interior remaining slightly wider to instinctively press switches. A pass from one side to the other.

While this strategy should work well in theory, it translated into the twelfth best defense in the league with 0.85 expected goals conceded from open play per match, as an inefficient rest-defense A team’s defensive organization at the moment that the ball is lost to the opponent. has often exposed Maran’s side to counters. Since the ball-near interior, the fullbacks and attacking midfielders are all required to support attacks, only Cigarini and the ball-far midfielder protect the defensive line. Due to the deep positioning from the two midfielders an opponent can enter his stride as he carries the ball forward before the counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. attempts to stop him, starting at an advantage.

Due to Cagliari’s rest-defense issues, Filip Đuričić can carry the ball until the edge of the penalty area and assist Domenico Berardi for Sassuolo’s lead.

Due to Cagliari’s rest-defense issuesFilip Đuričić can carry the ball until the edge of the penalty area and assist Domenico Berardi for Sassuolo’s lead.

Furthermore, pressure on the ball-carrier is not always the most intense, and at times it lacks completely, either exposing the backline to long balls in behind when Cagliari station themselves in a medium block or the ball-far side to switches.


With 16 goals out of 33 amounting to a 48% goalscoring contribution, João Pedro and Radja Nainggolan have contributed to nearly half of all Cagliari goals, defining an overperformance that, on first glance, appears in line with the two attacking midfielders’ attributes and their team’s playing style.

Even so, it’s extremely unlikely for both players to keep up the same numbers. Especially for the former, who has been thriving in his shadow-striker role, sorting out his movements based on Simeone’s position to find pockets of space to receive in or arrive late in the box for rebounds and second balls.

Rolando Maran has found a way to make up for Pavoletti’s absence by increasing the options available for the players on the ball, enriching the possession phase and playing to his individuals’ attributes. However, in a team of mostly athletic and direct footballers, Cagliari have preserved a vertical spirit that as we have previously seen with other overperforming vertical sides such as Lazio (2016/17), Monaco (2016/17) and Leicester (2015/16), has been redefining the concept of overperformance.  

While it is logical to expect a regression when taking into account the structural issues affecting Cagliari’s strategy, given the direct intentions through which Maran’s men develop the play and the quantitative offensive approach that sees them attack the penalty area with many players, the overperformance could be traced back to their box presence. Eventually, these risks take their toll when balancing the score with the concerns on the other end of the pitch. 

Ultimately though, considering the timing of the goals in numerous injury-time comebacks, the opposition’s fatigue and inability to push men forward against Cagliari’s rampage could have vastly contributed to their rise where only a few teams have succeeded to ascend, until the wax covering their spread-out wings aimed above the average had to surrender to the supreme laws of their own flaws. 


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