Lazio’s Surprising Scudetto Challenge
The battle between Juventus and Inter is catching most of the attention, but this historical Serie A season is getting shaped by a surprise architect. With 26 games played – and the Serie A now suspended at least until April 3rd – Lazio sit on 62 points, only one behind league leaders Juventus. Prior to the suspension, the Scudetto had been explicitly declared as the season’s objective from the Rome-based team’s staff and players. How has Inzaghi been able to achieve this, and will Lazio be able to keep up their form if and when the remainder of this season is going to be played?
Written by Kareem Bianchi.
When Simone Inzaghi was appointed in April 2016, Lazio had experienced a disappointing season on many fronts. In August they lost the Supercoppa to Juventus and missed out on the Champions League group stage by losing the play-off against Bayer Leverkusen. A disappointing Europa League round of sixteen exit to Sparta Prague, a quarter-final exit in the Coppa Italia and a substandard Serie A performance followed. More than suffering from poor results though, the team lacked a distinctive style.
The new manager had been brought back to his footballing home as a low investment, with the prerogative to provide stability. Few would have expected Lazio to climb up the league’s hierarchy as swiftly as they ended up doing though.
In retrospect, Inzaghi could not have satisfied the management’s requests more, given expectations, funds and squad depth over the years. He did not hesitate to imprint his ideas on the team, but like in every happy ending story, the end result is oftentimes preceded by endless tussles with adversities. Although Lazio might appear to have had a smooth ride through the rankings from an outsider view, obstacles along the way derailed their quest numerous times.
After Inzaghi picked up the pieces of Pioli’s Lazio in eighth position, he first safely ferried a sinking ship to shore with seven games remaining. The two following seasons Lazio were able to sail to fifth place through blistering storms that only took their definite toll when the capital-based side fell to Inter in the last fixture of the 2017/18 season. Anything but a loss would have launched Lazio into Europe’s elite, yet from a winning position they gifted away the precious fourth spot with a series of errors that epitomized the first three years under Inzaghi.
Mental breakdowns and recurrent individual mistakes in winning positions would consistently expose Lazio to comebacks, turning even the most heroic of performances into dust.
Then last season, the familiar eighth position once again rose from the barrow to haunt Lazio, and Inzaghi appeared to have shed his last drop of sweat in the capital, as the curtains closed in on the manager’s spell and the stage turned dim.
Somehow Claudio Lotito, the club’s president, notorious for his radical decisions, chose not to depart ways with the manager, who set off the season with the expectations to qualify for the Champions League. In a scenario nobody would have anticipated, Lazio’s expectations sky-rocketed when they found themselves racing for the Scudetto in a chase where they seem to possess the upper hand over their competitors with each passing game.
How exactly has Lazio transitioned from eighth-placed disappointment to title contender in such a rapid turn of events?
Simple yet consistent
Inzaghi’s game principles, which Lazio have refined over the years, are simple, and perfectly suited to a team that can boast quality profiles to maximize the manager’s requests.
From a stubborn defensive base that looks to block central entries, Lazio seek for open spaces to attack to release their vertical instincts.
Make no mistake though, Inzaghi’s team is much more than a basic counterattacking team. Lazio’s offensive identity oscillates between directness and verticality and quick short combinations to get behind the defense. Their attacks can develop both centrally and wide, high and low. This mix of ingredients makes them a very challenging opponent to hold off, as they rarely seem to run out of solutions, a fundamental aspect that has distinguished Lazio from the other pretenders to the throne – Juventus and Inter – thus far.
The roots of Lazio’s football can be identified in their defensive system, which is often the starting point for subsequent attacks.
Inzaghi organizes his side in a 5-3-2 medium block 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. formation with a priority for covering any pass into central areas. They consistently preserve control over the opposition by keeping the ball outside any potential danger zone. Therefore, the striker – usually Felipe Caicedo due to his high work rate – marks the opposition’s six (or the nearest midfielder when playing against a double pivot) while his partner Immobile guides the center-backs’ circulation wide. This way, Lazio create somewhat of a double protective screen in the center with the striker and holding midfielder covering the center at different heights.
Furthermore, the striking duo will never be found too distant from the second line of defense, following the opposition’s possession by moving deeper, in that their positioning becomes key for counters. This especially occurs when a pivot enters possession, with the striker applying backward pressing on the player. Consequently, by staying close to the Lazio midfield whenever the midfielders recover the ball, they can be relieved of pressure and hand the ball directly to the strikers, who will in turn dish it out to a free man – either a midfielder whose pressure has been swiped off or a player attacking the available space on the wing.
Once the possession has successfully deviated wide, the central midfielders step out. Depending on the opposition’s backline, they either press the half-back if facing a back three, or the fullback if the opponents deploy a back four. Either way, the midfielders’ intent does not change, as the priority remains to cover any pass into the center.
If everything goes according to plans, with the ball finally being sent wide from the opposition, the wing-back must be high enough to pressure the wide player and block progression, since any delay could potentially give the opponents time to explore the space behind the interior.
Lazio’s 3-5-2 system against Juventus’ 4-3-1-2 shape.
However, as aforementioned, Lazio’s attacks do not just originate on the counter. Year in year out, Inzaghi’s men have added numerous weapons to their repertoire, reaching the heights they now stand at with variety in their attacking moves.
Lazio’s offense has retained its verticality, but the organization of their buildup has increasingly made use of patient circulation, including the goalkeeper. An initially patient passing pattern will free up a center-back to carry the ball forward. He will then initiate the combinations that occur between the midfielders and strikers gravitating around the same area to keep close distances that support quick exchanges and attract opposition defenders out of position. Otherwise, by circulating the ball in deep areas, Lazio can invite the press and create conditions to attack open spaces behind lines of pressure.
Lazio combine in tight spaces to reach an unmarked Luis Alberto on Genoa’s weak side.
The wing-backs always position themselves high straight off the buildup, to stretch the opposition and provide width, constantly threatening in depth.
Lazio’s offensive evolution
It might be over-simplistic to attribute all of Lazio’s offensive progress to mere individual player improvements. However, this does not seem far from the truth in Lazio’s case.
First, large portions of the credit must be given to Inzaghi. The manager’s intuition at the start of the season to lower Luis Alberto’s range of action in order to widen Lazio’s angles in offense alleviated Lucas Leiva’s burden in buildup as well as the overreliance on Sergej Milinković-Savić’s aerial prowess.
It has become somewhat habitual to spot Luis Alberto dropping beside Lucas Leiva in support when the Brazilian is marked, as it is equally frequent to observe the Spaniard carry the ball up the left halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and organize the attacking play.
From an attacking midfielder that positioned himself between the lines to combine statically with his fellow attackers, Luis Alberto was forged into a complete midfielder capable of using his technical ability dynamically to solve various problems at different lengths of the field and in different stages of the play. He leads the Serie A in assists (12) and key passes (3.0 per ninety minutes), which speaks volumes about his creative importance.
Luis Alberto’s contribution to Lazio’s ball progression has also freed up right interior Milinković-Savić to focus more on his final third contributions.
The most improved player though, cannot be anyone other than thirty-year-old Ciro Immobile, who has been instrumental in Lazio’s run of form with 27 goals and seven assists to his name in 25 appearances. Despite scoring so much, even with ten of his goals coming from penalty kicks, his link-up play is what really stood out this season.
Immobile has always required space to fully express his qualities, dictating passes with his runs behind the defensive line and using his speed to beat defenders. Throughout this season though, it has been his quality on the ball that has defined him, separating him from many other strikers in the league. Able to play one-touch football in tight spaces and with his back to goal, the number nine has become self-sufficient in creating his goal scoring opportunities by capitalizing on the high-quality chance creation – characterized by through balls – that Lazio provides.
Let’s not forget two other crucial elements in Lazio’s football, who have been sharing minutes aside Immobile, especially after Joaquin Correa – a starter in the beginning of the season – injured himself.
Joaquin Correa and Caicedo are diametrically opposed profiles, yet in their own styles they complement Immobile’s movements and tactical attitudes to perfection. While the former is more of a dribbler who likes to pick up the ball deep and dribble forward with elegance and speed to combine, the latter uses his physicality to bring the ball down even in the most hostile of environments and lay it off to a free man; the striker is also capable of playing first-time lay-offs.
With their technical and tactical differences, both Correa and Caicedo tend to move towards the ball, as opposed to Immobile who either attacks depth or stays in his position to combine and initiate his motion off the pass. In doing so, they can attract opponents and open space for their teammates.
Lazio are the second-highest team in expected goals per shot (0.108), only marginally behind Atalanta’s 0.109. Moreover, with 16.1 shots per match, Lazio are not only the fourth-highest volume shooting team in Serie A, but they rank second in expected goals created.
#Inzaghi: “Sentire parlare di partita Scudetto fa effetto, la classifica dice questo, affrontiamo un avversario forte e determinato, cercheremo di fare una grande partita di fronte ai nostri tifosi”#LazioInter 🎙 pic.twitter.com/lJl78WeDnO— S.S.Lazio (@OfficialSSLazio) February 15, 2020
Lazio’s success this season has been largely down to their attacking prowess, which has placed them in a spot to compete with the league’s best. However, defensive stability has been another key aspect of Inzaghi’s work which is often overlooked, but which has laid the foundations for the offensive outburst. Francesco Acerbi can be identified as the embodiment of Lazio’s defensive balance, leading the line and crucially stopping the opposition attackers in the most heroic of manners with last-ditch interventions.
These have been the main ingredients for a subtle climb through the rankings, which may well be crowned with Lazio lifting the Scudetto for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. If this Serie A season will be finished, that is.