US Sassuolo – Empoli FC: One half of good football enough for Sassuolo against Empoli’s 4-3-1-2 (3-1)

Empoli scored after eighteen seconds and managed to press Sassuolo effectively for the entire first half, but came up short nonetheless. Despite their good pressing, Empoli lacked an effective method of defending on their own half. A decent second half by Sassuolo sealed the deal.

Sassuolo came into this game having had a fairly good Serie A start. They stood firm in the top half with seven points from four matches – with their only loss coming against Juventus. Manager Roberto de Zerbi favours a style that includes short passing and long spells of possession. Against Empoli, he opted for a 4-3-3 formation with former AC Milan player Kevin-Prince Boateng as central striker, accompanied by captain Domenico Berardi as right winger and Frederico di Francesco on the left.

Aurelio Andreazzoli is Empoli’s manager. The 64 year-old has been coaching since 1989 and has been assistant to household names like Luciano Spalletti, Zdeněk Zeman and Rudi Garcia. In December 2017, he took his first job as head coach at Empoli (apart from being AS Roma’s interim-coach in 2013). Six months later, he could add the Serie B title to his prize cabinet and earned his new club a promotion.

Ever since he took over, Andreazzoli lets his team play in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Last season’s Serie B title was mostly based on the insane production of his striking duo Francesco Caputo and Alfredo Donnarumma, who racked up 49 goals together and were first and second on the list of Serie B’s capocannoniere. Caputo is still around, and an extremely useful striker for a lower Serie A side.

The diagram below displays all players in both starting lineups. It depicts a situation where Empoli plays on Sassuolo’s half, which happened regularly in the first half. Sassuolo defended in a 4-1-4-1 formation on their own half. The ball is displayed at the feet of central defender Matías Silvestre.


Empoli’s positioning and general movements on Sassuolo’s half


Empoli successfully press Sassuolo at home and score after eighteen seconds
Sassuolo is a team that does not kick the ball away for an aerial duel and hope for the second ball to drop their way. Instead, they prefer to pass the ball around patiently until they see a gap to exploit. Their kick-offs are in line with this philosophy, but against Empoli, this cost them an early conceded goal. Stefano Sensi lost the ball in midfield and after this turnover, Empoli was very quick to get the ball in Sassuolo’s penalty area. A cool finish by the aforementioned Caputo meant 0-1 to Empoli after just eighteen (!) seconds of play.

Failing to play out from under a press turned out to be a structural issue for Sassuolo. During the first twenty minutes, Empoli’s 4-3-1-2 was very effective in pressing situations. Displayed below is the situation that occurred when Sassuolo tried to build up from the back. The ball is at the feet of goalkeeper Andrea Concigli.

Empoli’s pressing made building-up hard for Sassuolo

As shown in the image above, there were always two of Empoli’s strikers close to their two central defenders, which makes playing through them very hard. Sassuolo’s central defenders also did not attempt to spread Empoli’s strikers by positioning themselves wider than normal. Sassuolo’s holding midfielder Manuel Locatelli was strictly man-marked by Empoli’s number ten Miha Zajc. This meant that the only passes available for Sassuolo in this situation are a long ball to a striker (aeriel duel), another central midfielder (risky) or to a full-back.

When Sassuolo opted to pass the ball to the full-back, Empoli would let one of their central midfielders press. Because they fielded four midfielders and Sassuolo three, this meant that Empoli could pressure the full-back and still have a 3v3 in midfield. It is also good to note that ‘pressing’ is not always about trying to immediately win the ball from an opponent, but sometimes simply about  preventing a pass to a nearby team-mate.

Sassuolo get a somewhat lucky goal
One of the players who did a very good job in making the choice between pressing the full-back or just cutting off a passing lane was Empoli’s right midfielder Afriyie Acquah. Unfortunately, he had to come off injured after only ten minutes. Because his replacement was not yet ready to come in, Sassuolo were temporarily up a man. They quickly constructed an attack via De Francesco, who found striker Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Ghanaian scored the equalizer to make it 1-1 in the thirteenth minute.

Goal scorer Boateng proved to very valuable for his team in the remainder of the first half. As explained earlier, one of Sassuolo’s options to play out from under Empoli’s press was to play a long ball towards the striker. Even though it is clear that this is not their preferred playing style, sometimes Empoli were pressing so high that there was no other option. The ageing Boateng – still in excellent physical shape – dominated Empoli’s central duo and played a nice series of lay-offs and smart passes.

Of course, it is not possible to press for ninety minutes. Sometimes a team has to fall back in the organisation and then determine the right moment to start pressing again. This timing is where Empoli could improve. When positioned on their own half, a sort of 4-3-1-2 is formed, with one of the two strikers dropping back incidentally. Playing with a block of four defenders and three midfielders effectively means defending with just seven players in and around your own box, which is usually not preferable.

Altogether, a 1-1 score felt like a fair reflection of the first 45 minutes of football, even though Empoli had a run of good chances near the end of the first half. Sassuolo had more problems than only failing to build-up. For a team that has one of the most progressive coaches in Italy, their pressing was also very poor at times.


Red card effectively finishes the match
The first half was enjoyable, but after a while the same situations occurred so frequently, that the game became a bit repetitive. Because both coaches speculated that the game could still fall their way, neither of them decided to change anything. This meant that both teams struggled with the same problems as in the first half, even though Sassuolo gradually started to play more and more on Empoli’s half.

Sassuolo gained the advantage in the 57th minute by a lovely corner routine. Winger Di Francesco got his second assist of the night by making a run towards the corner kick taker and heading a ball through to the first post. Two Sassuolo runners were closing in there, of whom Gian Marco Ferrari was the last to touch the ball and get the goal to his name.

After going 2-1 up, Sassuolo started to control the game in possession. After a very forgettable first half, their holding midfielder Manuel Locatelli blossomed in the second half and started to dictate the tempo, patiently distributing the ball from one green shirt to another. Empoli’s press started to become less coherent and the spaces to play in were becoming bigger for Sassuolo.

The match was effectively over when Empoli’s creative midfielder Zajc got a red card in the 70th minute. He picked up the ball in the penalty area and was correctly tackled by Sassuolo’s midfielder Mehdi Bourabia. It is perfectly possible to go down after a duel in the penalty area, Zajc did not explicitly ask for a penalty and he also did not dive. Nonetheless, referee Frederico La Penna decided to give a yellow card for diving to the already booked Zajc.

This effectively ended the game, as Sassuolo continued to recycle the ball without Empoli being able to press any more. Empoli’s defensive shape from this point on was either a 4-3-2 or a 4-4-1 formation. Di Francesco added to what will feel as a game of redemption – he was the player to get spat on by Douglas Costa and received abuse by Juventus’ tifosi. He scored the 3-1 in added time, even though the ball seemed to have crossed the byline earlier. After the Zajc incident, this was the second time in this game that the video assistant referee should have at least been used.

Takeaways
Overall, this was a very enjoyable game – until the red card by Zajc – between two teams that more or less play in the same style. You have to feel for Empoli, based on the way they controlled Sassuolo away from home in the first twenty minutes. And if you add in a scrappy conceded set piece goal and two very questionable refereeing decisions, that feeling gets stronger.

Manager Andreazzoli will have to implement a more effective strategy when his team is defending on their own half, if he is to keep Empoli from relegating back to Serie B. He is not aided by the fact some of his players don’t look like they can live up to Serie A standards, in particular striker La Gumina and both full-backs.

Sassuolo are currently second in the league, even though all the other teams still have to play this weekend. Even if this looked like an easy three points from a distance, Roberto de Zerbi probably will not ignore the problems his team encountered in the first half. It is interesting to keep an eye on Sassuolo’s build-up play this season.

Erik Elias (24) is co-founder and Head Editor of Between the Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles too. After six years of coaching youth football in the Netherlands, it's now time to focus on journalism. Communication student, graduating this year. Anchor of ‘De Voetbalpodcast', weekly Dutch football podcast. [ View all posts ]

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