Italian tactics 101: The higher the eagle flies, the harder it falls – a sad tale of Lazio.

No one has expected Simone Inzaghi’s men to fly so high.

Coaching in Serie A is hard. Climbing that career ladder can be forlorn. Most coaches start from the minor leagues, even in an amateur one. Very few of them get to move to a better club unless their works are deemed exceptional. They keep working until a top club knocks on the door. But they may never come. For every Massimiliano Allegri there are Pasquale Marino, Alberto Malesani, Francesco Guidolin, Serse Cosmi, or Gianni De Biasi. All of them are great coaches who never manage a big club in the Serie A.

Inzagh took a different path; he had managed the Lazio’s youth team for six years before he took charge of the senior one. He had no previous Serie A’s coaching experience. Coaches like him don’t usually flourish. Ciro Ferrara, Filippo Inzaghi, and Clarence Seedorf were thrown into the biggest stage without any prior top-flight training. They crumble under the spotlight and their careers may never re-boot. These failures make Inzaghi’s success more remarkable; Lazio is third in the table. People admire their football. Like other great coaches, he gives Lazio have an identity.

The eagle is soaring. But does it matter in this money-driven era?

Lazio are flying because of Milinkovic-Savic, a future superstar. 

Milinkovic-Savic is the focal point of Inzaghi’s offensive tactics.

A versatile attacking midfielder, Milinkovic-Savic can dribble past the defenders and combine with his teammates in the tight space. His powerful shooting range extends beyond the penalty box. Moreover, he can play like a striker. His go-ahead goal against Chievo is reminiscent of the one that David Trezeguet or Gianluca Vialli would score. At 6’4, he is bigger and stronger than most of his peers. Backing down the defender, shielding the ball, and winning the aerial challenge are his routines. To take advantage of these attributes, Inzaghi builds Lazio’s attack around the big Serbian.

Heavily biased to one side, Lazio often position four to six players close to the left flank and the half space in the offensive phase. With so many players being close to each other, they can generate an overload against the defenders. Most Lazio’s players, such as Marco Parolo and Ciro Immobile, are more athletic and physical than their counterparts. Even when they lost the possession, they can quickly counter-press and regain the ball. Lucas Leiva also monitors the overloaded area and recovers any lost possession. Moreover, as Saiguhan Elancheran pointed out here, the overload pulls the defenders to the left and creates a 1 vs.1 opportunity on the opposite side for Adam Marusic. He is an upgrade over Dusan Basta and is reminiscent of Stephan Lichtsteiner in his peak. Being able to dribble, shoot and pass with both feet, Marusic is a threat when given space.

To efficiently deliver the ball to the overloaded side, Inazghi uses Milinkovic-Savic as a target of the long ball. He can dominate the aerial duels against the regular midfielders and fullbacks, He wins 2.6 headers per game, the 15th highest among all players in the league. With Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio can swiftly and reliably deliver the ball to their advantageous side:

Overloading around Milinkovic-Savic is a potent weapon. The whole pack of Lazio’s players can attack immediately from the Serbian’s second pass and confuse the defense. Any loose ball is dangerous near the box because Milinkovic-Savic can finish it like a striker. He can also dribble and pass excellently. His skill set makes him unpredictable.

This tactic is analogous to the one Massimiliano Allegri implements in Juventus; He uses Mario Mandzukic as a target man on the wing. Did that tactic inspire Inzaghi? Possibly. Allegri unveiled his 4-2-3-1 against Lazio last year. In that game, the Croatian used his power to dominate Lazio’s fullback, Patric. Inazghi probably realized that tactic would work in Lazio too if he could use Milinkovic-Savic like Mandzukic (see Footnote at the end of the article).

To lower the defensive attention to the overloaded area, Inzaghi uses an invariable 3-5-2. In the initial offensive phase, Lazio use the back three, Leiva and the keeper Thomas Strakosha for the build-up. They pass the ball to each other to lure the opponent’s forwards into tackling them. Once the opponents commit to pressing them, they will send a long ball to the overloaded area:

By luring the opponent’s forwards away from their teammates, Lazio eliminates the first line of their defense and decrease the defensive pressure in the overloaded area.

To complement the attack that focuses on Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio also use the transition to immediately enter the offensive phase and takes advantage of their runners such as Immobile, Parolo, Marusic and Luis Alberto. Their attack is the best in Seire A and scores 2.59 goals per game, 10% better than the runner-up. It helps them to fly to the new height.

A relentless but methodological defense

Lazio’s defensive strategy builds on a similar concept as their offensive phase. The goal is to generate the numerical advantage.

Lazio strives to create transitions. They generate 30.4 normalized transitions per game, the forth highest in the league. Just like in the offensive phase, Inzaghi’s men want to create the numerical advantage to overwhelm their opponent in the defensive phase. They are heavily ball-orientated and close down the ball-handlers quickly. By using the cover shadow, Lazio’s players eliminate the passing lanes between the opponent’s players. Therefore, they do not have to mark every player:

To out-number their opponent, Lazio’s players also constantly assess which player(s) they can ignore so that they can have an extra player(s) free from the marking duty. For example, Leiva rarely man-mark the opponent. He mainly covers his midfield’s teammates and is always ready to tackle and recover the ball. Lazio also always have an extra center back:

Once the ball enters the overloaded zone Lazio create, their players will pursue the ball relentlessly. They keep chasing the ball as it moves through different players:

The goal is not merely to regain the possession. Sometimes a player has no hope to retrieve the ball, but he will keep running after it. By applying the pressure and minimizing the passing lane, he can delay the opponent from advancing the ball, wait for his teammates to come back to help and return to the preferred defensive shape.

However, their defensive movement can be risky because Lazio always leave a player(s) at the ball-far side free. If a team is able to switch between the flanks efficiently, Lazio will be out-numbered:

A recurring theme of Inzaghi’s philosophy is the overload. Combining the calculation and the aggression, Lazio put themselves in an advantageous defensive position.

The higher the eagle flies, the harder it falls

With the marvelous work he has done in Lazio, Inzaghi shows us his philosophy and brilliance. But they may not matter. Lazio’s limited resource means they can’t contend for the most important titles. Ciro Lotito’s pocket is not deep enough to challenge the modern super teams. At some point, Lazio have to sell their players. Therefore, the better the players perform, the higher transfer fee the club can demand, and the more disappointment the fans will feel. This way, Lazio will forever dangle in a state where they are too good to be a participant, but not good enough to be a contender. Money dictates their life. It is a sad tale for the Biancocelesti, resulted from the dominance of the super teams, created by the capitalism of the modern society.

Footnote

The function of Milinkovic-Savic (and Mandzukic) deserves a separate discussion because it illustrates the evolution of tactics and players’ development.

Serving as the targets of the long ball, Mandzukic and Milinkovic-Savic serve the functions that are traditionally deemed unnecessary for their positions: Mandzukic is a winger in Juventus while Milinkovic-Savic plays as in the midfield. Their atypical features allow them to operate differently than their colleagues. These anomalous functions are the responses to the modern tactics. In this possession-obsessed era, pressing is necessary for a team to disrupt the opponent’s ball progression and to regain the ball’s control. One antidote to this tactic is to have center backs with excellent techniques to maintain the possession. We have already seen the emergence of skillful center backs like Kalidou Koulibaly or John Stones. Another counter tactic is to use the long ball to bypass the pressing. To do that you need a dominant aerial target, but playing the regular towering strikers are costly regarding tactical versatility, because their skill sets are limited. In this sense, Mandzukic and Milinkovic-Savic serve as the most tactically economical option to counter the high presses, because they can provide an extra function (aerial ability) that are not required for their positions.

This counter-tactical adaptation demonstrates the evolution of football, because it is a logical response to the modern tactics that focus on intense pressing. Juventus did not think of using Mandzukic as a “target wing” when they purchased him. Lazio also did not plan to deploy Milinkovic-Savic as a “target midfield” when they scouted him. But any creative manager like Allegri or Inzaghi would come up with a similar tactic because it is effective. Although the managers didn’t pick these players solely for that purpose, this advantageous attribute helps them to start over their peers. Such interaction between player’s character and usage is analogous to the evolution theory. Any advantageous traits are selected and they accumulate over time. Just like the natural selection of the organisms, the players with advantageous skills are “selected.” And if that strategy proves to be effective, other teams will emulate it by finding similar players. Therefore, players evolve based on the selection of the tactics.

The tactical trend influences the development of the players, just like a possession-obsessed team wants to acquire a center back that possesses an excellent ball-playing skill. Along with this logic, we will soon to find some teams starting to use bigger and stronger fullbacks who can counter these “target wing” or “target midfielder.” Remember Paolo Maldini, Lilian Thuram or Moreno Torricelli in the late 90’s and early 00’s? These were 6 feet towers who were nimble enough to defend and attack as the fullbacks. The trend of playing these bigger fullbacks may come back soon if the “target wing” or “target midfielder” continues to prosper.

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