Leopards Don’t Change Their Spots – The Tumultuous Battle for Maurizio Sarri at Lazio

The unsavoury topic of player power is a putrid facet of the game, sabotaging the fairytale stories of many would-be managerial conquests. Be it dressing-room leaks, public outbursts or unnecessary statements on the field, primadonna voyeurs continue to taint the dressing rooms of some of the most notable household names across the globe. 


While spectators rely on the word of mainstream media to supply a hint of any troubles brewing behind closed doors, on occasions, individuals publicly air their grievances, highlighting the fundamental issues at their club. Inevitably, following a cumbersome 3-1 defeat against Atalanta at the beginning of February, internal frustrations surfaced at Italian giants Lazio, setting the course for the departure of Maurizio Sarri. 



Sarri, an astute tactician and the oldest manager to have ever guided a side to Serie A success, accepted the managerial position at Lazio on 9 June 2021 after a year’s sabbatical following his departure from Juventus. His opening season returned a fifth-placed league finish and defeat in the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-offs against Portuguese giants Porto, earning the Italian a two-year contract extension a week shy of one year at the helm. 


Immediately upon his arrival at Biancocelesti, the now 65-year-old set his stamp on the squad, abolishing the vertical 3-5-2 of his predecessor, Simeone Inzaghi, and opting for a possession-based version of his beloved 4-3-3. But he was engaging with a group of players whose mentality had previously been questioned by Inzaghi, leading many to quiz the appointment of a known authoritarian with little time for unnecessary bravado. 


Analyzing Maurizio Sarri’s First Home Game in Charge of Lazio


Sarri was unconcerned by the fraction that arose within the fanbase and set about shaping his vision at the home of the sleeping giants of Rome. His debut campaign was not without difficulties, but many recognised the improvements across several metrics – with domestic defeats lessening and an apparent acceptance amongst his squad towards a new brand of  attacking football. Under their new leader, the partisan support witnessed a marked increase in goals scored – with Ciro Immobile leading the way with 32 across all competitions. 


Before a whistle blew against Bologna on the opening day of the 2022/23 calendar, there was a belief that this squad had fully endorsed ‘Sarrismo’, with a confident few tipping the Stadio Olimpico to welcome many successful afternoons throughout the upcoming campaign. Despite the drawback of limited transfer funds, the arrival of Ivan Provedel, Alessio Romagnoli, and Nicolò Casale would add towards the work over the previous twelve months, proving essential in supplying the building blocks for a memorable season. 


Disregarding early elimination from European competition and a quarter-final exit from the Coppa Italia, Sarri’s side displayed a brand of controlled football that inevitably leapfrogged domestic giants Milan, Internazionale and his old club, Juventus, as Lazio achieved a second-placed finish, their highest since the Scudetto-winning team of 1999/00, with a record 74-points achieved behind runaway leaders Napoli (90 points).



Much of the success of this historic team landed at the feet of the dominant midfielder, Sergej Milinković-Savić. The Serbian joined The Eagles in 2015 from Belgian side K.R.C. Genk and became a key figure during a string of notable results. His performances throughout this inspiring drive towards a return to Champions League football left supporters purring in anticipation for more, with suitors vying to tempt him from Italian shores. 


Ironically, during Sarri’s maiden campaign with the club, tensions between the pair boiled over to the point where Milinković-Savić was expelled from the first team in December 2021, with reports suggesting he could leave the club during the January transfer window. It was the first notable taste of player power during his tenure – with Club president Claudio Lotito informed of arrogant behaviour from the Serbian, with deficiencies in acting as a leader for his teammates. He was eventually fined €50,000 and would remain in Rome. 


What Can Marseille Fans Expect from New Manager Igor Tudor?


Following their remarkable second-placed finish, expectations were at an all-time high, and the prospect of a bountiful Champions League run offered a much-needed financial injection to bolster this impressive group. However, with outgoings supplying an excess of income over the marginal summer acquisitions, supporters were left heartbroken with the departure of Milinković-Savić to Saudi side Al-Hilal, and reports of dressing-room dissatisfaction began to surface, with another apparent rift developing between management and playing staff. 



The void left by Sarri’s inspirational midfield general was clear – with the side lacking creativity and the clinical cutting-edge displayed three months prior. Furthermore, following an opening-day defeat away to Lecce, supporters, pundits and management recognised a notably lethargic display from the group, which led to a solitary win in their opening five Serie A outings. 


With every passing week, the touchline cut a frustrating view with numerous reports of rifts surfacing from the training ground. For many observers, it appeared the squad had downed tools from the off, answerable to the public frustrations displayed by their bemused manager. Lazio ended 2023 with only eight victories from 18 domestic outings, leaving the side in ninth place, already 11 points behind fourth-placed Bologna. 


With supporters bemoaning an underwhelming showing from what many described as a toothless outfit, the hierarchy also faced criticism for a perceived lack of determination in the January transfer market. With a necessity for signings to bolster a failing campaign, Le Aquile sighed with news of zero acquisitions. A dejected Sarri stated: “I requested player A, and they made me choose between C and D.” 



Somehow, while battling player rifts, dressing-room dismay and an argumentative environment above and below him, the former banker-turned-managerial icon guided his side to 13 points from five fixtures and remained undefeated throughout January. However, following a dismal three-one defeat in Atalanta in early February, Sarri was furious with his players in Formello, targetting their work ethic and attitudes, and reportedly declaring: “If you think I’m the problem, stick your balls out and go to Lotito.”


Despite the internal wars playing out in the Italian press daily, the one saving grace had been the side’s return to the Champions League. Having advanced to the knockout phases from a group stage consisting of Celtic, Feyenoord and Atlético Madrid, a reward of a last-16 tie against perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich presented the ultimate test. It was a step too far for a struggling outfit, inevitably succumbing to defeat following a heroic one-nil first-leg victory in Rome.




The three-nil defeat in Germany was the penultimate fixture for the former Europa League-winning manager, with the Eagles collecting three wins from 11 matches from mid-January. His final game returned a two-one defeat against a struggling Udinese outfit in Rome – a side that had only three victories throughout the campaign. 


Less than 24 hours after the loss, Sarri informed the board that he would be resigning from his position with immediate effect, knowingly leaving a reported €5 million in wages behind him. Multiple outlets stated that he advised the squad of his decision beforehand, informing them that he believed that they were no longer following him. Much like Inzaghi before him, the collective power of the dressing room was a force too strong for the manager. 



The decline of this side is nothing short of staggering, with a deficit of 15 points compared to the same stage the previous year at the time of Sarri’s resignation. Assistant coach Giovanni Martusciello was a concerned figure in the aftermath of the Udinese defeat, referencing an ‘aura of negativity’ within the four walls of the dressing room. He was handed temporary control of the first team for the fixture against Frosinone five days later – a tie where Lazio unsurprisingly gained three points – with Croatian manager Igor Tudor taking charge on an 18-month contract shortly after.


For many, the departure of the veteran Italian tactician adds weight to the argument about the credibility of this squad’s character. While Sarri may not have been without blame, his ideals were clear from the offset, and the results were evident during that memorable second campaign. As is often the case in football, the scenario has divided the fanbase, with his chapter in the club’s history books currently undecided. 


The discussion of player power is not an isolated issue at Lazio – it is widespread and affects managers across the globe. Speaking about Manchester United’s first-team squad in 2019, Roy Keane famously advised spectators that “Leopards don’t change their spots”. Now, having opted to test himself in the Eternal City, Igor Tudor steps into Sarri’s shoes, attempting to rectify a tumultuous campaign. Time will tell whether this group of players can silence their critics and prove reliable for their latest leader.


By: Shaun Connolly / @shaunconnolly85

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Silvia Lore – Getty Images

Subscribe to Shaun’s newsletter here.