A superficial glance at Roberto De Zerbi’s career thus far would present a misleading image of one of the most exciting young managers in Europe.
Since hanging up his boots in 2013, the Brescia native managed Serie D side Darfo Boario, before winning the Coppa Italia Lega Pro with his former club Foggia, only to narrowly miss out on promotion to Serie B in the 2015/16 season. He rejected an approach from Serie A side Crotone to stay at Foggia, only to be sacked just days before the season began due to a disagreement with the board over the club’s transfer strategy.
One month after his dismissal, De Zerbi took charge of Serie A side Palermo but was sacked after three months in a stint that saw I Rosanero lose seven straight matches, culminating in a penalty shootout elimination to Serie B side Spezia.
De Zerbi would have to wait a year later until his next job — Serie A newcomers Benevento, who had failed to pick up a single point during the first 10 weeks of the season. De Zerbi failed to rescue them from relegation, but Benevento were lauded for their possession-based, attacking football. So much so that at the end of the season, Sassuolo appointed him as their manager.
Since then, Sassuolo have finished 11th and currently sit 8th in the table with four matches left to play. De Zerbi’s Neroverdi have played some of the most enterprising football in Italy, and in the past month, they’ve taken points off three of Serie A’s top four sides: Lazio, Juventus, and Inter. Let’s take a deeper look into what makes De Zerbi’s Sassuolo so alluring, so captivating, and so efficient.
Starting from the back, goalkeeper Andrea Consigli occupies a unique ‘sweeper keeper’ function similar to that of Marc-André Ter Stegen at Barcelona and Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich. Consigli plays a constant role in Sassuolo’s uncontrolled and controlled phases of play, helping Sassuolo achieve numerical superiorities in the build-up and lighting the fire behind their high-risk, high-reward maneuvers.
A noteworthy example of Consigli’s role came in their 4-1 loss to Atalanta on June 21. Despite the defeat, Sassuolo exposed a systematic failure of Atalanta’s man-oriented defense. The goal of Atalanta’s intense pressing scheme is to make it difficult for opponents to receive the ball into their feet and press the passing receivers, whilst Sassuolo’s system is predicated on short, high-tempo passing exchanges.
Atalanta’s press was oriented around cutting off Consigli’s passing angles into the players inside his own box, which in turn granted Consigli more time and space in possession and allowed him to advance his positioning.
This gave Sassuolo more territory and increased the threat of their direct passing, as they pushed Atalanta further back into their own half. The systematic failure arouse out of a tactical tweak from De Zerbi, who sought to manipulate Atalanta’s man-oriented pressing by using Consigli as the launching point of build-up play.
The end result of this systematic failure was that it liberated Sassuolo’s full backs, giving them more time and space in possession. Typically, when the fullback receives the ball, Atalanta seek to press them in advanced positions and win the ball back. In turn, this allows Atalanta to sustain more pressure and complicate the opposition’s ability to link up between the full back and winger and decrease their rotations on the wings.
This protects Atalanta from conceding territory in deep areas, as the higher they press the opponent, the more time they have to recover to defend if the opponent succeeds in playing out of their press and breaking on the counter. However, against Atalanta, no Atalanta player was able to press Consigli without jeopardizing their entire pressing scheme.
Thus, through the usage of Consigli as a sweeper keeper, Sassuolo take a potential weakness — holding possession in deep, wide areas — and turn it into a strength, allowing them to execute wide interchanges and advancing into dangerous areas.
In summary, Atalanta committing a wing-back to press Sassuolo’s full-back would either result in Sassuolo finding the winger in an unmarked area, or in a worst case scenario, the center backs leaving gaps of space in behind them for Atalanta to exploit.
Let’s contrast the Sassuolo game to how Atalanta shaped up against Milan. In the example above, Milan have possession, but to retain possession in central areas, one midfielder must drop deep, which makes it easier for Atalanta to contain them, as their central passing option has been removed and the wide pass becomes far more predictable and easier to prevent.
Because Milan lack the extra man, Atalanta can achieve a numerical parity in the central area and press them more easily, thus making Milan’s direct passing more complicated as their players are constantly exposed to pressure. Moreover, in this example, Milan are playing far too high to play a dangerous ball behind the defense, as goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini would likely have the space covered by Atalanta’s defenders, who are engaging the opponents high up the pitch.
As such, having more territory resulted in Atalanta minimizing Milan’s attacking options. As such, Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma struggles to get involved in the build-up play against Atalanta’s high press. However, due to Consigli playing higher up the pitch than the average goalkeeper, he can aid in circulating Atalanta’s possession, enabling them to create more chances.
Sassuolo utilized the time and space that Consigli was afforded along with the relatively uncontested central possession, thus making it difficult for Atalanta to remain compact. Thanks to the advanced positioning and quick movement of Jérémie Boga, they could easily achieve 2v1s and exploit Boga as a direct threat.
Boga was able to capitalise on the space provided to him, as Atalanta were forced to move back to cope with Boga’s speed and close control. If Hans Hateboer engaged him high up the pitch in a 1v1 duel, Boga would be able to exploit the space in behind with his speed.
Instead, Hateboer allows Boga to receive and dribble with space before attempting to shut him down in the wide, deep areas. The strategy worked, as Sassuolo’s only goal in the match came from a free kick from Mehdi Bourabia in stoppage time.
Consigli’s higher positioning created more opportunities for Sassuolo’s vertical, direct passing, as he was afforded more time and space to find players in behind Atalanta’s aggressive press. Using the goalkeeper in the build-up made Sassuolo more dangerous at building through the flanks, as they made it harder for Atalanta to remain compact whilst applying pressure and simultaneously protecting space in behind.
In order to effectively execute this approach, Consigli must remain as central as possible at all times, allowing him to have more passing options and stretch apart Atalanta’s press. However, this approach comes with a risk. Ultimately, it relies on the goalkeeper to be able to make the right pass and right decision whilst under intense pressure.
Consigli is typically composed in possession, though, so the benefits often outweigh the risks. However, a goalkeeper that struggles under pressure would be prone to conceding costly errors, making the risks outweigh the rewards. In giving Consigli the keys to the build-up, Sassuolo are far more likely to start a goal by bypassing the opponent’s pressure than concede a goal from the goalkeeper dwelling on the ball.
Moreover, by using Consigli as a key element in the build-up during uncontrolled phases can help Sassuolo create space, as having an extra man in build-up makes it more difficult for the opponent to press, whilst not shifting the team’s possession structure.
Sassuolo are now encouraged to push players forward in the build-up, meaning that, if they can bypass the pressure (which they have a better shot at doing thanks to their numerical superiorities), they can find themselves in dangerous counterattacking positions in the opponent’s half.
In the above image, Lecce set up a pressing trap in an attempt to counter Sassuolo’s defensive strategy. Anticipating that Sassuolo would react similarly to man-oriented marking as they did against Atalanta, Lecce manager Fabio Liverani used his strikers as decoy pressers.
As decoy pressers, Diego Farias, Khouma Babacar and Yevhen Shakhov never fully committed to press the center backs, but instead waited to turn around and press the midfielder receiving the pass, in this instance Mehdi Bourabia. However, the Morocco international managed to evade the challenge thanks to his technical ability, performing a pirouette and finding right back Mert Müldür open for a 2v1 against Lecce’s Antonín Barák.
De Zerbi places plenty of faith in his players’s technical ability to evade the press with their dribbling, passing, and change of direction; a team with less technically proficient players would struggle to carry out the build-up and progress possession.
During build-up, Sassuolo’s full backs sit narrowly inside the half spaces to facilitate better central ball circulation. These passes are less risky because they can remain compact even if they lose possession, as they have less space to cover in case of a turnover.
Their wingers (typically Domenico Berardi and Boga), are tasked with maintaining the width and forcing the opponents to commit resources to defending the wide areas. As such, by utilizing central possession, Sassuolo can better exploit wide areas where the opponent is less likely to be defending.
The full backs’s positioning is indicative of the emphasis that Sassuolo place upon deep central possession during build-up as their method of progressing.
This also explains why they play a 4-2-3-1 rather than the 4-3-3 typically associated with possession-based teams. The double pivot, like the narrow ‘inverted’ full back, provides more security should a turnover occur because of the more compact spacing between the defenders and midfielders and between midfielders themselves.
As such, this allows for the creation of a box midfield with Manuel Locatelli acting as the nucleus where possession can be interchanged quickly and at low risk, allowing them to easily achieve the numerical advantage against high pressure whilst they can also use the attacking midfielder and forward to link play in between the lines.
Hence, when building up from goal kicks and when under significant pressure, Sassuolo adopt a 3-2-4 box build-up shape to form short passing connections, in an attempt to use the space created out wide from the opponent’s central compactness in order to liberate the full backs to push forward and progress play.
Thus, by committing heavily to the centre during build-up, Sassuolo achieves two crucial components required of a good possession-based team: constant stretching of the pitch as all passing options are open in every direction and protection from turnovers as the majority of play occurs in a tightly congested space.
The 3-2-4 can be considered a transitional phase as once pressure has been bypassed, they seek to move more towards a 4-1. Against teams that tend to sit back instead of pressing high, they either skip or shorten the 3-2-4 phase, which is typically the antecedent to the 4-1 as it attempts to open up space out wide by drawing the man who is responsible for marking the full back onto the defensive midfielder.
This is achieved in part due to the double pivot as it allows Sassuolo to be more efficient with how they allocate players across the pitch. When they are facing a narrow press with 3 or fewer players participating in the first wave, they can switch to the 4-1 as one member of the double pivot drops deep into the full backs zone, allowing the full back to push forward and the wide forward to move narrow into the half-space.
As a result, the full back plays an important role in progressing the ball, efficiently using resources to avoid overcommitting in one phase of play and allowing them to seamlessly switch between double pivot build-up against pressing sides to the single pivot build-up against teams that sit off. This is how they most often seek to counter against teams who do not apply significant pressure.
Notice Boga’s positioning in the above image compared to Berardi’s. Because Müldür is maintaining width on the right flank, Berardi can sit narrow. In addition, because Giorgos Kyriakopoulos was a more active figure in the build-up, Boga was able to maintain width as to ensure the pitch is stretched at all times, making it difficult for Lecce to remain compact.
This is only possible because of the more fluid movement allowed by a double pivot during build-up in comparison to a single pivot. If Bourabia does not drop deep to cover for Müldür these interchanges are impossible. Thus, Locatelli adopts the hybrid double pivot/single pivot role while Bourabia operates in the hybrid double pivot/full back role in this occasion against Lecce.
The creation of the 4-1 build-up shape for Sassuolo as the precursor the 3-2-5 attacking shape is common pattern of Sassuolo to attempt to create chances quickly after bypassing pressure; the wider defensive midfielder drops back which allows the wide rotation between the full back and the winger to occur.
Sassuolo frequently build-up asymmetrically using a full back as an outlet to open opportunities for rotations. The asymmetrical build-up allows for short passing connections to be achieved by baiting the press, allowing Sassuolo to transition quickly when an opportune moment for verticality or a quick switch presents itself.
This was particularly noticeable of Müldür against Lecce. The 3-2-5 shape is desirable as it means Sassuolo occupies every horizontal zone, allowing for the pitch to be widened.
When watching Sassuolo, you often notice how every action has a premeditated reaction and that the player’s understanding of these patterns leads to seamless transitions and adaptations depending on the context of the game.
The 3-2-4 to 4-1 to 3-2-5 noted above is the most frequently practiced, largely because Sassuolo have the ability to hold possession deep for significant amounts of time and because their conditioning can manipulate the game into the state most desirable for them. These 3 stages allow them to be extremely adaptable depending on the opponent with the importance of each stage moreover varying with the opponent.
There is an element of risk involved in the 3-2-4, naturally, as it can sometimes see them struggle to create space against high-pressing teams. However, the 4-1 transitional phase allows for positional re-orientation for attacks and enables consolidated attacking for Sassuolo.
If the initial transition between these shapes and the patterns interspersed throughout fails to create a chance, or if Sassuolo have consolidated possession, they begin to commit more men forward. This is typically the other full back as to allow both inside forwards to occupy the half-spaces rather than just one.
Sassuolo’s 4-2-3-1 often resembles a 4-4-2 both in and out of possession as there is an emphasis on the forwards and attacking midfielder to occupy the half-spaces when the wingers are tasked with holding width and pressuring the opposing centre backs out of possession. However, there are distinct differences with the tasks required of the attacking midfielder and the centre forward.
Talisman Francesco Caputo is tasked with a complete role, having to drop deep on occasion to link up play out wide and provide support centrally. Nonetheless, significant importance is placed upon the duty of infiltration which is extremely important to possession-based teams.
This is because having a player on the last shoulder of defenders looking to dart in behind provides a different threat to opposing defences compared to the majority of central Sassuolo players who like to receive the ball to feet.
As such, this alters how the opposition can defend as it forces them to be less aggressive under the notion that leaving space in behind can be dangerous. Therefore, it allows Sassuolo to gain territory through Caputo’s off-the-ball movement.
Much of this article has focused on the importance of horizontal coverage to make it difficult for the opponent to remain compact, but vertical stretching of the pitch is also important towards making a team difficult to defend against.
With regards to Sassuolo, much of the vertical stretching comes from Caputo, who opens space in between the lines. A consistent runner can manipulate the positioning of a defence greatly due to the fear of him getting in behind.
Having a deep-lying forward or a false 9 is not always beneficial to a possession-based side, as they often congest areas that are already occupied by teammates, allowing the opponents to advance their defensive line.
Moreover, having a penetrative forward like Caputo is useful when dominating territory as it allows Sassuolo to break the lines, which is particularly helpful after extended periods of possession where the defenders are mentally fatigued and distracted. Caputo has scored 17 goals in Serie A this season thanks to these predatory instincts.
A hypothetical false 9 at Sassuolo would force Sassuolo’s best players in Berardi and Boga to become more oriented around stretching play vertically, which would harm Sassuolo’s play as they are both at their best when receiving the ball to dribble and cut inside.
Thus, the threat Caputo offers in behind is crucial towards expanding the playing area and creating space for the likes of Boga and Berardi.
Despite their incredible quality in possession, question marks still loom over Sassuolo’s defensive quality as they have conceded 54 goals this season, the most in the top half. Lazio exploited some of Sassuolo’s defensive fragility in the first half of their recent encounter.
During the first half, Sassuolo were struggling with the pace of Manuel Lazzari on the counterattack as he continually burst past Kyriakopoulos, vindicating Simone Inzaghi’s initial plan to allow Sassuolo to dominate possession.
Circumstances like this are bound to happen when playing as Sassuolo do, such are the vicissitudes of possession-based football without world class defenders.
When committing heavily to attacks, space will always be left behind to be exploited and defending when in transition will be oriented around individual duels. However, Sassuolo have a structure in place to help minimise the efficacy of counters.
When Sassuolo loses possession, they immediately seek to counter-press. The typical motivating factor behind using this defensive strategy, particularly in a possession-based side, is to and harry the opponents into making errors, make their build-up more difficult, and force uncomfortable long balls all in an effort to regain possession.
However, the creative element of the counter-press espoused by Jürgen Klopp is further a factor as they seek to win the ball back as quickly as possible in an attempt to capitalise upon the opponent’s unstructured defence, which is the phase of attacking transition.
This is evident in their first goal against Lazio: Giacomo Raspadori loses possession after a misplaced pass. Filip Đuričić, the closest man to the ball, instantly begins pressing to attempt to win it back. Đuričić performs an intelligent tackle which forces Luis Alberto backwards. Bourabia wins possession and slides it through to Caputo, who squares it Raspadori who is free because of Lazio’s unstructured defence.
Counter-pressing creates the potential for more space to be exposed if performed unsuccessfully, but due to the numbers Sassuolo commit towards attacks, it is the only viable strategy available to protect themselves defensively.
Even in periods where the opponent has consolidated possession, Sassuolo sustain pressure in an attempt to complicate the opponent’s build-up. This is similar to other pressing sides where the intensity increases in wide areas as to exploit the defensive utility of the touchline.
To sustain such pressure, they must consistently play a high line to maintain compactness, although this runs the risk of allowing space in behind, which Gonzalo Higuaín pounced upon in the recent game against Juventus.
Nevertheless, the motivation behind this pressing stems from a desire for possession, a knowledge of how effective build-up patterns can break down a solid defence, but also a cognisance of their own defensive deficiencies.
This weakness was displayed against Atalanta, where they were beaten 4-1 due to their frailties during the consolidated defending phase.
This is the area where Sassuolo need to improve the most as they are often beaten too easily in individual duels. Furthermore, because of their intense pressing throughout the game, they often lack the supporting numbers to compensate.
When scouting affordable players, sacrifices often need to be made in other regards, often in defensive quality. Nevertheless, Sassuolo will not qualify for European football under De Zerbi until they manage to rectify their defensive weaknesses.
De Zerbi has showed elements of pragmatism in this regard. When facing sustained pressure against Juventus, Sassuolo switched from their typical 4-2-3-1 featuring high wingers to a 5-3-1-1 with Gian Marco Ferrari replacing Berardi and Raspadori replacing Boga, as they sought to be more direct in the way they broke to exploit the space Juventus left behind.
This worked somewhat as it helped them protract their own attacks to waste time, and Caputo had greater support centrally to hold up play while also reinforcing the defence, although they did not find the winning goal as the match ended in a 3-3 draw.
Moreover, it acted as an example of why Sassuolo require possession and why they rotate so often. Their intense off-the-ball strategy is difficult to maintain over 90 minutes, but via control of the ball, they allow themselves periods of rest possession when building up.
Against Juventus they were unable to enjoy similar levels of possession, albeit still 57.6%, and thus when fatigue began to affect the players’s ability to press effectively and recover, De Zerbi changed to a more defensive system.
In overview, Roberto de Zerbi has done a terrific job at Sassuolo thus far, and after signing a new one-year contract, he will look to continue his excellent work going into next season.
He has implemented an effective and aesthetic possession-based system which successfully stretches the pitch horizontally and vertically. This system accentuates the abilities of his best players in Boga and Berardi while allowing players like Locatelli greater experience of what it is like to play as a defensive midfielder at a large club as his on-the-ball abilities are constantly tested.
While Atalanta may be deservedly receiving plaudits for their accomplishments this season, they are not the only team in Serie A playing exciting attacking football on a shoestring budget.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno