Italy is a country rooted in close-knit families. Unsurprisingly, that loyalty and love carry over to the football clubs. When you think of players who spurned offers from the world’s elite due to their love for their club, half of your list likely consists of Italian players. Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Franco Baresi, and Alessandro Del Piero. Despite his start at Parma and recent year at PSG, Gianluigi Buffon’s love for Juventus brought him back to the club. Though Javier Zanetti is Argentine, his loyalty to Inter Milan elevates his status to that of a son of Inter as he’s remained with the club since 1995. Stability served as a catalyst for individual and professional development.
After taking the field for 10 teams in his first nine seasons, Ciro Immobile has found a home in Rome. “When I am playing and I hear the Lazio fans chant my name, this motivates me a lot. I love to play for Lazio and it is an honour for me,” says Immobile. That support has translated to Immobile leading the Big 5 leagues in goals plus assists per 90 minutes with a mark of 1.82. The next highest performers are Timo Werner and Robert Lewandowski at 1.50.
Before signing with Lazio, Immobile’s career was anything but stable. One year among the top scorers was typically followed by a sale and lack of playing time. Viewed as a transfer bust, he’d pack his bags and renew the cycle. Since signing with Lazio for a fee of €8.75 million, Immobile has repaid the Biancocelesti fans 81 goals in fewer than three and a half seasons, easily tops in Serie A. Like the Italian legends who went before him, Immobile is best with the stability of a supportive home. He’s found that place with Lazio.
Runs in behind
A large part of Immobile’s success in Lazio’s tactics is down to the fact that he is a willing runner. Whether he’s latching onto a through ball, completing a decoy run for a teammate or simply looking to stretch the defence a few more yards, opposing defenders know they must account for the forward. If not, he has the pace and strength to run clear of coverage.
Tactical analysis of Immobile’s runs show that they typically started from unmarked positions beyond the sight of the centre-backs and finished with him receiving behind their lines. He loves to play off the back shoulder of the right-centre-back. That said, you’ll notice in the pictures below that his starting points in relation to the opposition backline vary pretty wildly. It’s not that he’s ever far from them, but his starting points are a response to different cues.
For instance, if he positions himself close to a defender and then makes a run in behind, you can just about bet that he’s making a run to unlock space for a teammate. Lining up next to the defender ensures he has the defender’s attention and that he can pull his marker from that space. Should the defender fail to track Immobile, they run the risk of allowing a free run on goal. With his power, pace and lethal finishing, defenders must respect Immobile’s movement. With the opponent tracking Immobile, another attacker can run into that optimal central position.
Immobile’s runs in behind the defence vary in scope. In this example, he offers a straight run beyond the defence, which Luis Alberto (who has eight Serie A assists of his own) threads through the defence. It’s a dangerous direct pass that breaks the line and leads to a goal. In instances like this, Immobile will push up in line with the backline. Notice he received the ball in the 2/4 gap, closer to the right-back than the right-centre-back. Playing off the shoulder of the central defenders, especially with Joaquin Correa commanding their attention in the middle, creates space for the pass.
When you analyse Immobile’s runs, you’ll notice his success begins with his starting position. In this instance, he’s again lingering in the 2/4 gap waiting for the play to develop. Once Manuel Lazzari cut inside, Immobile could see three of the four defenders on the backline intently tracking Lazzari’s movement. He catches Jeison Murillo with poor body orientation and Nicola Murru stepping forward to pressure. That leaves a massive gap behind Murru, one that Murillo is not prepared to cover. Immobile read his teammate’s cue and the defence’s mistakes, activating his run into the right half-space.
Hold up play
Though he’s an active vertical runner, constantly stretching the field and probing the backline, Immobile is also comfortable playing underneath Correa to support the midfield. As Lazio attack from the back or the middle third, Immobile, while keeping an eye out for the killer pass, will tend to drop between the backline and midfielders. With Correa pinning the backline deep, Immobile has the freedom to operate in the pockets of space that open up between the lines.
Immobile’s heat map is fascinating. While he tends to receive the ball on the left-hand side, you can see that he’s most active as he enters the final third and the box. In that former area, it’s typical to see Immobile offering a high outlet between the lines and holding up play for his teammates. With Correa ahead of him, Senad Lulić to his left and Alberto (who averages 3.1 key passes per game) offering a negative outlet, Immobile can give his team a reliable outlet for progress and connect with his teammates.
Once he’s either laid the ball off or played someone forward into space, Immobile looks to move higher up the pitch, transitioning from high outlet to goal scorer. That’s where his heat map again illustrates a flash of bright yellow.
Here we see Lazio in an instance of numerical equivalence on the left-wing and half-space. Fiorentina’s backline is horizontally stretched. An opportunity to play into Immobile and attack the backline emerges. Stefan Daniel Radu passed to Immobile, who initially turned upfield and looked likely to combine with Lulić. After receiving, Immobile’s body orientation and foot placement indicated that he wanted Lulić to run into the 2/4 gap. Lulić opted to stay wide, so Immobile recycled play rather.
Key Passes and Pinning defenders
Just as he’s always a threat to make the dangerous penetrating run, Immobile’s always prepared to play a killer pass. When looking at his hold up play, it was noted that Immobile has the freedom to locate and play in the pockets of space between the lines. From that position, he is given license to read the conditions of the game and call the next shot.
If he has enough space for the half-turn, he will run at the backline. His objective is the pin a defender in a position that opens up space for a teammate. In moments of defensive disorganization, he will look to play very directly, attacking a centre-back and playing a teammate through the middle or half-space.
Even in situations where the defence is organized but giving him room to receive, Immobile routinely looks to take the ball on his back foot and attack the space given him. Among Lazio players with a start to their name, Immobile’s 1.8 key passes per game trails only Alberto and put him in the top 25 in the league in that statistic. His ability to force an uncomfortable, and often incorrect, decision from the opponents is a prime source of shot creation for the team.
Immobile’s goal-scoring tally is incredible, but his passing ability has him in a tie for second place in Serie A assists. Only his teammate, Alberto, is ahead of him with eight assists on the season. Between his goals and assists, Immobile has had a hand in 64% of Lazio’s 28 goals. It’s safe to say that Lazio’s hope of a top-four finishes rests in Immobile’s health and consistency.
Immobile’s first two touches took him directly towards the deepest defender, German Pezzella. With Immobile running directly at the Fiorentina captain and Correa looking to run in behind, the Pezzella decides to step forward to catch the runner in an offside position. However, Immobile anticipated the movement and timed the pass brilliantly, keeping Correa onside.
With Correa through to goal, he’s able to finish off the attack with a goal with Immobile picking up the assist. Credit for this goal belongs primarily to Immobile. You can see three Fiorentina players chasing him and a four pinned in an awkward position. Single-handedly, Immobile takes four defenders out of the equation, leaving his teammate with only the keeper to beat.
After receiving the ball high and wide on the wing, Immobile simultaneous slows down the play for his supporting runners to join him in the attack while also engaging Romagnoli. As Immobile runs at the Milan defender, he pulled Romagnoli away from the half-space, which created a running lane for Correa. The pass is weighted perfectly, but Correa was unable to break free of the contact and produce a threatening shot.
Lazio’s blessing is that Immobile has 14 goals this season. Their curse is that his scoring output accounts for 50% of their goals. The only other Serie A player who comes remotely close to Immobile’s goal contribution is Andrea Belotti. Unfortunately for Torino, Belotti’s 47% goal contribution means he’s only scored seven of the team’s 15 goals. With his goals alone, Immobile is one behind the entire Torino team. If you add his assists into the mix, Immobile has a hand in 19 goals this season, which is equal to or more than 12 Serie A teams have scored.
Among players with four or more goals, Immobile leads Serie A in goals per shot stat category with a mark of .23. Analysing Immobile’s goals, he places a tremendous emphasis on his shot selection. He doesn’t take many shots from distance or poor angles. In fact, he prioritizes the centre of the box and the few metres just beyond the six-metre box on his left. Given the high number of shots coming from these two areas, you can understand his confidence shooting from those spots. For basketball fans, you can watch NBA star Kevin Durant play one game and know that he’s absurdly efficient from either side of the free-throw line. Likewise, Immobile targets specific shooting locations. When he gets to those spots on the pitch, Immobile has the composure to identify the goalkeeper’s positioning and calmly finish.
His xG registers at an impressive, though not other-worldly 7.95 leading to 14 goals. His goal tally that’s 43% higher than his xG. In Serie A, only Romelu Lukaku has a better xG. That said, when you remove his penalty kicks from the equation and hone in on his npxG (non-penalty expected goals), Immobile’s lethal finishing and world-class composure take centre-stage. His npxG registers at a mere 3.9. That’s 9 goals for a mere npxG! For the readers who are too entranced to open their calculator app, Immobile’s non-penalty goals register 57% higher than his npxG.
As Lazzari prepares to deliver a cross, Immobile drags his defender away from the middle of the box. As long as the cross ends up in front of the defender, Immobile can finish equally well with either his head or right foot. Lazzari whips in a near-post delivery. Immobile reads it well and darts in front of his defender with a late run. It’s a quality delivery, but still leaves Immobile with a lot to do. Once Immobile gets aerial in front of the defender, he has the strength and coordination to rotate from the hips and finish at the back post.
Immobile has finally found stability and a home at the Stadio Olimpico. The fans love him and support him unconditionally. Backed by their support, he’s put many frustrating years behind him and fulfilled his massive potential. Big clubs have come calling for his services, but, like the Italian legends who went before him, his loyalty to his club, who’ve treated him like family. The stability they offer will keep him in Rome for the foreseeable future.
With Italy qualifying for Euro 2020, Immobile knows that an extraordinary season is necessary to get him into the starting lineup. Belotti is his nearest competition. While he’s having a good season and typically shows well for Italy, Immobile’s combination of athleticism, finishing and playmaking can be the difference Italy needs in the knockout rounds. Should Immobile guide Lazio to a top-four finish and lead the league in goals, Roberto Mancini will be hard-pressed to start the dynamic forward.
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