After poaching Serie A’s youngest manager in Roberto De Zerbi from relegated Benevento in 2017/18, Sassuolo have become one of the most exciting teams to watch. After finishing eleventh in both full seasons under the 40-year-old, this season will likely mount an attempt to put some distance between themselves and midfield mediocrity. They could try to push into those elusive European spots.
Sassuolo employ a compact defensive shape. This allows as little space as possible for their opponents in dangerous areas, as well as limiting space in between the lines. Out of possession, Sassuolo fall into a 5-3-2 low block, with a central midfielder dropping deep to create a back five, with the midfield three and front two forming a compact shape and not allowing penetrative passes into the central area
Sassuolo have two phases of defensive play, they either fall into the compact low block or will press their opponents. They have a more pragmatic pressing style against superior teams, but the main determining factor of the press are the phase of play and the position on the pitch where the ball is lost. When they have just lost the ball in an advanced area, they will press as a unit to deter a potential counter-attack. If their opponents win the ball in the midfield, or Sassuolo’s defensive third, they will fall back into the block.
In the above examples, we see that Sassuolo’s defensive shape is very compact, with very little space between the lines for the opponent to exploit.
As well as keeping a compact shape in the defensive phase, Sassuolo also maintain their tight shape while attacking. This allows for Sassuolo to form triangular passing lanes. This results in them maintaining an average of 53.1% possession, the league’s seventh-best. Most of Sassuolo’s attacking play comes centrally, with the fullbacks positioning themselves horizontally in line with the more advanced midfielders, to provide the only width. The wingers position themselves in the half-spaces should the full-backs overlap to give the opponent’s full-backs (in a typical back four) a positional dilemma of whether to track the winger or the fullback.
Sassuolo’s alternate between formations, including shapes that employ a three at the back, but the main shape De Zerbi uses is the 4-3-3. Sassuolo, like many other possession-heavy sides, play out from the back. During the first phase of build-up, they will withdraw their defensive midfielder and a full back to overload the opponent’s first line of pressure. They use the third man principle to create triangles all over the pitch when attacking, ensuring that a pass is always readily available. As they progress into the midfield, they will use positional play to manipulate the opponent’s positioning, ensuring that a pass is always available.
Sassuolo also utilise quick combination play where a third man runs to open up the opposition’s defensive shape.
How can they improve their league position?
Over the last two seasons, Sassuolo have seen a great improvement in almost all areas. They have scored 24 more goals and increased their average possession by a significant 8.3%. Despite this, their points total (43) and final position in the table (11th) have remained the same over the past two seasons. The main reason for this is their permeable defence.
Sassuolo had Serie A’s 5th worst defence last season, and the departure of Merih Demiral to Juventus does not bode well for the upcoming campaign. Sassuolo desperately need to replace the Turkish central defender, before the transfer window shuts.
Demiral’s important stats:
1.7 tackles per game
1.4 interceptions per game
5.6 clearances per game
87% pass accuracy
Using analysis, we can identify some potential replacements.
(Sassuolo tend to keep the ball more often than their opponents, Demiral will have lesser stats in comparison to another defender who’s team defends more. So we need to identify defenders who play in more dominant sides, as the statistics are more comparable, and they are more likely to adapt to De Zerbi’s system)
The Finnish international plays in a Werder Bremen side that keep 51.2% of the ball.
1.1 tackles per game
1.3 interceptions per game
4.6 clearances per game
86% pass accuracy
At 33, he may be past his prime, but maybe available for a cheaper price, and played 30 of Werder Bremen’s 34 Bundesliga matches, but there are better options available.
The 29-year-old is not part of Carlo Ancelloti’s plans at Napoli. He spent last season on loan at Sampdoria, who kept 53.7% of the ball.
1.2 tackles per game
1.3 interceptions per game
4.7 clearances per game
89% pass accuracy
Another important departure was Stefano Sensi’s move to Internazionale. The Italian was Sassuolo’s main creative force last season, balancing Sassuolo’s defensive midfield roster by adding creative flair. Sassuolo may not be forced to look elsewhere for a replacement. Manuel Locatelli boasted similar numbers to Sensi, especially considering Locatelli’s deeper role. (Locatelli averaged 1.4 key passes per game, compared to Sensi’s 1.9).
Francesco Magnanelli would be the natural successor if Locatelli is moved into a more advanced role. However, at 34, Magnanelli may not have the legs to play a full Serie A season. Hamed Junior Traoré was recently joined Sassuolo and looks promising. Traoré averaged 0.8 key passes per game at Empoli, but expect that number to increase in a possession-heavy Sassuolo. At just 20, Traoré could be a key player for Sassuolo in their upcoming season.
Including loans and loans that were made permanent, Sassuolo brought in the following players:
Pedro Obiang from West Ham (Midfielder – permanent transfer)
Andrew Gravillon from Internazionale (Centre Back- loan with an option to buy)
Francesco Caputo from Empoli (Centre Forward – permanent transfer)
Hamed Junior Traoré from Empoli (Midfielder – loan with an option to buy)
Jeremy Toljan from Borussia Dortmund (Right Back – loan)
Rogério from Juventus (Left Back – loan made permanent)
Marco Sala from Internazionale (Left Back – permanent transfer; loaned out)
Manuel Locatelli from AC Milan (Midfielder – loan made permanent)
The following (major) players were sold on permanent transfers
Kevin Prince-Boateng to Fiorentina (Centre Forward)
Pol Lirola to Fiorentina (Right Back – loan deal which will become permanent)
Merih Demiral to Juventus (Centre Back)
Stefano Sensi to Inter (Midfielder – Loan which will become permanent)
Matteo Politano to Inter (Winger – Loan which became permanent)
Due to the squad changes, we can expect this to be the general look for Sassuolo this season, Marlon will most likely have his spot taken by an incoming centre back, but the rest of the squad rotation will come internally.
Sassuolo’s improvement over De Zerbi’s tenure has been promising. However, their leaky defence coupled with notable departures will prove difficult in the pursuit of a European position. They have a tactically astute manager in De Zerbi, who is true to his principles. This makes Sassuolo an entertaining side to watch. In a highly competitive race for Europe in Italy, it will prove difficult to uproot the European mainstays.
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