Sassuolo 2020/21: Season preview – scout report
The coach Roberto De Zerbi went against all odds and despite his previous unsuccessful managerial ventures, his arrival at Sassuolo transformed the team and made them one of the tactically most exciting teams to watch in Serie A.
With very distinctive possession football and impressive attacking performance, the team finished eighth in the 2019/20 season, showing a glimpse of potential for reaching the European spots in the future, despite the strong competitors.
With their attacking style of play, they managed to disturb some of the best defences in the face of Lazio, Juventus and Inter and show that they shouldn’t be underestimated. But what stopped them from fully fulfilling their potential are their defensive flaws.
While their build-up strategy and their actions in the final third are successful for the most part, their defensive performance is often struggling not only due to lack of awareness but also due to the risks they take with their attacking approach.
In this tactical analysis preview for the 2020/21 Serie A season, we will include scout report and examine Sassuolo’s traits in all phases and see what in their tactics could and should be improved with the start of the new campaign.
Formations and squad
De Zerbi most frequently relies on a 4-2-3-1 formation, which seems to be the most suitable based on the players’ strengths and built connections. One of the most important traits of this system is the double pivot in midfield that allows the team to execute a variety of build-up strategies and also gives freedom for a lot of movement both on the flanks and internally thanks to the provided coverage.
Whenever the team are playing against sides that are prone to sit deeper in a low block, Sassuolo would opt for 4-1-4-1 scheme, focusing on having numerical superiority in the advanced areas using different strategies to break the defensive lines and create space. They would try to overload the final third and engage the opposition players to certain areas while trying to exploit the opened spaces.
Typically for possession-based teams, they do also use the simplified 4-3-3 formation, although that’s when the support of the double pivot during defensive transitions is missed. They don’t rely on it often, since it brings out their defensive fragilities even more.
The coach rotates the starting XI quite frequently but there are some consistent contributors that have key roles for the team’s solid performance. The front trio including the leading goalscorer Francesco Caputo, Domenico Berardi, who has provided the most assists last season, and Jeremie Boga are an irreplaceable part of their current set up. The other two players that are very important for the team to be able to employ their strategy are Manuel Locatelli and the goalkeeper Andrea Consigli.
Unsurprisingly, the above mentioned were the best performance for the team in the 2019/20 season. It is expected that their consistency will be key for the team to repeat or even improve last season’s performance.
Goalkeepers: Andrea Consigli; Gianluca Pegolo; Stefano Turati; Alessandro Russo;
Defenders: Kaan Ayhan; Marlon; Rogério; Federico Peluso; Mert Müldür; Filippo Romagna; Vlad Chiriches; Jeremy Toljan; Gian Marco Ferrari; Giangiacomo Magnani; Alessandro Tripaldelli; Georgios Kyriakopoulos
Midfielders: Francesco Magnanelli; Filip Đuričić; Pedro Obiang; Hamed Junior Traorè; Mehdi Bourabia; Manuel Locatelli;
Forwards: Jeremie Boga; Francesco Caputo; Giacomo Raspadori; Domenico Berardi; Lukas Haraslin;
Ball progression and off the ball movement
Sassuolo have a quite interesting build-up approach. They tend to build up from the back, often using the goalkeeper as a starting point of their ball progression. Consigli is very active with his feet and he often moves away from his goalkeeping position providing additional body in the build-up and helping the team settle in a more advanced position. This often helps for breaking the opposition’s pressing systems and forcing them into re-organising which respectively gives the Sassuolo players more options to proceed. This, of course, has its risks, since the team invite even more pressure in their defensive third and rely a lot on Consigli’s passing skills and work under pressure.
Sassuolo though have managed to use it as a benefit for delivering the ball into the more advanced areas. Using the keeper in higher positions allows the team more freedom, especially in exploiting the flanks and advancing the ball through the wide areas. That’s often thanks to Consigli’s extended time on the ball which increases the chances of him finding the best receiver, while the rest of the team stay well-structured and engage the opposition.
A huge part of Sassuolo’s strategy depends on the players’ strengths and their technical abilities, especially when it comes to advancing the ball. Bypassing the press is their main focus, but instead of doing it with direct play, they most frequently use their skills on the ball and use the players’ strong work under pressure to distribute the ball further.
Key for their successful ball progression is the players’ passing abilities. Starting off with the ball-playing centre-back Marlon who has an outstanding 95% pass accuracy rate and moving towards the midfield, where all Locatelli, Magnanelli and Bourabia perform on the highest level with high pass frequency and accuracy.
Sassuolo’s style of play using short pass combinations and quick movement requires strong ball-playing abilities and tactical awareness in order for them to have a high success rate and successfully deliver the ball to the advanced areas. This aim for dominance and retaining possession for as long as they can resulted in the team averaging 57.1% of the possession in the 2019/20 season with the high 87.9% passing accuracy.
That’s part of the reason for their successful actions in the final third since the more time on the ball allows them to constantly move and find the best positions to finish off their actions.
What’s interesting is that despite their attack-minded approach, Sassuolo don’t only focus on providing forward passes and advancing the ball as quickly as possible. They tend to build their way through the opposition press and achieve it through lots of lateral passes and considerably high number of back passes too (80.11 on average). That allows them to execute a variety of build-up strategies by using many channels and relying on different players. Using a double pivot allows them to have more creativity. Expectedly, one of the pivots often stays in support of the defensive line, while one of the full-backs joins the attacking actions, creating numerical superiority which is effective against teams with lower press intensity.
De Zerbi wants the team to push higher up the pitch during the build-up which is often key for their smooth movement and attacking prowess but also leaves the risk of being exposed on a counter due to their advanced positioning. While this is very important for creating numerical superiority and breaking the opposition lines easily, it could be crucial if caught on a counter since it extends the time they need to drop back and defend in their own half.
Attacking style of play
Sassuolo were among the most successful Serie A teams in front of the goal in the 2019/20 season. That’s not only a result of the attacking players’ movement and actions on the ball but also a result of the midfielders’ passing abilities and vision. The team perform a higher number of passes to the final third than the average in the league (57.53 per game) and the forwards’ abilities to take advantage of these opportunities makes the team so successful in front of the goal.
Despite using the wide areas quite often, Sassuolo don’t rely on crossing too much. In fact, they are last in the league when it comes to cross-frequency and accuracy. The wide players lack strong crossing abilities which is why the team have adjusted their strategy with this into consideration.
Although they use both the wide and the central areas to attack, they tend to create most of their chances through the middle shooting both from close range and from distance. Their efforts from outside the box are rarely rewarded, but that doesn’t make them less important, especially against well-structured teams with limited spaces between the lines.
The attacking players’ creativity and smart positioning have been key for the team’s attacking record. Their versatility allows them to both take advantage of their opportunities but also create chances for their teammates, which is what makes the forward line so successful.
The main figure in the attack is Caputo who scored 21 goals and assisted seven more last season, followed by Berardi with 14 goals and 10 assists. Boga, the other wide player, has also scored 11 goals, while a few of the midfielders have contributed with assists, making the perfect connection.
The importance of Locatelli’s role is extremely high. While he is key for the ball progression and the successful movement, he is also the main figure to provide passes to the final third and create chances for his teammates. He averages 11.48 passes to the final third per game which makes him the main distributor, followed by Bourabia with 11.07 and Magnanelli with 10.61.
This active behaviour of the midfielders provides support upfront and gives more options while creating a numerical advantage. Their movement often relies on overloading certain areas and engaging their opponents there, while trying to exploit the freed-up spaces. The overloading is often possible thanks to the use of the full-backs up high since they allow the other wide players to exploit the half-spaces and apply even more pressure on the opposition in the central areas.
They often use Boga’s speed and smart movement as a direct threat in front of the goal, despite his wide positioning. His dribbling abilities are also extremely important for the team’s attacking actions and retaining possession in the advanced areas.
Defensive style of play
As mentioned, Sassuolo are defensively vulnerable but that comes mostly from their advanced positioning rather than their actions in their own half. They usually defend in a compact low block adapting a variety of formations 4-3-3; 4-4-2 and 5-3-2.
But what causes the most trouble is their actions when caught on a counter. While they are a team that look to immediately counter-press after losing possession they do have their flaws in executing this, which makes them even more vulnerable.
The team always look to trouble the opposition build-up and recover the ball while still in the final third, but that commits a lot of players up high, leaving the back even more exposed. That’s why they often struggle to defend against speedy attacks since covering the free spaces turns out almost impossible. That’s though the risk that the team take in order to have more players in attack.
They are also not very efficient when it comes to attempting and winning aerial duels. Their frequency rate is the lowest in the league and their success rate doesn’t compensate for that. Not only this stops them from keeping the possession quite frequently but it also makes them very vulnerable when defending in the box. Due to their tendency to commit the wide players up front, they often struggle defending the wings, which respectively exposes them to conceding more crosses. With their lack of aerial abilities, this is extremely dangerous in the box, since it often leaves the opposition unbothered.
Due to the time needed for the defenders to drop back during defensive transitions the midfielders are often forced to dive into challenges midway to stop their opponents from creating chances. That’s the reason for Locatelli and Bourabia leading the league when it comes to sliding tackles per game with respectively 2.09 and 1.77.
Their unmeasured actions when being under pressure in and around the box, often result in committing unnecessary fouls and even giving away penalties. They have conceded eight goals from penalties in the 2019/20 season, which is a very high number.
Their lack of aerial presence affects their performance when defending set-pieces immensely, which we will explain in the next section.
Although they have conceded six goals on a counter and are often forced into individual mistakes, their biggest defensive flaw has to be their set-piece performance.
Defending set-pieces has turned out problematic for them and the main reasons for this are the lack of organisation in the box and the lack of aerial abilities. They often fail in marking their opponents properly which causes them a lot of stress right in front of the goal. They also have a disadvantage when defending corners due to the lack of aerial presence as the tallest players in the squad are Consigli and Ferrari both being 189 cm. They have conceded 13 goals from set-piece last season.
When it comes to attacking set-pieces they haven’t managed to capitalise on their chances as much as they would like to. Traoré and Locatelli are their main corner takers, while Berardi has the responsibilities to take the direct free-kicks, although they have managed to score only seven goals from these situations.
Areas for improvement
Our analysis in the previous sections are leading to the conclusion that the team need to improve on their defensive behaviour in order to reach better results. The lack of balance between their attacking and their defensive performance makes all the hard work upfront go to waste. This is illustrated in their goal difference of only six goals.
Working on their reactions in the box will decrease the chances of conceding from set-pieces, while diving into more aerial duels could increase their possession percentage even more and help them in avoiding dangerous attacks.
Another thing that could be improved is their reaction when their counter-pressing efforts fail. They need to have plan B of how to position and stop their opponents from performing counter-attacks, otherwise, the risk of falling victim of long balls and skilful players is high.
If Sassuolo aim to reach the European football spots their need to commit more efforts into their defensive performance. While they have found the right formula in attack, it often results in being defensively vulnerable because of it. Finding the balance in the different phases will be key for them in the new 2020/21 season.