Sassuolo are one of Serie A’s biggest surprises thus far in the 2018-19 campaign, lurking unexpectedly amongst the pack for a top four spot in the table after 17 rounds. Roberto De Zerbi’s astute tactical approach and philosophy has been transmitted onto his fledging Neroverdi squad, yielding results from a system which has earned acclaim across the continent.
While De Zerbi’s significant impact since arriving at Mapei Stadium this past summer is palpable and largely to credit for Sassuolo’s emergence this season, few have thrived more under the tutelage of the ex-Foggia coach than young Italian midfielder, Stefano Sensi.
Prior to being outlawed at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, San Marino and Cesena shared Sensi’s rights under a co-ownership formula, synergy commonplace amongst Italian clubs involving predominantly youth players often with an even 50-50 split of the player.) Eventually, San Marino declined their option on Sensi, but extended his loan for a second season in 2014-15 season before subsequently being returned to his parent club where he’d blossom as a debutant in Italy’s second division.
Opportunity knocked for Sensi under manager Massimo Drago in 2015-16 to make a gradual leap in his game and, with heightened expectations, convince onlooking Serie A outfits of his ability to control a midfield on his own. Diminutive, equipped with impressive passing range, balance and a low center of gravity used to his advantage from a 1,68 metre frame, Sensi looked like a spitting image of Paris Saint-Germain star Marco Verratti.
Comparisons to his fellow countryman would flood in immediately during the first half of his breakout season for the Seahorses, prompting Sassuolo to snap up the youngster for an estimated €5 million before Serie A’s elite like Juventus – who had been rumored to form a compartecipazione with the Neroverdi – could have him for their own.
Sensi would feature 33 times for Cesena that season, grabbing 4 goals and 5 assists to put a bow on his time at the Dino Manuzzi.
Undoubtedly, Sensi had made tremendous strides forward, meshing his game well with improved competition and seamlessly transitioning from Lega Pro to Serie B without much of a hassle. Yet, his first two campaigns in the first division saw him shelved with multiple injuries and having to earn his black and green stripes over the likes of Alfred Duncan, veteran captain Francesco Magnanelli and starlet Lorenzo Pellegrini.
During this first full season under Eusebio Di Francesco, Sensi featured 16 times in the league, accumulating 1,172 minutes in total, followed by a near identical sophomore campaign split between Cristian Bucchi and Giuseppe Iachini where muscular injuries limited his actions. However, president Giorgio Squinzi’s appointment of De Zerbi has completely reconfigured Sassuolo’s systematic approach to ‘calcio’ and, in the process, has made Sensi the heartbeat of the midfield.
De Zerbi’s possession-based football in the 4-3-3 utilizes a screening, or holding, midfielder and with an emphasis on a slow build then swift transition with vertical passes to instantly stretch field of play – and that is where Sensi fulfills the assignment.
Pumping out passes to permit the attack to function and advance forward while also holding together the defensive shape to cover in wider areas once fullbacks Pol Lirola and Rogerio push in support of the attack, the Italian international has emerged as the vital component to De Zerbi’s fluid style of play.
Sensi serves as the operator of the midfield despite switching on and off with Manuel Locatelli who share similar profiles in that both are cut from the same ‘regista’ cloth; tempo-setting, contributors on the defensive and relied on to retain and recycle possession in order to effectively carry out De Zerbi’s patient, but counter-attacking, system.
Although Locatelli has played his fair share at the base this season, De Zerbi’s managed to shift him over as a traditional central midfielder in order to accommodate the creative control Sensi provides as a metronome, all without having to sacrifice on the Milan youth’s growth and abilities.
Over 13 Serie A appearances, Sensi’s shown an aptness for facilitating and undertaking the responsibility that comes with the territory of running a midfield. Playing the short passes to lull the opposition in, launching a counter-attack with a long ball over the top and armouring the back four only begin defining his importance to the Sassuolo cause.
Proof is in Sensi’s call-up by Roberto Mancini for his eye-opening Italy debut last month vs. USA that the pint-sized playmaker is manifesting, and delivering on, his true potential. The Class of 95′ talent has what it takes to be a prominent figure in the Azzurri framework for years to come, and provided he follows on this same progression cycle at Sassuolo, has only just begun scratching the surface of his true potential.
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