For even a casual observer of Lazio, it’s been obvious that this season has struggled to live up to the high standards set in 2017/18.
Last term, Simone Inzaghi’s entertainers finished as Serie A’s top-scoring side, raced to the Europa League quarter-finals and were only denied a Champions League place due to the cruel rule of head-to-head record trumping goal difference in the final standings.
Now, with 41 goals in 27 matches, Lazio have the ninth best attack in the league, albeit with a game in hand that could see them draw level with Inter, Milan and Fiorentina above them on 43 goals.
However, Inzaghi’s team have rediscovered their swashbuckling attacking swagger in recent weeks and could yet secure the top four spot that eluded them last season.
On Sunday, Lazio dismantled Parma with a 4-1 hammering at the Stadio Olimpico, with all four goals coming in the first half.
It was a brutal display of attacking prowess that blew the visitors away in a manner that was not uncommon last season, but has rarely been seen since the current campaign kicked off.
The Biancocelesti have now found the net in their last 11 Serie A games in a row, the longest run in the league after Juventus’ shock 2-0 defeat to Genoa last weekend.
Inzaghi’s crucial tactical switch has been to create what has become referred to in the Italian press as the ‘fantasy Lazio’ system whereby two attack-minded midfielders, Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, line up behind a strike duo formed from a combination of Ciro Immobile, Joaquin Correa and Felipe Caicedo.
After initially putting in improved performances that were let down by a lack of clinical finishing, Lazio have won by three-goal margins in their last two home games: 3-0 against Roma and 4-1 against Parma.
The draw away to Fiorentina that came between those two matches was another frustrating example of wastefulness from the Lazio attack, but nevertheless they have notched eight goals in their last three games and appear to have turned a corner in terms of fluidity, solidity and confidence.
Inzaghi’s bold selection is paying off and one reason has been that his star midfielders, Alberto and Milinkovic-Savic, have begun to recreate the form they showed last season.
Against Parma, Alberto scored twice and set up another in his best performance of the season so far.
The Spaniard registered 11 goals and 15 assists last season playing in a No.10 role behind Immobile, but has struggled to have the same impact this term. The first of his two goals on the weekend was his first league goal since a strike against Frosinone in the third week of the season.
However, the 26-year-old is finding more space to pull the strings and influence the game from a deeper position, which can again be demonstrated with numbers as four of the six assists he has contributed have been when lining up in central midfield rather than as a trequartista – three of which have come in the last two months.
Milinkovic-Savic, meanwhile, has been the target of some unfair criticism this season after failing to live up to the sky-high standards he set over the previous year.
The Serbian needed longer to work his way back to full fitness after his first experience of a major tournament at the World Cup in the summer, but like Alberto his end product has paled in comparison to last term – he has three goals so far, compared to the 12 he scored last season in the league.
La Gazzetta dello Sport even named the midfielder in their Serie A XI of players whose value has dropped the most this season, claiming the 24-year-old’s market value has dipped from €80m to €50m.
While this may seem a little harsh for a player of undoubted and immense quality, who possesses a breath-taking range of weapons from technical ball skills, to deadly long-range shooting to physicality and an aerial threat, it does illustrate that he has a bigger role to play between now and the end of the season.
However, it is unfair to measure his influence in terms of goals given his role in the team, and the level of his performances has lifted significantly in a new system that, as with Alberto, allows him more space to express himself as the opposition try to figure out how to deal with all four attacking threats.
Plus, according to WhoScored, there have been several elements of his game that have seen improvements this season: the Serbian’s average number of key passes, interceptions and clearances per match in Serie A is higher than in 2017/18, while he has been dispossessed less and has had fewer instances of bad control. Plus, he has already equalled last season’s assist tally of three.
Inzaghi appears to have found his magic formula at the perfect time of the season, with the final run-in approaching after the international break and his star midfielders showing promising signs of returning to their swaggering best.
There is still a lot of work to do and the upcoming away trip to an Inter side that is on cloud nine after their Milan derby win must be treated as a must-win game. Alberto and Milinkovic-Savic have picked just the right time to start proving they are far more than one-season wonders.
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