Lazio have turned defence from weakness to strength – so what has changed?


Nobody saw it coming, but perhaps that’s why they should have.

The Rome Derby has a well-earned reputation for upsetting the odds and ignoring the form book, and the fixture provided more evidence of why last weekend.

Lazio went into the game on a club record 11-game winning run, while their injury-ravaged rivals had started the new year with three defeats in five games.

But the Giallorossi dominated from start to finish, bossing possession, creating chances and coming away from a 1-1 draw wondering how they had failed to claim three points.

Fingers were understandably pointed at the Roma attack for a lack of cutting edge, as they relied on an error from Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha to find the net at all, before Pau Lopez replied with an even worse howler of his own.

For Lazio, the result was a case of being thankful once again to the unsung heroes of their memorable season so far: the defence.

Francesco Acerbi stood head and shoulders above the rest, batting away crosses, throwing himself in front of shots and barking instructions at his team-mates throughout the onslaught.

But Luiz Felipe impressed before being replaced at half time, with Simone Inzaghi worried about his yellow card, and Stefan Radu saved his side’s skin on occasions with heroic blocks and well-timed interceptions.

Questions can be asked of the midfield and attack, who were completely overwhelmed at the Stadio Olimpico, but the back three came away with great credit for keeping things tight under incessant pressure.

While Roma dominated 67% possession and peppered 22 shots on goal, only three of those were on target as they struggled to breach the Lazio wall.

Lazio’s defence is the second best in Serie A this season, having conceded just 19 goals in 20 games so far.

That is one more than Inter, but two fewer than Juventus, while the likes of Roma (23), Atalanta (29), AC Milan (26) and Napoli (29) pale in comparison.

There are a few reasons for this improvement. Firstly, Inzaghi has finally settled on a back three and given them time to gel – something he resisted at all costs last season.

Felipe, Acerbi and Radu have started together in six of the last seven Serie A games, developing an understanding and discipline that was plain to see during the Derby.

They are a well-balanced unit. Felipe provides athleticism and finesse on the right-hand side, although his game is still marred by individual errors.

On the left, Radu’s technical ability helps in the construction of the attacks, which so often start on that side of the pitch, while his experience has aided his sense of positioning in this role.

In the middle, Acerbi has been a revelation. The Italian almost immediately made Lazio fans forget about the loss of Stefan de Vrij to Inter when he arrived in the summer of 2018, slotting into the Dutchman’s role with ease. But he wasn’t just a replacement for De Vrij, he was an improvement.

Acerbi is a leader and a warrior, but he also possesses great technique and passing, superb awareness and the physicality required to shut down bulkier opponents.

His consistency is staggering. He looked set to break Javier Zanetti’s consecutive appearance record last season until he was sent off against Napoli. The subsequent suspension saw his run come to an end at 147 games, 13 short of the Inter legend.

But he has now started every match for Lazio since 27 January 2019. That includes 52 competitive appearances and 10 friendlies. The man is unstoppable.

A settled back three has aided Lazio’s defensive improvement, but the wing-backs have also played a crucial role.

Manuel Lazzari has made a big impact since arriving from SPAL last summer, but perhaps not in the way many expected.

After making a name for himself in Ferrara for his superb crossing ability and impressive assist stats, it has been his all-round game that has come to the fore in Rome.

He has offered far more defensive cover on the right flank than Adam Marusic did before him, and his tireless work rate and energy has been invaluable in the transitions.

Even Senad Lulic, much maligned at times last season as his age started to show, has improved this term. The Bosnian may have had a nightmare of an afternoon against Cengiz Under last weekend, but overall the captain has raised his game and led by example.

But the true unsung hero of Lazio’s defensive improvement has been Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The Serbian has shown great sacrifice this season after increasing his efforts in the defensive phase.

The 24-year-old is always among the highest in terms of distance covered at the end of a match, shuttling from box to box, providing an extra aerial presence in his own area when defending crosses and getting forward to add bulk and quality to the attacks.

His average number of tackles per game has risen from 1.4 to 1.6 since last season, his interceptions from 0.9 to 1.1 and blocks from 0.1 to 0.4.

Occasionally he is criticised for not being the player he was in 2017/18, when he scored 12 goals from midfield.

But goals never should’ve been the metric by which he was judged. Milinkovic-Savic was never a trequartista, and now he has become a more complete central midfielder than ever.

He has reduced his instances of bad control from 3.5 to 2.7 per game since 2017/18 and is now dispossessed 1.3 times per game rather than 2.4. And he already has more assists (4) than he managed in that entire campaign (3).

His numbers for dribbling, shots and goals have declined slightly, but rather than that being a sign of a less dangerous Milinkovic-Savic, it’s a sign of a more developed player.

He is showing greater maturity, intelligence and sacrifice – even if it earns him fewer headlines. And Lazio are reaping the rewards.

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