Tuesday night’s defeat in Lecce was a startling wake-up call to the scale of Lazio’s decline since football restarted.
Defeats to Atalanta and Milan had sandwiched comeback wins against Fiorentina and Torino ahead of the capital club’s trip to the deep south of Italy.
There were already plenty of concerns over the team’s performances before they travelled to Puglia, but there were also convenient ways of excusing the two previous losses.
The trip to Atalanta, a 3-2 defeat, was Lazio’s first game back, while the hosts had already got a game under their belt.
After a 3-0 thrashing against the Rossoneri, it was easy to point to the selection issues facing Simone Inzaghi’s side, particularly the absence of suspended strikers Ciro Immobile and Felipe Caicedo, and an element of bad luck.
But there was no excuse for a limp 2-1 defeat to a Lecce side that had lost its last six games, conceding 25 goals in the process.
The performance shined the starkest light yet on just how far the Biancocelesti are from returning to the standards set before the season was interrupted.
Above all, it highlighted the spectacular decline of what had previously been one of this team’s greatest strengths, its defence.
Before the break, Lazio had the best defensive record in Serie A, conceding just 23 goals in 26 games.
Since then, they’ve shipped 10 goals in the space of five matches, a tally it took them 14 games to concede before the break.
That dreadful record has seen Lazio more than double their number of league defeats in the space of just two weeks – up from two to five.
According to Lazio Page, the Aquile top the table when it comes to the post-break increase in average goals conceded per game, with Inzaghi’s side shipping an extra 1.12 goals every time they step on the pitch.
But the midfield and attack aren’t immune to criticism, as Lazio are second only to Roma when it comes to the decline in goals scored since the break, down by 0.91 per game.
Issues in the attacking areas of Inzaghi’s team are slightly more understandable, given the huge selection problems he has faced with injuries, suspension and fatigue.
In contrast, Lazio have been able to regularly field a tried and trusted back three of Patric, Francesco Acerbi and Stefan Radu in front of goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha in 4/5 games.
All four players have had their struggles, but at the Stadio Via del Mare things collapsed in spectacular fashion.
Patric was the target of the fiercest criticism after a ridiculous, inexplicable bite into the arm of Lecce’s Giulio Donati left his side with 10 men in stoppage time.
It was a fitting end to a defensive disaster-class from Lazio. They were lucky not to go behind after just two minutes, after allowing Mario Mancosu to stride forward through midfield an launch a rocket into the top corner, only to be saved by VAR for a handball in the build-up.
Felipe Caicedo pounced on a Lecce error to put Lazio ahead, but it was a lead that rarely looked comfortable.
Before half time, a tame challenge and race out of position from Acerbi allowed Khouma Babacar the space and time to equalise with a free header and Patric’s handball gave Lecce a penalty that Mancosu missed.
After the break, Acerbi’s astonishingly poor attempt at man marking from a corner gave the Salentini the lead through a Fabio Lucioni header after the break. The centre-back dutifully escorted his opponent through the box towards the cross, like a waiter showing a diner to their seat.
Acerbi’s performance was the most concerning for Lazio. The Italy international has been a rock for the capital club for the last two years, but has looked tired, nervous and indecisive since coming back from lockdown.
Patric has been handed a four-match suspension for his Count Dracula impression, but the good news for Inzaghi is that Luiz Felipe’s imminent return from injury should soften the blow.
But with some of his most reliable players this season – Strakosha, Acerbi and Radu – producing error-prone performances, it could be in his interests to shuffle the pack and give the likes of Denis Vavro, Bastos or young Nicolo Armini a chance.
One of the most damaging themes of Lazio’s displays since returning is their consistently slow starts. They’ve now conceded four goals inside the opening half-hour in their last five games, and six before half time.
It’s clear that this team is lacking the energy and belief that coursed through their veins as they launched an unexpected Scudetto bid earlier in the year, and that the form of the likes of Immobile, Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be key to helping them rediscover it.
But securing the team’s foundations will be equally crucial. The visit of free-scoring Sassuolo on Saturday will be another big moment for their season.
Roberto De Zerbi’s side have been one of the most impressive since the break, going unbeaten and scoring 15 goals in five games.
The thought of Jeremie Boga, Domenico Berardi and Francesco Caputo running at this Lazio defence will be enough to leave Aquile fans in a cold sweat.
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