“False promises and mediocrity. The transfer market is the usual mess.”
The ‘Lazio Ultras’ group made their feelings quite clear when they hung a banner with these words over a motorway bridge in September.
It reflected a general frustration among the capital club’s fans about a summer transfer window that had promised much but delivered little.
Things did get a little better when three more players arrived before the deadline, but it still did little to convince many fans that Lazio’s issues have been resolved.
FALSE DAWNS AND GAPING HOLES
The supporters’ ire stems from the raised expectations that were a result of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 13 years – and therefore accessing the increased revenue that competition provides.
But investment in improving the playing squad was seen as a requirement, not a luxury. Simone Inzaghi’s side spectacularly collapsed from a Scudetto challenge to fourth place after the coronavirus-enforced break, exposing their lack of quality in depth and proneness to injuries.
The compressed schedule of the 2020/21 season, combined with the increased challenge of competing in the Champions League, raised hopes of a marquee signing coming in to lift the level of a talented but thin squad.
It almost happened. David Silva was a whisker away from signing for Lazio, having agreed terms to join from Manchester City, before he performed a dramatic U-turn and headed to Real Sociedad instead.
The snub saw Aquile sporting director Igli Tare release an official statement saying he had “great respect for the player, but not the man”.
The story with Verona defender Marash Kumbulla was similar. For months Lazio refused to budge on their offer for the promising youngster, who would’ve provided some much-needed reinforcement for the defence, and he eventually ended up on the other side of the city at Roma.
Of the arrivals who did come in, none were particularly eye-catching. To make matters worse, Pepe Reina, Gonzalo Escalante and Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro were the only ones in the door in time for the new season.
Mohamed Fares’ arrival took a bafflingly long time to be made official, Vedat Muriqi tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after signing, and loans for Andreas Pereira and Wesley Hoedt were left until late in the day.
The end result was that Lazio picked up where they left off at the end of last season, earning just four points from their opening three matches against Cagliari, Atalanta and Inter.
The latter fixture, a 1-1 draw, brutally exposed the dearth of defensive options. Stefan Radu and his replacement Bastos both limped off injured before half time, leaving 35-year-old midfielder Marco Parolo to fill in at centre-back.
Then there is the deadwood. Lazio spent €11m on defender Denis Vavro just a year ago, yet he was left out of the Champions League squad and is expected to be taken off the Serie A list once Radu recovers from injury.
He’s not the only one with an uncertain future. Bastos, Riza Durmisi, Davide Di Gennaro, Sofyan Kiyine and Silvio Proto are all still on the books at the club but not registered members of the squad, while Djavan Anderson is likely to be bumped off the Serie A list once injured captain Senad Lulic returns.
So far, not so good. However, there’s a more optimistic way of reviewing Lazio’s summer business, and the reality is that things aren’t nearly as bleak as some would have them seem.
The main criticism of Lazio last season, from fans and pundits alike, centred around their perceived lack of depth.
This has largely, if not entirely, been resolved over the summer. Every member of the squad that threatened a Scudetto challenge and embarked on a 21-match unbeaten run last season is still in Rome. That is a very good start, and a point that has been largely overlooked.
The seven new signings will therefore significantly bolstered Inzaghi’s options. In Muriqi, Escalante and Pereira, he appears to finally have quality, trusted alternatives to Ciro Immobile, Lucas Leiva and Luis Alberto – three players the coach struggled to effectively rotate out of his side last season.
In Fares, Lazio may have finally found a worthy successor to ageing captain Lulic after the struggles of Jordan Lukaku, Durmisi and Jony, while Reina has the quality to provide Thomas Strakosha with some genuine competition, not to mention adding much-needed experience for the European campaign.
In the space of three substitute appearances, Akpa Akpro has already shown potential to be one of the surprises of the season in Rome.
Centre-back remains the problem position, and the return of Hoedt isn’t likely to fix that. But if Inzaghi can get a tune out of the Dutchman it could represent spectacular value, as his loan can be made permanent for just €5m, after selling him for €16m just two years ago.
Lotito is often criticised for being cheap, but the €18m investment in Muriqi is the second biggest of his 16-year reign as Lazio owner.
Additionally, the salary bill is over €100 million for the first time this year and long, lucrative new deals for Immobile and Alberto were agreed this summer.
Although some deadwood remains, Milan Badelj, Wallace and Valon Berisha were sold, Ivan Vargic and Ricardo Kishna released, and loan deals were found for Bobby Adekanye, Jordan Lukaku, Andre Anderson and Jony.
The settled squad that stunned Serie A before the pandemic’s interruption last season is still in place, bolstered by new arrivals. A year ago, the stability of Inzaghi’s squad was viewed as a strength, whereas now it’s being painted as a weakness.
While the marquee signings never arrived and the defensive depth remains a concern, one thing should be kept in mind when reviewing the summer mercato: Lazio are in a stronger position now than when it started. Only time will tell if that is enough.
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