Does continuity pay off in football? Napoli and Lazio receive opposite results

The summer transfer window brought some radical changes to most top teams in Serie A. Juventus went from Allegri’s cautious pragmatism to Sarriball, Inter started a new cycle with Antonio Conte and numerous new starters, Roma took a (successful gamble) on hiring Paulo Fonseca, Milan had their squad built from their third sporting director in three years, while Atalanta had to deal with playing on multiple fronts after surprisingly qualifying for the Champions League.

Because of their competitors expected to go through growing pain because of all their changes, many expected Lazio and Napoli to get off to fast starts based on the fact they went with continuity. Both teams confirmed their managers and made just a few switches to their starting lineups to improve on their weaknesses, but after fifteen matches played the two clubs couldn’t be in more opposite trajectories.

Lazio are now riding a seven game win streak and have consolidated their position in the Champions League zone, with some even wondering if they can win the title. They finally were able to defeat Juventus at the Olimpico after sixteen years with Simone Inzaghi finally besting Maurizio Sarri in a match for the first time in his career.

Not surprisingly, the fallout of yesterday’s loss brought a lot of prisoner of the moment takes from Juventus fans with Sarri despite the fact the former Napoli and Chelsea manager had never previously been defeated on the bianconeri’s bench. Ironically Simone Inzaghi was seen as a front runner for the Juventus job once Max Allegri left in large part because of his close relationship with the club’s sporting director Fabio Paratici.

Instead Inzaghi ended up staying at Lazio by signing a new contract along with sporting Igli Tare’. Interestingly both of them had also been linked to Milan, but keeping them both has so far been a hige blessing for president Claudio Lotito. Tare’ has long been one of the most underrated “direttori sportive” in Italy- he has brought in the club’s entire nucleus in recent years including Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinkovic Savic, Joaquin Correa, Lucas Leiva and Francesco Acerbi who has been a brilliant replacement for Stefan de Vrij.

While in previous seasons, this nucleus has ended up being better individually than as a sum of its parts, during this campaign they are all performing at a top level. Tare’ and Lotito went all in with this group, retaining them with extensions was an expensive proposition and they decided to just make a few strategic additions to bolster their main weaknesses- Manuel Lazzari has been an upgrade over Adam Marusic while Denis Vavro has struggled so much he could end up like Durmissi and Berisha in the bust bin, so suffice to say continuity is at the basis of the team’s success.

Napoli took a similar approach last summer. They confirmed Carlo Ancelotti as manager and bolstered on paper made upgrades by replacing Raul Albiol with Kostas Manolas and bringing in Giovanni Di Lorenzo to upgrade the right back, they also invested substantially in Hirving Lozano to be the long term replacement for Dries Mertens.

On paper this seemed like an almost perfect plan, after all Albiol had missed a substantial part of the season and Manolas was seen as an upgrade, Di Lorenzo has been one of the only bright spots and even made his debut for the Italian national team and the club had the luxury to make their most expensive purchase ever in Lozano to essentially give him a year to get acclamaited to Serie A so he could eventually replace Mertens (or Insigne).

But instead Napoli’s campaign has been nothing short of disastrous. President Aurelio De Laurentiis spent significantly to retain his best players, he turned down a big offer for Allan last January, he made Koulibaly one of the highest paid defenders in Serie A and worked with Mino Raiola to make Lorenzo Insigne feel like a huge part of the project after some previous difficulties. 

All three players have not come close to their usual level of performances- Koulibaly has been a shell of his former self since playing in the Africa Cup this summer, Allan’s struggles date even further back to ever since his move to PSG collapsed and Insigne has been the poor version we have seen on the Azzuri in recent years for his home town club- if that weren’t enough Allan and Insigne were identified as the ring leaders of the mutiny when the team refused to go on retreat.

So how come Lazio and Napoli have taken such different trajectories despite using the same formula? You can argue Inzaghi is peaking as a manager after some growing pains in recent years, while the game seems to have gone past Ancelotti with substantial reports of both his Bayern Munich and Napoli teams not practicing enough.

But there’s probably more to this- Lazio has come so close to reaching their objective of making the Champions League that their intact core has shown the hunger to finally get over the hump this season, while Napoli have been the exact opposite, it feels the disappointment of having no titles to show for their impressive runs in recent years. Turns out continuity isn’t always a magical formula, the secret is knowing when your group is ready to peak as opposed to when it already gave you all it has.

Is Milinkovic Savic’s time at Lazio coming to an end?

Let’s get it out of the way up front. No doubt the 2018-19 season was a disappointment for Sergej Milinkovic Savic and this was after a subpar World Cup where many expected him to fully break out on the biggest stage in world football. But despite not living up to expectations, the Serbian international still won the official league award given to the best midfielder in Serie A.

With his current club Lazio failing to qualify for the next edition of the Champions League there has been a lot of buzz on Milinkovic Savic leaving Italy’s capital this summer. Juventus reached an agreement with him on personal terms about a month ago, Paris St Germain have been monitoring him for over a year and now we have Manchester United identifying him as the ideal replacement for Paul Pogba.

Last summer Lazio’s president Claudio Lotito was able to convince Milinkovic Savic to stay for one season by promising him he would sell him in summer of 2019 for a big offer. Lotito confirmed this publicly when recently stated that he was running out of tools to keep his star, a sentiment confirmed on Saturday by manager Simone Inzaghi when he answered “I would like for him to stay, but I think the club should consider a significant offer should it arrive. Should he be sold, we know we’ll have to replace him” 

While last summer Milinkovic Savic had no problem answering that he was staying at the club when he arrived at the retreat, this year he has been much more vague. At this point, it feels very likely that he won’t stay in Italy to defend his title of Serie A’s best offer. Lazio are looking for an offer of at least 80 million euro to sell their star, while he’s come off an uneven season, he has over 100 games played in Serie A despite the fact he’s just entering his prime after turning 24 last February. 

Certainly Lazio must feel pressure after Lotitio’s promise last summer, but they are in a great position to handle his potential departure from a position of strength. They have no substantial debts, Financial Fair Play parameters to meet and are in overall strong financial shape, especially for an Italian club. Their president Claudio Lotito has mastered the art of selling, he received over 70 million combined for Hernanes, Antonio Candreva and Lucas Biglia who were all past their prime and with expiring contracts, so he will no doubt look for a huge return for his biggest asset.

On the bright side for Laziali, the club’s sporting director Igli Tare’ has replaced his departing stars quite well- Lucas Leiva has been an upgrade over Biglia, Luis Alberto has exceeded Felipe Anderson’s production while Acerbi has slotted in perfectly in De Vrij’s previous role. With a robust return for Milinkovic Savic, Lazio can more than adequately replace him after already improving the squad with Vavro and Lazzari’s arrivals. But where could Milinkovic Savic?

While Juventus identified him as the ideal addition to their midfield last June, their approach to transfers- go through the player’s agent first, get an agreement with them first and then try to force their target’s current club to sell- was never going to fly with Lotito, who was more than happy to state this publicly. Juventus decided to go after Adrien Rabiot, to go with Aaron Ramsey whom they had already signed on another Bosman deal and shoot their financial load on Matthijs De Ligt instead.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

While there have been some whispers of Inter potentially pursuing Milinkovic Savic, his future will almost certainly take place abroad. Paris St Germain’s sporting director Leonardo, pursued him last summer when he was at Milan- but now he has the bank roll to tempt Lotito without Lazio’s president having to also worry about massively improving a direct rival in the race for a Champions League spot.

Manchester United are certainly in the mix, but as I write this, there are no confirmations they are in concrete talks quite yet to get a deal done with Lazio. But with the window in the Premier League closing in less than two weeks, we could have some developments very soon.

 

Losers of Serie A’s First Stretch of the Season

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The first stretch of the Serie A season gave us a flawless start from Juventus, a late resurgence from Inter and surprising performances from Sampdoria and Sassuolo. But for every action there’s a reaction, and while there have been plenty of positive story lines and winners in Italy in the first eight matches, as we covered last week, there have also been teams and players not meeting expectations- here are the losers of the season so far

 

 

Atalanta

 

Going into the season, the Bergamaschi were probably everyone’s second favorite team. What is there not to like? A club that isn’t afraid to launch young players, most of them Italian, a manager known for often playing offensive minded football while also showing significant tactical acumen against Italy’s top coaches and a star player in Papu Gomez who is very relatable and exciting to watch.

But this season Atalanta have not been themselves. The team started their summer preparation early to get ready for the Europa League preliminary round, but their immediate elimination has given the squad a hangover reminiscent of what happened to Pioli’s Lazio and Benitez’ Napoli after being eliminated in preliminary round of the Champions League.

While Atalanta boosts a very deep and impressive attack (Zapata, Ilicic, Gomez and talented striker Barrow), years of selling off prospects may have caught up to them- Gasperini’s squad looks rather weak on defense and on the wings after parting ways with Conti, Spinazzola and Caldara the past two summers. 

Andrea Belotti

 

Everything was pointing to a fast start for the striker known as Il Gallo. He was finally healthy after battline nagging injuries last season, manager Walter Mazzarri had made him the focal point of his first summer retreat as the granata’s manager and Torino spent significantly in the summer to make a run for the Europa League.

But while Belotti must have been thrilled to hear that Roberto Soriano was returning to Serie A to join him and that Iago Falque was staying despite offers from Spain, the late arrival of Simone Zaza had the potential to change the major tenants of Torino’s attack. But because the former Juventus striker needed time to adapt to his new team, Belotti didn’s make the most the opportunity to take the bull by its horns- he’s off to a sluggish start with only two goals scored.

 

 

Sergej Milinkovic Savic

 

There are already many who believe the Serbian international has taken the crown from Belotti as the poster boy for the saying “better to sell a player a year too soon than a year too late”, and while Lazio and Torino approached the market for their young stars in very different ways, there’s no doubt Milinkovic Savic’s stock has taken a substantial hit.

After a stellar Serie A season in which he scored 12 goals, SMS had a disappointing World Cup where many were left wondering what the hype was all about. Those performances were defensible considering he had barely played with his Serbian teammates prior to the tournament in Russia, but his disastrous start to the season in Italy has been far more concerning- is Milinkovic Savic getting full of himself? Or is he disappointed he wasn’t sold to a bigger club? Simone Inzaghi is going to need to find out very soon 

 

Mattia Caldara & Alex Meret

 

I know what you are thinking- calling them losers of the season so far is very unfair considering their injuries. But while they rehabbed to get back to the pitch their situations are starting to change. For one Mateo Musacchio has made the most out of Caldara’s absence, and is establishing himself as a solid partner for Alessio Romagnoli, if that weren’t enough Caldara struggled significantly in Italy’s match versus Portugal which reinforced the story line that he needs time to adapt to playing on a bigger stage than Atalanta.

Meret on the other had already struggled with injuries in his first season in Serie A which however didn’t stop Napoli from investing significantly in him to replace Pepe Reina. Meret has yet to play this season, and just like Musacchio with Romagnoli, his replacement David Ospina has performed well enough to be compared to Claudio Garella, the keeper on the club’s first scudetto winning team.

Caldara and Meret have the talent to turn this around, but this is definitely not the start they envisioned either 

 

 

 

 

Bologna/Chievo

 

While Parma and Sassuolo are distancing themselves significantly from the relegation zone, these two clubs are setting themselves up for a season of suffering and stress. Bologna never adequately replaced Simone Verdi, who almost single handedly carried their offense last season, and new manager Pippo Inzaghi is probably considering suiting up since his team only scored four goals this season (second worst in the league).

Chievo still find themselves with negative points after the deduction for the inflated plusvalenze on the transfer market. The flying donkeys made the first manager change of the season (barely defeating Gena in this dubious race) by hiring Gian Piero Ventura, the biggest pariah in Italian football. While Chievo have enough talent to make up ground since there are other teams struggling, their impressive streak of ten consecutive seasons in Serie A could be coming to an end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clubs in pursuit of Juventus face important Serie A fixtures

Euro 2016

At present several clubs in Serie A harbour aspirations of challenging Juventus’ domination of the Italian football’s top flight.

Juve engineer the early evolution of a strong title defence

For five successive years, Juve have won the Scudetto, whilst they are currently building a strong title defence.

Of their first ten games, Massimiliano Allegri’s side have won eight and lost two, to establish first place in Serie A two points ahead of Roma, who are amidst a four game winning run.

Whilst Roma are in pursuit of Juventus, so too are Napoli, AC Milan and Lazio, with each of the chasing quartet facing extremely important fixtures, as they aspire to construct sustainable title challenges and prevent La Vecchia Signora from strengthening their lead.

After suffering a 1-0 defeat to AC Milan, Juventus issued an excellent response to that setback by emphatically beating Sampdoria 4-1, as they maintained their 100% home record this season, which the Turin giants will once again aim to defend against third placed Napoli.

Given that they are four points behind Juventus, the game assumes added importance for Napoli’s prospects of establishing themselves as title contenders, since in order to achieve that, they can ill-afford to fall further adrift of the club who have proven to be an indomitable force in Italian football over recent years.

Higuain looks to end four-game goal drought

With a view to maintaining that reputation, Juventus signed Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for €90m in the summer.  As such the 28-year-old Argentinean striker is set to face his former club for the first time, with Higuain being without a goal in four games since scoring twice in four minutes to help Juventus to a 3-0 away win over Empoli.

Coincidentally it was against the Province of Florence based club that Napoli won their previous Serie A game 2-0, to earn a second successive league victory after beating Crotone 2-1, despite Manolo Gabbiadini being sent off during the first half.  However Partenopei’s victory over Crotone followed a 3-1 home loss to Roma.

Serie A’s most potent attack resides in the Italian capital

That result marked the second game of Roma’s current four game winning run, which they will have the opportunity to extend, when they travel to play Empoli at Stadio Carlo Castellani.  In ten Serie A games this season, Giovanni Martusciello’s side have scored just twice through defenders Giuseppe Bellusci and Andrea Costa.  Whilst Empoli have scored five less goals in Serie A this season than any other side, it is by that same number which Roma are the division’s highest scorers.  Of their 26 goals Edin Dzeko has scored 10.

Although the 30-year-old Bosnian is his club’s leading marksman, Dzeko has not overly burdened the responsibility of scoring Roma’s goals, with that being shared between he and several other players.  Specifically Dzeko’s fellow forwards Diego Perotti and Mohamed Salah have scored three and five Serie A goals respectively, with both Stephen El Shaarawy and Francesco Totti scoring two.

Now in his 25th season with Roma, the 40-year-old Totti remains a key member of the club’s squad, despite being the oldest outfield player in Serie A.

Lazio and Milan:  In a phase of steady progress

Just as Roma are enjoying a fine spell of form, so too are their arch and city rivals Lazio.  Under the guidance of caretaker manager Simone Inzaghi, Lazio have embarked upon a five game unbeaten run to climb from ninth to fifth place.  The last time Lazio were beaten was by fourth placed AC Milan, who suffered a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Genoa in their last Serie A fixture, after impressively beating Juventus 1-0 at the San Siro, courtesy of a pinpoint Manuel Locatelli finish.

That goal propelled Milan to within two points of Juventus and gave I Rossoneri a fifth victory in six Serie A games.  However as a result of losing to Genoa Vicenzo Montella’s side are now five points behind the league leaders.  Therefore in order to remain in relatively close pursuit of Juventus, it is crucial that Milan secure a return to winning ways at home against Pescara.

Since losing to Milan at the San Siro 2-0, of five Serie A games, Lazio have won three and drawn two, with their striker Ciro Immobile playing a vital role for his time during that spell by scoring six goals.  One of those was a 97th minute penalty to earn Lazio a 1-1 against Bologna at the Stadio Olimpico, where the I Biancazzuri will aim to continue their excellent recent run of results when they host Sassuolo.

Quartet aspire to break Juventus’ domination of Serie A

Ultimately although Juventus remain Italy’s strongest team, several other Serie A side are growing in quality and strength, particularly AC Milan, Lazio, Napoli and Roma.  Subsequently each of those clubs face vital fixtures as the quartet aspire to build upon the positive manner in which they have performed during the first quarter of this season to create an intense battle for the Scudetto.

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