Serie A saga: Can Lazio make Europe?

A famous Lazio side of old in the Champions League in 99-2000 – how many can you name?!

In my previous post I described my progress up to the halfway point in my first full season at Lazio. I was nestled nicely in second place, but the second half of the season would be a tumultuous one with managerial changes at one of the major front runners.

In this post I will:

  • Outline progress through the second half of the season
  • Outline some tactical changes made
  • Update on our youth development
  • Give a round-up of transfer activity
  • Evaluate plans and objectives for next season

Second half progress

A reminder that my objective for the season was a top-half finish, but being in second place I was very keen to achieve a Europa League finish as a minimum.

Here is how the season went:

Lazio’s results in the second half of the 2024-5 season
The final league table

We suffered a very average start to the second half of the campaign, with a disappointing loss at Udinese in the 95th minute. This was followed by a good home win, but very patchy form before some urgently needed tactical adjustments.

As highlighted in a previous post, the 5-2-1-2 formation was causing some issues and this remains a work in development. Here is a breakdown of the systems used in the second half of the season:

Formations used by Lazio
Formations faced by Lazio

The first graphic shows that I predominantly went for a 4-2-3-1 and decided to unleash the attacking players and seek more goals. Meanwhile the 4-1-4-1 which I used in away games was deployed considerably less.

In contrast, the second graphic shows that Serie A was becoming a predominantly 4-2-3-1 league as well, with the 4-1-4-1 also popular but to a lesser extent.

I used the 4-1-4-1 extensively in the first half of the season as shown below:

There is a clear lack of goals when I used this system, and I felt some changes were required. This is how the system was deployed in the first half of the season:

Bashuyai was deployed as the lone striker (now no longer with us!) as a poacher, his preferred role.

I’ll now look at the Empoli away game and look at where things were breaking down. Here is the heat map and average position of our starting 11 with the ball:

Lazio heat map and average position with the ball

A glaring issue is that Bashuyai (23) is quite isolated from the nearest wingers and also from the two central midfielders. Below is an example of the issue in practise:

i) Our midfielders win the ball
ii) Alberto looks to release Batshuyai
iii) Basthuyai receives the ball but is surrounded by two central defenders
iv) Batshuyai is forced to cut back inside and the attack breaks down

There are a few noteworthy issues here; in image ii) as the ball is released, there are no players in support of Batshuyai, as the wingers are further back than I would like.

Next, in the third image, as Batshuyai is racing through, the lack of support remains a major issue. The right winger Dias is still some way off and would not be a passing option for our centre-forward.

In the last image, Batshuyai remains isolated and the left winger is the only passing option. The central midfielders Alberto and Fretena are still too far away for my liking.

Consequently I made the following changes to the system:

By changing the lone striker to a deep-lying forward role, this meant that he became more involved in attacks and linked with the midfield more often.

Looking at the Fiorentina away game which we won 3-2, I used Druissi in the lone striker role. Here is a map of his involvement and touches:

Druissi touches v Fiorentina (A)
Druissi passes received vs Fiorentina (A)

Clearly much more involvement and better link-up with the midfield. This is demonstrated by the average position of our players with the ball:

Average position with the ball vs Fiorentina (A)

Plenty of passing options and triangles so that we could build our attacks. Looking at the results in the second half of the season, we won 7 consecutive away games, using this system and 4-2-3-1 against weaker opponents.

This clip from another away victory at Milan shows Batshuyai in the DLF role dropping deep to win a flick-on which led to a great breakaway goal from our box-to-box midfielder and team lynchpin, Fratena:

We also used the attacking 4-2-3-1 which is a very positive system, leading to some wonderful goals. It is made up as follows:

The attacking 4-2-3-1

I prefer to use a high line of engagement, in order to win the ball as high up the field as possible and then let the two central midfielders feed the front four. The attacking midfielder Luis Alberto dictates play, with a IF (A) and W (A) creating havoc out wide, with Fratena arriving late into the box. The striker plays as an advanced forward, in order to give Alberto some space and to stretch the opposition defence. With the ball, I want us to move the ball quickly, run at the defence and counter-press whenever we can, with the opposition defence hopefully stretched and out of position. Our creative players are very technical, with excellent vision and passing skills, allowing us to create several opportunities.

The average positions are intentionally very aggressive:

The lone striker receives the ball very often in good positions:

Which leads to some excellent attacking moves and visually eye-catching goals:


Youth development

In a press conference I was asked about “stockpiling” a number of young players, who I loaned out to other Italian clubs.

I have always believed passionately in having a strong production line of young talent, and when joining Lazio I was delighted that their youth and training facilities were both classified as “superb” and “state of the art” respectively.

Also upon joining I made it an immediate priority to reduce the average age and wage bill of the squad, though it would be some time before I could rely on the U20 squad providing any players genuinely ready for first team action.

That said, as I pointed out in a previous post when I was managing US Triestina, I set about trimming the U20 and U18 squads and only leaving behind players that would make it in our team, or make us a handsome profit in the transfer market. As well as improving the first team squad, I wanted to bring in players for the U20 squads, and then loan them out to gain vital first-team experience.

When joining I was given a real gift of Tiziano Fratena, who possesses unbelievable physical, technical and mental skills:

He is exactly the type of player that I want to develop and he has an embarrassment of riches on which to work with. He sets the template for any young player to aspire to, time would tell if I was able to produce another such talent. For the time being, these are the players that I focused my energy on:

Szymon Czyz
Juri Bertuzzi
Mauro Pellegrino
Claudio Tinelli
Michele Palumbo
Guilio Magri
Gregory Bonneau

They are all talented players and have a strong platform to develop, and a sizeable transfer value. Last season I sent Alessio Termini on loan, and he has now become the back-up on the right side of defence:

Alessio Termini

I keep a close eye on all my “stockpiled” talent and try to plan how I might use them in the future. Once they return from loan next season, I will evaluate them again and decide the best course of action from there.


Transfer activity – outgoings

Another busy summer of transfer activity for Lazio, and again there were some significant departures:

Lazio incomings and outgoings

As ever, the guiding lights for my transfer policy was to reduce the average age and the wage bill, then find the best possible youth talent to improve our U20 and U18 squads. With sales of £50m and spend of £34m, I felt that a £16m profit was good business for us overall.

With that in mind, the sale of Jedvaj to Newcastle was to enable the development of Kalala, who I had signed the previous season. A fee of £13.5m was less than I could have got last season, when he was the subject of numerous bids from China. At 28 I felt that now was a good opportunity to cash in and further rejuvenate the squad. Kalala was signed with this in mind, and I felt that now was the time to give him a first team chance:

Fresnel Kalala

I felt that the easiest decision of all was to sell Michy Batshuyai was earning wages of £200k p/w, not something I felt was sustainable for a club with average crowds of around 40,000 not playing in the Champions League. At 30 he was never going to be the future of the side, so he earned a move to Premiership Bournemouth, with Lazio paying £47k of his weekly wages until next summer.

I was faced with a dilemma when a major bid arrived from Atalanta for Sebastien Druissi. Did I want to sell another senior striker after losing Batshuyai? At 28, I again felt this was too good an opportunity to refuse, even though I would be strengthening a fierce Serie A rival. The fee was £23m upfront followed by a further £6m after just 20 league appearances, so effectively £29m by the time that the transfer window came around, hopefully. He is an excellent talent, but I felt that the production line of talent behind him would be strong enough in 2 or 3 seasons.

I also sold Alberto Grassi to Leeds Utd for £4.1m , as he was never going to be a major part of my squad going forwards after the signings of De Leon and De Beek.

I also sold three youth players for relatively small transfer fees, as I didn’t want them to clog up the U20 squad. There was obviously going to be a group of players who wouldn’t be up to the required standard, and their divestment opened up another revenue stream for us.

Transfer activity – arrivals

With a sizeable £50m in the coffers, I was able to reinforce the gaps and strengthen in areas where I felt we were light, ahead of what would hopefully be an assault on the Serie A title and Champions League.

A reminder that Gabriel de Leon was now available for us, and would provide a huge upgrade on Grassi. Donny von de Beek also joined on a Bosman. This would allow Luis Alberto and Tiziano Fratena to play in their favoured attacking midfield positions, with Alberto likely to be in his final season for us. I now felt that we had excellent strength in depth in midfield.

Donny van de Beek
Gabriel de Leon

The departure of Druissi left us with two big holes to fill, as he was capable of playing as an inside forward or striker. Armed with the cash from his sale as well as the proceeds from Batshuyai, I decided to splash the cash on two very promising young talents:

Mattias Rocchi

Mattias Rocchi was signed for £17.5m from Bologna, having activated a release clause that was available to Champions League clubs. He has very good technical skills, and excellent attributes for a striker aged just 22. DTG recently wrote about the required attributes for a striker, advising that Finishing should not be the sole consideration. I liked Rocchi’s Composure and Off The Ball skills, whilst he had scored 63 goals in 171 appearances in Serie B. I realise that this could be somewhat of a gamble with a premium paid, yet equally I didn’t want to overspend on a player that would only be with me for one or two seasons.

Another issue was at the Inside Forward position, so I broke the bank again to sign Gilles Gouffran for £14.5m.

Gilles Gouffran

Again this was somewhat of a gamble, having played his football in Ligue 2 last season, scoring 7 times and assisting 9 times. What I really liked was his very high Crossing skills, supported by excellent mental and physical skills. Aged only 18, I felt he was a star in the making, albeit with work to do. However under the guidance of the coaching staff and surrounded by some very good technical players at the club, I felt that he would develop very quickly.

Another permanent Bosman signing was Nicolas, from Barcelona B. He possesses excellent technical skills, and at 20 has lots of room to develop. He is very fast and I felt he would fit seamlessly into our side with good, quick, technical players. For a wide player he does need to improve his Passing and Crossing, but for a free transfer I felt that this was excellent business.

Nicolas

I needed to reinforce the left-back position, with Jedvaj having departed the club. I struggled to find someone that I really wanted, but opted for a season-long loan of Ian Maatsen from Chelsea. He is a very driven player and has good defensive attributes. With so many games coming, he would definitely get playing time with us next season.

Ian Maatsen

Ivan Ilic rejoined us on another season-long loan, providing backup to Tomas Soucek in the defensive central midfield position.

I felt that overall we made some excellent signings, and now for a busy 2024-25 campaign!

Thanks for reading


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Other articles that you may enjoy reading:

Does Finishing make a striker?

Lazio rebuilding

Building a winning 3-5-2 system: Part 1

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