The Serie A has become one of the in-vogue leagues again. Thanks to the mouth watering football of Napoli, the strong international results of Juventus, and football of such sides as Sampdoria and Atalanta the league’s popularity among analysts and fans is on the rise again.
I recently spent an evening watching Europa League football, and the performance of Lazio caught my attention. With a blend of experience and youth, Italian internationals and previously forgotten midfielders Lazio are a special team. Thanks to the likes of Radu and Luis Felipe they are a joy to watch in the buildup. The runs of Immobile together with the positioning of Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto makes them very effective in attacking transitions.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of their key players, how they fit together. Let’s analyse aspects of their game and some recurring patterns.
Although there is no time to analyse the tendencies of every Lazio player, certain players really warrant their own paragraphs. Those players who don’t get mentioned in this part of the article will be featured in the group and team tactical analysis in later parts of this post.
Their goalkeeper is the young Albanian Thomas Strakosha. He is excellent with his right foot, but rarely uses his left to build up the game. Lazio often start the buildup even against a full press by playing out to the right halfback on the edge of the box, with both De Vrij and Lucas pulling to the same side, before playing back to Strakosha who can now find Milinkovic-Savic in free space. In the circulation of Lazio if the sideback attempts to dribble in, but gets pressed by the striker, Strakosha is always in a position to receive the ball back, and quickly change to the other side.
Although many goalkeepers get comfortable if they are not pressed by the opponent in similar situations, Strakosha’s passes to switch the game to the other sideback are always strong and accurate, in front of the receiving sideback to promote stepping into the game.
By starting the game to one of the sidebacks they immediately move the opponent’s press, and with Strakosha always there they always have a free player to switch the sides.
After collecting long balls Strakosha can become an extra centre back. This way they have almost a back four to start building up the game.
The three central defenders are most often Luiz Felipe, De Vrij and Radu. In certain cases Bastos, Wallace or Caceres can can come into the team.
Luiz Felipe is the most versatile across the back three. He can play in the middle of the three or as the left sideback too. He can dribble in and attack the space with intensity. He can build up the game with both of his legs.
Luiz Felipe is probably one of the best defenders when it comes to dribbling into the game. With an excellent ability to cut the ball a little bit across his body and change the direction of his dribbling he can manipulate the positioning of the defenders. Certain players who think the pass is not possible anymore might slightly leave their man and follow the direction of the ball. This way more space is created around the player whom they used to mark, and this player gets out of the cover shadow without moving, just by the dribbling of Luiz Felipe.
This ability is very valuable. The same goes for his scanning. He always looks first into depth when dribbling in with the ball, where usually the wingback rotates inside into the space behind the midfielders of the opponent, creating a diamond shape. But if the ball is not possible to him, Felipe holds out until the very last moments to invite the opponent onto him and when he notices the free man he plays very well to the midfielder left by the opponent.
With these sudden cuts from one leg to the other he can manipulate the position of the player in front of him in the midfield line. Just the moment a player steps out of the midfield line to confront him, and he puts the ball on his other leg, dribbling diagonally a new passing lane opens up. At this moment the pressing player is not covering the route to the goal anymore, and the covering player has to change directions very quickly in order to still cover a passing lane.
De Vrij is the centre back playing in the middle of the back three. He has excellent ability to defend long balls and crosses. In possession he often dribbles diagonally inside, with which he moves the defence of the opponent and changes the sides from there to the wingback moving up on the side where the ball came from. Hitting these diagonals is crucial for moving zonal defences quickly and opening up space on the other side.
Also with his diagonal dribbling he can attract the forward of the opponent against a two striker system. This way he creates more space for the sideback. If the midfielder of the opponent then presses the sideways pass to the sideback then the only thing the midfielder has to do is to move out of the cover shadow of the pressing player. On the side of the sideback Lazio often make a diamond, giving the sideback three options to play forward.
Radu is excellent at escaping the press by playing accurate, strong and fast balls on the ground vertically next to the touchline. This is an excellent skill, as the pressing angle of the opponent is usually from the inside diagonally. The attacker might cover Milinkovic-Savic in the diagonal inside passing lane, but then the vertical pass is open. No matter which pass the attacker closes there is an option to play the ball forward.
The experienced Lucas Leiva is playing in front of the midfield. One of the biggest contributions to the team is his ability to play forward accurate passes forward when they win the ball. He also has an important Rome to play without the ball, closing the spaces in front of the three central defenders, or moving between them if they get too far from each other.
In possession he moves in the middle, often opening passing lanes by moving deeper, closer to the back 3 thus opening the chance to change the sides with sideways passes. Or he moves to the ballside half space when the wingback receives the ball to play a forward pass.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic takes up good positions between the lines, as a key in breaking up opposition defences. His ability to move out of the cover shadow in the right moment, dribble diagonally and combine in tight spaces makes him an excellent attacking 8.
In attacking transitions the moment the ball is won he immediately pulls into the space in front of the opponent’s defence. This way with only one pass to him the opponent’s midfield gets taken out of the game. From there his diagonal dribbling and shots from distance pose danger.
On the left side he often becomes the top of the diamond formed in front of the sideback dribbling in. He is excellent in these positions as he can change directions quickly with his first touch, therefore he can beat his man with his back to the goal. But also he finds spaces by moving out of the cover shadow of the pressing player, thus helping the ball out of the pressure area.
Luis Alberto is another ex-Liverpool player in the squad. He plays mostly behind Immobile. In attacking transitions he starts from as high as possible, but steps back to receive the ball, while Immobile gives depth to the team. This movement is effective in creating a free player for the penetrating pass even against three central defenders if the movement of Alberto and Immobile is such that a moment of hesitation prevents a defender from stepping out with Alberto.
His skillset compliments excellently with Immobile’s. The Italian striker is a master at creating space for himself 1 v 1, or running behind the defence in even the smallest gap. Alberto on the other hand has exceptional passing, with the rare ability to disguise his passes. He has excellent set piece delivery and good shot from distance.
During ball circulation when the defender dribbles in free, Luis Alberto pulls behind his opponent. Either becoming a third man after the pass to Immobile, or creating a 2 v 1 situation with the defender in possession. Sometimes he likes to move out of the opponent’s defensive shape, and play accurate balls to players attacking the space behind the opponent.
With 24 goals in 26 league games Ciro Immobile is in the form of his life. The ex-Dortmund striker is a master at running behind opponent defences the moment a ball behind is possible. The moment a defender moves a bit closer to either Alberto or Sergej between the lines, Immobile runs into the space behind that defender with full speed. Also if a defender stays 1 v 1 with him, he likes to pull away from the position of the ball before quickly cutting inside the defender. Or if he is in a diagonally opposed position to the ball he pulls even further while running behind. This way the defender has to move out of the centre with him, or leave him in more space, free to take a first touch thus control the long pass. With such diagonal runs he creates as much space to run into and run onto the ball as he can. Also by dropping and asking for the ball from a defender in ball ball circulation, he pulls out a defender with him. After laying off the ball to one of the midfielders he runs into the space left open by his defender with full speed.
Sidebacks and Midfield Positioning in Ball Circulation
Look what happens if a midfielder presses the sideback of Lazio. The sequence seen above is a quick change of sides through the back three after attracting pressure on Radu. De Vrij plays to Radu, before quickly changeing the sides. When the ball goes to Radu, Khedira steps out onto him. After the side change the space between Pjanic and the recovering Khedira is crucial. This is where Lucas can pass through to the now free Luis Alberto. The latter midfielder becomes free due to staying in his zone while Pjanic shifts with the ball. When De Vrij receives the ball Luis Felipe is almost in one line with him. This opens a direct passing lane to Parolo on the other side.
Struggles with Diagonal Compactness
For the opponents their diagonal compactness can be exploited. This was what Juventus did, when Asamoah pushed higher, almost to the line of the midfield, and played diagonal balls between the lines. With the reverse movement of two players in the same vertical zone they created a free player to receive between the lines. Matuidi asked for the ball to the feet before making a forward run, while Dybala stepped back for the ball from the defence line of Lazio.
The diagonal was open, since both the midfield line and the strikers defended very narrowly. The two strikers defended narrowly on Pjanic, only stepping out to the sideback once it was close enough that the nearside striker had access.
Despite the not so fast circulation between the three central defenders of Juventus the sometimes the two strikers didn’t move quickly sideways to close down the half space vertical pass in the ball side from the Juventus sideback. This meant the side midfielder of the Lazio midfield three had to close the vertical pass option in the half space. This way his starting position made it impossible for him to immediately press Asamoah and close the diagonal inside pass the moment the Juve wingback received the ball.
These reverse runs worked especially well when the Lazio backline wasn’t as horizontally compact as possible. Radu couldn’t step back and defend the space behind De Vrij, which in turn meant that De Vrij couldn’t come even closer to create a local numerical advantage on the ball side. Would that have been the case Lulic could have pushed more out from the backline, and could have taken more chance, almost as a floating player with a compact line of four defenders behind him, he could have closed the diagonal passing lane.
Against Atalanta Lazio defended such situations by the midfield playing very close to the defence, hence the diagonal passing lane was smaller. Also their horizontal compactness was a lot better. When Felipe Luiz stepped out of the backline Lulic could support behind him and also De Vrij could provide depth. Meanwhile as the defence shifted Lucas Leiva stayed close to Parolo so when the ball got to the sideline Lucas closed the ball near halfspace.
In the middle third after side changes a player in the first line of the buildup received the ball wide enough that the diagonal pass was open, he could play the diagonal pass in front of the Lazio sideback. In this moment since the space between the midfield and the defence was very close the receiver of the ball was forced to receive in front of the midfield. Milinkovic-Savic in this moment pressed backwards, and the sideback attacked the receiver. Meanwhile the nearside striker defended the nearside 8 coming into the ballside deep halfspace. This prevented Atalanta escaping to the other side through the 8.
The strikers of Lazio play mostly passively in the middle third against the ball, although situational pressure does occur. In this instance Caicedo presses the pass back to the central defender out of the back three. He presses diagonally, preventing the defender from playing on to the sideback on his left.
Out of the strikers Caiceido is the most active in the defensive phase. He presses the sideback when he starts dribbling in and has access to him. If the wingback of the opponent drops deeper the Lazio wingback comes out with him, but not in front of the Lazio midfield. Meanwhile he is constantly checking the body position of the sideback dribbling in. When the pressure arrives from the striker, and the sideback is about to play the pass forward the wingback steps inside to close the vertical pass and still allow the pass to the outside.
The positive of this type of defensive dynamic was evident the moment the ball was won. On the ball side the attacking midfielder who was just covering the passing lane forward suddenly became free to find space between the lines during the transition. Meanwhile the striker moved wide next to the line, behind the wingback, outside of the back three. This run was crucial as it made the available space in the middle larger. Since Savic stayed behind the midfielders of Atalanta as long as possible, and dropped only when De Vrij turned on the ball, the defenders of Atalanta didn’t have access to him and neither could any of the Atalanta midfielders adjust their position.
The Role of Lucas – Defending in Their Own Third
If the wingback steps out from the backline to press, the sideback has to watch the space behind him to collect balls played behind the wingback. When the sideback moves out wide Lucas steps back to the defensive line to prevent space appearing in the middle.
The moment the ball goes into the space behind the wingback he sprints back and presses the receiver from the front, putting him in a sandwich with the sideback. Meanwhile the whole backline drops behind the line of the ball. When the ball stops the whole backline stops. There is pressing backwards from Milinkovic-Savic and Parolo. The whole backline is moving, changing their positioning according to the place of the ball.
The really interesting feature in their defending is how passive the players between their goal and the ball are. They are shifting and dropping according to the position of the ball, always in an angle ready to push the ball away from the goal, and in certain cases creating numerical advantages around the ball. But almost all the aggressive actions against the ball come from players who are closing back and pressing the ball from a line forward.
An example of numerical advantage against the ball occurs when it goes wide in their own third. IThe defenders and the midfielders are working together. In their own defensive third, they were very compact. Both horizontally and vertically, which gave them a chance to be diagonally compact situationally. But they were not trying to win the ball in such overloads. Their whole defensive approach around their own defensive third was optional, looking to react to the moves of the opponent.
Sometimes their defensive shape in their own half resembled a 5311, as one of the strikers moved back to mark the deeper midfielder of the opponent, and thus make it harder for them to change the sides. It was crucial to prevent side changes as on the ball side Lazio created a numerical advantage. For diagonal dribbles the wingback and the nearside midfielder formed something like a canal and led the player into the path of the sideback.
The difficulty for the back three was taking up runners from midfield. Sometimes neither Sergej, nor Parolo moves back next to Lucas, when the opponent’s defenders play a long ball to the striker. This means the spaces on either side of Lucas are open, and the opponent can collect second balls there.
Sometimes while shifting from one side to the other the wingback on the ball far side stay with their man for too long . As a result the backline is wider than it could be. In some situations Lucas Leiva didn’t check if he could let his man run behind, if a defender could take him over. If sideback on the far side din’t push more inside to the side of the ball, the distances between the defenders could allow too much space for the opponents to run into.
Strakosha and Milinkovic Savic in the First Phase of Buildup
In buildup they rely heavily on the excellent skills of Strakosha to build up the game from the back with his feet. They start the game on the ground even against heavy pressure. They start by playing the ball out to the sideback, who moves down to the height of the penalty spot next to the side of the box to receive the ball. De Vrij and Lucas stand in the middle, one closer to the goal, the other further up. The moment the ball goes out to one sideback, the other sideback comes into the half space on the ballfar side.
They create an overload on one side, then quickly switch to the other side with the sideback moving out extremely quickly the moment the ball goes back to the goalkeeper. This opens the diagonal passing lane to Lulic coming inside to the half space.
There is another positive to this buildup pattern. As the midfielder of of Atalanta shifts, he leaves Parolo open. Since the wingback pushed high to take Marusic, Parolo can make the run forward, while Lulic is already coming inside and he can take the ball with his right leg and then possibly put the ball behind with a diagonal pass. Normally Immobile would make a run behind, but in this game Caicedo was playing. He is a striker with a different characteristic than Immobile.
Defensive Dynamics in the Game Against Inter
Inside wingers could create 1 v 1 situations against the sidebacks. At quick changes of sides through the backline if the fullback received the ball in a position where the 8 of Lazio didn’t have access to him, by making a diagonal run from the inside, coming out of the cover shadow of the wingback and receiving in the half space the winger could receive the ball and create a 1 v 1. In these situations Lucas didn’t close back into the backline to keep a central three, and the wingback also didn’t close behind the sideback who moved in. If the sideback got beaten 1 v 1 the situation ended in a clear crossing opportunity.
If the opponent played with an inside fullback and the winger dropped back along the touchline the wingback dropped with him. The nearside 8 pressed the fullback. Lucas first followed his man who attempted a run behind the defence, but then let him go to De Vrij, while Bastos kept his distance from De Vrij. On the far side Marusic was man oriented on Perisic instead of tucking in more and closing in to the border of the central space. On the far side Parolo was a bit far from Lucas, Icardi who moved two lines deeper from the central striker position could have made a run to the goal free.
In the middle Luis Alberto was blocking the diagonal passing lane to the central space. This type of defensive shape gave a much better chance for counter attacks. Since Alberto was standing free in space he could ask for an immediate vertical release pass when Lucas won the ball. Meanwhile Savic could drift inside diagonally, hopefully pull the inside fullback of Inter with him just a little bit to open the space for Lulic to make the run forward.
During Inter’s ball circulation Icardi was moving back from the three central defenders. Meanwhile the winger on the far side – Perisic – was giving the team depth. His build, verticality and dribbling ability made him excellent for this role. Borja Valero was moving in front of Lucas, pulling him sideways and giving space for Icardi to move back. The moment the winger received the ball in the half space, Valero made a run diagonally, attacking the space next to the sideback on the ball side. This pulled back the wingback too, making more space for the winger in possession. Lazio defended these situations by Lucas letting Valero run behind, while Savic closed back. This created a 4 v 3 situation for Lazio. Because of the angle at which Lucas pushed Candreva to the side – diagonal, closing the angle to the space between De Vrij and Radu – the horizontal pass to Icardi moving back was open.
When Candreva received the ball De Vrij was in a position ready to step out to Icardi. This slightly made the space between him and Radu bigger. This could have been a good moment to attack this space with diagonal runners from midfield.
Vertical passes from the central defender to the winger stepping back into the halfspace were defended by collapsing on the ball in a 3 v 1 scenario. This was possible when the ball circulation of the opponent wasn’t quick enough and the Lazio midfield and defence had time to shift and wait for the pass in a set starting position.
Shots conceded analysis
Analysing where they conceded shots on goal reveals their true strength and compactness at the back. Despite some of the defensive vulnerabilities mentioned above, they allow few, and low quality attempts for their opponents.
Bologna scored after a long shot came off of Strakosha. It is only natural that if the opponent plays with such a compact defence – with Lucas very close in front of them – then shooting from distance can be a viable attacking weapon.
One of the best ways that consistently created relatively good quality shots for the opponents was Lucas Leiva letting his man go, without a defender being able to take him over.
If their backline is horizontally not as compact as it could be and Lucas leaves his man to run freely into gaps, then runners from depth can be a potent tactical weapon. The backline has to be moved sideways or diagonally. Then the ball has to be played back to the middle, while this is happening players have to run behind the backline, preferably from the blind side of Lucas. The defender who could maybe take up the runner must be occupied. Maybe a player has to stand on his shoulder, or in his zone. Or better yet an attacker has to make a diagonal run into his zone, thus pulling him further away from the gap.
Low quality chances can be created from playing the ball around the midfield, and playing the ball into the gaps, and attackers stepping back into those gaps when the space appears between two midfielders.
Sometimes in counterpressing Lazio could have better staggering. In counterpressing Lucas doesn’t always change his positioning according to the movement of the ball, and the pressing angle of the player who applies pressure on the ball. Sometimes the backline is not as close as it could be behind the wingback pressing up. This lack of vertical compactness means Lucas has more space to cover between the lines, and if a player receives there he has more time to turn on the ball.
On the ball far side Parolo was in an attacking position compared to the opponent in his zone while the counterpleas was going on. At that moment it is unclear which team will have the ball after this messy, chaotic situation, so whether to be cautious and stand in a more defensive position on the midfield or a more attacking one can depend on a whole host of factors. Such as the time in the game, the context of the game, but ultimately at the time this occurred it is safe to say a more defensively minded positioning would have sufficed.
Parolo’s positioning meant the moment the player in his zone made the run forward the defender from the far side had to come in to close the space next to the sideback. This run reduced the access of Basta, the wingback to the winger receiving the long diagonal. Basta couldn’t press the winger the moment he received the ball. Also since the sideback took over the player running into ball far half space Basta had to defend 1 v 1, there was no support behind him. This was especially a problem if the player attempted to beat him by taking the ball down to the line, since if Parolo moved out from midfield he couldn’t close behind Basta there, only way he could have done it would have been to help and support in case the winger attempts to cut inside.
Sometimes when the back three retreats to deal with a long ball, the two 8s in front of Lucas tend to stop before the team secures the possession. This opens the space in midfield and the space becomes too large for Lucas to control second balls on his own. At free kicks launched forward the wingback on the far side tends to stand very close to his man, which takes away the chance of a sudden change of sides, however further opens the space in the middle and reduces the access to second balls.
Chances to shoot may occur from rotations in midfield. Lucas is static in his positioning, by pulling away either Parolo or Sergej, and rotating into the area vacated by the attacking midfielder can create a free player just in front of the backline.
At that moment the back five takes the player dribbling forward. The chance is to run behind from the shoulder of the defender who is in front of the ball and might attempt to step up – essentially doubling up on him. Even if for a moment somebody can receive the ball in front of the defence line, the midfielders – Parolo and Sergej – are active in their pressing and will attempt to close him down immediately. This gives the attacking team very little time to create local overloads. In these moments the wingback on the ballside closes towards the centre, leaving the man wide free, but closing down the space around the player who would step up to confront the opponent dribbling forward. This takes away space even more from the attacking team, making the quick execution of on the ball actions an absolute must.
If we look at Lazio’s chances for the season, the following weeks can make an already decent season a great success. In Serie A their fixture list is not the hardest, although they still have games to come at home against Roma and Inter. Especially the latter game could be a season decider, as Lazio are fighting Inter for the fourth Champion’s League spot.
Lazio’s squad is probably the best in recent years. Luis Alberto is hitting his peak years, with talented players such as Luis Felipe and Milinkovic-Savic still about to hit their prime. The loss of De Vrij to Inter on a free transfer is a huge blow.
In the Europa League they will be facing analyst favourite Red Bull Salzburg. I feel that Red Bull have the perfect attacking approach to make the most of Lazio’s weaknesses. Although it will be a fixture that will test the younger, up and coming talents of Lazio. Let’s see how they will do against an aggressive approach out of possession that is currently not common in Serie A.