The list, when constructed at the beginning of April by an Italian newspaper, read in order: PSG, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Lazio. Those were the seven European sides who had scored at least 100 goals in all competitions that season. The first six clubs are obvious candidates to reach the century mark, if for nothing else, by their appearance on the top 10 wage bills in Europe (PSG lead the way at $380 million per season). By contrast, Lazio achieved their milestone with a wage bill of just $80 million. Their attack is lead by the 28-year-old former prodigy, now late blooming striker Ciro Immobile, currently on his fourth team in five seasons.
In the sliding doors of European soccer, this current Lazio moment almost have never happened. After firing Stefano Pioli in the 2016 season after an 8th place league finish, the club hired Marcelo Bielsa that July as a splashy, attention grabbing hire. True to his unpredictable nature, Bielsa resigned just two days later. In again stepped caretaker manager Simone Inzaghi to stabilize the club on short notice. The 42-year-old Inzaghi spent six seasons managing at Lazio’s youth level before seeing out the final month of the Serie A season following Pioli’s departure. That short succession of events could have thrown any club into a tailspin. Instead, as Inzaghi takes Lazio to the brink of a Champions League appearance in an entertaining style, it’s become one of the most influential “what-ifs” of the last two seasons of European soccer.
Inzaghi, more well known at the time as the younger brother of Filippo Inzaghi, implemented a unique 5-3-1-1 formation with an emphasis on direct, counter attacking play that takes advantage of his squad’s strengths. In contrast to the current trend, his sides don’t press until their opposition reaches the halfway line in possession, thus giving Immobile and playmaker Luis Alberto space to get behind defenders once they retrieve the ball. The majority of their transition play comes through the highly sought after left center midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. They’ve given up almost twice as many goals as first place Juventus. The numbers present a riddle of a counter attacking side who aren’t necessarily focused on defending so much as a way of creating open space for their striker.
The overlooked Inzaghi is appropriate for the larger composition of the side built around value signings. After scoring 22 goals in 33 Serie A matches in 2014, Immobile was tabbed as the next great Italian striker. Brought in to replace Robert Lewandowski at Borussia Dortmund the following season for over $22 million, he responded with just three goals in 24 matches. He went on loan to Sevilla, then returned to Torino before signing with Lazio two years ago for $11 million. Immobile’s strengths and weaknesses are pronounced, and it makes sense why he would struggle outside of Italy: in lieu of being a prototypical, well rounded European striker, Immobile excels at scoring inside of the box and little else. His 29 goals lead Serie A this season.
Immobile also represents the type of smart signing that is the difference between mid-table purgatory and battling for a Champions League position. Lazio’s 44-year-old sporting director Igli Tare may not have the name recognition of his peers Monchi or Walter Sabbatini, but his way of finding value in what Sabbatini calls the “second market” of Serie A is just as impressive. Described as the league’s most underrated sporting director, Tare sold Lucas Biglia and Keita Balde for a combined total of $56 million and replaced them with the Liverpool pair of Lucas Leiva and Luis Alberto for $11 million. Leiva, Alberto and Immobile each represent a different types of transfer: Immobile was undervalued due to his lack of production in Germany and Spain. Alberto was a highly rated former prospect who never found a place under Brendan Rodgers nor Jurgen Klopp. Leiva is the veteran who may have one or two more productive seasons in a more tactical league.
Alberto’s improvement this season has been especially vital. Balde represented pace and directness in transition, whereas Alberto is a more traditional, controlling Spanish playmaker (he also scored my favorite goal of this season, showcasing his close control, quick feet and even quicker thinking). He, like Immobile, has freedom in Inzaghi’s scheme to eschew defensive aspects in order to look for space on counters. In fact, a symbol of how far Lazio have come in the last two years is a name we’ve yet mentioned in Felipe Anderson. Anderson was the breakout counter attacking player two seasons ago and was responsible for kickstarting their current counter attacking reputation. Tare, who’s overseen the Lazio project since 2009, stated that this season’s Lazio side play the best football in Serie A (although he would appreciate larger crowds to match their ambitions).
Tare has stated that the mark of a great sporting director is their ability to turn an unknown talent into a famous player. His signing and development of Milinkovic-Savic, labeled as the next Paul Pogba, would make any sporting director’s career. After receiving a scouting tip during the midfielder’s youth career at Vojvodina, he noted the now 23-year-old midfielder’s combination of 6’4 height and technical ability. Tare signed him from Genk in 2015 for $21 million. He’s flourished with a unique combination of physicality and attacking creativity. A press resistant, ball retaining creator (also comparable to Mousa Dembele or Yaya Toure), he will be the most sought after player post-World Cup with a rumored fee of over $100 million player.
Lazio are currently level on points with Roma and four points ahead of Inter for the last two Champions League positions. Each of the other three sides - Juventus, Napoli and Roma - possess aspects built for the modern game whether in positioning, passing or pressing. Those sides are the obvious examples in explaining the resurgence of the league from stereotypes of the last decade. Inzaghi’s side are no different in their forward, attacking quality. A common refrain in analyzing the manager is how young he is when compared to his Serie A peers.
Their potential success in Europe next season comes mainly down to how they replace Milinkovic-Savic. Tare should be given the benefit of the doubt in finding his adequate replacement, especially with nine figures at his disposal. But Tare may need another stroke of luck in choosing a manager as well. Inzaghi is rumored to be on Juventus’ radar should Max Allegri leave the club this summer. A potential move from Lazio youth team to senior side to Juventus in two seasons would represent its own unlikely rise that goes back to those two days in early July, two summers ago, in which the club were punished for hiring a big name instead of the right manager. Both Tare and Inzaghi had been at the club for six seasons before the official move. For a sporting director who prides himself on finding the undiscovered gem, it still took a stroke of luck to uncover what was at the club the entire time.