Twenty years after they last won a league title, Lazio had the narratives on their side to become the first team outside of Juventus to win Serie A since 2011. They had gone 21 straight matches unbeaten before the season was suspended in March, trailing Juventus by just one point at the top of the table. With the spotlight turned their way, Simone Inzaghi’s side promptly closed out the post-lockdown season losing seven out of their final 12 matches for a fourth-place finish. The abrupt losing streak would seemingly require a shift in messaging, but ownership, manager, players, and supporters all agreed that Lazio still overachieved regardless of how the season ended. Besides, making the Champions League for the first time in 13 seasons is a success by any measure.
In seeing how far we’ve come over the past several months, there was a point in April when Lazio owner Claudio Lotito debated the merits of a one-match playoff between his side and Juventus to determine the champion. Lazio had actually done the hard part in beating Juventus 3-1 in January, a comeback win that included a decisive goal from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Far from the hypothetical analysis of whether they were better than Juventus, they proved their superiority. Yet you could see the title-winning optimism slowly disappear through Inzaghi’s press conferences once the season resumed. After an Atalanta loss, he said that the title “was a little bit far.” After losing to Milan, Inzaghi said that the defeat “weighs on us in the table.”
Finally, after another loss to Lecce, Inzaghi redirected his side’s attention to competing in next season’s Champions League. He blamed a pileup of injuries for their loss of form, a topic that reportedly resulted in a dressing room argument between defender Francesco Acerbi and the medical staff following another loss to Sassuolo.
“Talking about the Scudetto was always a bit of a stretch,” admitted Inzaghi after that 2-1 Sassuolo defeat.
Lotito also admitted that a title run had been unrealistic. His side’s plan to focus solely on one domestic match every weekend at the expense of the Europa League was dashed due to the frequency of matches to close out this season. But even with Lotito and Inzaghi explaining that the league was never the goal, us observers can still dream. The unbeaten streak pre-quarantine still is compelling evidence.
We focused on sporting director Igli Tare’s ability to find undervalued gems in the transfer market when we last wrote about Lazio two years ago. This season was Inzaghi maximizing those pieces on his trademark 3-5-2 formation. We thought Milinkovic-Savic would leave that summer, easily commanding a nine-figure transfer fee. But the now-25-year-old Serbian midfielder stayed, and the signature pieces from Inzaghi’s style continued to develop.
It was striker Ciro Immobile who took the headlines from Inzaghi’s unique formation this season. The 30-year-old striker lead Serie A with 36 goals, tying Gonzalo Higuain’s single-season league record. While Immobile hinted at this explosion two years prior with 29 goals, this was a season where experience, craft, and style all came together. It’s strange to pinpoint for a player with his goal-scoring record, but he is a journeyman, having played on nine teams in his ten professional years before finding stability at Lazio in 2016. He is a direct, incisive poacher, most effective in using off-ball runs to get open inside the penalty area. His signature goal invokes Thierry Henry, one in which he receives the ball left of the box and curls it far post with one-touch (though to temper expectations, Immobile did outperform his xG by 10 goals this season).
And while Immobile doesn’t have the singular magic to create a goal by himself, Lazio is constructed to feed him in front of net. Inzaghi’s attack uses width and direct passes to get playmakers into half-spaces at speed. They heavily lean towards their left-sided trio to create chances. Luis Alberto, who lead Serie A with 15 assists, provides the defense-splitting passes into space. Second striker Joaquin Correa adds the dribbling and unpredictability with the ball at his feet. Immobile dives into areas in front of the keeper. They have the hallmarks of a modern, direct offense, with Inzaghi’s Serie A-influenced twist.
Inzaghi’s stability and relationship with Lazio makes for a unique comparison to his Serie A peers. After retiring from the team as a player in 2010, he went into the youth academy as a manager. He was the emergency caretaker option following Marcelo Bielsa’s two-day reign in 2016, where he’s held the position since. Compare this longevity to Maurizio Sarri on his third team in three seasons, and Antonio Conte managing six teams over the last decade. But that stability is an overall strength of the club. Tare, who also finished his playing career with Lazio, has been the club’s sporting director since 2009.
And the success is still on a budget. Tare only spent $37 million last summer, with Correa representing his most expensive signing in years at $16.83 million. Clubs with larger resources across Europe still inevitably come for both manager and sporting director. Inzaghi was linked with a Juventus move last summer (Tare was rumored with Milan). Yet there is some deeper connection keeping both at the club, a “Lazio Way” designed by Inzaghi and Tare.
The resources from making the Champions League presents an opportunity for Tare to find extra depth to compete in multiple competitions. Yet Lazio’s success is also in their pragmatism and grounding in reality. Maybe another team would been caught up in the excitement and added to the noise of a title run, thereby setting themselves up for an eventual, disappointing failure. But one cannot run from destiny in the form of a limited roster, especially when they had built it themselves.
“Nobody can forget Lazio have had an extraordinary season,” implored Tare. Though with Champions League funding, they will feel the impact in maintaining the core and signing new players whether or not outsiders fully appreciate their season.
There has been a small celebration of Lazio’s achievement 20 years ago on social media. Sven-Goran Eriksson said that it was the best club team he’d ever coached, breaking down how each piece carefully added to the greater whole, all mixed together by Roberto Mancini’s creativity. It is striking how many players from that squad became managers, from Mancini, to Diego Simeone, Matias Almeyda, Sergio Concecaio, Alessandro Nesta, and Sinisa Mihajlovic. And in showing how closely connected he is with the club, it was Inzaghi who lead Eriksson’s team in goals that season.
And now, they may not even need to sell Milinkovic-Savic or Alberto this summer. In fact, the rumors have them building, with David Silva reportedly linked with a move. In analyzing the what-ifs in not challenging Juventus for the league, as Inzaghi states, you can never be truly disappointed if you didn’t believe something was possible in the first place. The bigger victory was in putting the club in a new space to hold onto Inzaghi, Tare, Immobile, Milinkovic-Savic, and Alberto. After ten years managing the club, the Champions League gives Inzaghi an opportunity he’s never had before. They might have lost the league, but they gained a future.