“I am even happy we conceded a goal when caught in possession,” said Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi following a 4-3 win over Bologna in October. His side were down 3-1 at one point, featuring a goal in which midfielder Manuel Locatelli gave up the ball deep in his own third. But for De Zerbi, the deficit was only a test of his side’s faith in their possession-based philosophy. Sides can turn on the style when winning a match, but do they fall back on long balls when trying to get back a goal? Instead, Sassuolo not only kept their composure but also reaffirmed their identity in the comeback. De Zerbi weighed the risks afterward, adding that “if we want to play from the back and take the initiative, we will be repaid in the long run.”
And despite our appreciation for small sides playing attacking soccer, De Zerbi’s commitment to his style will be criticized as an inability to change his approach depending on circumstance. Regardless, we are currently experiencing the outcomes of Sassuolo’s long planning. They are currently third on the Serie A table, and also tied for third with 20 league goals. We first covered De Zerbi 18 months ago after Pep Guardiola complimented his possession-based attack. It’s startling to consider how fast those passing ideals were overtaken by the Bundesliga-inspired pressing as the game’s dominant philosophy. But still, in the face of modernity, De Zerbi (and Guardiola) still carry on.
The analytics show off Sassuolo’s style, almost to parody. They are first in Serie A for most overall passes attempted and completed, and second in pass completion percentage, according to Football Reference. They have attempted and completed more than 300 short passes (defined as passes between 5 and 15 yards) than second-place Atalanta, at an essential 92% accuracy rate considering how a majority of those passes occur within their own third. They lead Serie A in possession at over 60%. They’ve completed the most passes on the ground in the league. Locatelli and defender Gian Marco Ferrari rank first and second in individual pass completions in Serie A.
The old saying is how a person can build a perfect team is in a lab. And with the development of soccer analytics today, you can build the perfect team – whether possession or pressing – out of numbers like never before. Similar to the Moneyball Oakland A’s or Daryl Morey’s “3-and-D” style, you could start with the overarching idea and go straight to the spreadsheet without viewing a single match.
Though in a way, De Zerbi’s style is also built for this pressing era. As an example of the nuances that analytics can’t quite yet grasp, possession is a versatile tool depending on circumstance. De Zerbi uses possession to purposely bait opponents into pressing high up the field so his attackers can play through with short passes and break out the other end with a numerical advantage. It is soccer’s equivalent to bullfighting, with short passes an invitation for eager, energetic, youthful teams to come out of their shell.
There’s an obvious comparison between De Zerbi and former Napoli, Chelsea, and Juventus manager Maurizio Sarri, with their desire to bait opponents high up the field with short passes. Current Sassuolo captain Francesco Magnanelli, whose worked under both managers, said that Sarri was more “schematic” while De Zerbi works on concepts that don’t necessarily apply to the larger tactics.
But the focus on De Zerbi, as well as Sassuolo’s modest standing, should not overshadow the quality on the squad. The lineup features two Italian national team starters in the 22-year-old midfielder Locatelli and 26-year-old ex-Juventus attacker Domenico Berardi. Their opportunistic addition of Locatelli shows how savvy clubs can take advantage of the short-termism of larger sides who are unable to wait for players to develop. Locatelli only cost Sassuolo $13 million from Milan in 2019, which could be tripled by now. His young age belies his experience: Locatelli scored his first-ever goal at 18 years old against Juventus in 2016. Locatelli would later describe the goal as a “double-edge sword,” adding that expectations were “hard to manage because people always expected me to score spectacular goals.”
Those youthful mistakes were De Zerbi’s gain as Locatelli now comes with four years of experience in Serie A. Berardi also has with his own imperfection, with his introverted personality thought to clash with the spotlight of Juventus. But teams with limited budgets will not compete for complete players, with systemic fits outweighing any shortcomings. But Berardi and Locatelli’s individual quality, plus De Zerbi’s tactics, means that analysts can have it both ways between emphasizing players versus the system. And you could even go one step further in adding that the Berardi and Locatelli augment the system, and while possession shows off the best of their qualities.
Sometimes, those unorthodox yet essential signings happen out of luck. Thirty-three-year-old striker Francesco Caputo has five goals in five matches this season after scoring 21 goals last year. Starting his career at amateur level in 2005, Caputo never played in Serie A until the 2018 season. Caputo moved to Sassuolo in 2019 for $7.7 million before earning his first Italy cap in September 2020. With his international quality hiding in plain sight in Serie B, these are the under-the-radar moves that midtable teams need to hit to compete for a European spot (those moves will surely be aided with more data).
Alongside Atalanta, Sassuolo represent the new guard of smaller Serie A sides pushing their blockbuster budget peers with an attack-oriented philosophy. Both team’s academies play an essential part of the equation, with Sassuolo CEO Giovanni Carnevali making it a goal to bring one academy player through to the first team every year. Their attacking influence is felt with Serie A currently leading Europe’s top five leagues in goals per match.
When we usually judge the quality of the league, we look to the strength of the signature, European sides. Yet Sassuolo and Atalanta show how midtable sides can play in daring ways that bigger sides won’t risk, and get results while pushing the league forward. Each team plays a role in adding to the entire ecosystem.
Everyone involved – critics, supporters, De Zerbi himself - expects Sassuolo to come back down from their early high and eventually settle into battling for a Europa League place. That they are even in contention is enough for a successful season.
De Zerbi will build upon this. Rumors of a move would have been inevitable in the past, but Atalanta and Gasperini have shown how a manager can eschew larger opportunities to see out a long-term project. But it all fits into place: the top clubs will always look to the big names on an international scale. This gives space for local project-builders, like De Zerbi and Gasperini, time to develop their ideas season after season. Carnevali has backed De Zerbi’s auteurist vision in saying “our project is with him.”
So the goal isn’t a Champions League place, or winning the league, just yet. These distinctions are nuanced for smaller sides unable to carry the squad to compete both domestically and in Europe. De Zerbi already said that finishing in eighth place was “already a lot” for a side with their modest finances. He instead implored his players to live in the moment and work through the pressure of a European place without fear. Playing with a signature, possession-based style, against any opponent, is the victory for De Zerbi in itself. How that translates onto the table is for the rest of us.