Serie A 2015/2016: Final Review
The Old Lady comeback
The 2015/2016 edition of Serie A had an unforeseen start and a wacky development, but still ended in the most predictable way, with pre-season favourites of Juventus clinching their 5th Scudetto in a row with 2 games to go. Allegri’s team had their worst start in history, collecting just 5 points in their first 6 games (1W-2D-3L, 6GF-7GA), and they were already considered doomed by most of the media and the public. While Juve continued to struggle accumulating a meagre 12 points tally after 10 games, four other teams led the league outright, a record for Serie A: in chronological order Inter, Fiorentina, Roma and Napoli. However an unprecedented run in which the Bianconeri won 25 games out 26 (leaving behind them just 2 points after a 0-0 draw in Bologna), started on Halloween and lasted until match-day 37, when Juventus, already crowned champions, lost 2-1 to already relegated Hellas Verona.
In the roller-coaster that was Juve’s season, shot conversion played an huge role. In the first 10 games of the season, Juventus converted just 6.7% of their chances, but their scoring rate almost trebled in the following 28 games, reaching an extraordinary 16.8%. At the same time the 13.5% conversion rate against they endured until match day 10, dropped to a hard to believe 3.7%. It’s therefore understandable that during this streak of games, Gianluigi Buffon broke Sebastiano Rossi’s Serie A record of 929 minutes without conceding a goal, pushing it to 973 minutes unbeaten.
It’s true that Juventus’ come back coincided with Buffon and Evra’s notorious scolding of the locker room in Reggio Emilia, but also the Bianconeri somewhat managed to remedy to their below expectations start by greatly overperforming in the final two thirds of the season. Luck probably played a part too, but the reason behind the level of their performances can be explained by the gap which persists between Juventus and the rest of the league, even after the departures of Pirlo, Vidal, Llorente and Tevez. The credit for this success surely belongs to Max Allegri, but once again the wise picks in the transfer market by Director General Giuseppe Marotta and Sporting Director Fabio Paratici played a big part in their victory. Those four players scored 54% of Juve goals in all competitions between 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 but this season new-comers actually had a greater impact, scoring 48 of the 75 of the Old Lady's Serie A goals (64%), with Dybala recording the best scoring contribution per 90 (1.02) since their comeback to the Serie A in 2007.
The Gold of Naples – Maurizio Sarri e Gonzalo Higuaín
In their two-faceted season, Juve had the edge over any other Serie A team in terms of shots for (599) and against (340) and subsequently in TSR (63.8%) and SoTR (69.4%). Actually all teams but one: Napoli. The team of newly appointed manager Maurizio Sarri, topped the Bianconeri in all these categories, except shots against, since they conceded four shots more (344): the Partenopei recorded a 65.6% TSR and a 73.4% SoTR, and if we look at their shots on target differential, their 4.08 +/- is the second best ever recorded in the Serie A between 2006/2007 and 2015/2016. Only Juventus in 2011/2012 did better in this regard.
Napoli broke the club record for most points collected (82) and most goals scored (80) in a single Serie A season and they led the league alone for 7 games, something that happened last during the Maradona-era in 1989/1990. With the San Paolo stadium as their fortress, the Azzurri were unbeaten at home this season (16 W, 3D) a feat shared with only Borussia Dortmund in Europe's top 5 leagues.
If we look at game-state, Napoli were the Serie A team which trailed the least amount of minutes (327) a huge improvement in comparison to last season, when Benítez’ team spent 910 minutes behind. Given this statistic it’s not surprising that Napoli were also the team who improved their points tally the most in comparison with the previous year (+19). Sarri essentially improved the team in every aspect, granting them a true shot at the title, but they lacked Juve’s depth, since their top 11 regulars played a draining 88 percent of possible minutes versus the 68 per cent played by the 11 Bianconeri players with the most minutes played.
Their (almost) historical performance benefited from an individual historical performance: Gonzalo Higuaín (5.50 shots and 1.00 non-penalty goals per 90) scored 36 goals, beating the 66-years-old Serie A all-time record of goals scored in a single season, overcoming Gunnar Nordhal, who scored 35 times in 1949/1950.
Higuaín 36th goal of the season was probably the best of the lot.
If they manage to keep El Pipita and enlarge their roster via the transfer market, Napoli will surely contend once again for the Scudetto next season.
The resurgence of Roma under Luciano Spalletti
Roma were one of the five teams which led the league alone this season, but the crisis they suffered at the end of 2015 saw their Scudetto hopes vanishing and ultimately led to the sacking of Rudi Garcia. The club signed ex-manager Luciano Spalletti, who previously sat on the Giallorrossi’s bench between 2005 and 2009, and Roma experienced a true resurgence that allowed them to secure their third consecutive Champions League qualification. Only Juve achieved more points than Roma in the second half of the season: under the Tuscan manager Roma collected 46 out of 57 available (14 W, 4 D, 1 L) and improved in every stat I looked at.
But Spalletti wasn’t the only newcomer who influenced Roma’s improved performance from January onwards: Sporting Director Walter Sabatini got Diego Perotti from Genoa and Stephan El Shaarawy from AC Milan (via Monaco), two players who were instrumental in the second part of the Giallorossi's season. In his six months in Rome, Perotti’s contributed with a league best 0.52 assists, 0.22 non-penalty goals and 3.36 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, while “the Pharaoh” was the top scorer in Serie A (8) after being transferred during the January window. El Shaarawy had 3.77 shots and 0.60 non-penalty goals per 90 in the 1202 minutes he played with Roma, which will definitely activate his reported € 13 M redeem option. The two, together with ex Chelsea and Fiorentina winger Mohamed Salah, who scored 9 goals and recorded 6 assists in the final 19 games of the season, formed Roma's “Fast & Furious” offensive trio, balancing out Edin Dzeko’s poor season in front of the goal: in fact according to various expected goals models, the Bosnian striker underperformed his xG of around 40%. Indeed Dzeko converted his 3.73 non-penalty shots per 90 minutes at a low rate of 7.41%, averaging just 0.28 non-penalty goals. Roma are one of the few analytical thinking clubs in Italy, with their analytical department currently being improved, and it will be very interesting to see what they will decide to do with their striker, considering also Spalletti's pivotal role in transfer decisions and the little signs of decline he already showed in his numbers during his last season at Manchester City.
Dzeko was basically the only Roma player who experienced finishing woes this season, since Roma led the league in all shot conversion rate, scoring 14.2% of their shots, a figure way ahead of the 9.8% league average. In this scenario, Miralem Pjanić set a personal record for both goals (10) and assists (12), while Radja Nainggolan also beat his record of goals in a season, with all his 6 goals scored under Spalletti.
Roma still has room for improvement, and the next transfer session will be a delicate one: they will probably lose one or two key players because they need to rack up some money to stabilize their financial situation and to pay for their first two Brazilian signings of the summer, with Alisson (€ 7 M) and Gérson (€ 17 M) both joining the Giallorossi this summer.
The collapse of the two earliest leaders: Inter and Fiorentina
Inter regression to the mean was possibly the easiest thing to see happening in the entire 2015/2016 season and in my Serie A half-season review I wrote about them performing like a mid-table team while sitting in 3rd. After 19 games, Samir Handanović had saved the 85.5% of the shots on target he had faced and a drop in the second part of the season seemed inevitable: as expected, by the end of the season his save rate had fallen to 72.2%. In fact he maintained just 3 clean sheets in the second half of the season, while he had 12 in the first part, which outlines well the range of their regression.
Their TSR (7th) and SoTR (7th) ranks remained pretty much the same, because the rise in their shots per game, from 12.0 to a much more solid 15.1, had been countered by an increase in shots allowed per game, from 11.1 to 13.4. Despite this improvement in their offensive production, Inter scored just 50 goals: no team in Europe top 5 leagues won 20 games scoring so infrequently.
Fiorentina's drop in points per game (from 2.00 to 1.37) was more difficult to predict, but there were some alarm bells. First of all, as I wrote in the half-season review, 8 penalties scored was a rate unlikely to sustain in the second part of the season, even if I didn’t expect they would be awarded just a single penalty, that they missed, in the last 19 games of the Serie A.
The second and most worrying sign was the high percentage of shots attempted from outside the box: a mix of a lack of penetration and a couple of trigger-happy shooters (like Iličič, 2.71 shots from outside the box per 90, and Zarate, 2.97) resulted in 54% of their shots attempted from outside the box. This trend was confirmed by Michael Caley’s xG numbers which have them 8th in total xG for, despite being 3rd in the league for total shots for. An aspect in which they surely have to improve is defending corner kicks: they conceded a league worst 17% of their goals from a corner (7 out of 42).
All in all, we can’t consider Fiorentina's season disappointing, since they recorded their 5th top 5 in five seasons (in the past four seasons they finished 4th) with a squad which in my opinion was worse than last season and a positive balance in the transfer market. The January window was particularly poorly planned, with decisions clearly not agreed together with head coach Paulo Sousa: Zarate, Tello, Tino Costa, Koné and the injured Benalouane played just 2069 minutes combined.
Sassuolo in the Europa League
Sassuolo had to wait until the end of the Coppa Italia, in which Juve beat Milan after extra time, to celebrate their first ever European qualification. Milan would’ve gone into Europe had they won the final, but with Juventus already in the Champions League, the European spot instead goes to the Emilian side, who finished 6th in Serie A.
In just their third (consecutive) Serie A season, the Neroverdi have qualified for Europe, after the 12th place of last season and the 17th of their first ever Serie A season.
Their shooting dominace had not been exceptional: their 50.7% TSR had been just the 9th best in the league, and they finished the season with the 8th best SoTR (52.2%), but they had the 4th best defence (40 goals allowed) thanks to the 4th lowest conversion rate against (8.5%).
Despite their better than average save ratio, according to expected goals their performance was pretty much in line with the expectations. So how did they qualify, with a squad mostly unchanged in comparison with 2014/2015? In a season in which most of the teams which usually competes for the Europa League underperformed (Lazio, Milan, Torino) or got clearly declined (the two Genoese teams), Sassuolo had the virtue of being consistent all year (31 points in the first 19 games, 30 in the last 19). The board did not dismantle the squad, with a long term project (at least for the Serie A standard) built around an Italian core (Sassuolo fielded the most Italian players, 22) allowing Di Francesco’s to work with serenity.
It would be interesting to see how the team manages European duty, but club owner Giorgio Squinzi has already promised investments in the upcoming transfermarket: “Next step is the Champions League” he said.
Rest of the league
Milan's numbers were far from exceptional, but they managed to do worse than expected: TSR, SoTR and xG difference estimated them 6th, but they finished the season in 7th, missing European football for the third consecutive season.
The Biancocelesti benefited hugely due to the fact they scored a league best 9 penalties. They also conceded more shots on target (153) than they fired (147) but that’s not the first thing I would look to correct prior to next season. Their first step should be lowering the volume of their crosses: they attempted 818 open play-crosses, a record in Europe's top 5 leagues, while converting just 6 of them (0.7%).
Chievo got safe early, but got quite lucky this season. Not only they converted a league high 15 crosses but they were also the team which scored the most goals from outside the box: 12. Basically 27 of their 43 goals were scored in ways that are unlikely to be sustainable over a long period of time and next season they will have to find different solutions or they will struggle more: their 41.7% TSR and 42.2% SoTR are low and revealing, improvement will need to be found.
Similar to Chievo, Empoli got out of trouble relatively fast, a feat that allowed them to relax a bit during the second part of the season. Considering their budget, European qualification was a feat too big to manage: they collected 30 points in the first half of the season, but just 16 in the second half.
Marassi’s support played a huge role in the Rossoblu season, it is true that they collected 33 of their 46 points at home: no other team recorded a bigger difference between points collected at home and away. Only Higuaín had more non-penalty goals per 90 than Genoa’s Leonardo Pavoletti (0.66), still it wasn’t enough to convince Italy coach Antonio Conte to include him in his list for Euro 2016.
If we look at shooting numbers is difficult to imagine how Torino got involved in the fight to avoid relegation. A 12.3% conversion against didn’t help them for sure, and maybe their shooting dominance overrated them by the fact they spent a lot of time trailing early in the game.
Atalanta drew six games after gaining the lead: no other team did worse this season by this measure. They also set the record for the most direct red cards (6) and total red cards (14).
Bologna was the worst offensive team in the league: they fired just 387 shots (10.2 per game) and scored a mere 33 goals, 20 in the first 19 games and just 13 in the last 19 . Despite their sterility, Roberto Donadoni saved them with relative ease after replacing former manager Delio Rossi.
Sampdoria conceded 207 shots on target (only Frosinone did worse). Prior to this season, the Blucerchiati had collected 40 or less points in the 3-points per win era just twice: in both occasions they got relegated (1998/1999 and 2010/2011).
The Rosaneri’s TSR (40.6%) and SoTR (37.8%) were abysmal, and they fought to avoid relegation until the very last game: at the end they got safe by a single point.
In 2015/2016 Udinese set a club low for points in a 20 team championship: 39. Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis was the only Serie A player to feature in every minute of the 38 games played by his team.
Carpi recorded league worst possession (37.8%), completing just 320 passes on average: only Frosinone completed less passes per game.
Frosinone had the worst defence in the league with 773 shots and 73 goals conceded. Their shots differential is a new Serie A negative record in the period between 2006/2007 and 2015/2016, however just 29.6% of those shots found the target.
Verona scored a miserable 10 open play goals this season, with their two main strikers Luca Toni and Giampaolo Pazzini, converting just the 5.55% and the 4.05% of their open-play shots.
The 2015/2016 edition of the Serie A was no doubt one of the most enjoyable and unpredictable of the last few seasons. I had a lot of fun writing this final review and I hope you enjoyed it too.
The Italian version of this Serie A review is available on L'Ultimo Uomo.
Thanks for reading.