The prevailing perception of Serie A is one of a league typified by the art of defending. Just the phrase ‘Italian football’ conjures up VHS-quality memories from decades gone by, images of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan teams moving as one fluid unit and myths about Paolo Maldini somehow defending without ever tackling. For many years some of the stereotypes did have truth to them. Times have changed though, and Serie A has changed along with them.

Before we get there we need to look back at the league’s recent past. When viewed from a macro perspective, Serie A’s statistical profile sticks out like a sore thumb. Italian teams take lots of shots. For the past five seasons the league has been at or near the top of overall shots per game amongst the top five European leagues. Something which has persisted as the rest of their peers on the continent have diminished in this regard.

Shots Per Game in the top five European Leagues

On top of that, Serie A teams have always loved a longranger. Amongst these leagues they’ve taken the highest percentage of their shots from outside the box in each of the last five seasons. Add all this together and what you get is a lot of teams with inefficient attacks.

Yet this looks very different in 2016/17. As you can see above the overall shot volume remained high; it was the 4th highest of any season across this timeframe. Yet the shots from outside the box dropped more in line with the wider trends. Still the highest compared to their European peers but far more sensible. A drop in percentage of shots from outside the box of near enough 9% from 12/13 to now is quite an astonishing change. When visualised in terms of shot distance it becomes even more evident.


Average Shot Distance (metres) in the top five European Leagues.

This shift is reflected in the league’s wider expected goals production. For many a season Serie A was generating very uninspiring non-penalty expected goals per game numbers. 2015/16 especially was this odd one where creation across the board dropped and teams just weren’t taking as many shots. 16/17, by contrast, saw Italy fall way more in line with their peers. The mind-boggling shots totals persisted but now a majority of them were good shots.

Non-penalty Expected Goals Per Game in the top five European Leagues.

Italian domestic football has ostensibly thrown off the fetters of its associated stereotypes and become a more multidimensional league. There is a clear impetus towards better shot locations and a specific, modern style of attack. So who is leading this charge?

Roma

Luciano Spalletti’s return to Roma for his second spell only lasted a season and a half due to club politicking (he’s now in charge of Inter Milan – more on them later) but boy howdy was it an impressive old knock. He joined in January of 2016 and by the end of the 2015/16 season they were already putting together a good attack. In 2016/17 that good attack became a great one.

Roma
Season Average shot distance (metres) Non-pen xG
Non-pen xG per shot
14/15 20.82 45.4 0.088
15/16 18.94 60.9 0.105
16/17 17.71 74.6 0.113

The fulcrum of this was Edin Džeko, who had an obscenely good season for a striker. He was the league’s top scorer with 29 goals and was getting 5.2 shots per90 in the league, with 4.6 of those coming in the box. For comparison: Gonzalo Higuaín – not a bad striker himself as you’ll be aware – was putting up 4.1 shots total. A couple of other players were close to his shots totals but no one came near to his monstrous amount in the box. These are peak-Cristiano Ronaldo numbers. In fact, it’s the highest since 2012/13 at least.

Seasons with most shots in the box Per90.

(Top 5 European leagues, 2012/13 – 2016/17). Minimum of 1500 minutes played.

Player Season Minutes Shots Per90 Shots in the Box Per90
Edin Džeko 2016/17 3050 5.22 4.6
Cristiano Ronaldo 2013/14 2536 7.67 4.47
Robert Lewandowski 2015/16 2653 5.12 4.27
Sergio Agüero 2013/14 1527 5.07 4.18
Sergio Agüero 2014/15 2528 5.27 4.09
Gonzalo Higuaín 2015/16 2963 5.53 4.04

Whether these eye-watering stats can continue without Spalletti or Mohamed Salah remains to be seen. New manager Eusebio Di Francesco did fine work at Sassuolo, but he has big shoes to fill on that running track at the Stadio Olimpico.

Juventus

The Old Lady may be ever-dominant but that doesn’t mean she rests on her laurels. The first couple of seasons under Massimiliano Allegri were quite good from an offensive perspective, yet the defence and its stellar expected goals against numbers were doing most of the heavy lifting on the way towards consecutive titles. 2016/17 and the addition of Gonzalo Higuaín layered an extra level of attacking power on top.

Juventus
Season Average shot distance (metres) Non-pen xG
Non-pen xG per shot
14/15 18.99 52.4 0.088
15/16 19.54 55.7 0.094
16/17 17.73 66.4 0.114

That they somehow managed to do this without sacrificing any of their defensive obstinacy (finishing with a measly expected goals against tally of 25.3) was all the more impressive.

They don’t take as many shots as Roma (15.3 per game vs 17.8 for the boys from the capital) but they’re every bit as deadly. Both sides are also pretty indifferent about how they get those shots, as long as they get them. In terms of percentage of their shots as headers Juventus rank 8th in the league and Roma 7th.

Napoli

Napoli are something akin to poster boys for this ‘new look’ Serie A. Manager Maurizio Sarri took over from Rafael Benítez in 2015 and ever since then they’ve become darlings in pockets of the football community for their slick pass and move style. Away from how easy on the eye they are though, their numbers and how they’ve changed are quietly intriguing.

Napoli
Season Shots Per Game Non-Pen xG For xG / Shot
Avg Shot Distance (metres)
13/14 (Benítez) 15.2 57.6 0.101 20.84
14/15 (Benítez) 16.4 59.7 0.097 19.78
15/16 (Sarri) 17.3 64.0 0.099 19.91
16/17 (Sarri) 17.7 70.0 0.105 19.40

The difference between Benítez and Sarri is there but it is more subtle than you might expect. Sarri’s iteration operate as this sort of emblematic bridge between the older Serie A style of attack and the modern incarnation. They bomb shots in but are also geared towards higher value shots than their forebears.

The truly impressive part here is when you realise that they lost Gonzalo Higuaín – the league’s top goalscorer in 15/16, responsible for 45% of the team’s goals – to Juventus in the summer of 2016. Far from suffering because of it they actually somehow got better. Dries Mertens out of nowhere had easily the best season of his career, scoring 28 goals (1 behind Džeko). That tally was a bit hot compared to his individual xG but the overall team numbers don’t lie. They were the ne plus ultra of egalitarian attacking football.

Inter Milan

One of Serie A’s overarching storylines of late has been the relative decline of Inter and AC Milan. Both were once regulars at the top of Italian and European football but recent seasons have seen them struggle to break into the league’s top four, or even the top six. AC Milan overhauled their squad this summer with many new and young players, meaning they’ll likely be radically different than their uninspiring 16/17. However their city brethren are starting from a slightly different base.

Inter cycled through four different managers on their way to a 7th place finish, contributing to the image of a club in constant turmoil. However, the underlying numbers painted a much kinder picture. Their attack came on leaps and bounds in every department, coming close to par with their title-challenging ambitions. All this despite them being shifted around between managers like a hot potato. There’s clearly great potential here. With Spalletti in charge for a full season that potential might actually be properly maximised.

Inter Milan
Season Shots Per Game Average shot distance (metres) Non-pen xG
Non-pen xG per shot
13/14 14.5 19.19 56.2 0.102
14/15 16.2 19.76 53.5 0.088
15/16 13.6 19.32 52.5 0.102
16/17 16.7 17.63 65.5 0.104

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Check out a Serie A match next time there’s one on TV and you’ll see the difference that is apparent in the numbers. Teams throughout the table are now getting noticeably smarter with how they attack, as well as the action just becoming a bit more open and fun to watch.  The old days of endless long shots against packed defences are in the rearview. It would be unreasonable to expect Juventus’ stranglehold on the title to be broken given how long they’ve been sovereign for but, regardless, the league looks as competitive as it has in some time.  Whatever the end result it’ll likely all be a good bit of craic along the way.

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If you have any questions about the article you can DM me on twitter @EuanDewar. Enjoy the season.