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  • December 23, 2019

    The rise of Lazio

    By Flavio Fusi
  • Lazio, having already beaten Juventus 3–1 in Serie A this season, just lifted the Italian Supercoppa, overcoming the Old Lady once more, by the same scoreline. Their eight consecutive wins have them sitting third in the table, just six points off Inter with a game in hand. In other words, this is a side that’s worthy of being discussed when talking about the Scudetto.

    At this time last season, Lazio were fourth, but with 11 fewer points and a +3 goal difference, excited few. They were 10 points off Napoli in second place already, and soon it would get even worse. At the midpoint of the season, Lazio dropped off dramatically, focusing on the Coppa Italia rather than the league.  Objectively speaking, Simone Inzaghi’s project seemed to have reached a stalemate when they limped to an eighth-place finish last season and it seemed all that could make them better was a marquee signing or two. Yet Lazio’s Coppa Italia victory convinced the club to bet again on the former Primavera team, who added only Manuel Lazzari to last year’s starting XI. Now, headed into the winter break, not only are Lazio in serious contention for the title, but their attack has improved dramatically: they have the best goal difference in the league, their steady defence contributing, but their 38 goals (second only to Atalanta’s 43) making a distinct impression.


    Lazio have bascially maintained their shooting volume from 2018–19 (from 16.11 to 16.00 shots per game), but has increased the average quality of their attempts by almost 19%, from 0.085 to 0.101 expected goals per shot, which is fourth in the league. At the same time, they’ve improved their finishing at the team level, so much so that they scored 31 goals while generating 25.93 xG. They have also benefited from a league-best nine penalties, of which they converted seven, thanks to their high volume of play in the opponent’s penalty area, where they complete the most passes inside the box, 3.69 per match.

    Inzaghi continues playing his typical 3-5-2, flanking Joaquín Correa and Ciro Immobile, but it’s now even more direct and fast, making Lazio is second with .89 (trailing only Bologna) in the directness index, a ratio of the distance toward goal from the start of a possession that ended in a shot, divided by the total distance traveled in buildup to the shot. This figure higher than last season’s, just as the Biancocelesti‘s pace towards goal is also slightly higher, increasing from 2.68 to 2.70 meters per second.

    As much as their tactical improvement appears undeniable, the team’s stronger performances might be down to greater understanding amongst the squad and to the awareness of their coach. Lazio’s offensive explosion is due to the improved performance of its best players, namely Sergej Milinković-Savić, Luis Alberto, Immobile—and of course Correa, who joined last season.

    If it is undeniable that a player’s performance cannot be evaluated solely by goals and assists, then the regression of Lazio’s Big Three from 2017–18 to 2018–19 is emblematic. The Serbian, a target of major European teams in the summer of 2018, had declined worryingly, dropping from 12 to 5 goals. And after 11 goals and 14 assists in his first season as a starter, Luis Alberto had contributed only 5 goals and as many assists. Immobile, on the other hand, almost exactly halved his seasonal scoring haul, declining from 29 goals, for which he shared the Capocannoniere with Mauro Icardi, to “just” 15 goals.

    In just one season, the three dropped from 52 to 25 goals and 26 to 14 assists; while they had suffered a drop in their overall playing time, it was not decisive. Even the inclusion of Correa and Felipe Caicedo in the rotation last season was not enough, and the club lost 33 goals and 5 positions in the standings.

    Now, just a few days out from 2020, the three are having perhaps the best season of their careers. 

    Milinković-Savić is better in practically every way, and has realized that his body helps him make a huge contribution to the defence. He is also more involved in the penalty area, where he averages two more touches in the box (from 5.17 to 7.13 per 90). Above all, he has improved his shooting choices, increasing his xG per shot in open play from 0.061 to 0.102. All this and he remains Lazio’s target man when they want to advance quickly, judging by the 3.39 aerial duels he wins every game, a 58% success rate.

    Luis Alberto leads the league with 9 assists, he improved his already stellar xG assisted average from 0.26 to 0.30 per 90, and even if he’s decreased his contribution to the pressing game, he’s practically doubled his number of successful dribbles. He now manages the ball with much more lucidity, so much so that he has reduced his number of turnovers by 20% and improved the percentage of passes completed by 6%, making its contribution much more decisive even when he does not directly create opportunities (+0.24 in xG build-up). Finally, he has reached elite-level production in deep progressions with a league-best 13.37 per 90.

    It may seem almost impossible that Ciro could score more goals than 29 in a season, yet this year everything seems attainable given he’s already scored 17 and Serie A just completed its 17th round. It’s not the first time he’s scored at an above-average rate, but this season he’s sank 11 goals during open play from just 6.47 xG. To do so he has further increased his shooting volume and has practically doubled his number of touches into the box. 

    But his contribution to his teammates should not be overlooked, providing them 5 assists, one less than last season’s total. In short, he’s been involved in 60% of Lazio’s goals—truly the side’s golden boy.

    Finally, Correa is now a full-fledged central striker. His offensive output has increased as a result, so much so that he is at 0.49 xG per 90, fourth-best Serie A. He has also improved his shot selection, averaging 0.14 xG per shot and increased his volume to reach the same level as Immobile, 3.44 per 90. He may have scored just 6 goals, but the ratio between goals scored and his xG is still less than 1 (0.83), much better than last season when he scored 5 goals total and averaged 0.73. 

    To challenge for the title, Lazio need Correa to improve his finishing, as it’s unlikely that Immobile will maintain a scoring efficiency of 1.70 in the side’s 22 remaining Serie A matches. Maintaining their offensive production and finishing at this level is probably the only way they can continue to challenge for the title unless there is a considerable improvement in defence. The squad currently have a mid-table defence with 1.17 xG conceded, but the trend is worsening.

    With the side already eliminated from the Europa League, leaving them to focus solely on Coppa Italia and the league, it’s still hard to argue that they can actually win the Scudetto. But what’s certain is that any coach would like to have four offensive players of this level of quality.

    Article by Flavio Fusi