Roberto De Zerbi started his coaching career back in 2013 with Darfo Boario, a team in the fourth tier of Italian Football (Serie D) where he was relatively successful. This success ultimately allowed him to make the next progression to Foggia who were a far more competitive and polished side during the 2014/15 season, in which he was able to secure the Serie C cup, his only honour so far as a manager.
Nonetheless, his exciting attacking football combined with his accolade during his time at Foggia further boosted his managerial CV which landed him a brief spell at Palermo, followed by an impressive move to Benevento of Serie B in 2017.
It was during this season where his name came into consideration with a number of Serie A clubs who were attracted to the expansive free-flowing football and overall philosophy of De Zerbi’s sides which is reminiscent of the work of both Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Less than a year later he was appointed head coach of Sassuolo where he has continued to excel and exceed expectations thanks to his technically gifted and exciting side who currently sit comfortably in 11th place in Serie A.
When looking at De Zerbi’s Sassuolo he predominantly uses a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation as he has done at his previous clubs. The importance of this is that both formations provide tactical flexibility and defensive security while it can easily be interchanged during matches. Also, with a keen emphasis on positional and possessional play both formations offer plenty of attacking dimensions as well as a solid midfield base in which play can be built up from, ensuring quick passing combinations can be maintained and passing lanes can be exploited consistently throughout games. Furthermore, thanks to on-form players such as Jeremie Boga with eight goals and Domenico Berardi with nine, De Zerbi’s philosophy and tactical approach has been epitomized with a great attacking return helping to exemplify the offensive dangers of this Sassuolo side.
When playing out from the back Sassuolo looks to use the full length of the pitch, and this is specifically achieved through their two full-backs (Georgios Kyriakopoulos and Jeremy Toljan) who hug the touchline in a slightly more advanced position than their centre-backs as seen below. By doing this, more passing angles are available for De Zerbi’s side and opportunities to beat the opposition press will be easier to come by.
More importantly, because the option of passing to the full-back is available on both sides of the pitch, it gives the Sassuolo side greater flexibility and more control of the ball when facing pressure from their opponents. For example, if one of the full-backs is being tightly marked then the ball can be easily transferred to the other side of the pitch where the other full-back is situated, however, if he is also marked then the oppositions defensive structure will be stretched leaving gaps in the middle of the pitch in which either Pedro Obiang or Manuel Locatelli will be free to receive the ball and progress play further up the field.
Looking closer at the midfield duo, we can pay special attention to their positioning on the field of play, for instance, both midfielders are situated in between the lines of the Parma press, allowing for Sassuolo to play in between the half-spaces where the ball can be brought further up-field.
Because both full-backs are parallel with the midfielders (Toljan out of the picture), they also have a greater range of passing options available, and by doing this they effectively have a bank of four in the middle of the pitch, as well as another bank of four players leading the attacking line. Therefore, opportunities for 2 v 1s on the wings as well as overloads in central areas will be easy to come by for De Zerbi’s side.
Furthermore, when Sassuolo are in possession within their opponent’s half they adopt a back three with either one of the full-backs or deep-lying midfielders dropping in to provide this extra coverage. By doing this they can counteract the first line of pressing put in place by Parma as they now have superior numbers, specifically a 3 v 2 is in place in favour of Sassuolo ensuring a passing option is always available for the attacking side.
Even so, if Parma decided to commit another man in this press, Locatelli is in a good enough position to receive the ball and turn away from danger creating the chance for a 2 v 1 on the left wing.
We can see a full portrayal of the attacking structure of Sassuolo below, with the only exception compared to the last image is that Locatelli has dropped in with the defence this time acting at the third man, and with the case in the example below, he is acting as the deep-lying playmaker. Nonetheless, we can see that both full-backs have pushed up while Boga has dropped into midfield alongside Obiang, leaving only Berardi and Francesco Caputo up front. The value of this is that it leaves the majority of passing lanes open, for example, both full-backs are an option for Locatelli to exploit while simultaneously an option to fizz a pass into one of the more central players is also now an option where quick combinations can be created and penetrating passes towards the forwards can be executed, allowing for a more fluid attacking outlet.
All in all, Sassuolo have a very good attacking shape that makes them both unpredictable and clinical within the final thirds of the pitch. However, because they are so attacking, they are susceptible to counter-attacks from the opposition. In the case below due to the deployment of attacking full-backs, their opponents can exploit the vacant space in the wide areas and stretch the already limited Sassuolo defence.
As a result, if the initial pass is successful then the opposition will be through on goal with a clear-cut opportunity to score, thus indicating that despite Sassuolo’s attacking structure being their greatest asset, it may also be their greatest weakness due to the vulnerability it brings the team when facing a counter.
Anyhow, following on from the counter-attack we can see just how vulnerable Sassuolo are once the attacking phase has progressed. Specifically, the attacking players here have the advantage over Sassuolo’s CB partnership who are already on the back foot trying to decide whether to play Andreas Cornelius offside or go with the runners. As a result of this decision-making process, the Parma forwards are able to freely continue their runs in which Gervinho is left unmarked to score a goal.
This further conveys just how defenceless Sassuolo are when up against the counter and indicating that De Zerbi may need to make a tactical switch in order to prevent his side from conceding similar goals in the future.
Despite Sassuolo having some limitations defensively, they are able to press the opposition effectively with willing runners looking to disrupt build-up play and passing options, forcing the opponents to either play the ball long or make mistakes in their half in which Sassuolo will be able to capitalise from.
In the example below both Caputo and Berardi are applying the press while at the same time Filip Djuricic is man-marking the central player. By doing this Sassuolo have protected the central areas thus the Parma players have no choice but to play the ball wide where the press can then be applied and mistakes can be made.
On the other hand, when defending deep De Zerbi deploys two banks of players to help congest the middle of the pitch making it harder for penetrating passes to be created, and as a result, opponents are once again forced to play wide. Yet because the middle of the pitch is so congested, any cross played into the box will likely be cleared away from danger, in which the Sassuolo players will have a chance to gather the ball and counter.
Additionally, any Roma players situated in between the block will be taken out from the phase of playmaking Sassuolo’s opponents more predictable and thus easier to defend against.
Typically against bigger teams, Sassuolo will utilise counter-attacks to catch their opponents off guard and score against the run of play. When doing this the players of Sassuolo all work hard to commit numbers forward upon the turnover of possession, for instance in the case below as soon as the forward receives the ball he has three central options in which he can pass to, illuminating their counter-attacking principles.
The image below shows how Sassuolo ensures that they have a variety of passing options available on the counter: with two players on the wings and one in the centre, forecasting an adaptable approach. This is nearly impossible to defend against for the opponents, as at least one of the passing options will be open, and combined with the pace of the counter, the only sensible option would be to commit a tactical foul to relieve the pressure and get the team back in shape.
De Zerbi’s second season in Serie A has certainly been promising, with excellent build-up play and exciting young talents embedded into the squad, there is no reason why this side can’t challenge teams within the top half of the table next season, despite being so far off the Italian elite of Juventus and Inter.
Even so, with a chance to strengthen their defence and solidify an already exceptional attack, it’s only a matter of time until we see De Zerbi secure a bigger and better move away from Sassuolo, towards a more competitive and established club within Serie A or indeed in Europe.