A good start to their Serie A campaign has put Sassulo‘s head coach Roberto De Zerbi under national spotlights once again due to his tactical approach. A former playing journeyman – he also had a stint with Romanian club of Cluj dating back to his playing career – De Zerbi made a name for himself in the coaching circle since he took the job at Foggia in 2014. In fact, over there De Zerbi showed his coaching acumen and became a managing raising star providing his own version of juego de posición in Lega Pro (now Serie C), Calcio’s third division.

Last season at Benevento

When Benevento, in a failed attempt to avoid gone down from Serie A, dismissed previous coach Marco Baroni last January, De Zerbi finally got his chance to prove the critics wrong,  stating that such a sophisticated style of play would never succeed in a defense-oriented Italian top tier.

Instead, although Benevento were relegated at the end of the last term, De Zerbi produced a strong turnaround that almost made the Sanniti able to reach the impossible task. From a tactical point of view, De Zerbi followed the 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 path ran by the previous regime but put more emphasis on remaining compact both vertically and horizontally without the ball.

Above all, De Zerbi changed Benevento’s offensive approach by installing the positional he successfully utilized at Foggia. First and foremost, with Benevento De Zerbi refined the team’s organization when it came to building from the back. So, when in possession, Benevento under De Zerbi looked settled in a 4-3-3/3-4-2-1 formation with the build-up phase starting deep in their own third. The center-backs stayed wide open whilst the central midfielder operated in front of them. The ball was often played by the goalkeeper in a way to create numerical superiority at the back while the full-backs provided width.

The goalkeeper is a pivotal part into De Zerbi’s build-up phase.

Long balls played from the back remained an option, even if De Zerbi likes his side moving the ball on the ground, also when the rivals are counter-pressing. Although Benevento’s hopes of surviving were close to zero when they appointed De Zerbi, the new coach’s tactical acumen and his ability to make the best out from the roster at his disposal almost produced a miraculous escape. That was enough to get De Zerbi noticed this past summer and to earn him an appointment with Sassuolo, another small club but financially solid and with a proven track record when it comes to Serie A appearances as they have taken part in Italian top tier since 2013-14 season.

A new Era with Sassuolo

With the chance to start the season in the summer – different from what had happened to him during the previous Serie A stints with Palermo and Benevento – De Zerbi enjoyed the opportunity to be involved into Sassuolo’s transfer market policy, suggesting players suited to play his adventurous, possession-oriented and offensive style of play.

So, the Brescia native coach persuaded his new club to sign players such as Brazilian Marlon from Barcelona, the promising central defender Giangiacomo Magnani from Juventus, former Sampdoria’s centre-back Gian Marco Ferrari, holding-midfielder Manuel Locatelli from Milan, interior midfielders Filip Duricic and Enrico Brignola, both of whom De Zerbi coached at Benevento last season, and winger Federico Di Francesco. Furthermore, De Zerbi convinced attacking-midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng to join Sassuolo from Eintracht Frankfurt.

With these newcomers at his disposal, De Zerbi started to install his juego de posición from the pre-season.

De Zerbi’s positional play

From a tactical point of view, Sassuolo lined up in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 fluid formation when in possession under De Zerbi. Defensive alignment – three or four at the back – is changed by the De Zerbi according to the number of forwards lined up by the opponent, in order to give Sassuolo numerical superiority at the back to produce a stable and performing building from the back phase. It means De Zerbi usually selects two centre-backs against teams lining up just one central striker whilst he deploys three central-defenders against rivals that line up two central forwards.

Against Empoli, De Zerbi showed his tactical flexibility by lining up a two centre-backs defense against Empoli’s two forwards.

When lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, the building from the back phase heavily relies on deep-lying midfielder’s play when team’s captain Francesco Magnanelli is occupying that position on the field. Otherwise, when De Zerbi uses a holding midfielder as Locatelli, the centre-backs are even more involved into this first construction phase.

Ben Pimpaud’s passing map of Sassuolo against Empoli showing us De Zerbi’s fluid 4-3-3.

This slow build up is risky as it can lead to some ball losses in their own final third of the field, but it also could produce good advantages according to De Zerbi’s thoughts. In fact, the main idea is to produce a slow build up in order to attract opposing offensive pressing. The goal is to get the ball through the rivals’ first line of pressure with the purpose of finding spaces behind it to exploit with quick transitions and combination play. Vice versa, playing long balls could allow rivals to easily regain ball possession, resulting in them enjoying long phases of never-ending attacks. That said, as aforementioned, Sassuolo under De Zerbi can still rely on these long balls as they have a player able to hold the ball up top in Boateng.

When attacking against teams defending deep in their final third, through with a low block, Sassuolo uses some typical positional play patterns. They start with Neroverdi’s interior midfielders and flankers occupying the half-spaces at different highs, in order to manipulate and dismantle the opposite’s defensive formation. This game plan is to find a space to attack through, wherever it may be. It means Sassuolo can attack through the middle of the field but also through wider areas, producing nice combinations with their outside players when the center is stocked with defending opponents.

Boateng’s role and defensive shortcomings

A key part into De Zerbi’s attacking system is the role of Boateng. In fact, the Ghanaian footballer is deployed as a false nine suited to provide a linking play with flankers and interior midfielders coming from behind. Boateng has often moved back towards the midfield to help Sassuolo’s possession phase. This movement leaves an open space to fill up top, so you can say that, as in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the space is Sassuolo’s centre-forward.

Boateng’s touch map provided by Ben Pimpaud shows us his false nine role.

De Zerbi’s offensive-oriented brand of football is also confirmed by the fact that Sassuolo is, alongside Atalanta, the best Serie A’s team in terms of the number of balls played inside the opponent’s penalty box.

Sassuolo’s average possession, pass accuracy and shots per game according to whoscored.com highlight De Zerbi’s offensive approach.

That said, although counter-pressing is part of De Zerbi’s defending philosophy, Sassuolo isn’t a great side defending, so far. In fact, they allowed a good number of goals and looked vulnerable in transition.

However, even if these defensive shortcomings have to be fixed, De Zerbi’s offensive play seems the most suited to get the best out from the offensive-oriented roster at his disposal. De Zerbi knows how he wants to play, and he has been able to install his philosophy so quickly at Sassuolo. Time will tell us if De Zerbi will lead a tactical revolution in Italy or if Sassuolo will remain an isolated case in a usually defending Serie A league.