Despite an extremely positive start to the season, Sassuolo, under Roberto De Zerbi’s guidance, hasn’t been perfect, unsurprisingly. The main worries regard the defence, and these have been used as the main criticism towards the 39-year-old manager, following the stereotypical wave which deems Positional Play managers as unable to defend adequately.
he defensive problems, however, do seem quite typical of a specific type of Positional idea, in which the players form quite a wide structure, occasionally exposing the centre and maintaining a less compact staggering, making counter-pressing actions hard at times. On the other hand, other issues simply stem from the need to practice situations further.
Lack of rest-defence
A scene we’ve already seen multiple times this season is the lack of adequate positioning from the players expected to provide cover in deep areas, even when the counter-press isn’t successful. These difficulties were partly solved thanks to Duncan, either at CM in a three-man midfield or aside Locatelli in a double pivot. The Ghanaian’s dynamic qualities allowed him to retreat quickly and cover large distances, therefore making up for his teammate’s suboptimal approach to the possession phase. In Positional Play ideas, possession and transition phases are directly connected and are reciprocally key to the other’s success. A correct staggering provides stability, which allows it to reduce risks in transition and ideally stop opposition’s attacks immediately after having lost possession, to exert control and keep pressuring the opponent for prolonged spells.
During possession Locatelli is often drawn into positions that leave space exposed, leaving the centre-backs isolated against the opponent’s counter-attacking men. The lack of rest-defence was one of the main reasons Milan was able to score four goals past Sassuolo, despite the latter’s game-plan was quite strong and exploited some of Gattuso’s side’s structural issues. In many situations, Locatelli was drawn too wide or/and high by the team’s possession zone, leaving the aforementioned rest-defence area unoccupied, or, actually, occupied, just from the wrong men, Gattuso’s forwards. Milan’s first two goals are perfect examples of this situation, especially Suso’s one, in which he’s able to receive against Ferrari; on Kessie’s goal, he’s too high and commits to pressure too frantically, without taking into consideration the lack of counter-pressing support.
Vertical compactness during pressing
Sassuolo presses in a man-marking zonal orientation to cut out any possible passing lane on the ball-side and create compactness around the ball and reduce space, as well as options, for the ball-carrier. Thus, distances and intentions are fundamental for the results to be successful. While De Zerbi’s plan is clearly to reduce as much space as possible by pushing high with the backline, this hasn’t always been done, with the last line retreating instead and therefore creating space for the opposition to receive in. Genoa exploited this flaw by playing long-balls to the space between the defence and midfield line and attacking the 2nd ball or simply face the defenders in positional superiority and creating decisional-crises.
Runs between the CBs
The defenders’ main orientation out of possession is on the ball, shifting aggressively to the ball side and trying to keep the lines as compact as possible. Therefore the backline has to be on the alert for both the player on the ball, to monitor his actions and decisions and react accordingly, and the players between the lines, in order not to allow the opposition’s forwards to receive with space and time in dangerous areas. So far, the Neroverdi have shown some flaws when defending positionally, particularly in the space between the two centre-backs and the centre-back & full-back. At times, due to the focus on the ball, the defenders failed to track an opposition’s striker’s run on their blind-side, allowing an attempt on goal or a reception close to goal.
As for the vertical compactness issues, this is a problem that can be solved with practice, since it’s a matter of learning how to observe and scan more players and situations at the same time and improving decision-making and body-orientation, as well as players covering for their teammates.
De Zerbi is a proactive manager, who believes in counter-pressing for several reasons: when a player regains possession he usually doesn’t have the best field of view and still has to adjust his body orientation best suited to the situation, which makes him more vulnerable if pressured by multiple players from different angles; moreover, winning the ball back immediately not only stops potentially dangerous counters, but it allows the team to keep attacking themselves. Counterpressing is therefore also somewhat of an attacking strategy.
To do so effectively, however, the team must be staggered correctly in possession, to have immediate access to the ball-carrier and his closest options, otherwise, with too much time at his disposal, he could easily find other teammates across the field and counter in favourable situations. This has been the case for Sassuolo at times, mostly because of the rest-defence, but there have been other reasons for its lack of counter-pressing access. One of these is the impatience from the centre-backs when the opposition man marks the option, which leads them to playing long-balls before the side has positioned itself correctly across the field, particularly the midfield, too deep to apply immediate pressure.
If Sassuolo will be able to keep up the good performances, it’ll certainly be in a high position in the Serie A table at the end of the season, best case scenario being in a fight for European spots. For it to happen, though, De Zerbi will have to improve his side’s defensive and transitional phases, and, even though they’re not as bad as the goals conceded might suggest, it’s one of the main reasons for their gap from Serie A’s 2nd tier teams.