During the summer of 2018, Francesco Acerbi decided to move from perennial mid-table side Sassuolo to eventual title-challengers Lazio. It was considered a smart move for under £10 million, bringing dependability to a defence that had conceded 49 goals the season just past. Would he be enough to harden a soft backline?
He made the right decision for his career, to move to Lazio. Simone Inzaghi endured a steep learning curve in his first three years of management at first-team level. Though, he learned as he went along, engineering his team into an efficient unit by his fourth season in charge. He has brought in many players during this time, but one could argue that Acerbi has gone under the radar the most. With new tactics and the new additions to the squad, Inzaghi has managed to create a team capable of beating any team in the division.
Style of play
The Italian is a powerful and athletic centre-back who tends not to dive into tackles, he reads the game very well and looks to intercept the ball first. His stamina and natural fitness add to his dependability and regularly features in 40+ games in a single season, which is a valuable asset for any manager to have.
He is a player who is incredibly strong in the air, standing in a 6’3” frame, which is useful against any opposition who uses a target-man upfront. He also has a diverse passing range, as he is regularly looking to push the ball forwards with a long-ball or two. When it comes to Lazio’s style of play, he seems to fit well. With him the left of the three centre-backs, he can read the game down the channels at ease.
Lazio is a flexible side, with their tactics dependent upon the style of play of their opposition. What stays consistent in every game is their ability to produce a high volume of shots that come from positions of high quality. Inzaghi’s preferred formations are 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 which seem to fit Acerbi’s strengths perfectly. They usually play down the middle of the pitch and they like often to play through balls, which often starts in the defensive third.
Passing and build-up
Lazio, though, do sometimes focus on playing possession football. They like to begin their build-up play via interplays between their three centre-backs, who look to invite and then evade pressure, to pass to the team’s #6, Lucas Leiva. As stated previously, they like to play through balls often, which means they have a high volume of play in their opponent’s penalty area, with 3.69 passes inside the box per match.
Acerbi generally wanders around the left centre-back area, where he regularly covers for Jony Rodríguez whenever he is out of position in a counter-attack scenario. The Italian helps during build-up and is always looking for an opportunity to pass it forwards to his midfield teammates, particularly Leiva. His passing activity is concentrated mostly on producing passing triangles between him and his teammates, but he also provides the occasional long ball, looking to switch the play. Although Acerbi often finds himself positioned on the left and Lazio tend to play down the middle, at the start of their build-up, they like to interchange the ball between the defenders frequently. This is how they managed to get out of the first phase of build-up.
Here, Acerbi (2) receives the ball from his defensive partner and immediately looks forward to Lucas Leiva.
Above, we can see a regular passing action he takes, where he switches the ball to the opposite wing.
He plays an important role in linking the defence to the midfield. This is evidenced by the fact that in many of Lazio’s games, he will have the most touches of anyone in his team. He exudes a confident aura on the ball, it seems as if he knows where is going to pass the ball as soon as he gets it. This can be misconstrued with dwelling on the ball, which he does do sometimes, however, he is a strong passer of the ball, with an ability to pick out a long ball when needed. This is useful when playing against an aggressive side who play high up the pitch.
Impact on their defensive approach and attacking contribution
As mentioned, the team’s 3-5-2 formation fits Acerbi’s playing style extremely well. His contribution defensively is multifaceted.
His ability to read the game is used frequently as he is strong at intercepting the ball. He is not and never has been a fast defender, so it has always been important to predict where his opponent will go and what action they will take next.
Above, we view through Acerbi’s awareness that he has seen the pressure laid on by his teammates and has anticipated the ball coming towards the opposition near him. From here, he can start a counter-attack for his side.
He also has a strong impact aerially when defending as well. His height and timing of his leaps combine to create an individual who tends to aerially dominate his opponents. When we also take his awareness and concentration into account, it leads to a player who has far more successful duels than unsuccessful ones. All this added together has led to a 65% aerial duel win rate which puts in him at the same level as Matthijs de Ligt at Juventus.
Above, we can see the opposition goalkeeper kick the ball forward towards his forward teammate, to counter the attack Lazio had just created.
As the ball approaches, we can see how Acerbi is in a better position to win the aerial duel than his opponent. He has manoeuvred to be placed in front of the man, with his body facing away from his goal, meaning he can head the ball forwards, and help his team regain possession.
Offensively, he occasionally strolls forward and looks to utilise his diverse range of passing to surprise the opponent and unlock their defence. As stated previously, he tends to be located on the left-hand side of the pitch, usually covering for his left wing-back. Although, on occasion, he does like to roam forward himself, to provide a different attacking dynamic to the team. This will happen when Inzaghi wants his team to dominate possession in the opposition’s half.
Acerbi receives the ball down the left channel and, as shown above, has numerous passing options he can take.
He picks out the run of Ciro Immobile, generally a smart decision. He splits through the entire defence with this one long ball, which is met by Immobile, who finishes off the chance (see above).
As per any centre-back, being offensive is not Acerbi’s strong point. It is worth noting that he is not a consistent threat from set-pieces as some other towering centre-backs are. This is an area he could perhaps improve upon, acting more aggressively when it comes to wide free-kicks or even corners.
Acerbi has become a key figure-head within this title-challenging Lazio side. He is the best defender in one of the greatest Lazio sides of the last two decades. With a player like him, he provides leadership to his fellow central defenders Felipe and Patric, who are both still learning the system at Lazio. He has brought stability to a formerly shaky defence and has thus enabled them to challenge Juventus and Inter for their first Scudetto since the year 2000.