Manuel Locatelli first joined Milan at the age of 12 and, as he ascended through the youth ranks, there was a growing sense of excitement about his prospects. Having made 48 first-team appearances for Milan over three seasons, the transfer of Locatelli from The Rossoneri to Sassuolo in the summer of 2018 resembled a far too familiar story in which a player tipped for greatness did not live up to their hype.
Roberto De Zebi signed Locatelli initially on a loan with an obligation to buy for €12.5m plus bonuses in 2018. The Italian clearly saw potential in a player who had experienced a couple of chaotic years in Milan, in his final season for The Rossoneri Locatelli played in 21 Serie A matches. However, he only played the full 90 minutes on four occasions, not exactly ideal when at such a crucial age in terms of personal development.
Locatelli has developed significantly under Roberto De Zerbi and has pointed out that his spell in Emilia-Romagna has helped him to develop, this can clearly be seen in the player’s radar below.
The Italian has played a total of 1,580 minutes in Serie A this season. Sassuolo have often employed a 4-2-3-1 under De Zerbi, and this tactic has been used in 52% of games seeing Locatelli line up most frequently as the left centre midfield.
This data and tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will look at how Manuel Locatelli has excelled for Sassuolo this season in Serie A under De Zerbi, analysing the midfielders contributions across the defensive, middle and attacking thirds of the pitch and comparing him with fellow midfielders in the Italian top division.
Manuel Locatelli is a right-footed central midfielder by trade, who operates mainly from the middle third of the pitch which can be clearly seen from the player’s heat map below. The Italian covers a large space across the field, favouring an advanced position in the middle third. The heat map also implies that the midfielder often progresses into the final third, where he has a significant impact on both sides of the game.
Locatelli is instrumental in terms of the way Sassuolo play, the midfielder is averaging 65.94 passes per 90 minutes in Serie A, a figure which can only be beaten by four other players, one of which is his team-mate Francesco Magnanelli (68 passes per 90).
It is stats like those found above which help De Zerbi’s side boast the third-best possession stats in the league with an average of 56.2% possession, helping them to retain the ball once possession has been secured.
Manuel Locatelli has also shown his versatility, often finding himself adopting different roles in De Zerbi’s tactics especially in the defensive phase of the game. If Sassuolo lose the ball in the final third Locatelli will often drop into the role of the pivot (this can be seen below), helping to provide Sassuolo a numerical advantage and as his team transition from attack to defence.
Manuel Locatelli can also be found operating as part of the second line of the defensive block (below) when in the defensive third, he positions himself centrally to pick up on any second balls and spring Sassuolo on a counter-attack. Locatelli has an exceptional ability to stay on the ball in a tight space, making him resistant to the oppositions press.
Manuel Locatelli is also exceptionally effective defensively, particularly in the attacking third. In order to highlight Locatelli’s defensive contribution for Sassuolo in this zone, I have conducted a data analysis looking at all Serie A centre-midfielders who have played over 900 minutes for their clubs. This analysis looks at the key parameters which I feel are essential in this defensive phase, interceptions per 90 minutes and tackles in attacking third per 90.
As you can see from the above data visualisation Manuel Locatelli is a clear outlier when comparing these two data sets, this is due to the midfielder leading in relation to the number of tackles he is engaging in, in the final third. Locatelli is averaging 3.05 tackles in the final third, the closest individual to him in relation to this statistic is Blerim Dzemaili formerly of Bologna with 1.81.
If we conduct another analysis of the data visualisation you will also notice that Manuel Locatelli is also performing above average in relation to the number of interceptions he is accumulating per 90 minutes (4.28 per 90), this credits his ability in relation to reading the game, an asset in relation to helping transition defence into attack.
Sassuolo under Roberto De Zerbi often implement a man-oriented press, this effective tactic paired with the Italians impressive engine could be the context which sits behind the midfielders impressive numbers in relation to the above two data sets.
Above is an example of this style of press. As you can see the ball carrier is not being pressed by the entire team, the Sassuolo players take on the nearest opponent adopting a man coverage. This man-oriented press ensures that after Napoli release the ball via a pass, the receiving player is always in a position to be challenged, making the progress of the ball through the thirds challenging.
The above image highlights Locatelli’s impact in helping Sassuolo defend from the front of the pitch, picking up an interception. In the first image, you can see Locatelli is tracking Allan as part of the press, the midfielder then jumps out of his position when Giovanni Di Lorenzo takes a heavy touch, this poor touch is enough to trigger Locatelli to press and enables the midfielder to intercept the ball. This puts Sassuolo immediately on the front foot, moving them immediately from the defensive to attacking phase and has created a 4v3 in the attacking third.
Manuel’s ability in these two areas make him a perfect fit for De Zerbi’s tactics at Sassuolo, the Italian clearly values an offensive press due to having the eighth-lowest passes allowed per defensive action in Serie A (249.17).
Playing through the lines
The role of the central midfielder can vary depending on the role which the individual operates, either a traditional number ‘six’, at the base of the midfield or the number ‘eight’ in more advanced positions. Looking at Locatelli’s heat map above you could argue that the Italian favours the role of an ‘eight’ considering he operates more in advanced positions down the left.
Irrespective of the role, the midfielder is the link between a teams defence and attack and their primary role is to progress the ball through the lines, taking this into consideration I have chosen to examine the centre midfielders in relation to their ability to progress through the lines. In order to carry out this analysis, I have used the same sampling criteria as above and have opted to compare progressive passes per 90 minutes and progressive runs per 90 minutes to highlight the midfielders effectiveness at progressing through the lines.
Examining the above data visualization you will see that Locatelli is performing above average in relation to progressive passes per 90 minutes, he is attempting 9.11 per 90 minutes, a figure which sees him in 12th place in relation to all central midfielders in the league.
Taking this information and pairing it with Locatelli’s pass accuracy which sits at 86.5%, there are only eight more players in Serie A who have higher accuracy and attempt a greater number of progressive passes in the entire league, highlighting his ability to progress the ball for Sassuolo and his importance to De Zerbi.
An example of Locatelli’s ability on the ball can be highlighted in the above image, here Napoli opt not to press Sassuolo, allowing Locatelli both time and space as the midfielder drops deep to receive the pass from his defensive unit. The midfielder scans the pitch and identifies Hamed Junior Traorè in space and passes the ball through the Napoli lines, his pass packs (bypasses) five Napoli players and immediately puts his team on the attack.
Manuel Locatelli doesn’t always opt to play the penetrative pass, showing his matureness and understanding that patience can pay off. In the above image, the Italian has three players in advanced positions which he could have progressed the ball towards. However, Locatelli opts to move the ball out wide to Georgios Kyriakopoulos in a vertical channel where Sassuolo have a numerical advantage. This allows the Greek defender to progress the ball into the attacking third to Filip Djuricic in a clear passing lane, with minimal pressure from the opposition.
Referring back to the above data visualisation, the analysis will show you that Locatelli is also performing above average in relation to the number of progressive dribbles he is carrying out per 90 minutes. In fact, his 2.96 progressive dribbles make him fifth in Serie A in relation to central midfielders and their ability to progress the ball through dribbling.
The above image is an example of the threat which Locatelli can cause to his opponent, here against Napoli the Italian progressed with the ball over 30 yards after showing his ability to operate in a confined space after receiving the ball from a throw-in. The ability to progress with the ball through dribbling can be exceptionally effective in breaking down stubborn defensive blocks, by stepping forward Locatelli will force an opposition player to move to engage the ball, leaving space for others to exploit.
The primary role of the central midfielder is to be a playmaker and influence the game, the above sections have highlighted how Manuel Locatelli helps to link Sassuolo’s attack with defence. However with the ever-changing demands of the game, to be considered in the very top bracket of central midfielders you need to contribute to the team in terms of goals, assists and creating chances.
Finally, in order to examine Locatelli’s contribution in the attacking third, I have opted to conduct an analysis into the amount of key passes per 90 minutes and passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes to highlight the individuals attacking contribution.
Conducting an analysis into the scatter plot you will see that Manuel Locatelli is again performing above average in relation to the two data sets, the Italian is averaging 0.55 key passes per 90 minutes highlighting his ability and contribution to chance creation for Sassuolo.
The Italian is also the second-best in the league in relation to passes to the final third per 90 (11.65), behind Fabian Ruiz (12.13) of Napoli. Of these 11.65 passes Locatelli is also contributing to 2.6 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes, making him a catalyst in relation to progressing the ball through the thirds and also providing an attacking threat in relation to delivery.
I have already covered Locatelli’s ability at passing the ball through the lines, however, due to his diverse passing range, he can also be a threat through the delivery of a direct pass into the box from the middle third.
In the above image Parma set up their defensive unit in a deep compact block, they opt not to press Locatelli and allow the midfielder time and space from which he delivers a ball into the space in behind the block, creating a goal-scoring opportunity from an area with a high expected goal value.
Locatelli often can be found in the outside vertical channel to support dangerous winger Jeremie Boga, the Ivorian leads Serie A in relation to dribbles per game (10.86 per 90) and for this reason opposition often double up on him leaving a pocket for Locatelli to operate in to either move the ball inside to the half-space or deliver a cross into the box.
Referring to Locatelli’s heat map you will see that the midfielder favours advancing down the left-hand side, this is often to occupy a position in the left half-space (see above). Here the Italian offers the most attacking threat, he can deliver a diagonal pass inside the isolated defender into space or opt to deliver a ball to the back post to be attacked.
Over the past decade, the very best central midfielders have shown their ability to contribute to the teams scoring charts along with the above aspects of the game. One of the finest goal-scoring midfielders in Serie A was Marek Hamsik of Napoli. The Slovakian scored 100 goals in his 409 Serie A appearances for the side from Naples.
Striking is an area of the game which Manuel Locatelli can look to improve, the midfielder has taken 24 shots this season in the league, which has accumulated to an expected goal figure of 1.02. This low value indicates that Locatelli is taking shots from areas which the likelihood of scoring is low, this is reflected when looking at his shot map (above) with 19 of his strikes coming from outside of the box.
There is no doubting Manuel Locatelli’s impact for Sassuolo, the midfielder has become a key player for The Neroverdi this season, his ability to affect the game in all thirds of the pitch would make him an asset for many of the Serie A’s top sides.
Locatelli has shown his mental strength in relation to how he has responded from being sold by AC Milan, a move which now many would agree was a mistake from The Rossoneri considering the problems the side have had on the pitch.
Consistency is key, if Locatelli can continue to perform to the level which he has done through the 2019/20 season then there is no doubting that the Italian will get his second chance with a Champions League contender in Serie A and receive a call up to the Azzurri, the Italian national side.