As Serie A prepares to get back underway again this weekend, one of the most interesting stories is the relegation battle. This tactical analysis will preview the teams involved in the battle to stay another year at the top table of Italian football. We will look at how the teams have come to be involved in this unwanted fight, what the data for the season tells us about how they compare to those teams around them, and which teams are the best equipped to overcome the arm wrestle. This analysis isn’t about individual players or necessarily a tactical overview but more to do with the cold hard facts of the data generated so far in this Serie A season.
We will look at the run-in for the sides and discover if these schedules can have an impact on who completes the bottom three places before concluding with an opinion on which of the teams look set for the drop.
This analysis will be formed from the league reports generated so far this season from Wyscout and we will see if the team’s performance against the league average has any bearing on their current league position to date.
This is the bottom 8 clubs at present in Serie A. While Brescia and SPAL are clearly adrift at the foot of the table the other 6 clubs are all involved in the race to the bottom with only 5 points separating Lecce in 18th spot and Fiorentina in 13th.
We will look at the bottom two and explore any data that stands out in their seasons that see them so far away from the rest of the pack. After that, we will look at the next teams individually and how they can make sure they are not the ones to fill the third spot in the drop zone.
The bottom three
Brescia – 20th, 16 points (xPoint, 25)
With only four wins this season, Brescia is well behind the peloton and it is easy to see why. 1.07xG per game suggests a real lack of chances created of any quality during the season and this is linked heavily to the 40% possession they average each game and the length of time on average of each possession for Brescia given they have the least possession of the ball. The big area of interest on the defensive side is passes per defensive action (PPDA), the value of defensive actions per opposition passes in the first two-thirds of the opponent’s territory, the lower the number the higher the team defends with its line and the more intense the teams pressing strategies are. Brescia sits well below the league average of 10.82 so far, way down in 17th position in this category with 13.28PPDA which, while not excessively high does suggest that the team sit deeper than most and allow the opponent on to them. They also sit below the league average of 62.87 in defensive duels with 65.57 per game. This is again linked to the PPDA and that they allow the opponent to come to them rather than getting after the ball higher up the pitch, the easiest way to show this is the low value of recoveries in the opponent third being well down at 7.7 compared to the league average of 10.3. All this information leads us to the xG against sitting at 46.5 or 1.78 per game. if you allow the opponent time and space and defend passively in a block you have to be compact in that block and limit time and space in and around your penalty area, if you are conceding nearly 16 shots per game you are not doing this well. Either way, they are rightly bottom of the league and don’t expect them to be closing the gap on those above them any time soon.
This image compares the possession stats of the bottom two sides against the league average.
SPAL – 19th, 18 points (xPoint, 27.7)
We find SPAL two points in front of Brescia, their extra win creating the smallest of margins between the two sides. They, like their rival are performing significantly behind their xPoint value. If they were nearer to that number then it could well be that the relegation fight could be even closer than it is right now with a second spot still being fought over.
If we take a similar look into SPAL as we did with Brescia we will see that they are still below the league average for PPDA at 11.71, while this is not a huge difference to the rest of the league as a whole they sit below Brescia for ball recoveries in the opponent third and the mid-third meaning obviously they make over 50% of their recoveries in their own third. 32.54 per 90 minutes here puts them above the league average. This information leads us towards the shots they give up and 14 shots per game with an average distance of within the penalty area across a large group of games can only lead to goals conceded. Their xG against of 43.9 sits smack bang against the real number of 44 and therefore the data tells the story for us. To concede 1.69 goals per game is ok, as long as your goals in the other column are still providing you with points. In SPAL’s case, this simply is not true.
They are the lowest scorers in the league, two behind Brescia and with 0.76 goals per game, it is not a coincidence to find them at the foot of the table. The question is why though? If we compare that to the rest of the league, it looks as like this;
Here is the league-wide overview of goals with SPAL at the foot of the table. Their xG has the number at 30.3, the real reason why they find themselves in the hole they are in. If they had been performing to this level across the season, they would have done enough to lift themselves out of the bottom three and into a genuine battle to stay up. Their match xG has them just over a goal a game at 1.18 but when we consider their actual tally has them well below 1 goal per game, this could make a big difference to their season, having someone to put the ball in the net could well be the difference between the sides in the same position.
They are below the league average in a lot of the possession-based stats, for example, they have fewer shots and from further away from goal than the league as a whole while also completing the least deep completions across Serie A. The deep completions ties in nicely with SPAL being above average for long passes per game suggesting they are more direct than most in the competition. The most concerning stat, however, is that when you remove the goals associated with set-pieces, either first or second phase and penalties from their tally SPAL have only scored 12 goals from open play so far this season. This is largely down to their poor performance inside the box with only 13.84 touches inside the box per game, again this number is poor but could be manageable if you are efficient in this part of the pitch which SPAL are clearly not.
Lecce – 18th, 25 points (xPoint, 24.2)
Using a deeper block in a midfield diamond for their tactics for much of the season, Lecce is the team who sit the deepest according to PPDA and own third recoveries, who also conceded the most shots from the shortest distance across the league find themselves in the position no team wants to trade them for. However, with some fine-tuning to their defensive organisation and a little luck they could turn the tide and drag others into the battle quickly.
They have scored 34 goals so far this season (1.3 per game) which compares favorably with teams much higher up the table than them right now. They are another team performing exactly where they should be in this area according to the xG stats. What is killing them is the 54 they have conceded at the other end. Ironically they are actually overperforming at that end of the pitch as their xG against figure is 58.7 goals against. A vulnerability to set pieces could change the picture with the 14 goals conceded in this department could have secured them some more points. But they give up the most touches inside the box in the league and have conceded 32 goals from inside the box to date. A damming statistic that, if amended could change the relegation battle swiftly given their ability to score goals. They have their own style, the second-longest average pass length in the league is one indicator, and coupled with their low deep completions and their volume of long passes during the games so far you could make a clear connection with direct play, second ball recoveries and shots from distance. How they create and score goals though hasn’t really been the issue. Preventing them at the other end has been and a lack of pressure on the ball around the box to stop shots being taken especially from closer range.
What does all this really mean?
The bottom two sides have been poor at both ends of the pitch and deserve to be there. There is little chance of them overturning such a point deficit, unless the length of break the teams have gone through has given them a much-needed breather, allowed them some time to regroup and reorganize their defensive shape.
Ultimately at present each of the bottom 3 are in the positions they deserve to be. Each team sits below the league average for shots against and the distance to the goal which is unsurprising with the stats showing their make very few recoveries in the final third and that each team’s PPDA is higher than the league average lead us to the belief that each team concede one-third of the pitch choosing instead to sit deep and stay compact rather than press together aggressively. This would explain why each of these teams sit above the league average for defensive third recoveries. To turn the corner, each team needs to bring the shots per game down to a manageable number and increase those shots distance from the goal. If they can also increase their duel intensity, the number of contacts with the ball carrier during the opponent’s possession moments then they would become less passive defensively and disrupt their opponent improving the recoveries per game.
The teams in the mix
Lecce and the five teams above them are separated by just five points. The data for their defensive stats are shown below.
This image shows us that some teams are performing better than others without the ball so far this season according to some league averages. Shots against league-wide is 12.75 and for a team like Torino they must pull this number down to pick up points. Udinese recover the most ball in their third of the pitch while Sampdoria win the most recoveries in the opponent’s third of the pitch. As we can see though, it is a fairly even spread across the group and for that reason, all teams in this next section should be checking over their shoulders if they weren’t doing so already. A slow start in the next couple of weeks would potentially pull any one of these teams into the battle for the third spot for the drop. We will look at those teams and some problem areas for each of them.
Genoa sits just above Lecce on goal difference, the smallest of margins and they and Sampdoria are the most at threat right now from Lecce. 3-5-2 and its subtle variations are the mainstay of their season.
If we were looking just at 2020 results alone we would find them up in 7th position however, they are a team underperforming according to xPoint data which has them at 30.2 points. Only Torino concede more shots in the pack of teams fighting this relegation battle than Genoa. They are also the only team to press higher up the pitch than Genoa and these are the only two teams that could be compared to a pressing team compared to the league average. Where they are underperforming though right now is goals scored. Like the bottom three, they have a below-average amount of touches inside the box and shots per game which has an understandable impact on their ability to create and score goals. They dribble less and pass more and cross just as much as everyone else but one-third of their goals have come from set-pieces meaning less than 1 goal per game from open play. Their lack of incisive play to forward runners could be a negative impact on their performance but if their wingbacks spend too much time defending and not enough supporting the attack their system can be a problem.
Genoa attack across the whole pitch which is shown above in the image. The image below unfortunately has a much bigger impact on their league position.
This image shows the areas of the pitch they give the ball away. Genoa gives the ball away more than any other team in their own third of the pitch which has a significant impact on their shots conceded count and therefore goals conceded. If they want to get out of trouble. Give the ball away less in their own half and be more proactive in the final third.
Sampdoria sits a little in front of Genoa but they have an important game in hand. Sampdoria have used their 4-4-2 in over half of their games with some tactical changed into a midfield diamond in the rest of the games so far. Their use of the wide midfielders has helped them attack across the whole pitch, when they move inside the create more of a box midfield the full-back supporting the attack creates the width across the pitch.
The other impressive part of the way they have attacked is that they lose over half of their possessions in the opponent third of the pitch. Their losses per game is high compared to the rest of the league but of the 96.8 average losses per game, Sampdoria lose 48.6 of those in the final third. If they can limit those losses and turn them into more chances to score they will be able to get closer to their xPoint totals and climb up the ladder.
Like the rest of the teams around them they have been underperforming in front of goal with 28 goals scored against an xG of 35, but their biggest issue so far this season has been their slow start to games. They have only scored six goals in the first half of their games so far this season against a 12.6 xG. This has meant they have had to play catch up in the second-half if you consider that they have conceded 24 goals in the first half of their games to date. Those 44 goals conceded in total are over the 32.7xG that we would expect them to concede.
If we look across the leagues as a whole we will see Sampdoria concede goals with the worst of the league, however, defensively we can see an improvement on their stats on the teams below them and it could be an easy conclusion to say that they have been unlucky with the opponent overachieving with the chances they have been presented with so far this season. That being said, giving up 10.87 shots per game and managing to block only 2.16 of those across the season could well be one thing that could be improved upon. More pressure on the ball around the box would be a real key for them staying out of the drop zone.
Torino is the worst form team in the league according to the form guide going into lockdown. Four losses on the bounce with only two scored and 10 conceded wouldn’t go too far in convincing their fans that they are not involved in the relegation battle.
They have played with a back three all season which has made them vulnerable in wide areas especially when their high pressing strategy has been broken. They work hard to recover the ball and have the second-lowest PPDA numbers in the league at 7.61 and they also block the most shots league-wide. This work rate and effort could well dig them out of trouble as long as they can convert some more chances in front of goal.
27 points from their games put them a point in front of Sampdoria and a further point to Genoa and Lecce. According to the data, they should actually be in the bottom three with only 23.5 xPoints gained across the season. That is an indicator of where they are as a collective and their fans should be worried for sure. The 12 goals they have conceded in the final quarter of their matches so far have swung matches against them, especially in the last few games, and the 15.82 shots they concede per game is the highest of any of the teams involved in this relegation fight. There is a real connection between their number of ball losses (97.35), the second-highest in the league, and those shot numbers.
In attack, they have more touches in the penalty area than the teams below them which is a positive and they are big crossers of the ball using their advanced fullbacks to get balls into the box. However, they are in the bottom three for progressive passes, through balls and final third entries which is a concern. If teams are comfortable defending crosses against Torino it would seem there is a lack of a second option and just a case of more of the first option, play direct to the top line, or get the ball into wide areas to throw balls into the box. Either they find a way to protect the central areas better in transition, limit the amount of possession losses to the furthest point from their own goal or convert more crosses into goals otherwise we will find Torino in a real fight to keep their heads above the water as the season heads to a conclusion.
Four draws and a loss in the last five games have dragged Udinese into the relegation battle. While the gap has been closed by Lecce, Sampdoria and Genoa over the last five games, earlier in the season they had a win ratio of one in three and were comfortably mid-table. However, could those four draws have gone in their favour? if they had they would be well clear of this conversation by now.
Udinese are another team set in their style and plan. An exclusive use of the 3-5-2 across the season with subtle variations on rare occasions could have led to the drop off in output as teams negate any threat they pose in attack and become vulnerable to their exposed weaknesses.
However, as the second-lowest scorers in the league, one goal more than SPAL they have a real issue putting the ball in the goal and this will be a big factor in Udinese getting pulled further into the fight to the bottom.
Here is an overview of all their goals so far this season. There is a trend towards finishes from an interior channel on the left-hand side of the pitch. 60% of goals have come from this area but they don’t create these chances enough as their shots per game of 11.51 is below the league average but better than those below them, a positive but still not great numbers. They sit in mid-table for deep completions and progressive passes but way down the league in terms of incisive passes into the final third meaning they play the game in front of the opponent more often than hurting them in behind which is clearly the reason why they don’t create more chances in the opponent box. They are the highest of the bottom half of the table in touches in the opponent box but still below the league average and could do much better in front of goal if they could become more incisive in this area.
On the other side of the ball, the biggest standout stat is the lack of pressure Udinese applies to the ball high up the pitch. They are comfortably bottom of the league in PPDA at 13.87, for context, Lazio are third-bottom at 13.11 and this strategy seems to work perfectly fine for them. However, Udinese only win 14% of balls in the opponent third of the pitch and nearly half of their total match recoveries in their own third. This can be sustainable if you stop shots or are happy to defend crosses with ease but if you concede around 13 per game, from in and around the penalty area and you are only able to block a quarter of them then this leads the team to concede 45 times so far. This number isn’t unmanageable if you are productive at the other end of the pitch but their lack of output in front of goal could be a real factor in Udinese dropping closer into the relegation mix if they are not careful in the next few games.
Fiorentina are the least likely to be pulled deeper into the in the battle below them with 32 points. They have a win, two draws, and two losses from their last five games. A point a game is likely to be enough to keep them safe from the drop and they are performing better than those below them in most areas but only a slight drop off in some areas will have them looking over their shoulders without a doubt.
They are another team running with the back three-option most of the season to date with a real spread across the pitch in their attacking moments.
Meanwhile on the other side of the ball they have the leagues third-best record in terms of shots conceded so far, a stat that will make a big difference against the teams around them as the season draws to a conclusion. They sit in the middle of the pack for shots blocked, interceptions and PPDA so unless there is a massive upturn in the teams below they should remain comfortably mid-table. The only real way they could get dragged into the fight will be if they get beat by the teams below them.
Here is an overview of the run-in for all the sides involved in the battle for the drop. Yellow markers are games against teams around them while the red is games against teams in the top 6. With that in mind Fiorentina has the most favorable run-in with games against the bottom three, five midtable sides and Inter and Roma now their title chances are over. Udinese might have the most interesting and worrying run in with five top 6 sides as well as 5 of the teams around them, it could be a slippery slope for them. Brescia and SPAL could close gaps or be killed off quickly but could definitely have a say in the final outcome of the third spot. Lecce could also climb or sink quickly with games against 6 of the 7 teams around them but also have tough games against Juventus and Lazio. Without a doubt, it will be a fascinating finish with such a tight pack trying to stay out of the fire burning below them. With everyone having tricky games coming up both home and away it will be the teams that start the quickest and can turn the data around for the better that manage to stay safe.
With the Bundesliga showing that home advantage counts for little without the support of the home crowd since the restart, the poor home form of everyone apart from Udinese will be interesting to follow. Games away from home having similar impacts Udinese, Brescia, SPAL and Torino will be looking to overturn their poor form on the road for the run-in.
The data so far tells some ugly truths for these sides and they are where they are because of their performances so far. That being said, a small upturn in something so simple as shots blocked or increasing the distance of those shots could have a significant impact on their fortunes. Teams who can increase their shots on goal, touches inside the box and improve the quality of their chance creation would only have to cause a small shift here to pick up points against teams cruising to the end of the season and the teams around them desperately trying to maintain gaps between themselves and those below them.
It is almost as interesting as the race for the European spots and based on the information outlined above, it is easy to make a case for the Brescia and SPAL, the bottom two to already be dead and buried. Both lack any real quality and just being hard to beat is not going to be enough to overturn the gap to those in front. As for the third spot, anyone from Torino down should be concerned. All have difficult run-ins against those around them and those at the top and it is likely that the sides who do the best against those around them stay alive for another season. Torino’s poor recent form could well be a big factor and with them currently overperforming on their points tally and the rest underperforming the case for them to be the third team for the drop is hard to ignore. Sampdoria however, are the only other side sleepwalking towards the drop but hopefully, the break will halt their slide and allow them to regroup. They are the most underperforming side in the battle so expect them to turn things around for the run to the finish line.
There it is, an interesting final lap of the season that still has plenty of twists and turns left to negotiate. We will see if the data proves to be on the money of whether good luck and fate saves some big names in Italian football from the black hole of Serie B next season.