U.S Sassuolo Calcio are not a team ingrained with historic tales of success. Based in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Sassuolo as a town have a population slightly bigger than Glenrothes and trailing Greenock by around two thousand people, so it would never be anticipated it would produce a side to rival some of Italy’s biggest clubs.
Until the late 60’s the football club played in regional amateur leagues until promotion to Serie D in 1968 as they joined forces with several other local sides. It was not until the 13-14 season the club would finally achieve Serie A status.
They’ve since stayed in the top league of Italian football, finishing as low as 17th in their first season, and as high as 6th in 15-16, allowing the side’s first ever, and to this point only, participation in European football. The past two seasons have seen consecutive 11th place finishes.
As the Coronavirus pandemic brought Serie A to a screeching halt with 13 games remaining, the side managed by Roberto De Zerbi sat once again in 11th place. 7 points clear of Lecce in the final relegation position, and trailing Napoli in sixth – the final Europa League qualification spot – by the same tally.
We’ve looked back at the season so far for the Neroverdi – which translates to ‘The Black and Greens’ – to see what has gone well and what has gone badly thus far.
This will be the first of a series of articles looking at the club who will turn 100 on the 17th of July this year.
We are looking at the style of play De Zerbi has his team play, the players within the system and where improvements could be made.
All of Sassuolo’s game are not available to watch in full via what we have access to – although the majority are, which will be watched in full, with highlights assessed for missing full games.
In this first article we will look at first impressions, taking us from the first game of the season – a 2-1 loss away to Torino on the 25th of August, through until the end of September.
This takes us to six games in where sitting in 13th place with two wins and four loses, Sassuolo were likely a bit disappointed with their start to the campaign – although of course it wasn’t a complete disaster.
Both of their wins came against SPAL and Sampdoria, who at this point were occupying the bottom two positions in the division, although two of their loses did come against tough opposition in Roma and Atalanta, who at this point both sat in the top six.
In terms of the side as a whole, De Zerbi had around between a few systems and sets of players in this early phase of the season. He’d attempted a hybrid of a back three/ flat back four in the loss to Roma.
Vlad Chiriches and Gian Marco Ferrari played as out and out centre-backs, meanwhile left sided Peluso was almost always positioned like a wing-back, while Marlon on the right transitioned between acting like a natural right-back, to becoming a third centre-half, with midfielder Alfred Duncan taking the right-side wing-back spot.
This was quickly dropped as it became apparent it did not suit his team.
Other than that, the coach has stuck to a form of 4-3-3.
Andrea Consigli as a goalkeeper will need to be judged further into the season. He’s appeared fairly average thus far, pulling off some decent saves and not making any major mistakes, but also not sticking out as having any incredibly impressive attributes.
Chiriches and Ferrari are clearly the preferred centre-half options. Neither seems to take charge, with both looking like they would benefit with a more confident and head-strong partner. Both can look nervous and clumsy at times.
Marlon was quickly replaced by former Celtic loanee Jeremy Toljan at right-back, where the Belgian actually showed more promise than he did throughout most of his loan spell in Scotland. Looking decent in defensive situations and offering far more attacking intent than Marlon, Toljan is easily the most impressive of the defenders in the first six game weeks.
Left-back Federico Peluso is a source of frustration. Often in these early games you find yourself wondering exactly what it is that he offers. His starting position is very advanced for a left-back, something he was punished severely for by Justin Kluivert against Roma. On that occasion the left-back may have been able to shift some blame to other defenders, if he was intended to play as an advanced wing-back. But even in games where he is clearly part of a back four, his advanced nature creates far too much room in behind for opposition wingers. This is made worse because with Toljan in the side, both sides are at times left exposed. Toljan makes up for this with recovery runs and attacking productivity that Peluso is simply yet to offer.
In terms of the midfield three, in this early phase you are often left wondering two questions 1. Why some of the better players are often benched and 2. What the roles in the midfield are exactly, and if there is enough of a separation between those roles when certain trios are used.
Manuel Locatelli looks impressive even in defeat, he offers a combative tackling nature, as well as a range of passing exceeding his teammates. Despite this, he is often left benched.
It’s a similar story with 20 year old Ivorian Hamed Junior Traore. The Ivory Coast native who is on-loan from Empoli for two years with a clause to buy is the most creative of the central midfield options, advancing further up the pitch and meshing well with the front 3. His passing while not at the same range as Locatelli, is still quite effective in the final third and he is also effective at dribbling. He plays more than Locatelli but is still in and out of the team.
Most of the minutes at this point in the season have gone to former West-Ham man Pedro Obiang and Ghanaian Alfred Duncan. Usually with one of the two previously mentioned midfielders, or on one occasion 28-year old Moroccan Mehdi Bourabia joining them in the trio. Of course it’s a small sample size, but you often start to wonder in these games if any of them are offering enough to keep Traore or Locatelli, or indeed both, out of the team. Duncan is more mobile than Obiang, and Duncan will get further forward and is a slightly bigger threat to the opposition goal. Both however mainly keep the game moving, and not producing the range or creativity of passing either Locatelli or Traore have given examples of. At this point it would appear attempting a trio or Locatelli and Traore, probably ideally with Duncan, but possibly with Obiang would be worthwhile to see how the distinct styles work out together.
The front three at the Mapei Stadium is certainly the most impressive part of the team so far. It’s led by the star of the team Domenico Berardi, who six games in already has five goals to his name. The Italian at 25-years-old has been linked previously with other clubs and obviously could stand to make the club substantially more than their record sale, which was Simone Zaza to Juventus for just under £13 million in 2015.
At 32-years-old, Francesco Caputo at this early point in the season appeared to be a very astute signing for Sassuolo. Joining from relegated Empoli, the striker already had a ratio of a goal every second game and was showing evidence of quickly forming an effective relationship with Berardi.
The third position early on was filled by Gregoire Defrel. The 28 year-old had been loaned back to the club from Roma, who had purchased him after a successful spell with Sassuolo between 2015 and 2018. Unfortunately for Defrel, things didn’t work out in Rome and they weren’t at this point working out the same way as they did in his original spell with Sassuolo.
Instead 23-year-old Jeremie Boga who had signed in the Summer from Chelsea was impressing. Boga at this point was beginning to establish himself as a very real contender for a starting spot in the side. His most impressive trait being his fantastic dribbling skills, low centre of gravity and positive attacking mind-set.
Clearly, it appears at this point De Zerbi is yet to figure out his best team, and could do with trying some differing combinations. A lot of the tools we believe could unlock the team further appear to already be there, although the defensive line may require delving into the transfer market.
The start to the season while not awful could see them plunge into a relegation battle with a couple of bad results, so an up-tick in performances and consistency was required six games in to find a level the club was more comfortable with.
Of course, much of the season has already happened, so we will now have a look at the remainder of action from 2019, before returning with another report.