ROME: Of all the criticisms Maurizio Sarri faced this season, one of the most frequent has been around his Lazio team selection.
The coach’s faith in last season’s front three of Ciro Immobile, Mattia Zaccagni and Felipe Anderson has been unrelenting despite his side’s desperate struggles in front of goal.
Only three outfield players – Alessio Romagnoli, Luis Alberto and Adam Marusic – have racked up more minutes than the attacking trio this season.
But after Saturday’s humiliation in Salerno, something had to give one way or another.
A 2-1 defeat against a Salernitana side that had previously failed to win all season and propped up the table caused Sarri to openly question his future and Lazio president Claudio Lotito to threaten that “heads will roll” if a turnaround didn’t arrive immediately.
But it also underlined the most startling area of concern for the Biancocelesti as, although Immobile netted a penalty, they were left with one goal from open play in six games.
An injury to Zaccagni meant that a change would be enforced for the visit of Celtic in the Champions League on Tuesday, but few expected the Lazio coach to leave Immobile and Pedro on the bench for a match that could either send the club motoring into the last 16 or spiralling towards crisis.
Instead, the promising but unpolished Gustav Isaksen was launched into the starting side for just the second time this season, the first coming more than two months earlier against Monza.
Taty Castellanos was chosen to lead the line ahead of Immobile, another bold call given the Argentinian has mustered a solitary goal since his summer arrival from New York City FC.
While what happened next will be remembered for Immobile‘s impact from the bench – the Lazio skipper scored twice in three minutes to earn a 2-0 win in the closing stages –Isaksen‘s performance might encourage Sarri to be more bold in his selection going forward.
Although Lazio were again frustratingly blunt when it came to finishing off moves in the final third, they did at least create chances.
Twenty-three of them, to be precise, which is 14 more than they mustered against Salernitana.
Sarri has stressed repeatedly that the complacent attitude of his players in their approach to games is the biggest thing preventing them from finding consistency.
That certainly will have played a part in the improved performance on Tuesday, when 50,000 Lazio fans roared the team on in a game where the stakes were high and the pressure was on, leaving the Biancocelesti players with zero room for error.
But Isaksen‘s directness and instinctiveness in the final third seemed to breathe fresh life into the way they attacked.
His ideas didn’t always come off, and occasionally the wrong decisions were made, but it was nevertheless an unexpectedly impressive showing from the 22-year-old.
Isaksen finished up with two shots on target, four key passes and 52 touches, and there was no greater seal of approval from Sarri than when he brought off Anderson for Pedro with 30 minutes to go, rather than the Dane.
The assist Isaksen got on the board – his first goal contribution as a Lazio player – may not have exactly been Andrea Pirlo-esque, but it underlined his willingness to get the ball into dangerous areas.
It was Isaksen‘s deflected shot that fell into Immobile‘s path for the opener, and the Dane’s hopeful dink into the box that led to Ciro‘s second.
Often this season Lazio have been far too predictable, slow and cautious in attack, looking to pass backwards or sideways if an obvious ball isn’t on.
You could say they’ve looked over-coached and too structured, but Isaksen‘s unpredictability broke that mould.
He was willing to try things and test opponents, and ultimately forced both goals by looking forwards, not backwards.
Lazio saw enough from Isaksen at Midtjylland to invest in a deal worth up to €16 million for his signature this summer and fans might now get a chance to finally see more than the odd substitute cameo from him.
His contribution was a reminder that fortune can favour the brave.
Few saw Isaksen‘s starting selection coming, but it proved pivotal for this most needed of wins and who knows, could possibly help wake up Lazio‘s dozy forward line going forward.