Following the goalless draw with Udinese in October and the sight of Ciro Immobile limping off the field, Lazio coach Maurizio Sarri cast a gloomy figure.
“He will be a heavy absence,” commented Sarri in the post-match press conference. This was before the announcement that Immobile’s issue was a hamstring injury that would keep him sidelined until after the World Cup break.
So important and integral to Lazio’s identity let alone their tactical blueprint is Immobile, that Sarri’s forlorn demeanour was understandable. His side were unbeaten in six across all competitions and had only lost to table-topping Napoli in Serie A all season. A lengthy absence to their captain and all-time record goalscorer threatened to derail their progress this season.
Quite unusually however, Lazio’s stride is yet to shorten. The results have continued to impress (their heavy defeat to Juventus aside), and looking underneath the hood one can see that their underlying metrics and playing style remains almost identical with and without their talisman.
So how has Sarri done it?
Immobile’s presence on a field in Lazio colours is undeniable. He is now 30 goals clear at the top of their all-time scoring charts, and has finished three of the last six Serie A seasons as capocannoniere. Unsuccessful overseas stints at both Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla brought Immobile to Rome, and since the two have become intertwined in each other’s narratives as overachievers punching above their own technical quality.
Immobile is Lazio, and Lazio is Immobile. Yet his absence in the last month has prompted little-to-no shift in the Aquile’s play style.
Lazio rank third-bottom in Serie A for shots taken per 90 minutes, with only Sampdoria and Lecce (16th and 19th respectively in the league) taking fewer than their 10.57/90. One might imagine that this figure has dropped in the four matches following Immobile’s injury, as Lazio hunker into a more conservative style in his absence. In truth, prior to Immobile’s injury they were taking roughly 10.6 shots/90, and since they are taking just over 10.5. The difference is negligible and demonstrates how the blueprint and philosophy of the overall team outweigh any individual under Sarri.
Beneficiaries of brilliance
Even with Immobile in the side, Lazio’s superb start to the season has benefitted from unconventional means that have inflated their true position in the table. It’s worth caveating the following data by stating that the best sides tend to overperform their xG metrics. It is the result of having excellent goalscorers in form, playing with confidence and swagger to take on low-percentage shots, and also luck running in their favour. This is the recipe for winning titles.
In Lazio’s case however, their overperformance has been remarkable. Despite being 18th in Serie A for shots taken per match, they have scored the fourth most goals across the league. These 26 Serie A goals have come from an xG of just 18; an overperformance of 44.4%.
This is reflected in the performance of individuals too. Immobile is the only player with a goal count even remotely similar to their xG, with his six coming from 6.1. The Italian’s predatory instincts and nose for opportunities means he rarely squanders high quality opportunities, so this performance is expected. Mattia Zaccagni has five goals from 2.5xG, Luis Alberto has three goals from 0.6, and Felipe Anderson has three from 1.7. Attacking players that are riding highs in goalscoring form, and hitting the back of the net from low quality chances.
Take Alberto’s ballistic strike in a 3-1 win over Inter earlier this season. The expected goals model registered the shot as a 0.1, and yet Alberto’s connection was so vicious that it speared into the top corner.
Brilliant players can continue this over the course of a season. It remains to be seen whether Lazio’s attackers can do so too.
Clinical, with and without Ciro
For all the anomalies and abnormalities in Lazio’s attacking metrics this season, there is one in particular that stands alone. Sarri’s side are hitting the target with over 43% of their shots, a number that places them top of Serie A but also 6% higher than next-best Sassuolo.
This can be linked to the form and confidence of attackers such as Anderson and Zaccagni, taking on high-risk and low-value shots but hitting the target nevertheless. The xG generated from such shot locations remains low, but the confidence and form of the individual increases the chances of it actually hitting the target.
Alberto, Zaccagni, Anderson and Immobile are all hitting the target with over 50% of their shots, despite only Immobile taking over two attempts per match. In a side that takes very few shots and removing their most potent goal threat, to have players that trouble the goalkeeper when they are given the chance is invaluable.
Sarri’s un-Sarri-like System
Averaging 50% of the ball and taking the third-lowest shots in the league does not scream of a Maurizio Sarri side. In fact, having seen the will and desire from Sarri to implement his specific tactical blueprint at Chelsea and Juventus following Napoli, one would imagine this to be a nightmare of his.
This season however has shown Sarri’s willingness to adapt and mould to the players and circumstances at his disposal. To his credit, this has been something of a pattern within Sarri’s career. He adapted in the face of losing Gonzalo Higuain at Napoli to convert Dries Mertens into a lethal penalty box poacher, and is showing the same traits in Rome in Immobile’s absence.
He might not have the possession-dictating midfield that he usually craves, nor the inverting creative wide talent that exploit the half-spaces and take advantage of the space left open by an opponent that has been lured into a press. But Lazio have found their way through a period that could have derailed their season, and now sit fourth in Serie A. It has shown that Immobile is the exclamation point of the side, finishing and benefitting from the cohesiveness and service generated by others.
Sarri will be counting down the days until his captain returns, but should take credit for continuing Lazio’s momentum in Immobile’s absence.