Don’t rub your eyes, Udinese are fun: But just how good are Sottil’s Zebrette, and why?

It comes as a real surprise to seasoned Serie A fans, but Udinese have been a lot of fun this season. Currently in the Champions League places, is their early-season form sustainable?

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“The boys ignited the fans’ enthusiasm, and they dragged them along. It creates symbiosis, because you love those who sweat for the jersey.”

Andrea Sottil could hardly contain his glee. His Udinese side had just beaten Inter 3-1 in assured and clinical fashion; their fifth win in succession to take them third in Serie A. As remarkable as the victory was, it wasn’t even the most impressive the Zebrette had pulled off this season.

Just two weeks prior they had pulverized AS Roma 4-0. Sandwiched between was a 3-1 beating of Sassuolo; a run of form that few have seen from Udinese in a decade, since their European qualifications of the early 2010s.

So how has Andrea Sottil turned Udinese into a bona fide giant killer?

Andrea Sottil, Udinese coach. (REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo)

Tweaking the system

Udinese are typically associated with a 3-5-2, and Sottil has kept this system in place. Argentine right wing-back Naheul Molina had been a regular last year, but his sale along with back-up Brandon Soppy in the summer created a vacuum on that right side.

Rather than recruit a direct replacement, however, Sottil has repositioned captain Roberto Pereyra to play the right wing-back role. Few could have imagined a player as creative and individualistic moving back to such effect, but the Argentine has been given a new lease of life.

Able to collect the ball in deeper scenarios, Pereyra can receive under less pressure than he would further upfield. His excellent carrying capacity and eye for a threaded pass is benefited as a result, and Udinese reap the rewards of their most technical player getting on the ball more frequently.

Goals, glorious goals

Fifteen Serie A goals puts Udinese level with Napoli at the summit of the goalscoring charts, buoyed by 10 goals in those last three outings. To label them as an attacking juggernaut however would be misleading, and digging into the numbers reflects a team riding the crest of a wave.

Their 15 goals have come from an xG of 9.4, so they are overperforming by over 50% of where they should be. This is the result of scoring frequently from unlikely angles and positions, for example Pereyra’s beautiful curled finish against Roma, and Jaka Bijol’s stooping header from a tight angle in the win over Inter.

In the long run, this kind of overperformance is unsustainable. Udinese are taking a healthy number of shots (13.57/90 mins – sixth best in Serie A), but the rate with which they are scoring is unprecedented. They rank 10th in the division for shots on target (4/90 mins), and also have a goals-per-shots-on-target rate of 50% meaning half of their shots on target are ending in goals. When this is coming from just four shots on target per 90 minutes, the chances of this accuracy sustaining are slim.

Forward Beto’s team-leading four goals this season have come from just five shots on target, and just eight overall shots. Eventually, without greater shot volume to increase the likelihood of scoring, this hot streak will end.

There is nothing alarming about the number of shots Udinese are taking, nor their accuracy. Scoring as frequently as they are from these shots on target however is unprecedented. Eventually, unless they raise their volume of shots in the face of strong goalkeeping or a slump in form, this conversion rate will likely fall.

Increasing pressure

Perhaps the most impressive improvement from last season is in Udinese’s off-the-ball work. In 2021/22 Udinese used a compact 5-3-2 shape to sit in a low-block, contest the ball deep before springing forward on the counterattack. They possess three elite-level ball winners in Rodrigo Becao at centre-back, Destiny Udogie at wing-back, and central midfielder Walace. All three ranked in the top seven Serie A players for tackles won last season, and were key to winning the ball and catching opponents out in transition.

This tackle-hungry nature remains. Their 87 won tackles are the highest in Serie A, but there has been another major adjustment. Udinese under Sottil now look to press and counter-press from the front in a way they never did in 2021/22. 

Udinese players celebrate a goal in Serie A. (REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo)

Where last season they ranked bottom for pressures in the final third, Udinese are now the fourth highest for pressing in this area of the pitch. In fact, the Zebrette feature in the top-five highest teams for pressures in every third of the pitch, and second for total pressures. As Sottil said after the Inter match: ‘you love those who sweat for the jersey’.

For a side that doesn’t look to keep possession, this is essential to their chance creation. Driving forward through the wing-backs to advance play into the final third, and then pressing swiftly upon losing the ball to win it high up the pitch. 

The signing of Croatian Sandi Lovric has helped in pressing higher up the field, with the 24-year-old contributing in harrying opponents in both the midfield and final thirds. This out-of-possession tactic makes the most of the dynamism Udinese possess in wide areas, and the ball-winning tendencies of players across the pitch.

Trust in talent

It has been a dream start for Udinese. So strong and encouraging has it been that they can plausibly target safety by the turn of the year, when others around them might be burdened by player involvement in the World Cup. A high-energy pressing team like Udinese will delight at the mid-season window to recharge and refine their structure on the training pitch.

Sottil is a Luciano Spalletti disciple, and it shows. His philosophy trusting in the talent of maverick flair players in the final third, rather than setting them through a regime of automation and rehearsed attacking routines. It is seeing superb output from this Udinese team.

Whilst there are warning signs that it might not be a sustainable approach, and that the red-hot form of these players will likely need an increase in shot volume and attacking impetus, Sottil is already producing highlight moments as Udinese coach. 

To beat Inter and Roma so early in the season is the stuff of dreams. To do so playing in an aggressive and thrusting manner only adds to the picture.

Don’t rub your eyes. Udinese are fun.

Data courtesy of FBRef.com

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