After the first part of this Serie A campaign, Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo team stands second in the league and have played some great football. Let’s take a look at what’s behind the Neroverdi’s impressive start of the season.

Before the scoreless draw against Udinese, Sassuolo had scored at least one goal in each of the first six games of the season. This total of 18 goals is still the highest number in Serie A, only equaled by Atalanta. After seven matches, Sassuolo ranks highly in many offensive metrics in the league: they’re second for average ball possession (60.4%), second for total passes – with a league-best 90.1% accuracy, second for deep completions (94), and first for average PPDA (19.94). These data define Sassuolo as a team capable of resisting the opponent’s pressure, keeping possession by using short passes, and attacking the space behind the defensive line after patiently moving the ball up the pitch.

There’s no team in Serie A that takes care of the play build-up like Sassuolo, who are more comfortable with attracting the opponent’s pressure on the ball than finding the free man behind the lines. They can also use different gimmicks according to different situations and the opponents’ attitude. Although it’s true that the tactical principles never change, Sassuolo is a very flexible team, coached to always find the best solution to move the ball upwards. This team is trained to adapt to every choice of their opponents, not following a specific track but balancing the build-up accordingly to what happens onto the pitch. They always react instantaneously to even the smallest variation in the opponents’ attitude.

The build up from the back is maybe the most elaborate and recognizable part of Sassuolo’s game. But when focusing on what happens after that, once the ball is out of the defense, there may be some problems. In fact, Sassuolo’s efforts in the build-up don’t always result in concrete advantages over the opponent and generation of goal-scoring chances. Sassuolo has the best offense in the league but they’re only eighth for xG (11.52), sixth for total shots (105), and they rank just seventh for touches in the opponent box.


Problems against defensive teams?

The match against Udinese offers interesting insights into the problems that Sassuolo have when they need to translate ball possession and territorial dominance into goal-scoring chances. Even if they had 59.5% ball possession and recorded over 200 passes more than Udinese, they only resulted in 4 shots. Only one of them was on goal and they produced only 0.24 xG. It’s not the first time that the Friulians were able to stop De Zerbi’s team. This was the third straight game – after two defeats last season, 3-0 and 1-0 – that Sassuolo are unable to find the net when facing Udinese.

De Zerbi’s team lacked the change of pace and the ability to quickly find the free man behind the lines that were necessary against a locked opponent that defended very close to their own box with a conservative 5-3-2. Even after attracting out of position one of the opponents covering the center – either one of Udinese’s three at the back or one of the three central midfielders – the spaces were too tight and the time too short to find the free man and increase the tempo. For every vertical pass – which are those that speed up the play – the receiver always had a close opponent, preventing him to find a pass behind the defensive line or to try a 1v1.

In the images below, at the 14th minute, Sassuolo tries to build the play in the midfield, after a throw-in from Udinese’s third. Locatelli has the ball and his teammates take up every vertical channel, trying to increase the possible passing lines, as per gameplan. Traoré and Caputo hold centrally, while Ayhan and Rogério stretch out the pitch by staying wide.

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Locatelli passes to Caputo, but he can’t turn and prefers to lean back to Ferrari, who has space to move the ball upwards into the internal channel on the left. When maneuvering in wide zones, Sassuolo usually create triangles to move the ball upwards. One teammate gets closer to offer an easy passing solution, while another one creates a deep passing line. In the situation below, the triangle is formed, but both Boga and Rogério are blocked by their markers, Becao and Stryger Larsen. In this situation, Ferrari doesn’t have a clear passing line in the space behind the defensive line.

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The three components of the triangle pass the ball between each other but they’re unable to gain territorial advantage and Boga prefers to pass horizontally to Maxime Lopez, trying to find another area to advance. At that point, Udinese re-arranges the lines and every Sassuolo player but the goalkeeper are in the opponent midfield.

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The ball gets back to Ferrari, who plays a first-touch pass to Locatelli. Ferrari, basically, tries to speed up the play, as there are now the conditions that Sassuolo seeks to move the ball to the opponent box. In fact, three opponents – de Paul, Arslan and Becao – left their position to cover the triangle formed by Ferrari, Locatelli and Boga, freeing up Traoré behind the line. With a quick combination, the ball could reach him in a dangerous position but, in this case, the defensive intuitions of Udinese’s players prevail. Arslan is a bit late, but his movement is still decisive to ruin Locatelli’s play, who’s unable to give precision to his pass with the outside foot. The ball is intercepted by Nuytinck and this ends Sassuolo’s play.

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Against Udinese, the Neroverdi lacked these changes of pace that they’re usually able to find by attracting the opponent lines out of position, then finding the free man behind them. It needs to be said that the ability to keep the ball without losing possession made the game very easy from a defensive perspective. Udinese never had a chance to be dangerous after regaining possession and they only managed one shot.


Possession is control

When they played against Napoli, Sassuolo’s possession was far more effective. Largely due to the different attitude shown by the Neapolitans, it produced a lot of chances: 7 shots, 4 of them on goal. And again, the ability to keep possession for a long time and to rarely lose the ball gave De Zerbi’s team control of the game against a struggling Napoli.

For example, Sassuolo scored the opener thanks to a penalty gained after a play that lasted for one minute, started by Consigli in his own box, and ending with Di Lorenzo’s foul on Raspadori in Napoli’s one. At some point, after almost reaching the goal line on the left wing, Rogério comes back and the play apparently loses its danger. Napoli are deployed behind the ball line and have the time to reposition, while Sassuolo brought all players in the opponent midfield.

The ball moves from Chiriches in the center to Maxime Lopez on the left. After a one-two with Locatelli, the French midfielder has a different option to continue the play. As usual, with the ball on the wing, Sassuolo creates a triangle and Lopez has two passing lines in front of him, an open Rogério close to the sideline and Boga in the internal channel, behind Politano.

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The pass to Boga is probably the most useful. Politano may intercept it but Lopez has enough space to reach the teammate. And yet, he opts for the safest choice, a pass back to Locatelli. For a possession-based team like Sassuolo, even meaningless passes like this one can have a deeper meaning that is shown shortly after.

In fact, Locatelli is better positioned and has a better passing line to complete a decisive pass for the development of the play: the transmission of the ball from the midfield to the players in the internal spaces in the opponent’s third, that needs to be as smooth as possible. To change the play’s tempo, that vertical pass needs to be accurate enough to trigger quick one-twos between the forward and the offensive midfielders. Locatelli is in a better position to make that play. His vertical pass reaches Raspadori, which is a smart choice, as Sassuolo’s forward is able to pass to Boga in front of the goal. Boga is stopped by Di Lorenzo in the box, but the ball gets back to Raspadori, who is then fouled by Napoli’s defender.

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Sassuolo at their best

Sassuolo’s dangerousness in the matches against Udinese and Napoli was heavily affected by either the absence or lack of fitness of key players like Djuricic, Caputo, Berardi and Boga. In better moments of the season, De Zerbi’s Sassuolo played one of their best actions. In the 3-3 draw against Juventus, after another play that lasted for one whole minute, a great possession produced two massive chances, one for Traoré and one immediately after for Boga, who jumped on Szczesny’s short clearance.

Even with a different system, 4-2-3-1 in this case, the occupation of the space doesn’t change if compared to the games against Udinese and Napoli, when Sassuolo played a 3-4-3. At some point during the play, Locatelli is beyond the midfield. He has two teammates in the internal channels in front of him, Muldur opened on the right and an easier pass on the left to Kyriakopoulos.

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He chooses to pass to the Greek fullback. The play continues but the ball doesn’t reach the opponent box. At some point, Locatelli has the ball at his feet once again and, after a couple of one-twos with Bourabia to attract Juventus’ midfielders, he passes back to Marlon, who immediately gives him the ball back. Then, Locatelli moves the play on the right, where the usual triangle is created by Muldur, Bourabia and Berardi. The objective, though, is not to move the ball upwards on that side, but to attract the pressure to create space in the center. The ball moves horizontally from Muldur to Bourabia, and then back to Locatelli, who’s able to find Traoré free on the opponent third with a backheel.

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Traoré reaches the box after a one-two with Caputo, his shot is deflected by Szczesny and the following attempt from Boga is blocked on the goal line by Alex Sandro.

Sassuolo like to move the ball from one side to the other. They move the opponent lines by always finding the free man to pass the ball and keep the play alive. They patiently wait for the right moment to speed up the pace, reaching the box with a one-two between the forward and the trequartista. A play facilitated by the way in which they occupy the channels in the opponent midfield.

There’s a stunning intellectual work behind all the best plays from De Zerbi’s side – even those that don’t create a massive chance. Their players read the game as chess players do. Even (apparently) meaningless passes are part of a bigger scheme that is only obvious after the next moves. It’s really hard to create such chemistry between eleven different people, in an unpredictable sport like football. Every play is always different from the previous one and that’s part of why watching Sassuolo play is such a fascinating and pleasant experience.

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