Cagliari, from relegation contender to must-watch team in Serie A
Playing some of the most entertaining football in Europe while getting all-important results, watching Rolando Maran’s Cagliari has been a joy this season.
Undefeated in their last 10 league matches, the high flying Sardinians currently occupy equal third on the Serie A table courtesy of their scintillating form. Having recorded some brilliant wins against the likes of Fiorentina, Napoli, Bologna and Atalanta, there’s been so much to admire about this Cagliari team. Investing smartly in the squad following the departure of star Nicolò Barella to Inter Milan, they used the money wisely by bringing in some quality players like Radja Nainggolan, Marko Rog, Nahitan Nandez, Giovanni Simeone, Luca Pellegrini, Christian Oliva and Robin Olsen, who’ve all proven to be fine assets so far.
Initially beginning the season in a 4-3-1-2 diamond, Maran then chose to flip the triangle upfront when imposing forward Leonardo Pavoletti got injured, meaning his team took on a 4-3-2-1 shape. This tweaked animation sees Giovanni Simeone play up top, with Joao Pedro and Nainggolan operating as dual number 10s.
Behind them, the likes of Rog, Nandez, Lucas Castro, Luca Cigarini and Artur Ionita will occupy the central midfield berths. Then at the back, their back four has usually consisted of four players from Pellegrini, Fabio Pisacane, Luca Ceppitelli, Ragnar Klavan, Fabrizio Cacciatore and Charalampos Lykogiannis. Goalkeeper Olsen, who’s doing a splendid job in the absence of injured first-choice keeper, Alessio Cragno, rounds things out.
Blending physicality, technique, smarts, power, toughness and athleticism, Cagliari have been an extremely difficult proposition for most teams to come up against on both sides of the ball. While there’s been plenty of upsides attached to their defensive work, their offensive exertions have caught the eye most, with their unique diamond or ‘Christmas Tree’ formations ensuring they’ve been a force to be reckoned with.
Always keen to build out from the back wherever possible, Maran’s men will usually split the centre backs to create room for the holding midfielder, typically Cigarini, to drop into. Not only does this regularly give Cagliari a 3v2 or 4v3 against the opposition’s first line of pressure, but it also makes it easier for them to get their midfield metronome in Cigarini on the ball to facilitate their passing game.
The other central midfielders will then look to generate promising passing options to help progress the attack or smartly draw their marker away to open passing lanes to the two attacking midfielders or Simeone. To further touch on the role of Simeone, and he’s been important in their offensive framework, for his clever movement to stretch oppositions has meant he can pin one or more markers and provide a threat in behind, which means he generates space between the lines and supplies his team with a deep threat.
His value doesn’t end there, however, for the Argentine hitman serves as an excellent outlet if Cagliari can’t beat the press, where he can use his aerial prowess and strength to help win second balls. The fearless target man’s also shown an ability to push wide and exploit the space in the channels when the opposing fullbacks move out.
Also, Simeone’s dropped deep to link play with his back to goal at times, which has notably drawn his opponent out to produce space for a teammate to take advantage of. Despite his link play not being his best attribute and something he’s not needed to do as much of when the two attacking midfielders are in operation, there’s still been plenty of upsides attached to his output here.
Strategic and crafty with his movement and positioning, Simeone’s been a fine reference point, as he’s lead the line with dedication, intensity and physicality.
To switch the focus back to their midfield mechanics, and Maran instructs his mids to play in a rather narrow structure, so they can be within proximity to one another to engage in some slick combination play to unlock their adversaries.
Positioned conductively so they can move the ball quickly by playing some lovely one-twos, wall passes, flicks and layoffs, Cagliari have produced some dazzling football due to their central occupation, intricate link play and off the ball movement. Indeed, this does a superb job of drawing out opponents to manipulate their structure to create spaces to exploit while crucially using their numerical and positional superiorities in damaging central areas to wreak havoc in the final third. Another key point is how their systematic interplay ensures that a Cagliari player can frequently receive in ideal forward-facing body postures to add immediate momentum into the attack, which is far better than receiving back to goal.
It’s been fantastic to see Cagliari use plenty of variety in their attacking efforts too. To start with, they’ve used sharp rotations, the third man runs and opposite movements to persistently ask questions of their adversaries to place doubt in their minds on who should mark who. Altering their opponents’ reference points intelligently, this subsequently sees them unbalance backlines and construct openings successfully. Subtle yet very effective, little things like the fullback and central midfielder interchanging, Simeone dropping and a midfielder surging in behind or midfielders rotating with one another have been very beneficial indeed.
With the width being provided by the fullbacks or exterior central midfielders, quick switches of play and interchanges have shrewdly mixed things up in wide areas. This has meant the fullback can receive in isolation to dribble upfield and fire crosses and cutbacks into the box. Moreover, their sharp dovetailing has seen the fullback able to either underlap or overlap, as the likes of Rog and Nandez have complemented their fullbacks’ movement adeptly.
When it comes to crossing and cutback scenarios, Cagliari gives the ball holder many options, for they attack the box with three or four bodies that embark on runs at differing heights to latch onto deliveries. The two 10s are usually joined by Simeone and an onrushing midfielder, whose penetrative runs from deep can be so difficult to track, to put their opposition under pressure to deal with the multifaceted threat.
Constructing many chances courtesy of their crafty counter-attacks and neat set-piece routines, that open up space by using decoy runs and blocks to enhance the chances of their aerial weapons getting on the end of deliveries, this has been another positive.
The impact of the twin playmakers warrants additional mention, as Pedro and Nainggolan have been vital in connecting wide and central attacks, progressing the ball upfield with their creative dribbling, finding space beautifully, setting up colleagues with their incisive passing and imposing themselves with their aggressive approach. Combining for eight goals and four assists, the Pedro-Nainggolan axis has unquestionably been a key driving force behind their offensive dynamism, with them both relishing the freedom and responsibility granted to them.
Capable of hurting their adversaries in a multitude of ways, Maran’s doing a wonderful job of getting the best out of his talented team by implementing some smart tactical features and backing his players to execute his philosophy.
Having currently scored the fourth-most goals in Serie A on 23 and conceded the equal third least goals on 12, Cagliari has been exceptional in their opening 12 matches. Looking ahead, the challenge will now be keeping up their remarkable form to maintain their place in the Champions League qualification spots.
Only time will tell if they can, but the signs are certainly positive that this confident, exciting and multidimensional Cagliari side will be able to continue their wicked streak as the season rolls on.