In a summer of transition for many of Italy’s top clubs, Lazio have been inconspicuous. They were the surprise package of last season, with an eight-match winning run between February and April propelling them into contention for a top-three finish and Champions League football; something that was eventually secured with a stunning 4-2 away win over fellow hopefuls Napoli on the final day of the season. It was the least that Lazio deserved; outside of Juventus they had been Serie A’s form team of 2015 and, without spending extravagantly, had built a strong, organised team capable of competing with anyone on their day.
This theme of steady progression has continued over the summer months. Rather than wild pursuits of star names, Lazio have brought in talented, affordable young players with vast potential still to be tapped into. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic; this year’s under-20 World Cup Bronze Ball winner, was signed from Genk for a fee of €10 million, while promising Dutch pair Wesley Hoedt (free transfer) and Ricardo Kishna (€4 million) arrived from Twente and Ajax respectively. If Lazio are to win another Scudetto this season, it will be achieved in a wholeheartedly different manner to their success in 2000, brought about by Sergio Cragnotti’s lavish spending on proven top-class players.
Much of the credit for Lazio’s sustainable transfer strategy must go to the club’s Sporting Director, Igli Tare. The Albanian spent his final two seasons as a player with the club before moving into his new position, where he has been responsible for co-ordinating the signature of many of the players that make up the team today, including Stefan de Vrij, Lucas Biglia, Marco Parolo and Felipe Anderson, each of whom cost under €10 million in transfer fees. However the transfer policy only supplied the individual talent. It still required good organisation, which is where coach Stefano Pioli comes in.
Pioli was appointed last summer after being sacked by relegation-threatened Bologna in early 2014. His selection was considered generally uninspiring, but he managed to knit together a wholesome unit from the players available to him. He showed tactical flexibility and positive man management to get the best out of previous underperformers, such as the aforementioned Anderson.
The successful synergy of Tare’s transfer market expertise and Pioli’s coaching skill allowed Lazio to return to the top of Serie A last season, reach the Coppa Italia final and make the Champions League qualifying rounds. To reach the group stages, Lazio will have to negotiate a tough play-off with Bayer Leverkusen, though they have the advantage of going to Germany with a 1-0 lead gained in the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. Sealing the win there would see Lazio ino Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2007.
Stefano Pioli was unheard of outside Italy when he was appointed last summer. He began coaching in his mid-30s, taking charge of Bologna’s youth team before forging a career improving the fortunes of Serie B sides such as Salernitana, Grossetto, Piacenza and Sassuolo. Despite a strong reputation in Italy’s second tier, he struggled to leave much of an imprint on Serie A with either Parma or Chievo.
However, with Bologna, Pioli finally made his breakthrough, guiding the Rossoblu to consecutive safe mid-table finishes after years spent towards the bottom end of Serie A. Then, a downturn in form at the start of his third season in charge prompted his sacking in January of last year, before Lazio picked up the phone last summer.
His €600,000 salary meant that Pioli was the fifth-lowest paid coach in Serie A last season, which reflected the low level of expectation surrounding his hiring. He quickly dispelled any notions that he wasn’t up to the task by instilling a level of organisation that enabled Lazio to compete on even terms with the best in Italy, achieving their highest league position in seven years.
Antonio Candreva is a player many know of but few truly appreciate. He’s one of those talents that seem to consistently remain under the radar, perhaps due to the fact that he has never quite established himself at any of Italy’s traditional top clubs.
Candreva spent six months with Juventus in 2010 but failed to leave enough of an impression to earn a longer-term deal. From there he had a difficult time with Parma and a short spell at Cesena before arriving in Rome on the last day of the January transfer window in 2012. Since becoming a Lazio player, Candreva has rarely looked back.
With his quick changes in tempo and direction coupled with a desire to beat his opposite man, Candreva has become a Lazio favourite and a regular in the Italian national side. Indeed, it was his cross for Mario Balotelli that inflicted defeat upon England at last summer’s World Cup. He’s a regular source of attacking inspiration for his club and is elemental to Pioli’s tactics.
One to Watch
Miroslav Klose turned 37 years old during the summer and as such Lazio must consider replacing the everlasting German striker with a younger model. This issue only became more pressing after he came off at half-time of Tuesday’s win over Leverkusen with a suspected muscular tear.
Filip Djordjevic left Nantes on a free transfer last summer to sign for Lazio and scored nine goals in 26 appearances during his first year in Italian football. He was inches away from becoming a hero in the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus. With the match tied at 1-1 in the early stages of extra-time, Djordjevic received the ball to feet outside of the penalty box, turned and whipped a left-footed strike that thudded off of both posts before rebounding out to safety. Lazio eventually lost the match, but Djordjevic will be determined to ensure that near miss doesn’t define him.
The Serbian striker will miss the start of this season as he is recovering from an injury, but once fully fit he will be expected to take on the responsibility of ruffling opposition defenders’ feathers in Klose’s absence. With the customary settling in period now over, Djordjevic will be under pressure to hit double figures in his second season with Lazio. His failure to do so could be costly with so few genuine striking alternatives at the club.
Pioli showed enough evidence of adaptability last season to suggest that his Lazio side will be well equipped to deal with the rigours of competing both domestically and on the continent this season. He switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation for the Coppa Italia final against Juventus without much prior warning of such a change being instituted. Furthermore, the formation was relatively successful, allowing Lazio to press high and restrict Juventus’ options passing out from the back.
Pioli may well use that system again at some point this season, but generally speaking he will use a variant of a rough 4-5-1 shape. The five in midfield will either take the form of one defensive midfielder, two central midfielders and two wingers; or a double pivot with one advanced midfielder and two wingers. Against Leverkusen, Lazio lined up in the former shape, with Lucas Biglia at the base of midfield and Ogenyi Onazi and Marco Parolo further forward.
It’s sometimes difficult to properly assess exactly how Lazio will line up due to the interchangeable nature of these systems but one constant is that Pioli likes to have both Felipe Anderson and Candreva behind a lone striker. The pair are given a certain amount of creative license, often switching wings and occasionally drifting inwards.
Defensively, the full-backs – usually Dusan Basta and Stefan Radu – aim to congest space by moving infield when Lazio do not have the ball, making the defensive line more horizontally compact, before bursting forward down the flanks when Lazio win possession. Basta is particularly effective at this and is a regular source of attacking width on the right.
The faces in the starting line-up will likely to be unchanged from last season, with the new additions likely to spend the majority of their first few months with the club on the bench, learning where they fit into the system. As a result, Lazio look settled and have less work than any of their rivals to do in integrating new players, though they must resolve the future of Biglia as soon as possible. The Argentine has been reportedly close to leaving the club and, should he do so, there will be a gaping chasm at the heart of Lazio’s midfield that must be filled if they are to remain as effective as they were last season.