Heading into the international break, there is an unexpected name at the top of the Serie A possession charts. Step forward, Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo.
Despite sitting in a lowly 15th position in Seire A with 6 points from 6 games, the neroverdi lead the possession table with a 57.8% average. They are marginally ahead of second-place Napoli and two full percentage points clear of league leaders Juventus. In fact, only a handful of teams across Europe’s top leagues have recorded higher possession so far – and none of them are of Sassuolo’s modest stature. They are keeping good company alongside the likes of Manchester City, Barcelona and PSG.
Of course, at this early stage in the season, caution is required not to over-interpret the data. However, high possession has consistently been a hallmark of De Zerbi’s tactical approach in recent years. Last season his side were seventh-placed in the possession table and the 2017/18 his Benevento side finished halfway up the possession stats, despite finishing rock bottom of the league.
The trend has certainly continued and, indeed, has been stepped up so far this season. They have won the possession battle in each of their matches this season – even when they have been on the receiving end of four-goal defeats to Atalanta and Roma.
There is naturally a question about what Sassuolo do with all of that possession. Much of it occurs deep in central areas. They have a high volume of short passes, concentrated in the middle of the pitch, which translates into one of the highest pass accuracies in the league. Within Sassuolo’s system, centre backs Vlad Chiriches and Gian Marco Ferrari form the base of a pivotal triangle with defensive midfielder Pedro Obiang at its head. All three players are in the top ten for passing volumes within Serie A.
Sassuolo are characterised by a patient attacking style, which borders on an aversion to long balls. They are frequently found nursing the ball in deep positions, waiting for the right moment to attack, then loading central areas with a rapid change of pace. The contrast with Napoli’s high-possession attacking style, which makes far greater use of width, can be seen from the heat maps below.
But this should not be mistaken for Sassuolo playing it safe; they are also experiencing a remarkably high turnover of the ball. Sassuolo are dispossessed on average 11 times per game (only Parma and Brescia are dispossessed more frequently). They are currently compensating for this by making a high number of interceptions (5th highest) and tackles (7th highest) in order to satisfy De Zerbi’s appetite for possession. Given the importance of turnovers within modern football it is perhaps no surprise that Sassuolo games have tended to bring goals.
De Zerbi has deployed numerous players alongside the ever-present Obiang as he attempts to cut out individual errors and find the right formula in his three-man midfield. In six games he is yet to play the same midfield twice, turning variously to Alfred Duncan, Francesco Magnanelli, Hamed Traore, Mehdi Bourabia and Manuel Locatelli.
Sassuolo do not have a particular problem in creating or indeed converting their own chances – having scored the most goals in the bottom half of the table. Domenico Berardi in particular has been in sparkling form in attack. However, their undoing appears to come in defensive areas. They concede relatively few attacking chances to their opponents (only Juventus, Atalanta and Bologna have fewer chances against), which only serves to emphasise a very poor goals against tally (only four teams have conceded more). On the basis of their matches so far, Sassuolo appear to have a particular vulnerability to crosses into the box.
The club are now at something of a cross-roads both on and off the field. It remains to be seen how the sad loss of their club figurehead Giorgio Squinzi will affect matters in the short and longer term. On the pitch, the pressure is on De Zerbi to convert possession into results by finding his best midfield configuration and stemming the flow of goals against.
However, their recent match against Parma was a perfect illustration of the flaws of the current approach and the scale of the challenge they face. Sassuolo came up against a team with a reputation for clinical efficiency – the very antithesis of their own style. Away from home, Sassuolo dominated possession (70%), yet fell to a 1-0 defeat following an injury time own goal from Bourabia.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, you might also like the statistical deconstruction of Parma’s playing style.