A Sardinian Surprise in Serie A

At the outset of the Serie A campaign, Cagliari were being discussed as potential relegation candidates. But over a quarter of the way into the season they currently sit in fourth place having defeated Napoli, Atalanta and taken points from Roma.

Their coach Rolando Maran had an uninspiring debut season in Sardinia last term. His side spent much of the season hovering above the relegation places, eventually finishing just three points clear of the drop, aided by their passable home form.

In the close season, things got tougher for Cagliari following the inevitable departure of Nicolo Barella to Inter for £32 million. In pre-season they also lost Alessio Cragno, their goalkeeper and arguably stand-out peformer of the previous season to a long-term shoulder injury.

Their start to the new season – two consecutive defeats to Brescia and Inter – seemed to confirm their tag as relegation candidates. And their misery was compounded when talisman forward Leonardo Pavoletti, the other bright spot from an otherwise disappointing 2018/19 campaign, ruptured knee ligaments on the opening day, ruling him out for most of the new season.

What happened next is unexpected to say the least, as Cagliari find themselves on an eight-match unbeaten streak. So what have Maran and Cagliari done to turn it around?

Firstly, they sensibly reinvested the revenues earned from the sale of Barella in the playing squad. Their big money replacement for Barella was versatile midfielder Nahitan Nandez, signed from Boca Juniors for £16 million. The young player continues a fine tradition of Uruguayans in Sardinia and has made an impressive start to life there. It looks as though Cagliari will have another highly saleable asset on their hands come the end of the season, should they choose to cash in.

The loan acquisitions of Luca Pellegrini (Juventus) and Marko Rog (Napoli) were also inspired. Both are young players looking to prove themselves in Serie A, who have acquitted themselves extremely well so far.

Then Maran took some gambles in the transfer market – all of which appear to be paying dividends. He provided sanctuary for troubled star Radja Nainggolain who was looking for a way out of Inter for personal reasons. The Belgian is now revelling in the senior role he has been given at Cagliari, and we’re now seeing shades of player that came of age in the city five years ago.

Cagliari also offered Giovanni Simeone the chance to re-capture his form following a less-than-successful big-money transfer from Genoa to Fiorentina in 2017. Three goals and two assists in ten games this term suggests the arrangement is working well for both parties.

And finally, a transfer perhaps made out of necessity rather than choice. Following the injury to Cragno, Maran was forced to move for an experienced ‘keeper. After a disastrous debut season in Rome, Sweden-international Robin Olsen was looking for a fresh start. Similar to Simeone, life outside the goldfish bowl of a big club has enabled him to recapture his best form.

Secondly, Maran has set his team up pragmatically, playing in a way that recognises the limitations of the squad he has at his disposal. Reminiscent of Roberto D’Aversa’s Parma last season, Cagliari play a brand of football that is highly effective, if not attractive on the eye.

Cagliari are happy to sit deep and defend without the ball; when they do win possession they look to move forward quickly, often deploying long balls which bypass midfield areas altogether. And when Cagliari do attack, they have demonstrated ruthless tendencies in front of goal. An assortment of statistics bears this out:

  • Territory: Only SPAL, Genoa and Lecce have spent more time in their own third than Cagliari so far this season. Sitting deep also means Cagliari rarely catch their opponents offside – only AC Milan and Udinese have fewer offsides per game in their favour.
  • Possession: Maran has a settled starting eleven and the payers understand their respective roles within his system. They are clearly comfortable to defend without the ball; their possession share of 45.5% is the fourth lowest in Serie A.
  • Long passing: Cagliari have the third highest count of long balls in Serie A (only Parma and Torino have more). This penchant for longer passing also manifests itself in Cagliari having the third poorest passing accuracy (75.9%) in the league.
  • Short game: Cagliari have the second lowest count of short passes (only Brescia have played fewer). They also have the lowest volume of dribbles per game, speaking to their preference for a direct attacking approach
  • Counter-attacking: Cagliari have scored three of their 18 goals so far this season from counter-attacks. Only Serie A’s counter-attack masters Parma can equal this count.
  • Use of width: Much of Cagliari’s attacking play is routed through wide areas, particularly the right-hand side (as can be seen here). This is the same phenomenon that allowed Pavoletti to flourish last season in this team.
  • Clinical finishing: Cagliari create relatively few chances; their average of 11 shots per game is the fourth lowest in Serie A. But with a return of 18 goals so far, their goals-to-shots is bettered only by free-scoring Atalanta. Joao Pedro has been a key protagonist for Cagliari, hitting the net 5 times in 11 matches.

Can we expect Cagliari to sustain this form throughout the season? Probably not to the level observed to date, but a top half finish is certainly on the cards. More optimistically, the Sardinians might believe they can push on for a Europa League place, as Torino did last season.

The industrious, well-organised style deployed by Cagliari doesn’t have an obvious flaw that could be consistently exploited by opponents. They will continue to frustrate their opponents and we can likely expect further surprises against larger teams as the season goes on.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, you might also be interested in my decomposition of Parma’s playing style or my look into the frailties of Sassuolo‘s high-possession approach.

All stats from whoscored.com


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