Serie A is in the midst of perhaps the most exciting season of the past decade. Fans have become wearily accustomed to the dominance of Juventus at the head of the table and, likewise, the perennial struggles of newly-promoted sides at the other end. But there are signs that the narrative is shifting this year.
It would be premature to suggest that Juve’s crown is slipping, but we are witnessing the most open title race in years with Juventus and Inter tied at the midway point. Jostling for position just behind them are a resurgent Lazio side and their city-rivals Roma. Atalanta continue to enthrall and entertain, whilst the unlikely emergence of Cagliari as a force is paralleled only by the unexpected decline of Napoli.
At the other end of the table, newly-promoted Verona and Lecce go into the winter break with a welcome buffer to the relegation zone following some impressive performances and results. Meanwhile, established clubs such as Genoa, Sampdoria and Fiorentina find themselves hovering in or around the trap door. Whatever the second half of the season brings, it promises to have us on the edge of our seats.
So which players have been pivotal as all of this unfolds?
Ciro Immobile’s 17 league goals for Lazio give him a sizeable lead at the top of the goalscoring charts, clear of Romelu Lukaku on 12 and Joao Pedro on 11. Although six of Immobile’s strikes have come from the penalty spot, this should not diminish an achievement that has been accomplished in just 16 matches. Immobile will be looking to propel Lazio into the Champions League, whilst his form also bodes well for the Azzurri’s chances at Euro 2020.
There’s no question that Simone Inzaghi has his Lazio team firing; leading the way for assists is Immobile’s team mate Luis Alberto. The former Liverpool man has set up 11 goals for others so far, chipping in with another three himself. The 27 year-old is playing the best football of his career, earning himself a recall to the Spanish squad and is on course for his most fruitful season yet with the biancocelesti.
At the other end of the field, Chris Smalling has proven to be an inspired addition to the Roma backline. Having joined right at the end of the summer transfer window, Smalling has adapted to life in Italy seamlessly. No Serie A player has won more aerial duals per game than Smalling, and he sits in the top ten for interceptions, clearances and blocks. Smalling’s bold decision to escape the increasingly toxic atmosphere at Manchester United has been rewarded in abundance.
Between the posts, Luigi Sepe has played an integral role in pulling Parma up to 7th in the table. Parma’s deep-lying, counter-attacking style exposes their backline to a lot of pressure. However, despite facing the second highest shots per game, only Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Roma have conceded fewer goals than Parma. Sepe’s shot-stopping will be a key determinant of Parma’s destiny in 2020.
Marcelo Brozovic continues to quietly impress in the Inter midfield. His endeavours are rarely glamorous, but the value of his reliability and work-rate to the team should never be under-estimated. This is now in his sixth season as a first-team regular and there is a reason why he has survived four Inter coaches.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Pellegrini continues his emergence with AS Roma. The 23 year-old is finding a consistency previously unseen and is increasingly making an attacking contribution for Roma. He is revelling in his role at the head of a midfield triangle and, with 6 assists to his name thus far, he will be hoping that form for his club will allow him to force his way into the Italy team this summer.
An honourable mention must also go to tough-tackling defensive midfielder Erik Pulgar. The Chilean enforcer was a stand-out player for Bologna last term, and carried that form through the Copa America and over to his new club Fiorentina. The £9 million release clause triggered by La Viola in the summer looks like an increasingly good piece of business. Pulgar will be key if Fiorentina are to turn around their current predicament, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see larger clubs circling in the summer.
Several established Serie A players are enjoying a new lease of life following a change in circumstance. Radja Nainggolan has flourished back in the homely surrounds of Cagliari, where he has recaptured some of this best form with 4 goals – including some trademark long-range piledrivers – and 5 assists to date. The same too can be said for Antonio Candreva who is enjoying a new lease of life under Antonio Conte at Inter; seemingly on the decline for a couple of seasons now, he’s back playing regularly and has 2 goals and 4 assists to his name.
Domenico Berardi burst onto the scene several years ago and seemed destined for a move to one Italy’s larger clubs. Since then injuries and a loss of form have seen his stock fall dramatically. Now 25 years-old and, for the time-being injury-free, this was always going to be a make or break season for him. Berardi has struck gold within Sassuolo’s high-possession style, with 8 goals and three assists heading into the winter break.
No Serie A season would be complete without an evergreen elder statesman finding their best form in front of goal. This year, that accolade appears to go to Sassuolo’s Francesco Caputo, who by the age of 30 only had one Serie A goal to his name. The Indian Summer which began for 32 year-old Caputo at Empoli last season continues with 8 goals and 4 assists to his name so far.
Several younger players have seen their stock rise over the first half of the season. The stand-out player in that category must be Parma’s right-sided attacker Dejan Kulusevski. He was plucked from Atalanta’s primavera in August, and the 19 year-old Swede has not looked back since. His direct style and proclivity for dribbling casts fear into opposing full backs. His dazzling performances delivered 4 goals and 7 assists, catching the eye of Juventus in the process. The challenge for Kulusevski will be to sustain that form in the second half of the season as he settles in at Juve with loftier expectations weighing on his shoulders and opponents now wiser to the threat he poses. Notwithstanding, Kulusevski’s rapid rise constitutes another success for the prolific talent conveyor belt up in Bergamo.
Similarly taking great strides this term are Gaetano Castrovilli (Fiorentina) and Riccardo Orsolini (Bologna). After cutting his teeth in Serie B with Bari and Cremonese, Castrovilli has asserted himself in La Viola’s midfield this year. His creative spark, leading to 3 goals and 2 assists, has been an important outlet for Fiorentina, particularly since the loss to injury of Franck Ribery. After making the permanent move from Juventus to Bologna in the summer, right-winger Orsolini has continued his development amidst an uncertain context at the club. His contribution of 4 goals and 5 assists has been pivotal to Bologna’s comfortable league position at the halfway point.
Let’s see what 2020 brings – Buon Natale a tutti!
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also be interested in my articles decomposing the playing styles of Parma, Sassuolo and Cagliari. Or if you’re planning a trip to Italy in the new year, take a look at my Calcio Travel Notes section.