Maurizio Sarri’s debut with Lazio ended in a 3-1 victory over his former club Empoli in Matchday 1 of the 2021/22 Serie A.
Empoli vs Lazio: Starting Lineups
Lazio started the match in a 4-3-3 formation:
Empoli started the match in a 4 -3-1-2 formation:
Empoli vs Lazio: First Half
Lazio maintained their starting formation shape without the ball against Empoli.
A man-oriented 4-3-3 settled Aurelio Andreazzoli’s pressing scheme. The aim was to block the passing options centrally to force Gli Azzurri wide where the Biancocelesti could then overload them with the help of the wing-backs to get the ball back.
As seen in the picture above, Lazio were successful in blocking the passing lanes higher up the pitch; they then tried to win back the ball by using a trigger. As soon as Empoli’s goalkeeper (Guglielmo Vicario) passed the ball to the left center-back (Simone Romagnoli), the winger near the ball (Pedro) aggressively pressed him to force him to make a bad pass or to kick it long.
However, Romagnoli was successful in bypassing the aggressive press of Pedro, as he passed the ball to Riccardo Marchizza at left-back (as seen below).
However, the left-back only had 2 options from there; either a switch to the right-back (Petar Stojanovic) or to kick it long. The first alternative was not a viable option as Sergej Milinkovic Savic was pressing him aggressively which didn’t give him time to scan the field. As a result, he was forced to kick the ball long. Lazio then recovered the ball through Manuel Lazzari.
When taking a look at Empoli’s shape with the ball in the second phase, they used a 2-3-5, but also a symmetrical 3-4-1-2 at times. This time, Lazio’s press also changed in numbers. Previously it was a 4-3-3, but a 4-4-2 was used, where one of the two wingers dropped back to make a midfield four.
Immobile pressed the ball carrying center-back, and Romagnoli didn’t have a passing option forward nor beside him, as Ardian Ismajili was being marked by Felipe Anderson. The center-back was forced to play back to Vicario in goal as a result.
That was a blessing in disguise for Empoli as 1 of their three midfielders dropped deep to provide himself as a passing option. Lazio midfielder Lucas Leiva, who was man-marking Samuele Ricci, could not follow him as that would have dismantled his team’s shape. As a result, Empoli was able to progress using their 4v2 numerical superiority to beat Lazio’s press.
But Lazio reacted well, as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joined the two forwards (Immobile and Felipe Anderson) and pressed the opposition aggressively. This forced Empoli to kick the ball long again.
Until the third minute, Lazio were successfully pressing their opponent on goal kicks and second build-up phases. This was thanks to their aggressiveness and relentlessness. The next step was their counter-press, in addition to their close proximity with and without the ball.
Empoli 1-0 Lazio: Filippo Bandinelli Strikes First
Ahead of Empoli’s goal, Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro tried to pass the ball to Ciro Immobile with a back-heel. However, Ricci intercepted it.
Ricci then passed the ball to his teammate Nicolas Haas. As one of Sarri’s basic principles is an aggressive counter-press to regain control of the ball, he always tells his players to be in close proximity, as seen below.
This is a great strategy to regain the ball if properly executed, but it has its disadvantages, as if the opposition player can get out of that pressure, the opposition team will take advantage on the counter-attack (as most of the players will be in the opposition half). This is how Lazio conceded.
Haas’ technical security with the ball allowed him to escape the pressure. After he got out of Lazio’s aggressive counter-press, he then passed the ball to his teammate (Stojanovic).
This opened up a passing lane for Stojanovic, and the right-back passed a great ball diagonally to attacking midfielder Nedim Bajrami. This took more than four Lazio players out of the game.
As seen in the picture below, seven of Lazio’s players are in Empoli’s half, and their shape has been dismantled. Bajrami received the ball with so much space and time and made the most out of it.
Lazio were facing four Empoli players in the counter-attack. They only had three players to defend this; while Francesco Acerbi marked Leonardo Mancuso, Luiz Felipe was focusing on the next pass of the ball carrier, and Lazzari was marking Patrick Cutrone, one player (Filippo Bandinelli) was left unmarked (and ultimately scored).
How were Empoli successful on the counter-attack? Cutrone pinned Lazzari with his inside run towards the penalty box. As this happened, a big space was created in Lazio’s back-line. Bandinelli was the player who attacked this space.
Bajrami kept the ball at his feet to give time and space for his teammate Bandinelli to arrive in the box at the right time.
After a nice pass, Empoli struck through Bandinelli.
Empoli 1-1 Lazio: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic Equalizes
Despite going down early, Lazio reacted well with a great goal from a set piece. Lazio did not change their pressing shape; they pressed Empoli on a 4-4-2 high block.
Immobile’s relentless pressing forced Vicario to miscontrol a pass which ended up giving Lazio a corner kick.
Lazio had an interesting corner kick set-up. Felipe Anderson took the corner kick very fast and passed it to Pedro.
When Pedro moved to receive the ball, two Empoli players followed him. This movement created space for his teammates inside the box.
Milinkovic-Savic was the one Lazio player who attacked the vacated space with his late run.
Pedro passed the ball back to Anderson, who then crossed the ball into the vacated space.
Milinkovic Savic then headed the ball in to score Lazio’s equalizing goal vs Empoli.
Lazio’s Build-Up Play & Ball Possession
After scoring the equalizer, Lazio looked a little bit calm compared to the first 20 minutes. Taking a look at their build-up play, Pepe Reina played an important role.
Empoli players were pressing Lazio players on a man-oriented scheme. They were man-marking every Lazio player or were in close proximity with them (except for Elseid Hysaj and Reina as seen below).
Finding the free man is another one of Sarri’s basic principles. As Hysaj was unmarked, he was the choice Reina opted for. Thanks to his ball-playing ability, Lazio escaped pressure in their first build-up phase.
Lazio opted for an asymmetric 2-3-4-1 or 2-3-5 when in possession.
Empoli players were successfully blocking the passing options centrally which forced Lazio to play out wide. Hysaj then passed the ball to Felipe Anderson.
Felipe Anderson had a passing option centrally in Milinkovic Savic but he anticipated that it was a pressing trap by the opposition (Empoli). So he just passed it back to Hysaj.
Then Hysaj dropped with the ball to create a back three and allow Lazzari at right-back to push forward. After Lazzari moved higher up the pitch, Pedro dropped deep to replace him down on the flank. This was to provide a passing option for his teammates.
Hysaj then passed the ball wide to Pedro via a direct switch. This was a common method used by Lazio throughout the game.
Pedro received the ball and ran diagonally with the ball to attack the opposition via another quick switch. He played the ball to Milinkovic-Savic, who then played the ball to Felipe Anderson, who then attacked the opposition with time and space. This resulted in a corner kick.
Sarri talked about those wide plays after the game. He stated that “the inside spaces were extremely blocked off” and that “the build-up must sometimes go through wider spaces”, but “the idea is to develop our attacks also through the middle of the pitch.”
Whoscored.com’s attacking action map also showed this.
Thanks to these successful wide plays, Lazio scored their second goal of the game.
Empoli 1-2 Lazio: Manuel Lazzari Puts the Biancocelesti Ahead
As Sarri mentioned, Lazio were forced to play in the wide areas of the pitch as Empoli were successful in blocking the central passing lanes. But that was a blessing in disguise for Lazio, as their players in the wide regions (Lazzari, Hysaj, Pedro, Felipe Anderson) were great at finding space with a quick one-two or via a direct switch.
Looking at Lazio’s second goal, Hysaj switched the ball directly to Lazzari. Lazio overloaded the pitch centrally, which resulted in big spaces out wide. This allowed Lazzari to push higher to complete either an overlap or an underlap.
Lazzari decided to pass the ball to Milikovic-Savic and complete an underlap.
Sergej Milinkovic then passed the ball back to Lazzari as he did not stop his underlapping run. His pass was timed to perfection; it broke Empoli’s deep block. Lazzari was too fast to be caught by Empoli’s defenders and he arrived in the box with time and space to attack the ball.
He took a well-placed strike that beat Vicario and went into the bottom corner.
Speaking about Lazzari after the match, Sarri stated that “Lazzari is growing in the interpretation of the role” and that “he can become an excellent full-back as he’s naturally devastating when moving forward.”
A quick note; when Lazzari moved forward, Hysaj held back to establish defensive security.
Empoli 1-3 Lazio: Ciro Immobile Doubles the Biancocelesti’s Lead From the Spot
Following a corner kick, Acerbi was fouled by Vicario in goal which resulted in a penalty for Lazio. Ciro Immobile stepped up and took the responsibility to handle the matter, scoring his first of the season with a confident strike.
Empoli vs Lazio: Second Half
In the second half, Sarri was trying to manage and control the game more than the first half. This is why he brought on Luis Alberto. Lazio’s formation in the second half looked as follows:
Overall, the game was superb for Lazio except for the first 20 minutes. The expected goals (xG) statistics showed that it was a deserved victory for Lazio (1.47 vs 1.16).
Nonetheless, it was a great debut for Maurizio Sarri as a Lazio manager which ended up in a 3-1 victory.
Lazio will have their home opener at the Stadio Olimpico against Spezia in their next Serie A fixture.