“It’s too defensive.”
“Juventus always win.”
For those who don’t watch Serie A regularly, those criticisms – ones which are so often levelled at Italian football’s top flight – seem wholly accurate and there is plenty of evidence to support them. Juventus have won the title in each of the last eight seasons, most of them seeing the Bianconeri grind their way relentlessly to glory, while the same gritty performances saw them reach two Champions League finals only to be beaten by a more expansive and enjoyable opponent.
Seeing an Inter side led by Antonio Conte earmarked as the rival who could finally end the Old Lady’s dominance hardly altered that view, the former Chelsea boss famously insisting players conform to his plan rather than expressing themselves on the field. When factoring in another disastrous year for AC Milan and early sackings for Carlo Ancelotti and Vincenzo Montella after they failed to deliver their usual flair to Napoli and Fiorentina respectively, casual viewers could be forgiven for thinking the 2019/20 Serie A campaign was set to be another dour affair.
Step forward Atalanta and Lazio.
| P26 | 62pts | Lazio
| P25 | 60pts | Juventus
3️⃣ | P24 | 54pts | Inter
4️⃣ | P24 | 45pts | Atalanta
Lazio beat Bologna 2-0 and go top of Serie A! pic.twitter.com/1uRb4e5n2c
— Goal (@goal) February 29, 2020
Yes, Serie A’s traditional giants have looked laboured for much of the season, but together these two teams are dispelling any notion that Italian football isn’t entertaining. Atalanta have rightly garnered the most attention, a small town club that had previously been forced to live in the shadows of Inter and AC Milan who play less than 40 miles away.
Having finished above both clubs in the table last season when they finished third, the boys from Bergamo have continued to impress this term. After just 25 rounds of action they have already scored 70 league goals, a tally which is 10 more than any other side in the division and which includes a 7-0 rout of Torino and a 7-2 thrashing of Lecce in the past month alone.
But it is not just the lesser sides that Atalanta have beaten, already recording wins over Milan (5-0) and AS Roma (2-0 and 2-1), while holding Manchester City 1-1 in the Champions League. This season marks the first time in club history that the Orobici have taken part in Europe’s elite competition, and that draw with Pep Guardiola’s men helped them reach the knockout stages.
In a manner typical of this fearless side, Atalanta – who are forced to play their Champions League games at San Siro while their own stadium is renovated – destroyed an unprepared Valencia, a 4-1 first leg result almost ensuring they will be in the draw for the quarterfinals. If they are, whoever is pitted against them should not underestimate Gian Piero Gasperini or his players.
Atalanta owe so much of their success to the vision of the coach. It is his 3-4-3 formation and the attacking impetus he demands that has made the team so difficult to face, but even more important is the fact that the entire club has bought into his ethos. The directors comprehend that only certain players fit Gasp’s system, while the squad collectively understands that each man must follow his instructions to the letter.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) March 2, 2020
The attacking trio of Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic and Papu Gomez get much of the credit, largely because they account for the majority of the goal scoring prowess, but in truth the genius lies in the unheralded players behind them.
Perhaps the best way to think of it is to look at the success Liverpool have enjoyed with a midfield of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum, then view Atalanta as an entire team built the same way. They might not be the most talented group – there is certainly no budding Virgil van Dijk or Allison Becker to be found at the Gewiss Stadium – but they run and press and fight from the first whistle to the last.
If Atalanta’s Champions League exploits and their seven-goal outbursts have thrust them into the limelight, Lazio have somehow blossomed into Serie A’s best team without anyone noticing. While Juve and Inter made all the noise this summer, the Biancocelesti have beaten both of them already and sit top of the table.
They have done so by putting opponents to the sword with an almost eerie sense of calm, a far cry from the early days of Simone Inzaghi’s tenure. The former striker spent much of his first few seasons at the helm complaining about anything and everything; refereeing decisions, the use of VAR, the words of opposition coaches and players, acting as if the world was against him and his team.
This term, it is as if a switch has been flicked. Suddenly, Inzaghi has been a beacon of positivity, unflappable in the face of adversity and accepting the result no matter how events unfold on the pitch. His reward has been to see his team collectively raise the bar to incredible new heights, as if the coach’s new outlook has set them free of a burden, the side playing with a joyous relish as they smash record after record.
19 – #Lazio have scored 2+ goals in 19 games in Serie A this season: only Liverpool (22 matches), Manchester City (21) and Paris Saint-Germain (20) have more such games in the top-5 European Leagues 2019/20. Avalanche.#LazioBologna pic.twitter.com/OPVFBOnwKH
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 29, 2020
Ciro Immobile has 27 goals after 27 games, tying a league record that has stood since 1959, but he has had incredible support from former Liverpool man Luis Alberto who has 12 assists and, perhaps most notably, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 25-year-old is back to the standard that saw him discussed as a €100 million target for Europe’s biggest clubs, and it is clear that when he plays this way, he’d be worth every penny of such a fee.
Winning tackles before striding forward to spark attacking moves, the Serbia midfielder is capable of finishing them himself with his powerful shooting and impressive aerial prowess. More than any other player, he embodies what makes this Lazio side so dangerous; capable of destroying opponents on the field but doing so in a remarkably uncomplicated manner, a brilliantly effective footballer quietly going about his business and rarely saying anything of note to the media.
Lazio and Atalanta both do all their talking on the pitch, and their head-to-head clash next weekend should not be missed, especially when noting that back in October they drew 3-3, a game which reflects their attacking intent and carefree approach.
It certainly won’t be boring or defensive!