As recently as 2016, Ciro Immobile had been consigned to the scrapheap of Italian strikers who failed to reach their potential. Consequently, his transfer to Lazio that summer raised a few eyebrows, especially as the Italian was arriving as a direct replacement for the retiring legend, Miroslav Klose. However, after just one season Immobile had repaid the faith placed on him by the Aquile, and he has already hit the ground running this campaign.
Having been picked up by the Juventus youth team aged 17, Immobile burst on the scene on the other side of Turin. In what was just his second full Serie A season, the striker broke Torino’s goals-per-season record, his 22 strikes earning him the converted Capocannoniere award. Many touted the player as the future of La Nazionale, and when Borussia Dortmund approached Torino with a €18 million bid, it was assumed his career was just taking off.
As it turned out though, the move to Germany was a step too far for the Campanian forward, who struggled under competition from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adrian Ramos. After scoring just three league goals in his first season, Immobile was loaned to Sevilla, with an obligation to buy after four games.
Once again, the forward found himself third in the pecking order, this time behind Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Llorente. Following a poor season, Immobile was dismissed as yet another ‘future Azzurri striker’ that had fallen by the wayside, joining Mario Balotelli, Mattia Destro and Fabio Borini.
It was in a last-ditch attempt to resurrect his career that Immobile returned on loan to Torino, in the January of 2016. Although he by no means set the world alight, five goals from 14 appearances by the end of the season was enough for Lazio to take a €9 million gamble on the then-26-year-old.
Fast forward one season, and it is clear the gamble paid off. Played as a lone striker for much of the campaign, Immobile finished the season with one more goal than his break out season at Torino, although sixth in the Serie A goal charts. The striker’s form has continued into the national team, where the forward is Italy’s top scorer in the World Cup Qualifiers with six goals in his last eight games.
As impressive as Immobile was in Lazio’s last campaign, he has started this season on a much higher level. With seven league games played, the Italian has scored nine times, just one less than Paulo Dybala who’s form has seen him touted as the next Lionel Messi.
It is not just his goal ratio that Immobile has improved, with his whole game seeing a marked improvement for last season. For example, the forward already has as many assists as his total last season, meaning that he has either scored or assisted in the last nine out Lazio’s ten games this season.
Less likely to make the headlines, the striker’s link up play has markedly improved so far this season. Although a forward will always eventually be judged on goals, the fact that Immobile’s pass accuracy has risen by 5 per cent shows an overall increase in quality. Moreover, with stats suggesting that he has been winning on average 20 per cent more duels this season, his influence in Biancocelesti is ever-increasing.
Numerous reasons have been touted for Immobile’s drastic spike in form, a lot of which is down to the players perseverance and drive, however his coach must also receive a lot of praise. In Simone Inzaghi, Lazio have a coach that is willing to build the team around their striker, even to the extent of sacrificing talents such as Nani and Felipe Anderson.
Immobile plays at his best when he has another player to work off, evident from his deadly partnership at Torino with Alessio Cerci. This season, Inzaghi has instructed Luis Alberto, normally an attacking midfielder, to play just off the striker, collecting his knock-downs and helping to link play. Lazio’s game against Sassuolo is an example of this plan working perfectly, with the Neroverdi’s defence focused on Immobile causing havoc in the box, Alberto was able to pilfer two goals.
Another tactical tweak that Inzaghi has made over the last six months has been to ditch wingers in favour of wingbacks. At the beginning of last season, the flanks were occupied by Keita Balde Diao and Felipe Anderson, both of whom prefer to cut inside and shoot. Now however, Immobile enjoys the service provided by the likes of Adam Marusic, Senad Lulic and Jordan Lukaku. Not only are the wingbacks more likely to cross the ball, but their position of the pitch stretches defences and opens space in the box for Immobile to exploit.
In the four years since Immobile became a household name, for Serie A fans at least, one thing has become clear: the forward operates best when he is the star man. This is not to say he needs to be the ‘big fish in a small pond’, just that the forward thrives in a team built to suit his talents, and in which he knows he is the first name on the team sheet.
There is no shame in this, rather, it takes a shrewd manager such as Inzaghi to recognise the potential of unleashing such a player. If Immobile is able to maintain the blistering form with which he has started the season, he may well be the first young Italian striker in a while to fulfil his potential.