If Sassuolo were aiming for the mythical ‘new Coach effect’ when appointing Alberto Malesani at the end of January, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, the new boss has commenced his reign at the Emilia-Romagna club in shocking fashion, notching four consecutive defeats. The honeymoon period never eventuated.
The January 12 victory over Milan will go down as Sassuolo’s most iconic moment in their short Serie A history. Domenico Berardi was the star of the show, netting a poker to turn an early two-goal deficit into a 4-3 win. However, it was an anomaly. Beforehand Sassuolo picked up a solitary point in five games. Afterwards, two further losses signalled the end for Eusebio Di Francesco.
What was mostly an inexperienced top-flight bunch experienced early hiccups – the seven-goal thumping by Inter topping that list. They had since improved and in January were aggressive on the transfer market, making additions hoped to ensure their Serie A status.
Paolo Cannavaro, Matteo Brighi and Sergio Floccari were secured late in the month, topping a transfer session which also included Thomas Manfredini, Davide Biondini – the quintet all experienced campaigners – as well as Lorenzo Ariaudo, Nicola Sansone and Antonio Sanabria. Rather than give Di Francesco time to work with all the new signings, he was shown the door.
In came Malesani. The new boss was full of praise for the January recruits: “The club had a precise logic in its transfer strategy. Now we must ensure the team approaches every game with the right sporting determination and aggression. Players often react strongly to a change of management, as they all want to prove themselves in the eyes of the new Coach.”
Granted, with players adjusting to each other and a new tactician simultaneously, it was a tough opening. Tenth-placed Lazio the lowest ranked of the quartet faced, which also included Verona, Inter and Napoli. Yet the reaction never came. It also calls into question the timing of the decision. Under Di Francesco, Sassuolo showed in earlier matches with Napoli, Lazio, Roma and Milan that they could take on the bigger clubs.
Of the four defeats only the Partenopei reverse was by more than one goal. Still, the fact remains that with Di Francesco they were straddling the line between safety and relegation. Now, Sassuolo are firmly entrenched in the bottom three. Malesani’s recent record doesn’t offer much optimism either. A good season with Bologna aside, his last few jobs have ended in disappointment.
At the Stadio Olimpico last Sunday, Sassuolo twice fought back through Floccari and Antonio Floro Flores, but were undone by a late Stefan Radu strike. “We have a lot of regrets, I think the draw would have been the fairest result,” noted Malesani. “And I would say that this has been the best game of my management.” He says he and the club remain close and that patience is needed.
The issue is whether they have time. The Neroverdi face the impressive Parma this weekend, before a more manageable run against Bologna, Catania, Udinese and Sampdoria. It’s here that Sassuolo must pick up points.
Malesani needs his key players to fire. Cannavaro – who has already worn the captain’s armband – must lead by example at the back. Luca Marrone is another as the midfield anchor, plus veteran Floccari in attack and leading scorer Berardi. The star against Milan has struggled for goals since. Malesani has indicated he is a player they are looking to. “Berardi? He is doing well and he knows it. When he entered the field he gave a contribution that I had hoped for in other games. I cannot put hope on anyone, but I am counting on him, he is an important player for the team.”
If the reaction is not forthcoming, who could take over? Well, there’s the Coach sacked a month ago. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Di Francesco is the favourite should a change be made. There’s a sense of unfinished business to take care of. If it is to happen, it should be soon, before the situation gets desperate.
Di Francesco was able to turn their fortunes around after initial struggles. Perhaps equipped with this enhanced squad he can lead Sassuolo to safety.