Following the end of the summer transfer window, many in Italy were touting Lazio to finish no higher than 10th. But time and time again, Simone Inzaghi and his team have proven their doubters wrong and shown that they are no flash in the pan.
The scepticism from the Italian media was not wholly unjustified. Losing both their captain and midfield linchpin Lucas Biglia to Milan threatened to destabilise the team, but Keita Balde Diao’s transfer cemented a longstanding belief that owner Claudio Lotito’s interests lie first and foremost in business.
Although Keita’s transfer wasn’t unexpected after a summer rife with rumours, Lotito opted against spending the money on a replacement for the Senegal international’s 16-goal return from the previous season, much to the chagrin of the club’s supporters. Frustrations over transfer policy had been a common theme with the club’s revolving door of Coaches, including the likes of Edy Reja and Vladimir Petkovic, who publicly criticised the ownership for a lack of investment in the squad.
Lotito will feel vindicated in his refusal to spend big, as the Aquile have started the season wonderfully well, thanks in no small part to the excellent Simone Inzaghi. But, if not for divine intervention, things could have been a lot worse for the Lazio faithful had the Italian entrepreneur had his way in the summer of 2016.
Just two days after signing his contract, Marcelo Bielsa had already resigned, again citing the club’s inactivity in the transfer market as the reason for leaving. Inzaghi, who had been overlooked by Lotito in favour of the ex-Argentina manager, had reached an agreement to manage Salernitana, but was hastily recalled to the Lazio bench. Lotito played it as “a decision made to bring back authentic Lazio values” - he was right, but no one really believed it, let alone himself.
Despite a far from ideal start to the summer, Inzaghi took his chance in the same fashion he did as a player. Unflappable and calm, he brought stability to the club when it needed it most. Surprising all, he guided the Biancocelesti to a fifth-place finish and an appearance in the Coppa Italia Final in his first full season.
Tactically flexible, his side can seamlessly switch between exhilarating attacking football and, like all great sides, adopt a pragmatic approach against the big guns. He started the current campaign in the best way possible, with dramatic late victory in the Supercoppa over Serie A champions Juventus to claim their first piece of silverware in four years.
Inzaghi’s success has stemmed from creating an environment for his players to thrive and express themselves in, instilling the squad with belief. Just look at the likes of Ciro Immobile, who already has 14 goals after just 11 rounds. The Campania native netted a hat-trick against Milan and a double over Juventus in Turin, highlighting a renewed belief in his own abilities. He has begun to recapture the form he exhibited four years ago when he became the first Torino player to win the Capocannoniere crown since Ciccio Graziani in 1977, and has become a mainstay in the Italian national team once again. It’s no surprise then, that at the end of October, Immobile extended his contract until 2022.
The same can be said for Stefan de Vrij. Lazio’s rock at the heart of their defence was courted by a host of top European clubs in the summer, who were looking to capitalise on a couple of failed attempts the club made at negotiating a new contract. However, he has changed tack in recent weeks, with the Dutchman insisting his future is in Rome. This is testament to the sense of unity that Inzaghi has created and the collective belief the squad has in him.
Other beneficiaries of Inzaghi’s management are the likes of Thomas Strakosha (who also signed a new deal after his heroics in the 2-1 win over Juventus in Turin), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (fast becoming one of the best midfielders in the league) and most significantly, his former student in the Primavera, Alessandro Murgia, who is already proving that he can repay that faith. It’s clear that Inzaghi has one eye on the future - he isn’t here for the short term.
In the most unlikely of circumstances, and at the helm of a club where controversy is always just around the corner, Inzaghi has defied all expectations and built on his work season by season. He has transmitted his ideas to his players - and it would appear that they fully believe in them, and in him.
Yes, they have had other successful periods in the past, but the signs point to something different. Something quite special is being built at Lazio. Lack of investment has often threatened to derail their momentum, but in Inzaghi, they have one of the most talented young Coaches in Italian football. While he’s still there, they’ll continue to grow - you just try and stop them.