As Serie A awakes from its winter slumber, Champions League chasing Lazio return to find themselves confronted by their worst nightmare, a game against one of the Peninsula’s top sides - Napoli.
The capital outfit have performed admirably in recent years. Finishing in the top five in three of their last five Serie A campaigns, reaching two Coppa Italia finals and memorably winning the Supercoppa Italiana in 2017 with a rare victory over Juventus. However, only once in that period did they break into the top four and that is mainly due to their record against direct rivals in the league.
On one hand, the fact that Lazio are in this conversation is testament to the club’s work on the transfer market and their Coach Simone Inzaghi. Le Aquile have lost a considerable amount of talent in recent times with the likes of Felipe Anderson, Stefan de Vrij, Keita Balde Diao, Lucas Biglia and Antonio Candreva all leaving the club. Working shrewdly to snap up key players Ciro Immobile, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto and Thomas Strakosha amongst others, has proven significant in helping the club maintain a competitive edge on the pitch.
On the other hand, there is an understandable frustration that the Biancocelesti continually fall short when it matters most. Those season-defining games have proven to be the club’s kryptonite and the stats make for bleak reading. In Lazio’s last 24 Serie A matches against Juve, Napoli, Inter and bitter city rivals Roma combined, they have managed a poultry three wins and three draws. That is a win ratio of just 12.5%. They have leaked 48 goals in those games, scoring an inadequate 17 in response.
This dismal record extends beyond league action. Those aforementioned Coppa Italia finals both ended in defeat against serial winners Juventus, those losses came either side of a quarter-final exit at the hands of the same opponent and last season the Laziali endured a semi-final defeat to Gennaro Gattuso’s Milan.
So what is it that causes The Eagles to nosedive when the pressure is on?
It is too simplistic to say that despite possessing a squad with players that have the individual capability to snatch victory in an instant, player for player Lazio do not have enough quality across the pitch to come out on top in more of these contests. This leads us onto other contributing factors, the Coach and the environment.
Inzaghi has certainly exceeded expectations since being appointed as full-time boss in the summer of 2016. However, while Inzaghi has played a major role in helping bring the feel-good factor back to the club he represented as a player, the inexperienced Italian tactician has shown his limitations and naivety. A refusal to break away from his preferred 3-5-2 – or variations of - that has served him so well has also been a hindrance.
Lazio are at times predictable and against the very best they are relatively easy to stifle. Watch Lazio on a regular basis and you will notice a repetitive pattern to their play. Focusing most of their attacks via the left flank through the energetic Senad Lulic and the super talented Milinkovic-Savic. Further ahead of them, the danger is Immobile looking to exploit space in behind being fed by a regular stream of attempted through balls and crosses. The Italian Number 17 is most commonly partnered by Felipe Caicedo or Luis Alberto with Joaquin Correa – Lazio’s most used substitute so far – often introduced to freshen up the attack, with the formation always maintained.
Having belief in the system you deploy is commendable, but coaching in calcio’s elite tier requires you to be intuitive, adaptable and carry the presence of mind to make the necessary changes at the right moment in an attempt to guide your team to victory. At 42 years old, Inzaghi’s career in the dugout is in its infancy and he has ample time to develop as a Coach, but he must be bold enough to make decisions that could tip these top of the table clashes in his favour.
Perhaps there is a mental block when Lazio face those teams placed above them. Players that have failed following big moves or talents that haven’t been fulfilled elsewhere are sounded out and brought to the Stadio Olimpico. Do those players carry a fragility that stops them stepping up? With a mixture of players that are unaccustomed to succeeding and winning, it is not unfair to suggest that this forms part of the problem.
Lazio begin the second half of their season in the toughest possible fashion. Firstly, facing a trip to second-placed Napoli, followed by a home game against reigning champions Juventus. Currently sitting in that highly coveted final Champions League spot, Lazio will need to overcome their ultimate flaw if they are to once again showcase their talents on European football’s biggest stage.