Roberto De Zerbi and Manuel Locatelli have taken a step forward in this campaign and are making fans of the Emilia-Romagna club dream. This past weekend, Sassuolo stormed into the Stadio San Paolo and deservedly defeated Napoli 2-0. The Neroverdi are still unbeaten in Serie A and hope this is only the beginning of what can be a historical campaign for them.
It is true that Napoli are the only big team they’ve faced so far this season, with all the due respect to Cagliari, Spezia, Crotone, Bologna and Torino. All games in which they were expected to be at least competitive. Their positive results, however, can’t be taken for granted as, for example, they fought hard to recover from two goals down against Torino and bring one point home.
However, what’s even more impressive about Sassuolo’s campaign so far is how De Zerbi has been able to rotate his players and change his tactics depending on Sassuolo’s opponents.
The Brescia-born coach typically sets his teams up in a 3-4-2-1 when attacking and when in possession of the ball. He emphasises the building from the back with goalkeeper Andrea Consigli being the starting point. This does have its risks as it was evident in Naples when the Azzurri won the ball in Sassuolo's half and had Dries Mertens and Victor Osimhen had their shooting boots on, Sassuolo would have conceded the opener.
"If we are going to lose, let's choose how to lose," De Zerbi said after the game. That says it all.
One would think that having taken the lead away from home against a formidable opponent, like it happened in Naples, Sassuolo might decide to be conservative and protect what they have. But, once again, that is not the De Zerbi way.
He may not always be the most animated coach on the sidelines, preferring to take a somewhat laid-back approach, but the former Milan youth player gets his point across clearly. He encouraged his team to continue on their path. Why should he change? It has proven successful so far.
However, one of the criticisms of his team is that they are vulnerable at the back. In fairness, this comes from the way De Zerbi sets his team to press high up the pitch trying to win back the ball as quickly as possible and exploit the spaces in the opposition defence.
Normally they would defend with a 5-3-2, with the two wing backs tracking back and cover in a low block sequence. Sassuolo had conceded nine goals in six league games so far, including three each in their last two games. They are definitely a high risk to high reward side, but they seem to be enjoying their style as they’ve been entertaining neutral fans as well.
Slowly and surely, the away side grew into the game in Naples and that was mainly thanks to a brilliant Manuel Locatelli. Not only was he the regista dictating the tempo of his team's attacks and protecting the defence with his ever-improving tactical nous. He had added responsibility, having been given the captain's armband. Just before the hour mark, Sassuolo were awarded a spot kick he dispatched with a veteran's confidence. It was his first penalty goal at senior level.
Locatelli's increased versatility on the field has been gaining more and more traction in recent times, so much so, that he earned a call-up to the Italy team and has already appeared four times under Roberto Mancini.
While Locatelli became famous for *that* goal for Milan against Juventus back in 2016, his game has grown exponentially.
When Sassuolo are defending, he generally operates into two roles, in the second block of the defence and as a pivot. Both roles allow him to add a numerical advantage to his team. Don't think it's just on one end though of his effectiveness. When he or his teammates break up the attack or when a loose ball is available, he has the ability and the train of thought to move it forward allowing his team to immediately put pressure on the opponents.
The Lecco-born player's passing range and accuracy has also come along in leaps and bounds. He constantly ends a match in the high 80's percentage of passing and whether it's passing between the lines, on the ground or over the top, he normally reaches his intended target.
We are only at the embryonic stage of this season, but given their start so far, with De Zerbi and Locatelli leading the way, is there a limit to what the team in Green & Black can achieve?