Following the news that Fiorentina are in touch with Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi about taking the reins in Florence next season, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how the Viola would look if he did indeed take over. As a caveat, I haven’t watched a lot of the Neroverdi this season, so my conclusions are drawn from somewhat limited data, especially since I’m mostly ignoring his work previous to Sassuolo. On the other hand, that’s never stopped me before, so let’s dive in.
De Zerbi’s used a lot of different formations in his time at Sassuolo, but 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 have been the most common, comprising about two-thirds of his matches in charge. The other third are mostly 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3. He almost never starts with two out-and-out strikers, but that’s really the only constant. The conclusion is that he’d rather pack the middle than flood the top, which is borne out by the rest of his tactics.
With the ball
What jumps out about his style is that he wants his teams to play out from the back. At times, it seems like the defenders or deep midfielders are inviting pressure, holding the ball until an opponent gets very close. I think that’s intentional, which is fascinating: as a way to break the press, he’s instructing his players to invite pressure before making a pass to relieve that pressure and start a quick attack. Naturally, this requires central defenders who are pretty good on the ball, which would suit most of the centerbacks on the roster: Nikola Milenković, Martín Cáceres, Igor, Federico Ceccherini, and Luca Ranieri all possess the technical quality to fit in nicely. Germán Pezzella is the only guy who might struggle a bit more in this phase.
While his teams will play long at times, they usually prefer to build up with short passes, and average the fewest long balls per match in the league. The fullbacks don’t push on initially but stay farther back, which means they provide an easier out-ball from the central defenders or midfielders dropping deep. This also makes pressing his teams more difficult, as it’s harder for a single forward to cut off passing angles to these deeper fullbacks. The fullbacks then have the responsibility to act almost as wide playmakers, hitting balls along the ground to more advanced midfielders rather than bombing down the wings and spamming in crosses. Pol Lirola is tailor-made for this approach, of course, as he rose to prominence as part of De Zerbi’s Sassuolo. Lorenzo Venuti would probably be fine in this role as well. Dalbert and Cristiano Biraghi, on the other hand, tend to prefer getting forward, which could impact their returns to the team and hint at a new leftback in the transfer window.
Midfield is where things really start to branch. One midfielder will usually drop deep with one or two more staying higher up the pitch and looking for space between the lines. The deepest midfielder will look for that quick vertical pass to his colleagues or to spread it to the fullbacks. The central defenders are tasked with passing on the ground to the midfielders, which will be a serious change in approach. This means that the midfielders have to be strong enough to hold off pressure and capable of wriggling past a marker and finding a forward pass. That’s obviously Gaetano Castrovilli’s specialty, so he’ll be fine. Sofyan Amrabat also looks like a natural fit in that deep spot, and Alfred Duncan (another De Zerbi protegee) and Erick Pulgar should be well-suited to this role as well; from what I can tell, Kevin Agudelo is another who’ll thrive under these conditions. Marco Benassi, on the other hand, struggles when pressured, so he may wind up being on the chopping block.
Once that pass has been made to the midfielders in space, they’re generally tasked with turning and running at the opposing defense, looking to feed the front three against a discombobulated opponent whose midfield has been broken, leaving the forwards to win a 1-v-1 battle against a backpedaling defender. For the Neroverdi, this approach has seen a reborn Domenico Berardi thrive along with Jeremie Boga, who’s been one of the year’s breakout stars. Francesco Caputo, meanwhile, has been one of Italy’s best strikers. So what’s the secret?
For the wingers, the primary attribute seems to be athleticism and the ability to beat a man on the dribble. While Berardi has long been known for his directness, Boga’s a bit trickier as a dribbler as he drifts inside. Still, they’re both fast, quick, and capable of shooting from distance or slipping in a pass. Crossing ability doesn’t seem to be one of De Zerbi’s main concerns (Sassuolo average the fewest crosses in the division); combining quickly with teammates in transition is far more important to him. Federico Chiesa and Riccardo Sottil are both ideal fits for this style of play. Franck Ribery probably lacks the pace to really carry out De Zerbi’s vision, but his eye for a pass and trickiness with the ball should make up for any physical limitations. The combination of wingers needing to win individual battles and midfielders being invited to dribble forward explains why Sassuolo lead the league in dribbles and are second in fouls suffered.
Up top, the aforementioned Caputo serves primarily as the man who finishes off these quick breaks created by midfielders turning away from pressure. However, he also does a good job of both running in behind and, more importantly, dropping deep to lay the ball off for onrushing teammates. Dušan Vlahović has the ability to get in behind, but his hold-up play and off-ball movement aren’t up to snuff yet. Patrick Cutrone’s got the movement but may not have the pace or strength. Christian Kouamé may be the best option of the three in terms of skill set, as he’s got technique, pace, and intelligence, but he could also wind up as a winger at times.
Overall, De Zerbi’s approach is one of quick passing out the back and looking for angles to feed the midfielders, who then turn and drive forward to spur quick breaks. That desire to invite opponents to commit numbers up the pitch can lead to quick attacks when it works, but it also risks losing possession in dangerous areas, which has probably been Sassuolo’s greatest weakness under De Zerbi and how they concede too many chances.
A couple of things to note: Sassuolo have scored the third-most goals in the league from open play, so De Zerbi’s approach clearly works. However, they’ve only struck twice from set pieces, which is a concern, and win the fewest aerial balls of any team in the division. Fiorentina have enough aerially commanding players and players who can deliver a ball that we can hope for improvements there, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
The other criticism is that his teams take the most shots from outside the box in Serie A. Coupled with what I watched, this showed a reliance on manufacturing chances in the ways described above. When teams did well to shut them down in the middle, they really struggled to work the ball into dangerous areas. Whether having a dribbler like Castrovilli or a creator like Ribery in midfield can help mitigate that problem is definitely something to watch, as the Viola don’t really have anyone who’s a threat to bang them in from outside the box.
Without the ball
As mentioned above, Sassuolo’s greatest weakness is a tendency to lose the ball deep, which opens them up to quick counterattacks which lead to good chances for opponents all too often; since this seems to be inherent to De Zerbi’s approach, it’s fair to say that he needs to figure out how to tighten things up. Spreading his defensive line very wide and usually having just one midfielder drop back means that there’s a lot of space for opponents to attack in behind in transition and puts a lot of pressure on his defenders to turn and run with quick forwards, which is never a good thing. Since Fiorentina have played a very deep and reactive system for the past few years, expect to see a fair number of cheap goals like this, especially in the early going.
Besides that, he varies his defensive approaches nicely. The Neroverdi were generally pretty proactive in winning the ball back, looking to counterpress upon losing possession and turn the ball over high up the pitch. The forwards generally try to herd opposing defenses to the sidelines before applying pressure, with a central midfielder stepping up to cut off any passes inside. While they didn’t win the ball high up as often as you’d like to see for the amount of running they got through, they were good at forcing opponents to go long. With Fiorentina, the aerial prowess of the backline means that those long balls won’t be nearly as threatening. While Chiesa is a monster when pressing, the rest of the forwards are at best unproven in this regard (Ribery is likely to be a liability), so the pressing game will also need a lot of work.
Going back to that varied approach, though, Sassuolo didn’t uniformly press high. Sometimes they’d drop back into two banks and squeeze the center of the pitch, forcing opponents to play wide and cross the ball in. That suits Fiorentina much better, as trying to cross in to a box patrolled by the likes of Milenković, Pezzella, Cáceres, or Igor won’t produce many positive outcomes for opponents. This deeper defense almost felt like an attacking approach, as Sassuolo excelled at breaking quickly from these situations, often by finding Caputo up top to lay the ball off for his wingers and midfielders charging forward. While the Viola have the wingers and midfielders to use this tactic nicely, the strikers may need some work.
Roberto De Zerbi is not a perfect manager. The main criticism stems from the cheap goals his team concedes by holding the ball too long at the back and their sometimes one-dimensional attacking play. That said, there’s a reason he’s considered one of the peninsula’s brightest young minds, and at just 40, he has plenty of room to grow as a tactician as he hits his peak. More importantly, his teams play a brand of exciting, attacking football that Viola fans haven’t seen since Montella left town for the first time. I’d argue that De Zerbi is less Montella and more Prandelli, though: he doesn’t like to keep the ball just for the sake of keeping the ball, but to go forward and look to break the lines.
One of the areas he’s excelled in is working with younger players. Of the 12 players he used for over 1000 minutes in the league this year, 8 were 25 or younger. Given that Fiorentina have a very young team, De Zerbi’s ability to work younger players into his system definitely adds to his appeal.
All things considered, he’s the exact sort of coach that a team like Fiorentina should hire. His philosophy fits the current personnel nicely and his tactics should improve as the players do. If everything goes to plan, he should turn the Viola into one of Europe’s most entertaining and charismatic sides within a year or two and have them pushing for continental competition shortly.