The attacking structure and success of S.S. Lazio
Sport Careers Agency client and Heart of Midlothian Youth Academy Coach, Scott McLennan provides a fascinating insight into the attacking structure and success of Simone Inzaghi's S.S Lazio.
Simone Inzaghi is into his fourth full season as manager of Lazio and has achieved relative success in that time, winning the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana twice by overcoming Italy's dominant side of the last decade, Juventus. However, this season has saw Lazio mount a serious challenge to Juve's dominance of Serie A with Ciro Immobile leading the way as the league's top goal scorer (27) and Carlos Alberto topping the assists chart (11). They are the second highest goal scorers on 60 goals, 10 behind the impressive Atalanta who lead the league with 70. However, Lazio do boast the best goal difference having conceded 11 fewer than their counterparts from Bergamo. In this article I will examine how Lazio have been so successful in possession, assessing their structure to build and finish attacks as well looking closer at Europe's leading marksman, Ciro Immobile.
The games analysed were home matches against Inter Milan and Bologna. Lazio were consistent in their approach, playing a 3-1-4-2 with possession being of little importance to the Biancocelesti who averaged 47% across the two matches. Personnel was fairly consistent with a midfield of Lucas, Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto in both matches with Immobile the main attacking threat. Bologna played a 4-2-3-1 with Inter matching up their opponents, setting up in a 3-1-4-2.
Creating overloads in the build-up phase
In both matches against Bologna and Inter, Lazio adjusted to ensure they managed to construct attacks effectively and enter the middle third of the pitch. An important strength is the confidence and competency of the back 3 to step in with possession and play passes to break the first line of pressure. Alongside this, the awareness of Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto to drop down on the build up to become the free player and create an extra pass makes it very difficult for a team to pin Lazio down and create numerical superiority. I felt that Lazio managed to create these overloads in 3 ways.
In the game against Inter Milan, Lazio managed to build successfully through the isolation of midfielder Vecino by Radu and Luis Alberto and playing round him on the switch of play. In this match Inter's initial defensive strategy was for the two advanced midfield players to press the outside centre backs of Lazio with Lukaku tasked with managing Acerbi and Martinez dropping down to prevent the pivot, Lucas, from getting time and space to turn and play forward. This then often freed up Milinkovic-Savic and in particular Alberto on switches of play across the back 3.
As shown in the diagram Lazio would often build through the right side of the pitch to drag Inter across and work the ball across to Radu. As the ball shifted across the pitch, Luis Alberto would position himself blindside of Vecino making it extremely difficult for the Inter centre midfield player to know the exact angle of pressure to eliminate a passing lane to Alberto. As the ball travelled, Radu was very clever with his first touch, taking it towards Vecino to entice the CM out of his position and freeing up Alberto to receive with time and space to turn and play forward. Although these movements directly affect the players around the ball, it cannot be underestimated the positioning of the wingbacks and strikers to allow this overload to happen. As is often the case a 2v1 in a bigger space is better than a 3v2.
As the play is circulated from right to left Jony makes a forward run to take Candreva into the Inter back line. Further isolation to Vecino is created through the movement of Immobile and Caicedo who come across to the side of the ball with one striker dropping off the back line and into a position to potentially receive a pass from Radu. Although they are unable to find a passing lane, Immobile is able to occupy Brozovic who is more concerned about shutting off the pass rather than supporting Vecino. This then isolates Vecino entirely and allows Lazio to enter the middle third of the pitch without any pressure. It is also important to note the discipline Alberto shows as the play develops to Radu from Felipe. Instead of making his initial movement to the ball he moves out of Vecino's eye line and into a position where it is impossible for the Inter centre midfielder to have an awareness of Alberto and the ball at the same time.
As highlighted in the diagram, against Bologna the two strikers managed to occupy the entire back line, meaning that the wing backs were often spare on the build-up and the route to escaping the initial press. When pressing high, the wingers did not directly press the outside centre backs, instead shut off passes to the wing back. With Lucas being marked tight by Soriano, Milinkovic-Savic drops down and is able to play a first time, round the corner pass to Lazzari who is able to then carry the ball into the space and combine with the strikers.
As he arrives to play the pass, Milinkovic-Savic slows down to give himself as much time as possible to get set before playing round the corner, turning his hips as he plays the pass to ensure it reaches Lazzari who does not have to break stride and crucially, can speed up the attack. When Milinkovic-Savic drops down, the weight of the pass from Patric has to be manageable in order for the centre midfield player to play a controlled first-time pass. This is crucial as if the ball is lost in this position, it can allow Bologna an opportunity to break from a central position.
What is important to note in this passage of play is the movement and awareness from Lucas. As he is initially marked tight, an instinctive movement may be to move towards the ball to evade pressure. However, by standing in his position or adjusting away from the ball slightly it creates a passing angle for Milinkovic-Savic to drop down and receive the ball. This movement is consistent in both the Inter and Bologna matches where he often stands still to allow the free CM to drop down or move away from the ball to create a bigger space for the CM to operate in.
Against Inter Milan, the free players tended to be either Milinkovic-Savic or Alberto. When the Inter CMs jumped to press this often allowed either of Lazio's centre midfield players to drop down and receive blindside of the initial presser. In this instance when Strakosha clips the ball to Radu it entices Vecino to jump out his position to press leaving Alberto free. Again, when this pass is played Lucas recognises that he is picked up and makes no attempt to support Radu, instead he stays away which creates more space for Alberto to drop down and receive with time and space to turn and carry the ball into the middle third. When Radu receives the ball and is pressed by Vecino, Alberto makes a movement that allows him to not only receive the ball but to do so in a way that he can take the ball across his body and drive forward.
Both Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto have a great understanding of when to drop down and create an extra passing option on the build-up. However, it is important to highlight the role of the centre midfield player not dropping in. If the ball was on the side of Alberto, Milinkovic-Savic would then push higher towards the striker in order to create a passing option higher up the pitch to speed up the attack should Alberto receive the ball and quickly be put under pressure. By also pushing higher into a position between the lines it can occupy more opposition players, creating more space for Alberto to turn when receiving possession.
In the match against Bologna, the prevalent approach for the visitors was to adopt man to man marking across midfield. If Alberto or Milinkovic-Savic were picked up tightly when dropping down, it then opened up avenues for one of the strikers to drop in and create a 4v3 centrally. As demonstrated in the diagram, Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto both occupy the half spaces when Lazio have secure possession of the ball. As the ball travels back inside from Petric into Felipe, Alberto recognises how tight he is marked and edges away from the ball, dragging Poli out of position and as a result opens up a space to play through the opposition midfield.
Although this movement creates space, the strikers must have the intelligence to time their movement effectively to ensure when they receive the ball they have time and space to turn and drive or be set so that if they do receive under pressure they are comfortable enough to set back to midfield or roll the opponent. Correa is intelligent enough to know that when Alberto peels away from the ball, he is opening up a passing channel to drop down and receive the pass. On this occasion Correa waits till Felipe takes his first touch then drops into the space. However, he lacks awareness of the lack of pressure behind him and takes a negative touch back the way and ends up setting the ball back to Patric.
This situation could have been used for effectively by Lazio if Correa managed to take his touch forward to commit the opposition defender. Alternatively, the pass may have missed Correa and went through to Immobile who was playing slightly higher. Although under more pressure, Immobile could then set back to Correa who is in a position to receive facing the opposition goal. Although this moment was not maximised it did highlight the understanding Lazio had to control the build-up and create overloads regardless of the defensive strategy used by the opposition.
Midfield positioning and exploiting the space available
In both matches Lazio faced off against different strategies and defensive systems, meaning the areas to exploit were different. However, Lazio managed to gain success through spatial awareness, support underneath the ball and moving the opposition into positions that created space to play on the opposite side of the ball.
As we can see from the second goal that Lazio score in the game against Bologna, it comes from a rare moment when the opposition abandon the principle to man mark the midfield 3 and become more concerned at defending the space around the ball. As Patric is under no pressure, he is then able to get further distance on his pass and clips a diagonal ball over the Bologna midfield line for Alberto who is free to receive and turn into space. With Denswill stepping up to press Lazzari high up the pitch it makes it difficult for him to recover into position and support the back 3.
As Alberto has time and space to drive, it makes it difficult for Bologna to recover their shape and get into a position to delay the Lazio attack. When Alberto drives, Jony makes a run down the side to occupy Tomiyasu with Immobile ready to go in between Bani and Tomiyasu which isolates the left centre back Danilo. Correa is clever enough to recognise this and peels opposite to Immobile before receiving a weight perfect pass from Alberto before finishing across the Bologna goalkeeper.
In the game against Inter Milan the defensive structure of the visitors was very narrow and compact, particularly on the side of the ball. When Lazio managed to enter the middle third, the spaces were usually on the outside of the Inter block on the opposite side of the ball as Inter often reverted to a 5-3-1-1 with the wingbacks dropping in the line of the back 3. Lazio had two key methods of getting out, either through the centre back stepping in or through the opposite centre midfield player playing outside the Inter midfield 3.
As stated previously the pressure on the outside centre backs would come from Inter's two centre midfield players. This then meant that the opposite centre midfield player had to tuck in to ensure the distances between players denied Lazio the opportunity to play forward passes into the strikers. With the pressure coming from Vecino, Alberto again found himself free to turn and open up. As shown in the diagram below, the position of Milinkovic-Savic can cause a problem for Barella, particularly when getting out to defend the switch of play to Felipe. Milinkovic-Savic positioning himself high can occupy Barella as if he leaves his slot early, it can open up a through the lines pass from Alberto. Therefore, when Alberto is able to switch the play to Felipe, the centre back is able to step in with time and space. The positioning of Marusic as Felipe receives the ball, prevents Young from stepping up to press as it would leave the right wing back free for an angled cross into the box.
An alternative way to exploit the same space can be highlighted by Milinkovic-Savic being the player who stays patient and wider than the Inter midfield block. Once again Lucas is man marked by Martinez and unable to be an option to circulate the ball side to side. As highlighted above in this example, Jony receives from Radu with the centre back continuing his run.
This movement after the pass is important as with Vecino tracking, it creates space for Alberto to drop underneath the ball and receive under no pressure to play a pass to Milinkovic-Savic who is positioned outside Barella. The movement and positioning of Alberto enables him to receive the ball and have a good understanding of the picture in the forward areas. He is then able to take a touch forward meaning the recovery time to defend the switch of play is shorter and gives Milinkovic-Savic more time to carry the ball. As the ball travels to the Serbian, the movement of the players around him are crucial to allow him to step in with limited pressure. Marusic looks to come inside which forces Young to go inside with him, allowing Felipe to overlap and become an option down the outside.
This movement can have an impact on Barella's desire to press the ball, as leaving his position can free up a pass behind him. In this instance, this indecision allows Milinkovic-Savic to step in with the ball and hit a long-range effort off the cross bar. The use of the rotation on the switch of play can create confusion. In addition, the ability to exploit the space quickly makes it extremely difficult for a team to control the situation regardless of how compact they are on the side of the ball.
Although the midfield position centrally created success through switches of play, there were occasions that Lazio overloaded the side of the ball through the centre midfield players coming out of position to create an extra passing option. As shown above, when the centre midfield players peel into these positions, it creates difficulty within the defensive structure. Firstly, if the body shape of the centre midfielder is correct and they peel out with no applied pressure, he is then in a position to turn on the ball receive and pass forward. However, if Brozovic were to leave his position and follow Milinkovic-Savic, it can create an opportunity for Lazio to penetrate centrally and play through for the striker. In this instance the pressure comes from the wing back Young. However, in doing so he frees up Marusic who is then in a position behind Young and can then pull the centre back into areas they are unfamiliar defending in.
The role of Lucas here is crucial as he recognises that as the ball travels, Milinkovic-Savic cannot turn and therefore must support underneath the ball to then play forward. Milinkovic-Savic then plays a soft pass back to Lucas which initiates a first time pass round the corner for Marusic who is free to take on Skriniar in a 1v1. There is an argument that not all 1v1s in football are equal and depending on the characteristics of the individuals involved, the situation can benefit one player more. In this instance Marusic is more likely to gain success in a wide area against a centre back than up against a wingback/fullback who is more familiar at defending in these situations and areas.
In the final third in both matches, Lazio used the third man run to good use, particularly in situations when the opposition were penned in and left limited space in behind. In the game against Bologna both centre midfield players experienced success in making these runs. In these examples Lazio are able to utilise and make third man runs effectively through:
- Timing of pass and third man movement
- Creating spaces to exploit in the final third through movements to drag opponents out of shape
- Receiving the final pass facing the goal
If we look at the diagram above, we can see that Bologna are in a position where they are defending deep in their own half in a wide area. The use of the two strikers is important to note at this point, as up against one striker Danilo may decide to edge out slightly more to cover Denswill. In the current situation, both centre backs are unlikely to leave their positions as they are occupied against the two strikers and are concerned with the threat of a cross ball. As a result, this leaves gaps between fullbacks and centre backs if the fullback does not recognise the threat and narrow.
This allows runners from midfield to arrive into box in the half spaces. In this case, Lazzari has possession but is unable to go past Barrow as Denswill is positioned to provide cover. Milinkovic-Savic makes an option underneath the ball and his positioning enables him to play forward early. Lazzari plays a softly weighted pass which is recognised by Alberto who times his run well with Milinkovic-Savic playing a first time pass which Alberto is able to arrive on at speed. Once in the box, Lazio are in a position where they have an overload with Alberto in possession along with the 3v3 with the two strikers and Jony against the two Bologna centre backs and the opposite fullback. Although on this occasion the movement in the box does not result in a goal, Lazio manage to exploit the space provided through runs from deeper positions.
Another example of this can be shown from a deeper position in the pitch and moving the opposition to create space in behind for the third man to run into. When Radu has possession of the ball, Alberto makes a movement into a position that would normally be occupied by a fullback in a back 4. This movement as previously discussed can create disruption in an oppositions defensive structure and in this case the movement does so, as it drags out Poli and creates a passing lane into Immobile. The striker recognises and drops short, attracting pressure from Bani who follows Immobile into the space, leaving space in behind the centre back that is utilised by both Correa and Milinkovic-Savic who make runs in behind. The intial movement from Alberto triggers a number of movements across the pitch that leads to Lazio playing a long ball over the top for both players to run onto and results in Lazio gaining time and space to attack high up the pitch.
The importance of the third man run cannot be underestimated, particularly in the game against Inter when Lazio came from behind to win a massive match in Serie A. Playing against a disciplined defensive unit, Lazio managed to get back into the game through a penalty from Ciro Immobile that was won through the same link up that was highlighted in the Bologna game, only this time roles were reversed (Alberto arriving into the box).
Marusic had possession against a packed Inter defence and played a ball back to Felipe who plays a pass into Caicedo. As the ball is played into Caicedo, Alberto provides support underneath the ball and is facing forward. As the ball travels back to Alberto, Inter step up ever so slightly to squeeze the line. However, with no pressure on the ball, Alberto has time and space to get his head up and pick the pass. Milinkovic-Savic's starting position is key to the attack. By staying deeper than the line of the back 5, he is much harder to pin point and pick up as he travels into the box. He can also travel at speed with defenders finding it difficult to turn and react to the ball over the top. From the ball over the top, he is able to get first contact on the ball which ricochets to Immobile who is fouled by Skriniar.
Another prime example of this is Milinkovic-Savic's goal against Juventus on the 9thDecember 2019. Alberto drops deeper to receive from the left centre back under no pressure and is able to turn. This then triggers Correa to drop off the line of the Juventus defence, which distracts De Ligt and prevents him from recovering the ball over the top that Milinkovic-Savic runs onto and finishes well. Consistent with the movement that won the penalty against Inter, the Serbian times his run well and by not starting on the last line immediately, allows him to generate speed when entering the box and not having to worry about being offside before receiving and finishing.
The effectiveness of third man runs requires intelligence and precise timing from all involved. Timing is the most important aspect as the purpose of these movements, particularly in positions higher up the field, is to receive in a position that makes it impossible for defenders to recover. As demonstrated by Lazio, if done effectively this can lead to goals.
As it currently stands Ciro Immobile is in line to win the European Golden Shoe. When observing his performances, it is no surprise due to his highly successful finishing rate (27.7%) and his movement to create space for himself which leads to many goal scoring opportunities. One of the main characteristics that allow Immobile to be so clinical in a number of moments of the game, is his ability to free himself from his opposition marker. Although this seems simple, he makes subtle counter movements to create this space or uses the movement of other players as decoys to identify where he can receive the ball with time.
If we look at Lazio's first goal against Bologna, it comes from a period when they are defending relatively deep in their own half, with Bolonga happy to play with both fullbacks positioned wide. In these moments, even when Lazio are defending deep, they are still able to be at their most dangerous, particularly Immobile. Focussing on Immobile when Lazio defend deep, he is almost inactive in the defensive actions of the team. However, as Lazio are defending he is constantly ready to react and attack the space should they recover the ball.
A method that Lazio used effectively to regain the ball was to intercept passes and break from these interceptions. As shown above, when Barrow is put under pressure and forced to set back quickly Correa is able to step onto the ball and intercept. As soon as this happens it triggers Immobile to move and peel into the wide left area that is vacated due to Tomiyasu being so high up the pitch. Importantly, Immobile's first movement is to peel out before running in behind. When Correa is travelling with the ball, it allows Immobile to create separation between himself and Bani and allows him to receive the ball at speed and drive towards the opposition goal, rather than receiving a square pass that is more likely to run through to the opposition goalkeeper.
This movement creates space in central areas either directly in the box, as the centre back is now defending in the wide area, or on the edge of the box should a centre midfielder recover to a centre back position. In this instance, Immobile slows the attack down slightly to allow Alberto to get to the edge of box before being picked out and finishing into the bottom corner. This movement from Immobile is nothing new but is effective considering his ability to carry the ball into space as well his calmness to find the right pass in the final third.
This can be further shown in cases when Lazio are able to win the ball back and utilise the passing ability of Lucas. Again Lazio's method of regain is interception of a pass from the opposition fullback with Radu stepping in and setting the ball to Parolo. The centre midfielder receives under pressure, however, the support underneath the ball from Lucas allows for a pass to the Brazilian who then plays over the top for Immobile to run onto and isolate Bani in a 1v1.
In this case, the timing of movement from Immobile is crucial as he needs to anticipate when the pass is likely to be played and start his run to ensure he arrives on the ball at speed. This also ensures he has enough separation between himself and the defender to be in control of the situation. If he decides to run as soon as Radu wins the ball, he will be in a standing position waiting for the pass to arrive. He is also likely to be marked and unable to generate speed, both important aspects of a successful counter attack.
What Immobile does well in this instance is he remains patient, waiting for the precise moment to speed up and as Parolo plays the pass inside he quickly takes off down the outside of the centre back and is now in a position which has isolated the defender. Unfortunately for Immobile his shot just goes past the outside post but it highlights his intelligence and anticipation to create a chance for himself in a moment of the game where Lazio were defending deep in their own half only a few seconds previous.
In the game against Sampdoria, Immobile was at his best as he was able to complete a hat trick in a 5-1 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. The goal that impressed me the most was his involvement in his second penalty which allowed him to complete his hat trick. As shown above Sampdoria adopted a conventional 4-4-2 approach with Lazio operating in their consistent 3-1-4-2.
In this case, Milinkovic-Savic is the player who drops down to receive on the build up with time and limited pressure. This allows him to clip a ball over the top of the Sampdoria defence for Immobile to take down and show composure to slide the ball across for Alberto whose shot is handled. As Milinkovic-Savic receives, Adekanye makes a movement towards the ball, dragging in Colley who goes tight. Immobile recognises the space and curves his run behind the centre back, stepping up before receiving the ball over the top.
Immobile often makes the right decision with his movements through good awareness of the man on the ball, the movement of his teammates and the reactions to those movements by opposition defenders. Crucially, Immobile is able to analyse these moments quickly and exploit the spaces as fast as possible, giving defenders less time to react and recover the situation. In this case, Immobile doesn't move into the space in behind when Adekanye goes towards the ball. Instead he waits till the centre back starts to make his move with the striker and then makes his curved run as Milinkovic-Savic has taken a touch out his feet to set himself to play the pass.
When playing with a strike partner, Immobile uses their movement to create space for himself and by doing so, is able to receive with time and space. With the score 2-1 against Inter and with only a matter of minutes to go, Lazio committed less players forward yet Immobile was still able to cause the Inter back line problems through utilising the movement of Correa to drag opposition players away. In the example provided, Alberto has possession of the ball and although up against a compact defensive unit, Correa makes a movement in between Moses and Skriniar which attracts De Vrij across to provide cover.
As the Inter back line drops off, it allows Immobile to have space to receive under less pressure and as the pass is played, it gives Immobile more time to assess his next action. In this instance both Young and Godin step up to try and intercept the pass, but Immobile takes a touch that breaks the line of the two defenders before forcing Padelli into a save. Immobile's ability to know where pressure is coming from and take players out the game in a few touches, can unlock deep-lying compact defence's and allow Immobile to manoeuver himself into a goalscoring position.
In a crucial match against AC Milan at the San Siro, Immobile showed his capabilities at attacking crosses and creating space in the box. In this case, his movement and positioning make it so difficult for the defender to see both Immobile and the ball at the same time. As Lazzari is crossing from in line with the 6yd box Immobile is likely to receive an outswinging cross going away from goal. As is often the case from crossing positions, defenders have set positions to recover into and become very focused on the ball and where they need to position themselves. Importantly, this focus on their own position often leads them to disregard the striker.
In this instance, Immobile uses this to his advantage delaying his approach into the box slightly by slowing down. This enables him to then speed up and attack the cross with a purpose when Lazzari delivers. Alongside his change of speed Immobile makes a slight movement to the blindside of Duarte, who is not in a position to see both the ball and Immobile, meaning that as the cross is put into the box he has no knowledge of the striker's position and can't adjust in relation to the striker once Lazzari crosses the ball. This then allows Immobile to get across the centre back and head the ball past Donnarumma as Lazio secured a crucial 2-1 victory.
Lazio are in a position to seriously challenge for the Scudetto when the season re-commences. With a fluid offensive structure that appears adaptable based on the opposition, they will be confident that they can create chances whilst keeping a solid defensive structure when out of possession. Although adaptable to the opposition, it appears that there are set ideas that if executed properly will yield success such as third man runs and exploiting the spaces on the pitch that the opposition offer. With a solid foundation of gaining access to the middle third through sound build up play, Lazio will feel that it will be their quality of possession, rather than their quantity of possession, which will hopefully see them push over the line. In Ciro Immobile, Lazio don't only have a striker who is clinical in front of goal, they also have a striker that can score an array of goals and also create chances for teammates.