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ANALYSIS: Sassuolo’s performance in the first six games under Alessio Dionisi

With Sassuolo having started life under Alessio Dionisi in a mixed bag way, Sai Hemanth Tiruvuri looks at how the club have fared under the Italian.

Despite attracting admirers through an exciting brand of football, the Neroverdi have had a tough start to life under new manager Alessio Dionisi, taking only 7 points from a possible 18 in their opening six fixtures. They are 7 points worse off the tally of 14 points from the opening six fixtures of last season but it’s still a point better than their 6-point tally in six fixtures start in the 2019/20 season. That remains the Neroverdi’s worst start in the last three seasons.

And honestly, the fixture list hasn’t been the kindest to Dionisi’s men where they’ve had to face a potentially new-look Roma under manager Jose Mourinho and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, both of which they have lost from the cusp of possibly earning a point at least.

Their start to the season can be described as a story of two ends, precisely. They’d get you on the edge of your seats with their slick and exciting build-up play going forward but wouldn’t give you the best of times while defending. Despite all their woes, there are a lot of positives for the supporters to look forward to during the season.

Let us take a brief look at how Dionisi’s men have fared in the opening six-match weeks of the season.

A near disappointment on the opening matchday against Verona

Sassuolo avoided heartbreak on Matchday 1 as they snatched a narrow 3-2 win away at Hellas Verona. Despite showing versatility in offensive build-up patterns, the Neroverdi struggled in a lot of defensive aspects, such as not being able to deal with crosses at the back post and not being able to beat the opposition press in possession leading to struggles while trying to build out from the back and lots more.

Hellas were unfortunate to be denied by the woodwork on multiple occasions and they also managed to miss a couple of clear-cut chances which was a result of Dionisi’s men not tracking Hellas’ runners out of possession.

There were few who had expected Dionisi to change the Neroverdi’s formation to a 4-3-1-2 which was often seen deployed at his former club Empoli. But the 41-year-old Italian stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation, that was much more familiar to the players under the previous manager – Roberto De Zerbi.

Dionisi went with a completely new look young pivot consisting of Maxime Lopez and Davide Frattesi after the departure of Manuel Locatelli to Juventus. The latter of the two (Frattesi), who was making his debut, impressed on his debut by putting on display his brilliant physicality and ability to make progressive runs with the ball.

 

Figure 1: A Rough Representation of how The Neroverdi Shaped up against Hellas Verona on the opening Matchday.

The general shape had a couple of interesting aspects for the Neroverdi. Raspadori was deployed in the attacking midfield position after quite some time as he enjoyed his first few stints of action in that position under De Zerbi due to his ability to drop deep and link-up play with the wider players.

Filip Đuričić was given a wider role as a result. Despite initial struggles to link play, Đuričić dropped deep to play a brilliant switch to Raspadori during a transition and the young Italian then took one of the best first touches you would probably see, to get past virtually the entire Hellas Verona backline and score the opener.

Later in the game, Đuričić played an elegant interchange with Francesco Caputo to score Neroverdi’s second goal in the game and he kept up his brilliant pre-season form by adding himself onto the scoresheet and being involved in two of their three goals in the game.

Despite his goal contributions, there were periods in the game where the wide positioning of Đuričić wasn’t helping the team’s cause, during the build-up and there was a feeling that he would have been much more effective had he been deployed much centrally. In fact, it was only when he started to cut on the inside and started playing quick interchanges with the players around him, he started to be more effective in the game.

On the other flank, Jeremie Boga did not have the best of outings during Dionisi’s first official match in charge, as he was often struggling to dribble past players or linking up with the likes of Caputo and Raspadori. There were opportunities where he could have exploited spaces left behind Hellas’ defence during counterattacks, but it just wasn’t happening for the Ivorian.

Rogerio – who was preferred as the left-back option over Giorgos Kyriakopoulos by Dionisi, showed signs of promise and adventure while going forward despite not having a particularly impressive game defensively.

A notable observation can be seen in the average shape of the Neroverdi as Rogerio was positioned in the left central midfielder position, dropping into the left half-space to provide a different element to the Neroverdi’s attack. This was quite reminiscent of Manchester City’s shape under Pep Guardiola, where the right full-back, Joao Cancelo was often seen dropping on the right side of a midfield three, in-possession.

Andrea Consigli did a fine job in terms of ball distribution from the back, where he was seen attempting passes directly to Caputo on some occasions or directly to the pivot or the front four – although, there is still room for improvement in that aspect of his game given how Dionisi wants to build out from the back. His shot-stopping was fine, and he couldn’t have done much on either of the goals (one of them being a penalty).

Things were looking a bit settled for the Neroverdi. Even Hamed Junior Traore came on from the bench to score an absolute peach of a goal with a curling shot. But ultimately, it were the defensive issues that became a matter of concern for Dionisi’s men in the game.

Throughout the game, the Neroverdi struggled to beat the press of Hellas and couldn’t mark the back post on crosses leading to dangerous chances. Their defending on set pieces is something they need to work on going ahead in the season.

Hellas Verona’s Miguel Veloso was sent off just at the stroke of halftime and on paper, it looked like an opportunity for Dionisi’s men to absolutely dominate the game and seal it off with ease.

But their defensive woes continued and a 10-men Hellas Verona still continued to threaten the Neroverdi goal till the very end of the game and in the end, it was the clock that saved them and earned Dionisi his first win in Serie A on his managerial debut as the score line ended in a 3-2 win in Sassuolo’s favour.

Deadlocked at home against Sampdoria

Dionisi’s home debut ended in a lacklustre 0-0 draw in a game where the Neroverdi would’ve felt that they deserved all three points on the night. Francesco Caputo lobbed a ball over the post in a one-on-one situation and he would naturally be gutted to not have put the ball in the back of the net that led to two-dropped points for the Neroverdi.

Funnily enough, Caputo moved to Sampdoria after that very game before the transfer window deadline on the 31st of August. The home side was desperately left out crying for their star Domenico Berardi, who could have helped their cause in terms of stretching the opposition defence wide and creating chances from there.

His absence forced them to try and break I Blucerchiati’s defence through central areas, which they failed in. There was an occasional success where they managed to break near the edge of the box but couldn’t find the decisiveness to convert those into meaningful attempts at goal.

In that regard, they also missed Locatelli, who would have helped Dionisi in terms of efficient and effective distribution of the ball during quicker transition and switches of point of play through diagonals – something that is essential in terms of breaking compact blocks.

Defensively, Dionisi’s men occasionally struggled to cope with Antonio Candreva on the right flank. The 34-year-old often troubled Gian Marco Ferrari and Vlad Chiricheș with his low crosses and he also managed to exploit the right-half-space of the Neroverdi’s space (the gap left by Rogerio between himself and Ferrari) by finding a runner who happened to cause some trouble to Dionisi’s defence.

Rogerio, who occupied the pseudo-left central midfield position against Hellas, continued to do so and it did certainly give him one close chance of scoring an absolute screamer from outside the box and creating a chance that he couldn’t capitalise on due to lack of decisiveness in the box.

The match ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw in the context of how they performed.

A fighting effort at the capital against Roma

 

Figure 2: Boga dropped deep to form a sort of midfield 3 making the overall shape appear as a 4-3-2-1

When Dionisi’s men locked horns with the Giallorossi at the Stadio Olympico, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating Serie A fixtures of the season so far and it saw Jose Mourinho clinch victory right at the death in his 1000th match as a professional manager.

The game was filled to the brim with end-to-end chances, controversy, disallowed goals, and lots more. The Neroverdi earned some well-deserved plaudits for their performance from Calcio fans across the globe.

Raspadori had been given the mantle to lead the line with Đuričić deployed in the attacking midfield role behind him. Berardi was back in the line-up as well. The visitors made a positive start and Raspadori showed his maturity by linking play exquisitely in possession.

He even managed to score a goal courtesy of a brilliant dummy from Rogerio from his pseudo-left midfield position and a Berardi assist which got ruled out unfortunately for offside.

The Neroverdi’s build-up from the back was still a work in progress and there were glimpses where they felt Locatelli’s absence. Defensively, Dionisi appeared to have made a slight modification in the defensive shape of his side as they were seen defending in narrow and compact blocks, unlike the opening two fixtures. But this allowed the Giallorossi to make full use of the flanks to hurt the Neroverdi.

A newly rejuvenated Tammy Abraham absolutely dominated Vlad Chiricheș physically, booked him, and won a freekick that was taken short and executed with brilliance by Mourinho’s men as Bryan Cristante turned it in to make it 1-0 for the home side. Defending on set pieces was poor which led to the concession of the opening goal.

Once the goal went in, it became a game of basketball in a sense, with end-to-end chances, turnovers, penalty shouts, and lots more. Once the halftime whistle blew, Dionisi decided to take off Raspadori for the 2nd half, despite him being one of the best players on the pitch in that half. His plan was to bring on Gianluca Scamacca to provide physicality and presence to the front four, just like how Tammy Abraham was doing it for his Giallorossi teammates.

The substitution looked like a gamble initially, but it absolutely paid off as Scamacca’s brilliant linkup with Berardi led to the Đuričić equalizer with a fine assist by Berardi. Scamacca got multiple opportunities to score as he caused issues to Jose’s backline.

Moments later, the Neroverdi backline appeared to have switched off for a moment with Abraham hitting the post for the home side which led them to be more threatening for the visitors in their half. But Dionisi’s men did not give up.

Rogerio continued to remain an outlet on the narrow left. Jeremie Boga really started getting into his groove as he started making progressive runs with the ball on the counters, started dribbling past people, provided with crosses in the box for Scamacca. While all that looked much optimistic for the Neroverdi No.7, there wasn’t a particular vigour in his end product and there certainly was an element to his form that he was missing in the game.

Eventually, as the game headed towards its climax, the Neroverdi were once again denied a goal by the VAR, denying them the opportunity to equalize at 2-2, after Stephan El Shaarawy gave the hosts a 2-1 lead at the beginning of the stoppage time.

It was certainly heart-breaking but knowing about Giallorossi’s form coming into the game, that performance deserves a lot of praise and applause by the Neroverdi supporters and it underlined a lot of potential areas of optimism for Dionisi’s men going forward in the season, in the long run.

After the game, Mourinho stated: “The game could have ended 6-6 or 7-7, they [Sassuolo] could have won 2-1 as we did. Rui Patricio made two or three incredible saves, we missed two chances in front of an empty goal. For a neutral, it was an extraordinary match.”

Home campaign unable to get going against Torino

After a fighting effort at the capital, the Neroverdi looked to kickstart their home campaign against Il Toro but on this occasion, they faced a heart-breaking defeat, making it two defeats in a row for Dionisi’s men.

The hosts tried dominating possession in a bold fashion, right from the get-go but were often caught out on the long balls as they engaged themselves in playing a higher line.

Defensively, the issues surrounding dealing with crosses in the box continued to pertain and the lack of tracking runners into the box caused major havoc for the Neroverdi backline as Antonio Sanabria was denied a whopping three times via on-the-line clearances and twice by hitting the post in the first half itself.

Not only that but they continued to remain vulnerable when trying to build out from the back or dealing with the press of the opposition.

There was a feeling that the Neroverdi were on an “all-out-attack” mission in certain situations, where their aim was to win the game by outscoring the visitors regardless of how many they conceded. This feeling was in a way evident with the way they were left open on some counterattacks that rather felt like a sucker punch.

Despite that, it wasn’t to be the case as the away side clinched a 1-0 win at the end. A couple of individual errors and losing out the ball via counter-pressing from them [counter-press from Torino] also led to some really threatening goal-scoring opportunities for Ivan Juric’s men.

On a much optimistic note, Rogerio started to become a consistent attacking outlet in his narrow-left position. Maxime Lopez showed clear signs of improvement and progression in terms of distribution and ball retention under pressure.

Although their goal was eventually ruled out, the slick interplay between Đuričić and Raspadori was extremely promising which was a testament to their brilliant form (especially Đuričić, who has been red hot since pre-season). The duo also appeared to play as a front two of a 4-4-2 shape, which is something that Dionisi could well be planning to implement later in the season, given he’s done it in a way in the Neroverdi’s opening fixture.

Hattrick of heartbreaks against Atalanta

Figure 3: Dionisi opted for a new look line-up against Atalanta, bringing in Defrel for Raspadori, Hamed Junior for Đuričić, Magnanelli for Maxime Lopez, Ayhan for Vlad Chiricheș, Muldur for Tolijan, Kyriakopoulos for Rogerio.

When Dionisi’s side travelled to the Gewiss Stadium to face Gasperini’s La Dea, their disappointment hit triple trouble, as the Neroverdi tasted their third defeat in a row. The line-up itself had major changes from the one Dionisi opted for the first four match weeks. A notable weakness that played into the hands of the hosts was Francesco Magnanelli’s lack of work rate and defensively, that allowed Atalanta to exploit spaces in quicker movements of the ball. He was eventually replaced by the 23-year-old Dutch midfielder, Abdou Harroui for more energy and work rate in the midfield in the second half.

By this point, one notable weakness in the Neroverdi’s defence had begun to appear as a pattern. Teams that stretched them with the use of wingbacks or players just trying to stay very wide and interchange from those areas found it easy to break past their defence. Back post has often been a target for crossers to try and find a player to have a sniff at the goal.

It was due to this very issue that Davide Zappacosta found enough space on the wide-right edge of the Neroverdi box to score the second goal for the hosts, to make it 2-0. The likes of Ruslan Malinovskyi, Duvan Zapata, and Matteo Pessina enjoyed their time in this regard.

Robin Gosens, arguably one of the best left-wing backs in Europe absolutely enjoyed his time at the Neroverdi back post. And Mert Müldür’s inclusion did not help the cause much as Gosens opened the lead for the home side very early in the game, despite Dionisi’s men showing the intent and appetite to have the upper hand right from the get-go.

There were clear mismatches in the way the side organized themselves defensively in the first half which got slightly but not significantly better in the second. The struggles while trying to impose a high line also remained an issue for the away side.

Out of all, it was the defensive spearhead, Gian Marco Ferrari, who looked the least vulnerable of them all and looked better in terms of ball distribution from the back as well. Maxime Lopez’s work rate on both ends of the pitch was also quite clearly and visibly missed until he came on later in the second half.

Upfront, Jeremie Boga started to look much more of himself with the way he was progressing the ball, dribbling past players, and creating opportunities for his team. But his work rate could not result in meaningful output for the team which is why he was replaced by Raspadori on the left during the second half due to the latter’s ability to also dribble like Boga [not quite as good] and link plays better on the left, which indeed happen more towards the latter stages of the second half.

The inclusion of Grégoire Defrel upfront instead of both Raspadori or Scamacca led to a change in the style of play for the star winger Domenico Berardi. The 27-year-old right-winger started to slot himself in more central areas, close to Defrel, and even interchanged positions with him during attacks. They eventually started operating as a front two more often during the second half.

Defrel’s ability to hold the ball up for longer intervals allowed more space to midfield runners such as Davide Fratessi, Hamed Junior Traore, or Berardi’s runs from wide right spaces. Although there were struggles penetrating into the final third and breaking past the hosts’ backline, there was a clear one-on-one opportunity for Grégoire to equalize the game in the 12th minute but he, unfortunately, skied the shot to keep the La Dea’s lead intact.

The one notable improvement in this game for the Neroverdi was their ability to play against the press, which seemed to improve in this game as players on the ball showed a mature sense of resistance against the press. This led to numerous attacks on the transitions that could have hurt Gasperini’s men had the Neroverdi showed more decisiveness near the final third. Their own pressing was much more effective in comparison to their previous encounters. The spatial awareness on the attack or in possession in general, of the midfield and the front three or four, was impressive as well.

Even though Rogerio did not feature in this encounter, Defrel, and Berardi apparently took a page out of his attacking mantras where they often left dummies during offensive transitions to break past players and break in behind. Those interchanges between the two eventually led to Neroverdi’s first goal where Berardi’s wand of a left-foot strike from outside the box was good enough to beat Juan Musso in the Atalanta goal.

Hamed Junior’s brilliant holdup and retention of the ball also helped in this process. After all the chaos and drama, the Neroverdi finally started to create meaningful linkups on the left through their subs and players on the pitch but unfortunately missed an attacking spearhead or a target inside the box when they managed to get to the edge of the box to attempt cutbacks.

This is where Dionisi missed the trick by not using someone as physically and as areally dominant as Scamacca much earlier in the game as he did against Roma, because there was not very long left after he came onto the pitch and Atalanta were getting good counter-attacking chances on the other end of the pitch. But there is plenty to learn for the 41-year-old Italian and there are enough positives to build upon.

In the end, it was Gasperini’s men who clinched the 2-1 victory over Neroverdi making it three straight defeats in a row for the club from Emilia-Romagna.

Redemption at Home – At last


After three heart-breaking results, the Neroverdi finally managed to register the first home win of their Serie A campaign, taking their overall points tally to 7 points out of a possible 18 and landing them in 12th place in the league table, after the end of Match week 6, as of 28th September 2021.

The 1-0 win against Salernitana has certainly boosted the morale of the players and got them back to winning ways with a long way ahead in the season. Dionisi would have certainly expected better shot conversion from his side after just netting in one out of the 17 shots they created in the game, given the number of goals their opposition had been conceding prior to the game against some of the same teams they themselves have faced in the season so far.

 

Figure 4: Davide Fratessi’s touches analysed
Figure 5: Fratessi’s ball carrying abilities analysed

Defensively, there wasn’t red alert trouble for the Neroverdi in any sense, but they did a fine job on the night in comparison to their previous fixtures. They would have certainly hoped to score more, especially after a penalty call was overturned against them by the VAR for a potential foul against Davide Fratessi who has been getting better and mature with his progressive runs, and display of strength, work rate, and tenacity in midfield.

And finally, it was indeed Berardi who scored his side’s first home goal of the season from a header on Jeremie Boga’s cross. It was his first headed goal since September 2019 and he has now scored 4 out of his 88 Serie A goals via headers, which is about 4.5% of his total goals. The coordination between Boga and Berardi finally started to blossom again in this game and the Neroverdi finally saw off the final whistle to win after three defeats to end their losing streak.

Now after assessing The Neroverdi’s performance in the opening set of fixtures under Alessio Dionisi, let’s look at the negatives that can be worked upon for improvement in the long run and the positives that can be built further in the season.

The concerns for Sassuolo

The major issue that can be seen highlighted in pretty much every game of the season for Dionisi’s side is the defence. It is not an issue that has been newfound ever since the Italian’s arrival and in fact, it is an issue that he inherited in a sense from De Zerbi’s reign. Be it tracking runners, defending set pieces, or crosses, attacking corners, struggles against the press – all these issues have been building up slowly from De Zerbi’s reign and now are starting to trouble Dionisi as long-term unsolved issues.

What is even more unfortunate for the current boss is the fact that they lost the heart of their midfield in Manuel Locatelli, after his move to Juventus in the summer. The absence of Manuel’s defensive work rate, tackling, and speed is something that would take some time to replace given the club’s recruitment style and policy.

But there is certainly no doubt that there is an ample amount of talent in the Neroverdi squad, reserves, and academy through which they can minimize a lot of these issues. All it needs is a good amount of patience with the youngsters and a good set of coaches working behind the scenes to keep the progress curve going.

Whether or not it will work out or if there would be an eventual improvement in these issues is a question that would be answered over the course of time. Defending low crosses is something that not many sides are prolific with, but in the case of Neroverdi, they can certainly work upon improving on this aspect as much as they can.

Another concern is Francesco Caputo’s departure to Sampdoria on loan. Despite his aging by the day, he has been the Neroverdi’s go-to man upfront who provided a good blend and balance of hold-up play, movement inside the box, and areal presence on crosses.

But after the announcement of his loan move, Dionisi is in a dilemma with three talented and capable players with varied skillsets, to take his spot in his team. The concern is not about whether he would be able to replace Caputo’s output in terms of his goals or replacing what he brings to the team. The concern is whether he would be able to make use of the right kind of forward at the right moment in time to get his job done and make difference or impact in the game.

An instance of this was described during the Atalanta game where Gianluca Scamacca would have been ideal much earlier than he came on, for the way the Neroverdi were trying to create chances for scoring an equalizer in the game. But instead, he stuck with Grégoire Defrel for much longer than he probably should have and the ex-Sampdoria man could not score or make the impact during that game, and it appeared to have backfired.

It is indeed a single instance on the face of it, but the way he has been changing strikers at halftime or a little later than that in pretty much every game of the season so far, raises questions as to whether he is sure about who his main man would be to take the onus from Caputo and lead the line. At the moment it looks to be Giacomo Raspadori on paper, but this question will certainly be answered as the season goes by.

Things to be optimistic about for Dionisi and Sassuolo

 

Figure 6: Country-wise distribution of Sassuolo’s goalscorers

There are plenty of things to be optimistic about for the Neroverdi and the fact that Calcio fans consider them as one of the more entertaining sides in the league, is a credit to the brilliant traditions and footballing philosophy the club believes in.

There is a sense of excitement every time they go forward and there is hope that something special would happen – Raspadori’s unreal first touch against Hellas Verona for scoring his goal being one of them. The build-up patterns in execution look extremely fascinating and entertaining in games and the way they are developing by the week; they are only bound to get better – which is music to the ears for the Neroverdi supporters.

Even against the big guns, their passing has been exquisite to watch in execution with the way they are able to get past their back lines and be a real goal threat. It takes a certain amount of guts to try and go toe-to-toe regardless of the nature of the opposition. Ferrari’s ball distribution is good and has been effective in terms of starting out attacks from the back. One other player who has been instrumental in some of those patterns is Lopez.

The 23-year-old French midfielder has been improving his distribution and his press resistance under Dionisi. His work rate has always been one of his core strengths and it is only bound to compliment all the other attributes that he is currently developing and learning.

Raspadori’s overall development has been extremely impressive and mature in terms of his ability to drop, his movement and runs into the box and his ability to take set pieces is getting better.


He is taking a fair number of shots but is getting denied at the moment. His non-penalty expected goals metric of 0.8 per 90 minutes indicates that his output is bound to increase in the games ahead despite only scoring 1 goal in six appearances (out of which he was only played in 3.9 90s).

Scamacca, after his impact cameo against Roma has shown signs of promise that he will deliver for Dionisi whenever they need a physically and areally dominant striking spearhead inside the box, offering the coach a different option to bring on from the bench.

There are plenty more positives to build on and the Neroverdi faithful can only be more excited and optimistic to see what is in store as the season goes by.

By Sai Hemanth Tiruvuri

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