Serie A Week 14 – Wednesday 9 November 2022 – Mapei Stadium | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Both sides will aim for a healthy victory in this one, as Sassuolo are reeling after four losses in the last five rounds, while Roma just got beat by Lazio in the Derby.
Sassuolo have been predictable, as they have generally fared pretty well against the minnows while they have struggled versus elite competition. Having success against top sides was what made the special last season. Empoli outfacing them was surprising, but not shocking because they had reached their breaking point in terms of offensive absences.
They have very little punch if Armand Laurienté and Domenico Berardi are both unavailable, as Hamed Traoré is far from being 100 percent after months on the shelf with a foot fracture. Instead, Andrea Pinamonti is a glorified complementary player, both from the technical and leadership standpoint, which might be worrisome considering how much they spent to get him. But that’s the reality, at least for now, and he needs high volume to deliver. Plus, they can’t ask too much to Luca D’Andrea, who’s filling in on the right wing along with Emil Ceide, who has come from nowhere and been surprisingly effective.
The Frenchman will be back from suspension and resume being their polar star. The way he has taken on a massive role in stride from day one has been remarkable. He’s basically a poor-man version of Rafael Leao when he’s feeling it. He can glide past any opponent in style and finish with awe-inspiring shots, and not always the same kind of attempt. Some inconsistency and lackadaisical showings come with the territory with uber-talented players, though.
Losing Berardi again right after he had recovered was a true kick to the midsection, as they had patched things together and scavenged points up until then, hoping their ace would then lift them up. He could be available for a cameo for this one. They aren’t far off from the top eight, and he should get right during the World Cup break, but there’s already a noticeable gap between the first few spots and the rest of the bunch. Perhaps their goal should be to catch up with Udinese and be the best of the rest, which would be an acceptable place to be considering how deeply they changed in the summer.
Laurienté being back will put a few things in order, as the focus he draws opens up room for their box-to-box midfielders, which were jammed up in Tuscany as Empoli didn’t need to double-team any attacker. Davide Frattesi has been a superstar and has already matched his goal tally from the past season. On top of his dynamism, timing, and intelligence when venturing forward, his technique stands out also in the other areas of the game. It’s almost a miracle that they hold onto him, and his valuation will be much higher at the end of the season because there aren’t many well-rounded midfielders at his level. And they are grooming Kristjan Thorstvedt, who’s bigger and less influential, but not that far off in terms of skill set. They usually take turns in trying to pierce opposing defenses while the underrated Maxime Lopez orchestrates things.
The ex-Lorient star can also feature on the right wing, although he’s way better on the left one, and they have experimented with him and Traoré together late in a game. The latter didn’t look great in his first start, so they might keep him as a super sub role for the next two, and he has dished an assist off the bench, but it’s something they might look into it in easier matches.
The more meaningful question is whether they’ll dare go with their top-three attackers together in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2. Traoré has some experience as a no.10, but he blossomed as a winger. Berardi also played centrally in the past, and he’s more of a slasher than a proper flank player at this point. While they could go with a very fluid frontline where they switch constantly, all three seem to need space to operate, so it might be a stretch. Plus, Alessio Dionisi appears very committed to 4-3-3, which has been beneficial to their passive phase.
A date with Napoli will ruin the best of them in that sense, but they have surely been stouter than in the past. The addition of Martin Erlic and the fact that the more defensive-minded options at right-back, Jeremy Toljan and Rogerio, have seen most of the minutes has played a part too. Plus, they don’t perform with the same pace and boldness as in their heyday. The coach toned it down by design before the season, plus they quickly realized they couldn’t outgun adversaries in shootouts without their best weapon.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Consigli; Toljan, Erlic, Ferrari, Rogerio; Frattesi, Maxime Lopez, Thorstvedt; D’Andrea, Pinamonti, Laurienté.
The loss against Lazio was obviously a bummer for Roma for various reasons. Other than the obvious one, the heated rivalry with their crosstown rivals, they approached it in better shape considering the absences of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile. And it actually showed on the pitch because they took command and performed a little better than the opponents. But Roger Ibanez did it again with a gaffe in a key tilt, and their offensive woes were on display, as they couldn’t cash in on their chances.
The injury to Paulo Dybala has proven as damaging as everybody imagined because he quickly became their most important player, barring maybe only Lorenzo Pellegrini. The involution of Tammy Abraham is highly worrisome, and scoring in a recent Europa League game wasn’t enough to wake him up. Hitting the post twice while the net was empty in the Verona game symbolized how the first half of the season has gone for him. Nicolò Zaniolo was there to clean up the rebound once, and they won anyway, but revitalizing the English marksman has to be the top priority going forward. Their style just isn’t sustainable without a goal poacher since they don’t create scoring opportunities in spades.
They could also use more consistency from the Italian starlet, whose talent is tantalizing, but who knows if he’ll ever be able to put it all together for a few contests in a row. They have been able to use the four-headed monster, with which they had their best showings, very little due to injuries. Hoping to lean on it with frequency is a stretch considering the precarious health of its members, but that would surely add an extra gear to their offense. For the way they play, La Joya as a false-nine is an intriguing option. The versatile Ola Solbakken is reportedly joining in January, which will allow them to deploy a miniature size of their masterplan more often.
It’s very early, so the recent faux pas doesn’t hurt too much in the standings. Atalanta relenting and Udinese falling off a cliff are putting things in their natural places. A European berth is pretty much a guarantee even if they are only so-so the rest of the way. Which competition remains to be determined. A win would have pushed down Lazio and sent a loud signal to the rivals. But Juventus surging in a somewhat surprising fashion is worrying for them for Champions League race, and Inter will be in the mix once they stop shooting themselves in the foot. They might come to regret not fully taking advantage of their main foes’ early problems, even though they did beat the Nerazzurri, which was also their lone victory again a top-eight side.
It doesn’t blow anybody away, but their old-fashioned strategy works out versus minnow, even though they have to dig deeper than most high-end squads to win, something a little different is needed to prevail with more continuity in crunch matches. The solution can’t be to just chuck a bunch of offensive players on the pitch for late-game pushes, as that takes you only so far. In the meantime, they have to continue making hay in easier fixtures. Stingy defending and fortuitous goals, although doing so much damage on set pieces is happening by design, have taken them far enough. The leap will come once their frontline will get going.
Pellegrini being out with a thigh injury further adds to their troubles up front, and it’ll be interesting to see whom the Special One will pick to replace him. Youngster Cristian Volpato is the most similar stylistically, but it’s not the easiest spot for an 18-year-old that would be making his second start. Going with Zaniolo, Belotti and Abraham all together is risky, and neither of them is creative or connects the lines. The solution could also be a streamlined 3-5-2 with an extra midfielder, or Stephan El Shaarawy, who likes to gravitate towards the left-hand side of the pitch like the captain and tends to do well whenever his number is called and does track back when he has to at this point of his career.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Celik, Cristante, Camara, Zalewski; Zaniolo, Volpato; Abraham.
Sassuolo: Muldur (ankle fracture), Defrel (foot fracture).
Roma: Pellegrini, Dybala, Spinazzola (thigh strains), Wijnaldum (fibula fracture), Darboe (ACL tear).