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Quantifying roles in Lazio’s playing style

By: Andy Cooper

For the second successive year Lazio are in the hunt for one of Serie A’s final two Champions League spots.

Simone Inzaghi’s side currently rank fifth in the league for xG (40.7) but are in the bottom six for chances on target (29.5%). They also rank in the bottom six for touches and attempted passes in the defensive third, which emphasises a desire to move the ball into midfield quickly.

By studying how Lazio use the ball, using metrics derived from the Opta sequence framework, we can begin to understand the roles of each player as they progress the ball upfield.

Building up down the left-hand side

During the past two seasons, Lazio have consistently played with three at the back, with width provided by wide midfielders. No other team in Serie A has an average sequence width closer to the left touchline, which is illustrated by the heat map below.

Location of passes received: Lazio 2018/19 (Serie A)

As Lazio’s sequences develop up the field, we can analyse involvement at player level to establish who is most involved.

The scatter chart below provides some insights into the role each player has in possession. In the bottom right quadrant Lucas Leiva stands out. As well as averaging over 50 sequence involvements per 90, a relatively low proportion of sequences are ended by the Brazilian, which demonstrates how the important the veteran midfielder is to retaining and circulating possession.

In the top right-hand corner of the same graphic, there are a number of players who see a lot of on-ball action during a game, but also end a lot of sequences for their team. Two of these players, Luis Alberto and Milinkovic-Savic, are in Lazio’s top five for shots attempted per 90, whilst Senad Lulic’s presence reinforces the volume of play down the left – he averages five crosses per 90, which will account for a proportion of the sequences that end with him.

Immobile’s presence in the top left highlights how he operates up front. In contrast to Correa, he is less involved in linking up play but also ends a lot of sequences. Given he leads Lazio in terms of shots per 90, a good number of these will be as a result of attempts on goal.

The involvement of Milinkovic-Savic 

Prior to signing a long-term contract extension in October, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was one of Europe’s most sought after central midfielders.

Comfortable receiving the ball deep or between the lines, this season he has been one of the main focal points in Lazio’s attacking play, receiving a combined 251 passes played inside from left-sided centre back Stefan Radu and Lulic, which is more than Lucas and Marco Parolo combined.  Per 90 he also leads Lazio’s midfielders in terms of attempted passes into the opposition box (3.8) and shots (3.1).

From the sequence network, we can establish that Lazio move the ball forward slightly quicker when Milinkovic-Savic is involved. The 23-year-old was also involved in more sequences per 90 that end in a shot (7.6) than any other Lazio midfielder who has played at least 400 league minutes.

Could he be replaced if he moved on 

Despite his new deal, the Serbian continues to be linked with big-money moves away from the Stadio Olimpico.

To measure Milinkovic-Savic’s creativity, the graphic below provides a comparison of his output with other midfielders in the big-5 European leagues.

OptaPro’s ‘Usage Rate’ metric is a sum of the total sequences ended by a player divided by the number of sequences they are involved in. Milinkovic-Savic appears in the creative passer/high usage quadrant and profiles very similarly to Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, Nantes captain Valentin Rongier and Lille’s Jonathan Ikoné. Manchester City’s David Silva is the huge outlier as he turns the ball over infrequently, but also has a very high creative output.

Of the players highlighted Ikoné plays in a more advanced role in Ligue 1, which accounts for his higher usage rate, but if Milinkovic-Savic were to move on in future then Havertz and Rongier could be players worth profiling as potential replacements.

In the table below, we compare them against five key criteria where Milinkovic-Savic currently ranks first amongst Lazio’s midfielders.

Although Havertz has received the ball higher up the field this season, which means he has received fewer passes, both players profile similarly in terms of final-third entries and penalty area entries. In addition, with both players being over 6’2, they record more successful aerials than their respective league averages.

Whilst translating performance across different competitions can be difficult to quantify, this approach can play a useful role in grouping players across different leagues, which can inform a club’s positional profiling and recruitment analysis.