Atalanta are grabbing all the headlines, but Sassuolo are one of the form teams in Serie A since the restart and much of the credit goes to their coach, Roberto De Zerbi.
The little club from the Emilia-Romagna region have won four on the bounce heading into their Wednesday night showdown at the Mapei Stadium with league leaders and eight in a row Champions Juventus. Just days after surviving a scare, Juve are now up against another club whose all-attack philosophy has been overshadowed by Atalanta success, but is no less impressive.
The Modena club have won four, drawn two and only lost one of their seven ties since a 4-1 hammering by Atalanta in June.
The architect behind the rise of the Neroverdi this term is De Zerbi, who has received plaudits from all corners for the attacking and entertaining style his side tries to play.
The 41-year-old ex-Napoli midfielder first came to prominence in the top flight when his Benevento side excited fans with a refreshingly open brand of football, despite being relegated in their maiden Serie A season.
De Zerbi lines his men up in a 4-3-3 formation relying on a deep-lying playmaker to get on the ball and find the two wingers, who tend to stretch the play by staying out wide. The idea then is to cut inside and link up with the striker with some short pass combination moves, which sometimes culminates in devastatingly swift counter-attacking goals.
In October 2018, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola even stated he was impressed with how Sassuolo play, and the Neroverdi have probably become even better as De Zerbi has honed his craft.
Sassuolo currently sit in eighth place in the table, four points off a Europa League qualification place, and have the joint fifth best goal-scoring record in the division with 59.
A front three consisting of Francesco Caputo (16 goals) flanked on either side by captain Domenico Berardi (12) and Jeremie Boga (11) has provided 39 of those goals – in fact the only other team to have three players in double figures this term is Atalanta.
Some would say that De Zerbi is heavily reliant on his attacking trio and they’d be right, however, players such as Gregoire Defrel (3), Hamed Traore (3) and Filip Duricic (4) have pitched in with goals this season, while former Italian U-19 striker Giacomo Raspadori scored his first Serie A goal and the equaliser in his side’s 2-1 defeat of Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico.
Manuel Locatelli has blossomed under the tutelage of De Zerbi this year. The 22-year-old has impressed in the deep lying playmaker role, playing 27 times and providing four assists. The former Milan youth product burst onto the scene in 2016 when he smashed a spectacular shot off the crossbar and past the outstretched hands of Gianluigi Buffon in the Rossoneri’s 1-0 victory over Juventus at San Siro.
The Italian U-21 International has been linked with a big money move to Juventus in recent weeks and will have a chance to show off to his suitors when the two teams face off.
What will be interesting to see in the coming months is whether De Zerbi can hold onto his prized assets and build an even more competitive team for next season. The coach is hot property now and has signed a new deal keeping him in Emilia-Romagna for another year, despite links with Fiorentina in recent months.
The Neroverdi have launched the careers of coaches like Eusebio Di Francesco and most notably former Juventus boss Max Allegri, so perhaps De Zerbi can follow on in their footsteps and take over at one of the big clubs.