The Exigent Duality
Shortcomings of Sarriball - 18:54 CDT, 3/10/23 (Sniper)
I haven't been writing about football much over the past few years because the posts age terribly: in sports, things change week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day. But there is enough of a pattern over nearly two years of the "Sarri Revolution" at Lazio, that I've found both my admiration of Maurizio Sarri as a coach and my frustration at the shortfalls of his stubborn system growing enough to warrant some analysis.

Sarri is a superb man manager. In general the players work hard every game, and have really put themselves out there to absorb and execute "the system". Even with Ciro uncharacteristically missing huge swathes of this season with injury, and even with the paper-thin and uneven squad Igli Tare has provided, Sarri has us in third place at the time of this writing, ahead of Roma who have almost twice our payroll.

I think Sarri is a great coach. An elite coach, even. It seems like every time I read Italian Football news, I hear of some player or another saying they want to join Lazio, just to be coached by Maurizio Sarri. That positive reputation didn't come about for no reason. Where I get frustrated with him is when the discussion turns to tactics-- or rather, his lack of tactical adaptability. I can illustrate what I mean via two images I just created.

The first image represents how most teams move the ball up the pitch. They create a semi-circle of sorts, and work the ball back and forth, side-to-side. 1-2-3, then maybe back to 2, then to 1, then to 2, then to 3 again. Once an opening presents itself, they make an interior pass to number 4. At that point, the players involved in 1-2-3 advance, and the process repeats. In this way, the team can progress the ball up the field in an orderly and controlled manner, minimizing the risk of a turnover. Eventually, the ball reaches the opposing eighteen yard box, the opponent can be hemmed in, and chances can start to be created.

In "Sarriball", the means of progressing the ball is totally different. Players make vertical-- up and down the pitch-- dashes, forward and back, creating "W" patterns with their other teammates. When a midfield player dashes towards his own goal, the defender makes a high-risk, long-distance, incisive pass. This is line 1 on the image. The midfielder receives the ball with his back to the opponent's goal, and needs to make another high-risk pass through traffic, ideally to 2, but if that is closed down to 3.

When it works, it can be devastating. For example, watch the ball movement in this sequence against Milan: the high-risk pass into a retreating Felipe Anderson pays off, and he is able to then play the ball wide to Zaccagni, who goes on to create the goal. The directness and incisiveness is what put Zaccagni in space, and thus in a position to be able to run at the defenders. Notice though that a Milan player-- Tonali, I think?-- was inches away from intercepting the pass out wide. Also observe how, when Anderson receives the ball, he is surrounded by five Milan players. One errant touch, and they have a 5-on-4 breakaway, if not even worse.

Which leads me to what happens when "Sarriball" goes wrong, which it often does. Observe this passage of play from Tuesday's loss in the Conference League. Casale plays the trademark long-range high-risk ball into traffic, just like you saw in the Milan clip. Except in this instance, the receiving player-- Milinkovic-Savic in this case-- has a poor touch, or is caught in two minds, or whatever. He makes a mistake. The opponent then easily punishes the suddenly-overwhelmed defense.

My frustration with the system isn't even isolated to turnovers and conceding goals. In fact, Sarri's system-- at least in league play-- has a superb defensive record. Rather, it's the overall pattern which irks me. We will oftentimes go entire halves and only create a single chance on goal. This is because the system is built to do lightning strikes, where a sequence of long-range low-percentage passes all need to successfully connect. If even one of those risky passes goes amiss, the whole possession is lost. At that point the team's only option is to retreat into their own half and wait for the opponent to make a mistake, at which point another low-percentage lightning strike can be attempted.

This versus in a more traditional "semi-circle" setup, where the play is built more systematically: if the ball is lost, there is a higher chance of recovery because there are more teammates around the ball itself.

"Sarriball" is feast or famine. It either really works or looks embarrassingly disjointed. It either results is a rapid laser-like goal, or it hopelessly bogs down, resulting in constant turnovers after failed flicks and back heels, putting the team under continuous pressure from capitalizing opponents. It is not built to sustain pressure, and it is not built to retrieve the ball in the event of a turnover, since the Lazio players are very far away from each other, and did not advance as a unit.

Sarri's system is easy to shut down: if the opposing team takes away either the interior pass-- such as by getting right on the back of the retreating player, putting intense pressure on him-- or takes away the ball to the wide areas, the receiving midfielder's only options are to either try a high pressure, high risk pass backwards to the defender from whence the ball came, or attempt some kind of blind, tricky, low percentage back heel or flick, something we also see a lot from Sarri's Lazio. We also see a lot of "hoofed" passes into the center-- yet another low-percentage attempt at connecting with a retreating midfielder, when our fullbacks get cornered and desperate.

The sensation I get watching "Sarriball" is that that every player in Lazio is on an island by himself. His teammates are far away from him on the pitch, meanwhile he is surrounded by three or more opposing players. In Sarri's system, it always feels like Lazio are playing a man down. This is the exact opposite effect versus what is desirable.

I'm not saying that Sarri's mode of play has no place: against the right opponent or tactical setup or specific period in a given match, it can be effective. But it should be more of a "change of pace", rather than the whole full-course meal. He should change the tactics and approach to suit the opponent or the phase of the game-- and he just doesn't do that. There is no "plan B".