The Exigent Duality
End of Sarrismo - 08:39 CST, 2/07/24 (Sniper)
Too often in my life, I am in a car careening eighty-five miles-per-hour toward a guardrail: "Guys, we're about to go off the cliff." "Nope, we're fine!", they reply. "Uh, no, I really don't think we are, we only have thirty feet left to stop, and I don't mathematically think we can do it." "Well, let's just wait and see", they respond. Finally, the car makes impact with the metal of the guard rail, and I hear screams all around me as everyone else finally comes to grips with the inevitable.

I point this out from a position of love, not ego: I can't take any "credit" for it, it's just the way God made me. And it's frustrating when something I care about is very obviously headed for ruin, but I need to wait for the ostriches to "catch up" with their emotions, so they can eventually join me in acknowledging the obvious-- hopefully, before it's too late.

Before I jump into the actual subject, let me expand this preface with one more point. When a football team plays a match, there are four categories of performance:

  1. The team plays superbly, perhaps even "out of this world", or "champagne football" if you will.
  2. The team plays well enough to win, and probably does: good performance.
  3. The team plays poorly; probably loses the match, but could eek out a win if the opponent is also poor.
  4. The team is very poor indeed; maybe there are injuries, or fatigue, team looks "out of it."

Then there is a very, very rare fifth class... it is so uncommon in fact, that in decades of watching the sport, I have almost never been led to this diagnosis. In thousands of matches, I have only seen it a handful of times. In this mode, the team has given up the will to play football. It's not that they are despondent even-- it goes beyond. They are emotionally and psychologically shattered.

Normally when a team does not play well-- think categories three and four above-- it's disappointing to watch, and maybe even frustrating. This is the normal state of a team having a bad game: everyone wants their team to win, and when that doesn't occur, it's natural to wish things otherwise. But in this rarified fifth state, it's a different spectacle: rather than disappointment or frustration, it is profound sadness which sets in. A kind of sadness which transcends the match result even-- a sadness that even fans of the opposing team, or otherwise neutral stadium announcers, feels.

You see, in this state, the players' wills are broken. They aren't even trying to play football anymore: they have thrown down their arms, and are running for the hills, every man for himself. Nothing can be felt in the human heart but empathy, almost like watching the victim of a car accident in the immediate aftermath of the impact. It transcends sport: no non-sociopathic human being wants to see another human being be utterly, emotionally devestated.

The first time I ever saw this sorry state was when Davide Ballardini was in charge of Lazio in 2009. The team were like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back: literally on the ropes, getting punched in the face over and over, massive welts forming, blood gushing from the nose. Then the bell, then the next round: on the ropes again, unable to punch, smashed in the face over and over.

It became a drinking game for me, counting the number of times we got the ball out of our own half. We would go matches-on-end, and create zero chances on goal. Ballardini became so terrified of losing, that he started playing defensemen in midfield, such as Radu, just so he could pack as many defenders onto the pitch as possible.

We were headed for relegation. It took a long, long time, but eventually Claudio Lotito replaced the coach-- with Edy Reja. I remember one of Reja's first press conferences like it was yesterday, after he had time to survey the squad: "This team is totally broken psychologically; my job is to restore their confidence". And he did: even by the end of his first match in charge, slowly it became evident to the players: "Wait, my hands are untied, I can defend myself now?"

It was a beautiful thing to see: I think a film could have been made out of it.

In all of the many, many seasons which have passed since then, I have seen some very poor Lazio performances. But this season, to my total and absolute horror, I have seen-- for only the second patch in decades of supporting the club-- the fifth stage once again: in multiple games this season, I have seen a broken team. The downward trajectory came to an absolute, rock-bottom state against Atalanta on Sunday.

The players looked resigned from the second the match started. At one point, Atalanta had created twelve shots versus one for Lazio-- a shot I couldn't even remember. To re-iterate: it wasn't simply a "bad performance" from Lazio, or an "off day"-- it was so ugly that it became obvious the match announcers were lacking for words to describe it. While they praised Atalanta's solid performance, they sounded melancholy and sad when reflecting on the overall proceedings-- in the same way one might feel sad seeing me in a boxing ring trying to fight Mike Tyson.

And it wasn't just Sunday: this season, Lazio have the second lowest shots in the entire division. Their expected goals is seventeenth. They are playing several halves in a row without creating even a single shot on target. Even in the ten games they've won this year, the performances were almost all in the third tier: no rhythm, discombobulated ball movement. It's difficult to recall the last time the squad played well.

Let's also not forget that the team looked very, very poor in large chunks of last season too. But Sergej Milinkovic-Savic-- who by-the-by had said openly he did not like Sarri's 4-3-3-- got a huge burst of motivation at the end of the season, in his final matches with us, to drag the team to a deceptively strong finish in the table. Let's also not forget that had Ivan Provedel not scored a last-touch header, we would have crashed out of the Champions League group too.

So what has been the substance of the coach's response to all of this?

  • He always describes the team in the third person. After a match, he will say "It looked like the team didn't play well"-- as if he's an outside, ESPN reporter and not the coach! I have never, in any sport in my entire life, heard a coach use third-person and passive voice when describing his own players.

  • When asked about the poor performances, he replies sarcastically: "Well, it's not mathematical!", or "If I knew I'd have fixed it already!", or "If there was a guaranteed way to win, everyone would be doing it!"

  • The coach has been totally and utterly unwilling to change systems. To everyone with eyes, a 4-2-3-1 would allow the team's two most creative players-- Luis Alberto and Daichi Kamada-- to play in their natural positions, while freeing up Rovella-- who would be paired with Guendouzi-- to do more forward-playmaking. Even when point-blank pleaded to by his players-- "Can we please try a 4-2-3-1?", the coach flatly replied: "No."

Just like with Davide Ballardini in 2009, Maurizio Sarri has totally and absolutely destroyed the psyches of his players. There is no restitution which can repair that damage: only sacking the squad or the coach will work. Since the squad can't be sacked, it's the coach who must go.

From the day he got here, the players did not fit his tactical system and did not enjoy playing that way. But riding the crest of the superb man-manager Simone Inzaghi, their spirits were high: "We'll try our best!" But over time, having to put in two hundred percent "stretch" effort every game took its emotional toll. The final straw came when Sarri requested players which were literally impossible to acquire-- was Lotito supposed to bound and gag Zielinski, and throw him into the trunk of a car?-- and now has spent a season pouting in the dugout about it.

With no Milinkovic-Savic to wallpaper over the deficiencies, the Lazio environment cascaded into total system failure.

But instead of replacing the coach, the language out of the Lazio camp is "Well, let's see if the team responds against Cagliari." This is probably the tenth time they have said that this year: "Things are terrible, but let's see how the team does in match XYZ." Meanwhile, we're thirty feet from the guardrail, and there is no foot yet over the brake pedal. Thankfully there is no threat of relegation this time-- but this is the "last chance saloon" at achieving our season's goals.

A couple of years ago, I was as excited as anyone that we landed Maurizio Sarri. In the "Venn diagram" of coaches who could win us a Scudetto, and who we could afford, there are very few names. But Sarri is perhaps the most eccentric coach in world football: he doesn't last more than a season or two, in most places he goes. Now I understand why.

He has a 240 million EUR squad to work with. It's not the players, numerous of which are internationally recognized. Lots of teams throughout Europe would love any of our quartet of superb central defenders; they would love Alberto or Zaccagni, or Guendouzi, or a big physical fullback like Pellegrini-- I could go on and on. Daichi Kamada is tied for the team's most expensive player at twenty million EUR, and Sarri doesn't even attempt to find a way to leverage his skills.

A change is needed, and there appears to be only one way out.