Why Sassuolo should be celebrated
The Emilian minnows do things differently, and for that they deserve recognition.
When you’re a Serie A team expected to struggle near the bottom of the table, there are a few rules you’d normally follow. You usually spend the summer scrambling around to try and sign players too old to offer anything more than experience, spend the next few months playing excruciatingly boring football, then end up hiring Davide Ballardini, a terrifying bespectacled harbinger of doom; a man who only ever shows up when you know you’re in serious trouble. If you’re lucky, you survive by the skin of your teeth. If you’re not, you find yourself relegated.
If you do none of the above, you’re Sassuolo.
Promoted to the top flight for the first time in their history a couple of seasons ago, Sassuolo spent much of last season struggling near the relegation zone. But instead of putting together a team of recruits from Reggio Emilia’s various retirement homes (with the exception of Paolo Cannavaro, that is), they decided to bravely put their faith in youth. In the summer, Simone Zaza arrived from Juventus to join hot prospect Domenico Berardi in attack. Other recruits, like Roma centre-back Luca Antei, were also signed with an eye on the future. In January their focus on youth continued, as Antonio Sanabria arrived from Barcelona, Lorenzo Ariaudo from Cagliari, and Nicola Sansone from Parma.
Meanwhile, on the field, coach Eusebio Di Francesco refused to budge from the attack-minded possession-based style of football he used to great success in Serie B. Imagine a slightly less anarchic Zdeněk Zeman, and that’s pretty much how Di Francesco had his side playing. Unsurprisingly Sassuolo struggled, but with such a young squad, they were hardly expected to survive comfortably. But in Italy, struggles are never the fault of anyone but the coach, and Di Francesco was sacked in January. Even less surprising was that things didn’t improve under his notoriously crazy successor Alberto Malesani, and Di Francesco was dragged back in March, armed with his attacking blueprint.
The Emilians looked in serious trouble, but Di Francesco’s return sparked a typically exciting revival. They lost only two of their last seven games, with brilliant wins coming in a seven-goal thriller away at Fiorentina, and a 4-2 victory at home to Genoa. The neroverdi had come out all guns blazing after Di Francesco’s return, and with a young, top-heavy team, it was just the tonic. They finished a place outside the relegation zone, and in doing so defied all expectations. They proved that youth and fun weren’t obstacles to surviving the drop. So far this season, they’re reaping the rewards of their approach.
Sat comfortably in mid-table as we approach the midway point in the season, their young players are beginning to flourish, and a string of impressive performances — including taking points from both Juventus and Roma — suggest Di Francesco’s ambitious style is being absorbed and becoming ingrained. Sure, they’re still far from perfect, and still have to iron out the odd defensive error at the back.
But even Saturday’s narrow defeat against Palermo offered further encouragement. Sassuolo kept one of the league’s top prospects in Paulo Dybala quiet , while spending much of the game camped in their opponent’s half. They very almost snatched a point, despite having goalkeeper Andrea Consigli sent off midway through the second half.
It was another expansive performance from a team playing with an admirable ambition. Sometimes it comes off, other times it inevitably won’t. But attacking has become the Sassuolo way. For their imagination, they should be celebrated.