Christmas has come and passed, just like the Serie A andata. The first half of the season, or rather the first 18 rounds of matches as the nineteenth will be played in January, has been a celebration of quality football, passion, tactical ingenuity, drama, ultras and everything Italian football is. Here we take a look at what the season has brought so far.
Juventus look well set to win their sixth straight Scudetto after celebrating Christmas four points clear of Roma with a game in hand against second-bottom Crotone to come. The lead could therefore extend to seven, which would be a lead it’s hard to see Juve let slip. Max Allegri’s side of champions enjoyed a terrific summer mercato with the stunning signings of Dani Alves, Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain. They’ve been good additions to the side though a lot more is expected. Alves has been good but not spectacular and is now injured for possibly the rest of the season. Pjanic has mixed good with bad but ends the year with five goals and four assists; more than decent for the Bosnian playmaker. With Allegri’s return to a diamond midfield with Pjanic at the top of it, we’ll likely see more of him in the spring.
Higuain has scored 10 goals which sees him falling short of the likes of Dzeko, Belotti and Icardi. The Argentinian striker arrived somewhat unfit and has been rotated in and out of the eleven, but he scores goals when he plays and should be reaching 20 something come May. Juventus has been plagued by injuries with superstars Paulo Dybala and Leonardo Bonucci facing time out due to injuries along with the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Despite all defensive injuries, Gianluigi Buffon has only conceded 10 goals this season, the fewest in the league.
Roma and Napoli are chasing behind, and looks to be the real challengers to Juve’s crown. Roma have been consistent at home, winning all matches at Olimpico, but inconsistent on the road. Dzeko is scoring for fun, with Salah and Perotti completing a terrific tridente up front. Napoli has been spectacular to watch at times, but Arek Milik’s injury caused significant problems for Maurizio Sarri’s men. Lately they’ve been eradicated, emphasised by Napoli scoring 16 goals in the last four games with new false nine Dries Mertens scoring seven goals in the last three games. With Leonardo Pavoletti joining in January and Milik returning, Napoli should be able to continue winning and mount a challenge if Juve slip up. They compete with Roma for second, with Juve looking like champions-elect.
If those three are looking like the Champions League sides for next season, there’s six teams within seven points competing for two Europa League places. Lazio are fourth with Simone Inzaghi doing brilliantly to build a solid team which has been very consistent. They switch seamlessly between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 in games and Inzaghi’s has got Felipe Anderson back to his thrilling form from 2014/15 with the Brazilian heading the Serie A charts for assists with seven. The signing of Ciro Immobile has paid off with a terrific start, although the goals has dried up lately. The final part of Lazio’s tridente is Baldé Keita who has been impressive in this Lazio side after really establishing himself. With a beautifully balanced midfield of Lucas Biglia, Marco Parolo and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic behind them and a solid defence, Lazio can be optimistic.
Vincenzo Montella is also doing really well, and if Milan win their game in hand at Bologna Milan will be third. Montella’s young side with Gianluigi Donnarumma and Manuel Locatelli shining brightly is stunning to watch at times. Suso has been a revelation, and the lovable marksman Gianluca Lapadula has started scoring goals up front. With the uncertainty of the new owners and the supposed money they will bring in, Montella continue to work with what he’s got and he’s doing it really well.
Surprise package Atalanta (more on them later), a rejuvenated Inter, free-scoring Torino and the beautifully-playing-but-with-a-lack-of-end-product Fiorentina make up the rest of those six teams. It’s tight, it’s exciting and it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Mauro Icardi is the Serie A top scorer so far with 14 goals.
Udinese has risen from the bottom following Luigi Del Neri’s appointment, and have an interesting team with the brilliant midfielder Seko Fofana starring in the centre and with the striker Cyril Thereau impressing up front. Chievo are eleventh, and they continue to be overachieving due to their size and they’re standing compared with rivals. Rolando Maran’s diamond shape is working for the flying Donkeys from Verona. Next comes the two eternal rivals from Genua, with Genoa edging Sampdoria only on goal difference after conceding two goals less. There’s room for improvement and consistency at both, with Genoa in particular looking really exciting at times in Ivan Juric’ frenetic 3-4-3. Samp has woken up after a sleepy start and should improve. If you want to watch goals, you watch Cagliari who has been involved in games averaging 3,8 goals a game with scores such as a 4-3 win against Sassuolo and a 5-3 loss vs Fiorentina. Bologna has been a disappointment, but should be safe.
Sassuolo finished sixth last year and were expected to challenge for Europe again this season. They started well too, but injuries to superstar Domenico Berardi and other key men like Francesco Magnanelli, Simone Missiroli and Alfred Duncan has seen the team slip down the league. They play really well at times, like when they went 3-1 up at Cagliari and at Milan as well as 2-0 up at Sampdoria, but they lost all those games in the last 20 minutes. They need to see out games to make their first 70 minutes count, and if they do they will climb the league. Their focus on young Italians is admirable, with the likes of regista Stefano Sensi, ball-winner Luca Mazzitelli, winger Federico Ricci and Antonio Ragusa as well as crown jewel Lorenzo Pellegrini impressing.
The bottom four is Empoli, who struggle to score (only 10 so far), Palermo, lost nine successive games but finished with two games unbeaten under new coach Eugenio Corini, Crotone, waited three months for their first win, and Pescara, playing well but not scoring and conceding too many. It will be a huge fight between these four and possibly Sassuolo, Cagliari and Bologna to stay up. There will be drama.
Ivan Juric’ tactics excite.
As always, Serie A is a league for tactical innovations and solutions. Systems vary and styles are contrasting. This year we’ve seen a huge usage of different interpretations of 3-4-3 with teams like Atalanta, Genoa, Palermo, Crotone and Fiorentina adopting it regularly while others have used it on occasions. Another system frequently used is the 4-3-1-2 (diamond) used by Juventus, Empoli, Cagliari, Chievo and Sampdoria on a regular basis. There’s also other systems such as 4-3-3 most often used by Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Inter, Sassuolo, Torino and Bologna, Pescara are alone in a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, Udinese switch between 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 while Roma have been everything from 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1. As I said, systems vary in Italy.
We’ve also seen a greater use of man-marking from certain sides, Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta and unsurprisingly Gasperini’s pupil Ivan Juric’ Genoa in particular. This has been particularly effective in disrupting opponents from building up attacks properly and from dominating possession and has been used by teams fielding three defenders who play aggressively and can step up from defence to mark.
Most teams also try to dominate games by having the ball, and no team play better attacking football than Napoli who also happen to be top scorers. This preference to dominate by having the ball leads to open matches which are lovely to watch, and the stereotype of defensive football with little chances in Italy is a huge lie when the league has seen 500 goals in its 178 matches so far at an average of 2,8 goals per game.
Young Italians shining
The big plus from the season from an Italian national team perspective is the trust and opportunity given to many young Italians across the country. Sassuolo consistently field a team of 9 or 10 Italians where the likes of Mazzitelli, Sensi, Ricci, Politano and Ragusa has impressed. With Berardi missing, however, the big starlet is Lorenzo Pellegrini. At 20-years-old he’s already a decisive player for Sassuolo, with three goals and three assists so far. He combines energy, skill and aggression and can be a top midfielder in the future.
Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara have impressed this season.
A few miles north is Atalanta where Gasperini has been giving plenty of youngsters the chance, and none have seized this better than Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara. Gagliardini is already a phenomenal player at only 22. He’s just come into the Serie A this term but looks set for the big stage. Hard-working and energetic off the ball, he’s elegant with it and is the link between midfield and attack. A true box-to-box player who has already been called up by Giampiero Ventura for Italy, he also has an elegant way of running and could be a stunning player in a few years. His youth team teammate Caldara has been a revelation as the central centre-back of Atalanta’s back three. He too has been called up, and is reportedly set for a 2018 transfer to Juventus. This means he will have at least another year to hone his game under Gasperini before joining il Bianconeri. Young wing-backs Andrea Conti and Leonardo Spinazzola are also thriving under Gasperini.
We also have the likes of Daniele Baselli, Marco Benassi and il Gallo Andrea Belotti at Torino where Belotti is drawing attention from some of Europe’s heavyweights following 13 goals already. We devoted an entire article to Federico Bernardeschi after his display against Napoli and he’s developed into a Serie A superstar. 18-year-old regista Manuel Locatelli is developing at Milan and has already become integral while guarding San Siro’s net is Gianluigi Donnarumma, 17-years-old. In Turin, following Bonucci’s injury, 22-year-old Daniele Rugani has come into the team and hit the ground running.
There’s many more, but the future of the Italian national team looks extremely bright with players emerging in positions across the pitch. If these players and others continue to gain their coaches trust and earn regular Serie A football then Italian football will surely benefit.
Although we’re not quite finished with the andata, we still have one more game, we want to produce this list of awards to what we have seen so far. Enjoy.
Best player: Mauro Icardi, Inter
When Inter has been struggling immensely for most of the fall, their talismanic striker hasn’t been bothered by all the controversy surrounding him following his fall out with Inter’s ultras. Icardi has been exquisite on the pitch, and tops the Capocannoniere race with 14 goals.
Best coach: Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta
Gasperini endured a difficult start at his new club when trying to implement his energetic 3-4-3 on a new group of players. After struggling with the experienced players he turned to the youngsters and has been duly rewarded by the likes of Conti, Caldara, Spinazzola, Gagliardini, Freuler, Kessie and Petagna as Atalanta has sailed through to the top of Serie A, even appearing in the top three at one point. He’s also gotten older players like Alejandro Gomez and Andrea Masiello to play some of the best football of their careers.
Biggest surprise: Atalanta
After a difficult start, Atalanta has been soaring ever since their 1-0 over Napoli in October and has been one of the most entertaining teams to watch. With the team in sixth they have an outside chance to challenge for European qualification and what a story that would be. They play Gasperini’s 3-4-3 to perfection and are brilliant to watch, but can they keep their players in January and sustaining this remarkable run?
Biggest disappointment: Sassuolo
Sassuolo were predicted to challenge for Europe again, but injuries have taken its toll and they’ve struggled to see out games from comfortable winning positions. They’ve also suffered from playing in the Europa League due to all the injuries as the players never could rest. With fewer games in the spring, Eusebio Di Francesco’s men should improve and be safe, but you never know.
Least surprising: Juventus
Juventus is Juventus, and Allegri’s men just keep winning. No player has been in particularly sparkling form, there’s been an injury epidemic at times and still they keep winning. Four points clear with a game in hand, the Scudetto looks likely. With the best players now starting to return, can they add the Champions League?
Most beautiful: Davide Di Gennaro’s style of play
There’s something about them, the classic Italian trequartisti. Often slow, always brilliant with a genius mind, they mesmerize with their play. Not many of them remain in modern football, but left footed Davide Di Gennaro is a throwback to a bygone age. The Cagliari virtuoso rolls his socks down all the way to his boots and it’s impossible to know if he’s even wearing shinpads, and when he gets the ball something always happens. You can marvel at his impeccable first touch, the constant nutmegs, his glorious range of passing and ability to see everything that happens on the pitch. Di Gennaro switch between playing as a trequartista or a regista. He’s brilliant in both roles. Watch him. Enjoy him.
Arranged in a very attacking 3-4-3, Juric style, I’ve picked a team I really like. I haven’t tried to build a winning team, this is just the best players so far in my opinion.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon
Has conceded the fewest goals, and is still Serie A’s best keeper.
Back three: Kostas Manolas, Mattia Caldara, Alessio Romagnoli
Manolas has been solid for a really good Roma, Caldara stunning for Atalanta and Romagnoli the defensive leader of Milan.
Midfield four: Felipe Anderson, Seko Fofana, Marek Hamsik, Federico Bernardeschi
Anderson has been brilliant and shares top spot in the assist league with Marek Hamsik, who continues to be a talismanic leader for Napoli. Hamsik is also the top passer in Italy. Fofana is new to Italy but has been exciting to follow. Bernardeschi has developed into Florence’s new king with his nine goals so far.
Attack: Andrea Belotti, Mauro Icardi, Alejandro Gomez
Belotti and Icardi are certainties due to the number of goals they’ve scored, 13 and 14, which make them the top two in the goalscoring charts along with Dzeko also on 13. Gomez is probably the only controversial inclusion in this side, but he carries a huge burden in Atalanta’s attack and has been brilliant with his trickery. Dzeko, Iago Falqué and Salah threatened his place, but Gomez overall game edges it.
What a season we’ve had so far, and make sure you keep up with us come the spring and the ritorno part of the season.