No team likes to lose. When that loss comes at the hands of a rival, it stings all the more. And when the two teams involved are Lazio and Roma, one might expect some bloodshed- or at the very least, a few thrown elbows.
But for once, Lazio have their eyes on a greater prize. Rather than racking up red cards when things started to go Roma’s way, the Biancocelesti have kept their cool, trusting that goals from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile would be sufficient. Lazio lost, but their 4-3 aggregate win sends them to the Coppa Italia final, which certainly counts as a victory over their rivals. What they’re really after, though, is a long-term win: a third-place finish, a Champions League place, an infusion of cash, and the ability to consistently compete with the best of Serie A.
Lazio are playing it calm, they’re playing it cool, and they’re playing it away from most eyes. Perhaps other teams don’t see the side as a threat: they’ve challenged for a Champions League spot a few times over the past five years, but have often faded away at the end, reaching third just once at the end of the 2014-15 season—and that was after they surrendered second to Roma. Lazio spent most of last season bumbling around the middle of the table and ultimately finished 8th, an unacceptable result for a club that had grown used to European play. So, this past off-season they began a quiet overhaul.
Lazio tried for a bit of flair by bringing in Marcelo Bielsa, but the Argentine left after just two days, upset over not having promised players waiting upon his arrival. Had Bielsa remained, Lazio would have attracted more attention, but it’s unlikely they would have made a serious challenge for third place. Bielsa’s style, with its emphasis on transitions and pressing, is dependent on a side’s ability to work together. But this is a side that had just lost Stefano Mauri, who’d been with the club for 10 seasons, and Miroslav Klose, who’d led the front line for five. They’d also sold Antonio Candreva to Inter, bringing in cash for new players but in the process losing the squad’s focal point. Under Bielsa, results would’ve come and they would’ve been entertaining, but it’s almost certain the season would’ve been much more of a roller coaster.
What Lazio needed instead was a steady hand, which they found in Simone Inzaghi, the former youth team manager who’d stepped into the caretaker role for the final seven rounds of the 2015-16 season. He had done well enough in that short time – four wins, three losses – but the club clearly thought his lack of experience would hamper their ambitions for European play, and were set to send him to Serie B side Salernitana. Inzaghi didn’t mind being second choice; it was his chance to guide the team of which he was a fan, a club which he considered family.
It’s not always wise for clubs to put a fan on the bench; Simone wouldn’t have had to look far to find words of caution. After sacking Max Allegri, Milan, scrambling to get back into the Champions League, were convinced they needed a manager schooled in the Rossoneri way. But after half a season and an 8th place finish under veteran Clarence Seedorf, Inzaghi’s brother Filippo was given just one year, during which Milan finished 10th. Over a decade at Milan meant little when Filippo didn’t provide results. Simone knew he had to proceed with caution.
And so he did. Lazio kicked off the season with a 4-3 win at Atalanta, but put the brakes on for Juventus the following week, and approached the other big boys with caution, also falling to Milan, Inter, and Roma. Only at Napoli did they find any joy, managing a 1-1 draw. Against the smaller sides, though, Lazio dominated. What Inzaghi needed was to shift his side’s cautious approach, which so often turned shaky against those bigger names, into one focused on discipline.
Indeed, Simone’s approach is organized, direct, and effective: focus on the counter, direct plenty of long balls forward. This suits his attackers – Felipe Anderson is creating chances, Keita has eight goals, and Immobile is finally looking like the top scorer he was at Torino. The tactics benefit Marco Parolo’s desire to get forward and are helping the young Milinkovic-Savic make his mark in midfield. Inzaghi hasn’t settled on his backline because many of his defenders are young, and it’s still tough for his side to keep a clean sheet. But their focus going forward eases the pressure at the back, and that’s been enough to set Lazio on an eight-match unbeaten run in the league.
Despite the goals, Lazio still aren’t making a strong impression. In fact, some might even say they’re a bit boring, at least when their counter’s not in full flow. With no distinctive style and a lack of big-name players, they’ve attracted little attention from neutrals. Inzaghi’s level-headedness often keeps the club off the radar in a league where “el Loco” Bielsa would’ve blended right in. They’ve not even had the courtesy to toss a scandal, or a perfectly placed elbow, to the press.
The slow, steady climb Inzaghi’s set them on isn’t providing the adrenaline-spiked thrills the neutrals would’ve loved, but it is exactly what Lazio needed. And should they win against Napoli at the weekend, moving within a point of third place, the Biancocelesti may finally find themselves in the spotlight.