Serie A Heads Into International Break Without Usual Scudetto Suspects In Top-3 Positions
~ Original article here!
The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the format of the 2020/21 Serie A campaign, delaying the start date to Sept. 19, 2020 and already causing several players to sit out from games due to Covid-19 infections.
In this nine-month season, which will finish on May 23, 2021, teams rarely enjoy a break from playing or traveling. The proximity of matches makes this year especially demanding for those clubs that are involved in high-profile, lucrative Champions League fixtures - namely, Juventus, Inter, Atalanta, and Lazio, who regularly take the field on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
The new format has added unpredictability to the Serie A season, causing last year’s scudetto contenders to temporarily fall behind in the table to the advantage of clubs with much humbler expectations. The teams that are currently occupying the first three positions in Serie A - Milan, Sassuolo, and Napoli - respectively finished sixth, eighth, and seventh in the 2019/20 campaign.
Seeing Milan, Sassuolo, and Napoli on top of the table is also surprising when considering that they are not economic superpowers in Italian soccer: according to a report by Gazzetta dello Sport, the sum of these three clubs’ spending on players’ wages (€230 million) is lower than that of Juventus (€236 million), the side that has been dominating the Serie A scene for the last nine years.
Even though only seven games have gone by, it is possible to identify patterns as to why Milan, Sassuolo, and Napoli have been finding success so far in the 2020/21 Serie A season.
1st: Milan, 17 Points
Milan are currently sitting atop the Serie A table with five wins, two draws, and zero losses. The Rossoneri are one of three teams, alongside Juventus and Sassuolo, to be still undefeated this season.
Not only did Milan conclude the last transfer window with a positive €35 million balance, but they are keeping a relatively low price tag on their wage bill this year, especially when compared to that of the other Serie A clubs with open scudetto ambitions: Milan spend €90 million in salaries, which puts them well behind Juventus (€236 million) and Inter (€149 million).
World-class forward, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Italy national team starting goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, are by far the largest earners in Milan, cashing €7 million and €6 million, respectively. Ibrahimović and Donnarumma, who will both see their contracts expire on June 30, 2021, are represented by Mino Raiola, perhaps the savviest agent in the European football world. This is possibly the reason why the gap between them and the other Milan players is very wide: the third-highest earners on the Rossoneri roster, winger Ante Rebić and captain Alessio Romagnoli, are both on €3.5 million salaries.
On the pitch, the Rossoneri visibly clicked last summer, registering an impressive streak of 19 positive results in Serie A since the June restart. All Milan players, who average the youngest age (24.9) across all Serie A rosters according to data from Transfermarkt, seemed to have fully bought into the soccer ideas of manager Stefano Pioli.
In Pioli’s 4-2-3-1, Milan continue to show high intensity in both the attacking and defensive phases of the game, with recent statistics being evidence of the high tempo displayed by Pioli’s young team. Gazzetta dello Sport revealed that Milan lead Serie A in total tackles (365) and are second in aerial duels and number of crosses conceded to the opponent.
2nd: Sassuolo, 15 Points
There were doubts on whether the Emilia Romagna-based club would be able to give consistency to the convincing performances from last summer. Seven games into this season, the Neroverdi sit second in the Serie A table with a 4-3-0 record, tie for first in goals scored with 18, and rank third for the highest percentage of ball possession behind only Inter and Juventus.
The wage bill at Sassuolo is a very modest one: reaching just €35 million, it is the 8th lowest in Serie A. Sassuolo’s highest-paid player, Domenico Berardi, earns a net €1.8 million salary, while Francesco Caputo, who last Serie A season was the team’s top-scorer with 21 goals, receives less than €1 million/year.
Sassuolo have mastered their 4-2-3-1 formation, with both their wingers being particularly adept at taking the opponent on one-versus-one situations. What is more, Sassuolo’s exciting style of football relies on a core group of Italian players - Berardi, Caputo, and midfielder Manuel Locatelli - that have recently been called up to the Italy national team.
It is true that this year, Sassuolo have not yet played any of the big-7 teams except for Napoli, whom they defeated 2-0. However, the work of manager Roberto De Zerbi has undoubtedly been outstanding, as he has been able to pull off convincing results with far fewer financial resources than most Serie A rivals.
3rd: Napoli, 14 Points
After Napoli failed to show up against Juventus in the Oct. 4 fixture, Lega Serie A decided to assign the Partenopei a 3-0 defeat by forfeit and a penalty point in the standings. (Today, Napoli are expected to appeal that decision, hoping to get the penalty point back and have the game against the Bianconeri rescheduled.) Despite such misadventures, Gennaro Gattuso’s side is sitting in third place with 14 points.
Of the clubs in the top-3 positions, Napoli registered the highest players’ wage bill in this 2020/21 Serie A season with €105 million. They are, however, fourth overall, just seven millions behind the third-highest Serie A payer, Roma, whose wage bill adds up to €112 million.
Kalidou Koulibaly, the talented Senegalese center-back who had been linked with Manchester City during the last transfer window, is the highest earner on the Partenopei roster with €6 million. Behind him is Naples native and Napoli captain, Lorenzo Insigne, currently on €4.6 million.
Napoli have largely benefited from the summer addition of Victor Osimhen, the most expensive transfer in the club’s history with €70 million. A physically-structured center-forward, the 21-year-old Nigerian already shows great soccer chemistry with the crafty Napoli players that roam underneath or beside him on the pitch - such as Insigne, Dries Mertens, Matteo Politano, and Hirving Lozano.
Napoli, who curiously play in a 4-2-3-1 like both Milan and Sassuolo, are able to score goals in a variety of ways, as shown by the fact that their most prolific offensive player, Lozano, has just four of the team’s 15 total goals. Not being reliant on one single man when it comes to scoring goals will likely play to Napoli’s advantage in a season in which the proximity of games, along with coronavirus infections, force managers to employ heavy squad rotations and make soft-tissue injuries a real threat.