Woo-hoo. It’s another change in the Serie A merry-go-round, but this time it’s Lazio and Claudio Lotito who have snapped their fingers to replace Stefano Pioli.
On the basis of this season, it looks like a more deserved sacking than not, Lazio secured third place last season (albeit lost their CL play-off to Bayer Leverkusen) and failed to kick on or even keep up the standard from last season. They’re currently in eighth and have been up and down all season, their lowest point being knocked out by Sparta Prague in the Europa League.
But scratch the surface and was this sacking right? No it categorically wasn’t.
Last season’s overachievement
Lazio reaped the benefits of a number of different clubs’ failure to even remotely compete for that third CL spot last year. Milan and Inter were still in rebuilding modes, with new managers trying to find identities. Fiorentina, much like Lazio, made a late dash in the second half of the season but for the most part it was the failure of Napoli.
Rafa Benitez was hired to win a Scudetto for the city of Naples but his pragmatic style only took Napoli backwards. In the final game of the season, Napoli hosted Lazio at home but lost the game 4-2, handing third spot to Lazio.
Lazio had essentially benefitted from everyone else falling over their untied shoelaces. But third was still a great achievement. Did Lazio overachieve? Yes, but Pioli still has to take credit.
That’s the price of success. Higher expectations, to keep improving. But the problem with overachievement is that it sets expectations that cannot possibly be met, because of prior overachievements.
This graph via the excellent Michael Caley shows Lazio’s improvement during Pioli’s first year. Lazio are seen with some pretty great company, such as title winners Manchester City and Montpellier, and of course Antonio Conte’s first year Juventus side.
Overachievement is a factor but the work Pioli did in his first season with Lazio should at least count for something and it’s a credit to his managerial ability.
The underachievement of this season
Lazio are currently 22 points off where they finished last season and while the team has taken a step back no matter which way you look at it, it’s not a far enough step back for a firing.
Just for reference, you can’t see Lazio’s GD column because they’re on zero goal difference. Anyway, Lazio are only one of the ‘seven sisters (whoops I forgot to do Fiorentina, sorry!)’ to underachieve their expected goal difference (an explanation for that here) by even a small margin, yet Lazio did it by a rather big margin.
Lazio’s actual goals against stick out like a sore thumb and they by far have the biggest contrast between GA and xGA. Lazio’s defense has come under fire all season, but the numbers show it’s on par with Roma’s (whose defense has been very seldom criticised). It’s perhaps harsh to associate one department of the team to Pioli’s sacking but in this case it’s probably fair. Lazio’s vastly underachieving defense cost Pioli his job.
But what if Lotito had looked at the underlying numbers and seen that this was just a season of serious underachievement by Lazio? Maybe Pioli is still in a job.
So, what the hell happened to the defense?
Injuries, injuries and revolving doors. Etrit Berisha and Federico Marchetti were about as awful as one another and there was next to no consistency in the goalkeeper position. Injuries to Konko, Radu and of course Stefan de Vrij meant Lazio’s defense was unsettled and they even sunk as low as to bring in Milan Bisevac in January.
The de Vrij injury is the one that really hurts, though. Only two games in the season and the Dutchman blows out his knee. Due to the recognition Koulibaly has finally received this season, de Vrij is now the sole owner of ‘most underrated CB in Serie A’, well done Stefan. In all seriousness de Vrij is a top 3 non-Juventus centre back in Serie A and if he can regain his old form next season, I doubt he’ll be in the capital for 17/18.
Pioli helped progress the careers of a number of young players at Lazio, including Felipe Anderson, Wesley Hoedt, Balde Keita, Onazi and Cataldi. The truth is Lazio are a selling club and the development of youth and players in general is essential for running of the club. This squad hadn’t even hit its peak yet, I’m not sure what it’s peak would have been, but the ambiguity of us never finding out is sad enough.
When you’re not winning things, aesthetically pleasing football can go a long way. Sure you’re not winning Scudettos every year, but you’re not playing hoof ball or launching in lazy crosses all game. Lazio played some of the nicest and most purposeful possession football in the league.
When will the Lotito merry-go-round end?
Probably never. Pioli was as good a manager as Lazio have had at the helm for almost seven years. Two years is probably not enough to even fully stamp a team with your own philosophy in full. What kind of message does this send to possible future candidates for the Lazio job? You’re only as good as your current season? It’s not healthy and it never will be.
Another team is going to pick up Stefano Pioli, perhaps Milan if they have any intelligence about them (ha) and fans of the Biancocelesti will once again be left wondering ‘what if’.