Sassuolo’s fall from grace over the last few seasons has seen them go from competing in the UEFA Europa League to now facing a real possibility of relegation to Serie B.
Over the years, Sassuolo had scratched and clawed their way up through the lower ranks of Italian football to sniff first division football. In the 2012-13 season under the guidance of Roman tactician Eusebio Di Francesco, the Neroverdi realised the dream of playing in the top flight when they won the Serie B title and secured their spot in Serie A where they have remained ever since. But its taken an awful lot of resiliency to stay.
At the end of January 2014, Sassuolo were in the cellar and faced the real possibility of making an immediate return back to Serie B. Di Francesco was sacked, replaced by Alberto Malesani and then re-hired two months later to pick up the pieces, of which he did thanks in large part to the exploits of a temperamental, yet talented, young star in Domenico Berardi who bagged an impressive 16 goals – tied for 7th in the scoring charts.
Through the talents of Berardi and skipper Di Francesco, Sassuolo narrowly pulled off the escape by finishing two points above Catania for 17th. Since living to fight another day, the Modena-based outfit have shown tremendous character and fight despite not having a stacked squad, finishing comfortably 12th in 2014-15, and qualifying for their first ever European competition (UEFA Europa League) the following season over AC Milan with an impressive 6th place accomplishment. However, since failing to escape the Group Stages last season, taking a massive step back into the middle of table and losing Di Francesco to Roma, Sassuolo are suddenly now on the brink of relegation. But how did the MAPEI club get into this position and what has attributed to their rapid decline back to reality?
Along with being raided of the few quality players they have employed such as Grégoire Defrel, Šime Vrsaljko and Nicola Sansone, Sassuolo have struggled to develop some of their youngsters to the point of being true Serie A quality. Names likes Stefano Sensi and Alfred Duncan have quality, but seem to be stuck in this current phase of theirs. Even Berardi, who has been the club’s crown jewel for several years now, seems to be be injury-ridden and unpredictable, hence why several top Italian clubs have shown reluctance to pay a high fee for him despite his ceiling. Throw in the fact both former coach Cristian Bucchi and current manager Giuseppe Iachini are nothing more than provincial, and showing no signs of being Di Francesco’s long-term replacement, it shouldn’t come as a surprise they are in the cellar.
Along with Juventus and Udinese, Sassuolo are one of just three Serie A clubs who independently own their own stadium, meaning less governance and a financial advantage very few smaller clubs of controlling revenue streams. This allows for the owners to pour into the mercato for replenishment in between the sales of top stars like some of the names mentioned earlier. Sassuolo’s model seems to be more geared towards purchasing rights to younger players instead of breeding their own, in a way similar, but also different than Atalanta who are thriving despite being plucked of top talent each summer. Again, Sassuolo is having difficulty bringing players through the system, which for a smaller club, is paramount for success and sustainability.
We can take a tactical route here and run through the archives of the last two seasons to show where the problems lie on the pitch, but it’s clear the issue is embedded much deeper. Sassuolo have a strong, veteran guard of Francesco Acerbi, Francesco Magnanelli and keeper Andrea Consigli. They also hold a handful of young players with promise like Matteo Politano, Pol Lirola, Claud Adjapong, Berardi, Luca Mazzitelli and Gianluca Scamacca (currently on loan at Cremonese). The foundation is there for Sassuolo to remain a regular fixture in Serie A if they manage to avoid relegation this year, but based on their turbulent campaign, this is no guarantee.
Sassuolo are currently clinging to a goal differential advantage over SPAL and Crotone who are locked in a three way tie on 24 points at the bottom of the pack. Iachini will need to pick himself by the bootstraps, rally the players and find some positive form here in March, or else it could be the end of the road for Sassuolo in the top flight of ‘calcio’.