Connect in the back of the net

When Juventus slipped to the fourth defeat of their increasingly chaotic title defence against Sassuolo at the end of October, Simone Zaza looked on from the bench and couldn’t make an impact in the 12 minutes he was given at the end of the match.

Juventus handed Sassuolo €18 million for Zaza in the summer but the 24 year old has made a slow start to life in Turin, making only three starts and managing just one goal, coming against newly-promoted Frosinone.

Zaza scored 11 league goals for Sassuolo last term, the second top-scorer to Domenico Berardi, as the Modena-based club, a town with a population of 41,000, 23,000 smaller than neighbours and fellow Serie A participants Carpi, achieved their highest-ever position of 12th in the Italian top-flight.


From Serie C2 to the top tier of Italian football

A Serie C2 club as recently as 10 years ago, the Neroverdi have only been residing in Serie A since 2013 but now they sit sixth, level on points with AC Milan and just five short of current leaders Fiorentina.

It has been a remarkable rise, initiated by the now-Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri, who guided Sassuolo to Serie B in 2008 before jumping ship to Cagliari, then kept on course by Andrea Mandorlini, Stefano Pioli and current incumbent Eusebio Di Francesco.

In their first-ever season in Serie A Di Francesco was sacked in late January with Sassuolo in the relegation zone but his replacement, Alberto Malesini, lasted only four weeks and owner Giorgio Squinzi quickly acknowledged he had got it wrong. By early March Di Francesco was back in charge. “I never unpacked my bags” he said.

Di Francesco kept the Neroverdi up with a game to spare and, with a focus on re-stabilising the club, they have continued on a steady upward with a sustainable approach and by keeping their finances in check.


Sensible signings

Domenico Berardi, who has 33 goals and 17 assists from his first 72 games in Serie A, is a product of the youth program while the likes of Nicola Sansone, who scored the free-kick winner against Juventus, and Antonio Floro Flores, Sassuolo’s bright light so far this term with three goals and two assists in eight games, have been bargain purchases from Genoa.

Sime Vrsaljko, one of only three non-Italian players in Di Franesco’s squad, was also bought from Genoa, for £2.45 million in 2014, and now the Croatian full-back has sparked the interest of Juventus and Barcelona with a run of impressive performances. That bold confidence in youth has opened the door for Berardi, still only 21, Sansone (24), Matteo Politano (22) and Alfred Duncan (22) to find routes into the first team and they are currently not letting their manager down.

Two players still remain since their days in the fourth tier, goalkeeper Alberto Pomini and midfielder Francesco Magnanelli, the club captain who, at the age of 30 is yet to miss a single minute of this season. For any player coming in, the presence of those two is enough to reinforce what it means for a club like Sassuolo to be in the top-flight and for Di Francesco it helps to avoid the collective effort of the team becoming diluted. In a league where home-grown players are only being given an average of 45.9 percent of minutes, the fact their squad is loaded with Italians has also generated harmony and cohesion.

Magnanelli sits at the base of Di Francesco’s midfield three and provides a steely defensive screen to the experienced centre-back pairing of Paolo Cannavaro and Francesco Acerbi. They have kept four clean sheets so far and with 10 goals conceded only Napoli and the top two of Fiorentina and Inter Milan have let in less.

Acerbi was another low-priced signing from Genoa while Cannavaro cost just over £1,000 after completing a loan spell from Napoli. Federico Peluso found himself frozen out at Juventus but after making a £3.5 million switch to Sassuolo he is now established their first choice left-back.


Clever business

The astute dealings haven’t been paramount to Sassuolo’s survival in with the big fish of Italian football, but instead it is testament to clever business which has allowed them to lose the likes of Zaza for substantial profit and carry on unaffected.

Squinzi’s company Mapei, an adhesive producer which turns over €2.3 billion per year, sponsor the club’s shirts in the league’s most lucrative deal of £22 million and, after the owner purchased the stadium in nearby Reggio Emilia in an auction for €3.7 million, they also own naming rights to the stadium where they have not lost a game since April.

As a result, Sassuolo are one of only three Serie A clubs, along with Juventus and Udinese, to own their own ground. It is a shrewdly run club operating by generating money and ensuring it is there only when it is required, like the £7 million it took to buy Juventus out of their share for Berardi. “The philosophy behind spending is one of spending little,” Carlo Rossi, the club president, once said.


Incredible progress

Sassuolo and Di Francesco have carved out a reputation for the adventurous attacking football, played with verve and freedom, that has already seen them beat Napoli, Lazio and Juventus, nearly come away from the Stadio Olimpico with a win against Roma and push Milan all the way at the San Siro.

For a town with a population that will take up barely half of that stadium such progress has been incredible and as they prepare to face Carpi in the derby Modena this coming weekend, the newly-promoted outfit will do well to follow the Neroverdi’s lead. Interestingly, the same can now also be said for most of Serie A.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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