Since their promotion in 2013, U.S. Sassuolo Calcio have been the darlings of Serie A. A small, provincial team with a squad built around young, Italian players, the team has earned the affection of both fans and critics. However, after four years out-playing their means, the club from Modena has suffered a dire start to the season, begging the question: what has happened?
When the Neroverdi kicked off their maiden Serie A campaign four years ago little was known about the side which, less than ten years ago, had been in the 4th division of Italian football. It wasn’t until January of that season that they burst onto the scene when, 2-0 down against AC Milan, four goals from a 20-year-old Domenico Berardi inspired his side to a famous 4-3 win.
That match was the bright-spot in an underwhelming season for Sassuolo, who finished 17th, narrowly avoiding relegation. However, the match against Milan had turned heads in the direction of Modena. The following season the Neroverdi confirmed their reputation against the Milanese sides, beating AC home and away, whilst also taking three points from Inter, finishing the campaign in 12th. Their upward trajectory didn’t stop there, as in 2015/16 Sassuolo exceeded all expectations, ending the season in sixth place, qualifying for the Europa league – and taking nine points from Milan based sides once again.
Unfortunately, as most pundits will tell you, adding this extra commitment was the breaking point for an already thinly stretched Sassuolo squad, who crashed in the group stages, and regressed to a 12th place Serie A finish. However, this season, again able to focus on the domestic league, Sassuolo were expected to return to their formidable selves.
Despite this prediction, not only have the Neroverdi failed to rediscover their form, they appear to have regressed further, if their early league form is anything to go by. An opening day scoreless draw to Genoa set the precedent, which was followed by three consecutive defeats. Any hope that the subsequent victory against Cagliari would be a turning point was soon crushed by a home defeat to Bologna and, just to drill the point home, a 6-1 loss to Lazio.
As bad as this run of results is, the biggest concern for coach Cristian Bucchi will be that many were against teams that Sassuolo would have been expected to beat. Genoa, for example, are deep in the relegation zone, whilst Torino, Atalanta and Bologna struggled in trips to Modena in the past. Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the Neroverdi.
The obvious answer to Sassuolo’s problems is their transfer policy. Without the wealthy owners or marketability of the bigger teams, Sassuolo owner, Giorgio Squinzi has relied on player sales to keep his club afloat. A large part of these earnings reinvested into infrastructure such as the youth system or the purchasing of their own stadium. This sustainable, long-term strategy has previously earned Squinzi plaudits, however, it could well be coming back to haunt him.
After Sassuolo’s second season in Serie A, the sale of Simone Zaza to Juventus was used to fund the purchases of Grégoire Defrel, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Stefano Sensi, all key protagonists last season. Likewise, following the sixth place finish, Nicola Sansone and Šime Vrsaljko were sold off with the funds being used to buy the outright ownership of Berardi as well as Antonino Ragusa, Matteo Politano and Alfred Duncan.
In comparison, this summer’s transfer window, in which Defrel and Pellegrini both departed for Roma, saw minimal investment in the first team. Cassata, Marchiza and Goldaniga, all extremely promising young centre-backs were brought in. However, not one of them has earned a place in the starting XI. In effect, Sassuolo sold their first choice centre forward and attacking midfielder, and completely failed to reinforce the attack.
This has showed in the opening seven fixtures, as Sassuolo are currently the third lowest scoring team in the division. Any hope that Diego Falcinelli, returning from loan, would continue his goal scoring form for Crotone was soon dispelled after he failed to make an impression in the opening matches. It didn’t take long for Bucchi to drop him in favour of veteran Alessandro Matri. Despite having played for illustrious clubs such as Milan, Juventus and Lazio over the course of a 14 year career, Matri has never been a prolific forward, reaching double figures only three times.
It is not only player sales that may be impacting on Sassuolo this season, but a change in manager. Eusubio Di Francesco had been with the Neroverdi since their arrival in Serie A (aside from a 2 month hiatus in his 1st year) but departed for Roma this season. His replacement Bucchi is facing his first season in the top flight, having only ever managed in the lower leagues.
Many expected the inexperienced Bucchi to stick with Di Francesco’s formula: an expansive 4-3-3 formation using Berardi as a focal point on the right wing. However, just two games into the campaign, the new coach decided to implement his own system, a 3-5-2, aiming to build his team around the star-man, upfront alongside a traditional centre-forward.
Unfortunately for the Serie A debutant, Bucchi’s attempt to reinvigorate his team has done quite the opposite. Sacrificing wingers for fullbacks has played no small part in Sassuolo’s offensive struggles this season, and has resulted in Matteo Politano, who contributed more goals and assists than Berardi last season, being left on the bench.
Out of 15 possible points under their new formation, the Neroverdi have earned just three, and, in the process, conceded 12 goals and scoring four. In spite of this, their coach has fielded the same back line every time. For a team that invested heavily in centre-backs over the summer, this seems a bizarre decision.
The faith that Bucchi has placed in out of form key players is no more evident than in the case of Berardi. Last season, the former Italy U21 international suffered his first major injury, which lead to him missing 24 matches. After four months out, Berardi looked off the pace, and contributed just four goals throughout the remainder of the season, his worst ever return in Serie A.
Whether due to a lack of confidence or unfamiliarity with the system, Berardi’s poor form has continued into the new season, with his only goal coming from the penalty spot, before conceding six to Lazio. Much of Sassuolo’s transfer strategy has revolved around keeping their record goal scorer at the club. Without his guarantee of goals, Bucchi’s job will be a lot harder than he may have assumed.
It appears that the ideology on which Sassuolo built their club may be the reason for its current downfall. As financially sustainable as their policy is, it makes it difficult to promote a consistently high standard of football. Losing not only key players, but their manager this season, may well be the breaking point.
As negative as this seems for the Neroverdi, the situation is not irreparable. Sassuolo are one of only four Serie A clubs to own their own stadium, which ensures they retain a large portion of match day income. Further, Bucchi has at his disposal a squad that should keep them clear of the relegation zone. Even at his worst Berardi is a threat, Francesco Acerbi still looks a strong option in defence whilst young midfielder Sensi has been likened to PSG’s Marco Verratti.
Questions remain however over whether Matri and Falcinelli are able to carry the goal-scoring burden until a new striker can be found, and whether Bucchi has the experience to solve Sassuolo’s problems.