Lazio’s 2-1 win over Inter at the Stadio Olimpico was met by the stadium going into raptures as Gianluca Rocchi’s final whistle echoes across the pitch. It was a huge win in the context of the Scudetto challenge. No one had ever seen this coming- not even Lazio fans. But this is now happening- Lazio are the real deal and they’re a perfect example of long-term building.
When Simone Inzaghi had taken over as the club’s first-team manager in the 2016-17 season, it came in the midst of chaos and confusion. Inzaghi had been the boss towards the end of the 2015-16 season and had been promoted from being the assistant under Stefano Pioli. He was replaced by Marcelo Bielsa in the beginning of the 2016-17 campaign. But the eccentric Argentine’s resignation within a week left Inzaghi back at the club again.
From Inzaghi’s very first day though, he had a shape and a system. The idea was to play counter-attacking football in a compact shape. It was towards the end of the season that the club began playing the 3-5-2 on a regular basis, establishing the basis of what they are today. They earned a fifth-place finish that season- an unexpected improvement from the eighth-placed finish from the 2015-16 season.
But the summer of 2016 had been the foundation for many players who made the system work. Thanks to Igli Tare, the club signed Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto for cheap fees. The same happened for Bastos and Wallace, while a teenaged Luiz Felipe also came from Ituano.
But the summer of 2017 saw Lucas Leiva arrive for €5.70 million from Liverpool. He was to play as the deepest midfielder, while Adam Marusic and Felipe Caicedo added depth to the wing-back and striker areas. They too came for cheap fees.
The 2017-18 season in Serie A ended in a heartbreaking manner. In the last game of the season, Lazio had to face Inter with the nerazzurri three points behind at fifth. Stefan de Vrij, who had already agreed a free transfer to Inter in the summer started in controversial fashion. If Lazio won, they would have qualified for the top-four.
They were 2-1 up at halftime but lost 3-2. De Vrij played one of his poorest games, as the biancocelesti dropped out of the top-four on goal-difference. Despite the heart-break, Lazio went into the 2018-19 season with the same system.
De Vrij was replaced by Francesco Acerbi inch-perfectly. His arrival from Sassuolo was followed by the addition of Joaquin Correa from Sevilla. The Argentine added pace to the side, making them a fearsome counter-attacking unit in the 3-5-2.
But the 2018-19 season was a marked disappointment. The underperformance of Sergey Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto led to Immobile picking up a lower tally. The club finished eighth- the lowest under Inzaghi in a full season. There was a feeling that maybe, his time was up.
Heavy links came up with Milan and Juventus. The rossoneri had got rid of Rino Gattuso, while Juve had seen Massimiliano Allegri leave. Despite all the speculation, Inzaghi stayed. He has confessed to having rejected multiple offers to stay.
This past summer saw the club increase their depth in wing-back areas. Jony came in from Malaga, while Manuel Lazzari came from SPAL. Both were undervalued talents and fixed the club’s issues perfectly. Denis Vavro added an extra cover for the centre-back positions.
This season has seen Luis Alberto and Milinkovic-Savic play the season of their lives. The Serbian, who was another under-valued talent on signing, has four goals and four assists. While the former Liverpool man has the highest number of assists in the division- 12. That has got Immobile scoring for fun- like he did in the 2017-18 season. The Italian has scored 26 times and is in line to break Gonzalo Higuain’s record for scoring the most number of goals in a single season.
The fact that this has been a development from the 2016-17 season says a lot. They’ve been a constant with the same style and shape. They’ve built on it through adding depth and the right players constantly. Many have left- those like Felipe Anderson and De Vrij himself. But the club has replaced them and moved on with the right replacements.
And that comes back to the certainty that the club has. They did have a disappointing season last campaign. But like many other clubs who could’ve been reactionary at that point, they trusted the process that Inzaghi has.
And it is a lesson to many clubs around the world. What Lazio are doing is with a much lesser budget than Inter and Juve. While Juve have spent over €600 million over the last five years, Lazio have spent only around €120 million on players during the same time. It is proof that teams don’t need superstars to challenge for silverware. It is about making the right signings and not making reactionary decisions.