It was a gamble taking on Vladimir Petkovic over the summer but it’s a gamble that has paid off thus far. The Bosnian has taken Lazio to the higher echelons of Serie A, repeating the achievements of the revered Edy Reja but in addition to that, he has made Lazio a main player in Europe again. The Europa League may lack the quality opposition that the current Lazio dream of facing but it has taken Lazio eight years to reach these heights. Without giving the president too much credit, Claudio Lotito appears to have returned us to where we were before we stared down the barrel of the bankruptcy gun and returning to the Champions League without the help of calciopoli appears to be a realistic prospect. We were on the brink with Edy Reja – Vladimir Petkovic may just be able to take us over the white line.
Petkovic has put us in that position by recognising everything good in Reja’s work and eradicating flaws that previously existed. The coach has kept Edy Reja’s system – the 4-2-3-1 – but it’s a more versatile formation than the rigid tactics Reja employed. In Serie A, narrow systems are the norm and the 5-man midfield in itself is far from exceptional but it is how Petkovic utilises his midfield that sets us apart from Edy Reja’s team. Gonzalez is the main component in the midfield, he assists Ledesma in defensive duties and assists the attacking midfield trident when necessary. This allows Ledesma to drop into defence when Konko or Lulic are charging forward to offer more protection. Similarly, Hernanes often drops back to help in defence and this also enables him to pick up the ball in deeper positions and do what he does best, spring the counter attack and take on defenders. Mauri and Candreva have the freedom to drift into wider areas or hold the ball up and look to bring Lazio wing-backs into the game and all these passages of play allow Miroslav Klose to find the time and space to unleash his magic.
In other words, Lazio are now a well-oiled machine, are more dynamic and are capable of changing formation throughout the game. The team plays a more modern brand of football and that is the difference. That is why Lazio can now go to White Hart Lane and get a result against a team like Tottenham Hotspur, but it would be naive to think the manager’s work for the season is done. Our two losses against Genoa and Napoli expose considerable weaknesses that need to be addressed during this international break.
There is no shame in conceding three goals at the San Paolo – Chelsea have shown you can do just that and still attain the title of European Champions and we’ve become accustomed to losing against Genoa recently, but to put those results down to misfortune as Vladimir Petkovic did is potentially disastrous. We can’t criticise Petkovic for playing down the significance of these results since wins against Siena, Maribor and our wannabe nemesis, Pescara followed. After all, it was vitally important in those moments to keep morale and confidence high. Now, Petkovic must revisit the scene of those crimes and decipher what went wrong and where Lazio can improve. If Lazio want to progress in Europa League and enter into Europe’s most prestigious competition next season then change is necessary.
Petkovic’s most drastic tactical change came in the loss against Genoa. On that day, a 4-4-2 was deployed with Mauro Zarate and Libor Kozak as the strikeforce with Lulic and Candreva playing as wingers while Ledesma and Hernanes were tested as a midfield duo. According to ESPN, Lazio had 23 efforts that day to Genoa’s 7 but were defeated nonetheless. In the post-match press conference, Genoa boss Luigi De Canio made a key point about Lazio’s performance. Asked if Lazio deserved to win, De Canio hesitated, not wanting to take away from the performance of his own team and eventually stated that Lazio failed to create any real chances. 23 shots, and no real chances except one in my opinion. Klose fired wide after Stefano Mauri cleverly backheeled the ball into his path. Neither player started the game. Yes, Lazio were unlucky but it took changes during the game to properly unliock the Genoa defence and in light of his substitutions, I am convinced Petkovic recognised the problem.
Out of those 23 shots, Hernanes was responsible for seven of them, Candreva hit five and Zarate hit four. None of Zarate’s four were on target, Hernanes was only able to get one in on goal and Candreva fared better than both with three, although his three were comfortable saves for Sebastian Frey. Those three alone were responsible for 70% of the shots but only 25% of their efforts tested the goalkeeper. The prima punta in Libor Kozak had only two efforts, but he tested the goalkeeper on both occasions. Kozak was heavily criticised for the loss but out of the aforementioned, he was the only one who looked capable of scoring and if Hernanes, Candreva and Zarate spent more time looking to play him in than firing hopelessly at Frey, the result may have been different. I saw it, De Canio saw it and you can bet your bottom dollar that Vladimir Petkovic did as well.
Petkovic has devised a tactic that works brilliantly against the lesser teams. Lazio control the possession and through Klose’s sheer brilliance and Hernanes and Candreva’s long-range goalscoring prowess, Lazio will almost always find a way to win the game against lesser opposition. Genoa is the only exception thus far, but Klose was on the bench.
Against Napoli, that tactic was never going to work. The signs that it would fail were there against Tottenham Hotspur. This season, Candreva has hit 21 shots but has only scored once while Hernanes has managed four goals from 21 efforts. Statistically, they need an average of eight shots between them per game to get on the scoresheet. In the Spurs game, Lazio managed only one shot in total and Miroslav Klose never got a look in. Lazio had more of the ball versus Napoli, but Hernanes and Candreva only managed two shots each in that game and Klose was once again anonymous. Stronger teams will find a way of keeping Petkovic’s main weapons from firing.
Siena and Maribor might be far from world-beaters but both of them limited Lazio’s opportunities and tried to do a Genoa, so to speak. In both games, it was Ederson who proved to be the difference between the sides. He was given two starts, two opportunities and he exited with two goals and unfortunately for Lazio, an injury. Ederson helped Lazio to six points and marked a run of four games where Klose, Hernanes and Candreva all failed to get on the scoresheet. That run was brought to an incredible halt in Pescara but one game does not make a season and if anything, that game only masks the problem.
With Mauro Zarate and Sergio Floccari looking like shadows of their former selves and with Ederson on the treatment table more often than the field, you could argue that Petkovic has had little option other keeping the faith in Klose, Hernanes and Candreva but in my opinion, it has become apparent that we cannot improve playing all three week in week out. Candreva’s 1-in-21 shot-to-goal ratio is nothing short of abysmal for a player that offers little else other than pure pace and his place in the Azzurri team is reflective of Prandelli’s poor judgement more than anything else. Whether anyone can do any better in his position is questionable but while he is on international duty, Petkovic has an opportunity to look for alternatives. If Candreva wants to keep his place in the starting eleven, he must show Petkovic that there's more to his game than he has demonstrated in his career so far.
In the next six weeks, Lazio will play Milan, Fiorentina, Roma, Juventus, Udinese, Catania (who are currently tied for fifth in Serie A), Torino (who are also in the top half of the league) as well as Panathinaikos twice as Tottenham at the Stadio Olimpico. Those games will make or break Lazio’s season, and arguably none are more important in relation to the league standings as the game against Milan. I’ve been convinced from day one that Lazio, Napoli and Inter are vying over two Champions League spots and that Milan will need a miracle to be in contention come May. A win for Lazio will put an 11-point cushion between them and Milan but a win for Milan will help Allegri’s side bid to achieve their miracle. Allegri has two weeks to devise a faultless gameplan – Petkovic has two weeks to find a Plan B that works.
Speaking of plans, no matter what happens in the next six weeks, Lazio should be looking to plan around Petkovic. Continuity is key to long-term success and Petkovic has done enough already to warrant at least a discussion over his contract. A two-year deal worth 800,000 euro per year will not fend off any future advance from another club and in time, it will only lead to uncertainty which is a factor that derailed Edy Reja’s Champions League ambitions. Petkovic has taken to Lazio like a duck to water. Not only that, but as I hinted at the beginning of this editorial, Petkovic’s feats at Lazio remind me of the results a certain Roberto Mancini achieved despite financial restrictions. We all know how that ended and as I said earlier, it has taken us eight years to return to the elite. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.