Monday Sep 25, 2017  
     
 
  17/07/2013: Under the Microscope: Petkovic's Tactics
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Vladimir Petkovic has a tough job this summer. Lazio have qualified for the Europa League in each of the last three seasons but have been agonisingly close to the Champions League, only to have fallen short on each occasion. Worryingly, Petkovic's men fell some way before the final hurdle last season despite having amassed only one point less than Edy Reja's charges managed in the previous season. A longer trip in Europe and a triumphant Coppa Italia run are certainly factors in the drastic drop in form but I think everyone realises that, having kept faith in this tight-knit bunch for a number of seasons, the time is right to inject some freshness into this squad.

Brayan Perea, Diego Novaretti, Vinicius Freitas and Felipe Anderson (with Lucas Biglia expected to follow) are certainly fresh, but whether they can make the instantaneous impact that is needed to propel Lazio up the standings is up for discussion. I will put each of these inidividuals under the microscope in future editorials, but at present, only Biglia and Novaretti catch my eye. They are both experienced and of a certain standard, but I would still question whether they will be good enough to break into the starting eleven by the end of pre-season. There are also a plethora of youngsters for Petkovic to suss out with 17 year-old Mamadou Tounkara already making headlines in Corriere dello Sport.

For me, our problems lie in Petkovic's starting eleven. I don't buy into the argument that Lazio lack depth or suffer from injury crises. Last season, the only first choice players to miss more than 10 Serie A games were Stefano Mauri, Miroslav Klose, Stefan Radu and Abdoulay Konko. Both Mauri and Klose are of an age where you must expect some issues and both Radu and Konko have a history of injury troubles. Mauri and Radu are always major losses, but Senad Lulic filled in for both and became one of Lazio's main protagonists. Klose was temporarily replaced by Floccari, who delivered in Serie A, and Kozak, who delivered in Europe while Konko was supported, firstly by Cavanda and secondly by Pereirinha. Considering an 18 million euro price has been touted for one of those 'back-ups' and the other is the subject of interest from a direct rival having finished top goalscorer in a European competition, I don't feel the lack of depth is a valid excuse for last season's failures.

There were other issues. A lack of motivation when fatigue hit, a lack of discipline from certain players which should be expected considering that their bodies and minds were far from peak condition and a general lack of belief and confidence when all these issues came to the fore. One aspect of the side which was always bandied about as a positive attribute was the team spirit and the desire to win together. In the end, there was an acceptance of losing together - a dangerous quality that was all too evident during the Ballardini epoch.

My fear for the current season is that a repeat of the Ballardini epoch may be on the cards. Once again, player-management disputes are rumbling throughout pre-season. Once again, we are gambling with certain transfers and not investing in safe bets - In 2009, it was Eliseu, Kozak, Bizzarri and Julio Cruz, in 2013, it is Perea, Vinicius, Novaretti and Felipe Anderson. Once again, we have the distraction of the Supercoppa Italiana and once again, we are relying on a relatively unproven coach to meander through these obstacles. There are, of course, other more positive angles to consider this time around - Petkovic has proven himself to some extent by winning the Coppa Italia and taking us deep into European competition and this squad is much better on paper than that of 2009-10.

However, something does not feel quite in place, be it the coach or his personnel. What worries me about the future is that we are spending more now than ever under Lotito, but we have not shown in recent times that we are capable of finishing in the Top 5 as we need to in order to secure European qualification beyond next season. In 2009-10, we were 'battling relegation' despite never being lower than 16th in the standings and in the end we finished 12th. Nowadays, a 7th-placed finish is the new 12th - mid-table mediocrity - and we must realise that a single game saved our most recent season, and 113 years of history.

In my opinion, much of the fault lies with Vladimir Petkovic rather than the personnel and I say that because this team has shown throughout the last three seasons that they are capable of contending with the very best if the coach gets the very best out of them. In big games, where tactics and instructions tend to can go out the window, Lazio deliver and that says something about the character of the players and the quality of this team. For me, Petkovic made significant errors during the second half of last season which cost us a number of points.

These tactical changes - or errors to put it bluntly - came following our 1-0 win against Inter in December. In that game, Petkovic deviated from his usual 4-1-4-1 system to a much flatter 4-5-1 with Hernanes in a more central role and Lulic and Mauri in wider roles than we were used to seeing. The system appeared to work as Lazio emerged victorious, scoring in the 82nd minute when Stefano Mauri provided a defence-splitting pass to Miroslav Klose, who deliciously turned the ball into the goal. It was a tense game where both sides created many decent opportunities, but it took a bit of magic for Lazio to come away from the match with three points.

At the time, both Inter and Lazio were billed as genuine Scudetto contenders, sitting pretty behind Juventus in the league as the winter break loomed, and the game was viewed as an opportunity for either side to lay down a challenge to Juventus. At the end of the season, Lazio were 7th and Inter were 9th. From that game onwards, neither side showed their previous from again. I remember thinking at the time that Vladimir Petkovic was tactically astute - responding to Stramaccioni's bizarre 4-3-1-2 system with a flat 4-5-1 in the hope of dominating in midfield and limiting Inter's opportunities. But I also remember thinking previous to the game, that Lazio were devoid of creativity and I have vivid memories of being on LazioStyle Radio with LazioLand.com's 'Ermetico' voicing that particular opinion prior to the Inter game. The Inter game did not allay those fears and neither did anything Petkovic tried in the second half of the season.

Looking back, I think Petkovic overestimated Inter and read too much into that game. From that game onwards, Hernanes was used as a centre-midfielder and was a shadow of his former self. From that moment on, Lulic and Candreva were used as wingers in the wake of Stefano Mauri's injury and they have not been the same since. From that moment on, Alvaro Gonzalez has seen less time on the pitch with Hernanes and Onazi emerging as unlikely competitiors for his spot. From that moment on, Dias was sidelined in favour of Michael Ciani and Lorik Cana. That is four key changes that came about following our win over Inter in December and four changes I would argue have been to the detriment to the team.

Why have I come to that conclusion? Firstly, there is the obvious reason - the fact we have plummeted down the Serie A table ever since those changes was made. Secondly, there are clear statistics that outline flaws in Petkovic's logic.

Hernanes has scored 12 goals in Serie A from outside the 18-yard box in the last two seasons - more goals from outside the box than anyone else in the league. Petkovic responds to Hernanes' clear strength by moving him further away from the box.

Lulic is a player with blistering pace, but relatively poor acceleration. Lulic has shone in counter-attacking situations where he has time to get up-and-running - think about his goal against Pescara or his assist to Hernanes in April's Derby della Capitale, where he ran half the pitch and offloaded the ball the moment he encountered opposition. Yet Petkovic plays him as a winger, boxing him in and testing his ability to accelerate away from defenders and provide inch-perfect crosses.

Candreva is a player who is direct and poses problems. In a central role, he is a goal threat as he showed early last season against Palermo and AC Milan and as he showed in May 2012, when he scored in the 3-1 win over Inter at the San Siro which secured Europa League qualification. Since Petkovic has moved him out to the wing, he has not scored a goal in open play in Serie A.

Since Gonzalez has had to fight Hernanes and Onazi for his starting berth and since Petkovic has broken up the Biava - Dias partnership - which is statistically one of the best in Serie A - Lazio have gone from having one of the best defensive records in the league to having one of the worst in Serie A.

I am convinced these statistical facts are correlated to Petkovic's tactical changes. Of course there are other factors which I have previously mentioned and in discussing that game against Inter, you can make a strong case for the significance of the injuries to Mauri and Klose as well. However, despite our impressive form from September to December, there were faulty wires in the Lazio system - we could all see that sparks were beginning to fly and that Petkovic had to either repair the wires, change the wires, or alter the flow of the current. I can't help but feel that he did a botch job and that the system is destined to blow up if it hasn't already. We've brought in some new wires during the mercato, but whether they have the strength to carry the current remains to be seen. What seems clear is that Lazio intend to keep most of the existing wires and if yesterday's friendly is anything to go by, Petkovic is intent on keeping the same flow. That is fine, providing that Petkovic is clear on what wires he needs and where he needs to place them in order to get everything flowing nicely and back up to speed.

My concern though is that with all these new additions, Petkovic will get his wires crossed and sparks will begin to fly once again. Should that happen, I don't want to witness the aftermath when they ignite. 
Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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