Juventus have monopolised Serie A in recent years, claiming the last eight titles.
Ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, plenty tipped Internazionale to rival them in Antonio Conte’s first season back in Italy. The Nerazzurri had backed the former Chelsea coach in the transfer market and he has some serious firepower at his disposal in Lautaro Martínez, Alexis Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku. They’ve since added Christian Eriksen to their attacking arsenal.
Heading into the final third of the season, Juventus have a real scrap on their hands to keep hold of their crown. But Inter aren’t the team closest to the Old Lady of Italian football. Sandwiched between the two rivals are surprise package Lazio.
Le Aquile came from behind against Inter in their last Serie A outing, leapfrogging them into second spot. They’re just a point behind Juventus and they haven’t lost a league match since September. In the 19 games since – a 1-0 loss to Inter – Lazio have claimed 15 wins and, at one stage, they went on an 11-game winning streak.
With 14 games left, Lazio are just three points shy of their tally for the entire 2018/19 campaign. This achievement is even more miraculous when you consider the club spent next to nothing in the transfer market during the summer. In fact, their only big arrivals were Manuel Lazzari and Denis Vavro. The former has just over 1,500 minutes to his name this term, the latter has appeared in just 105 minutes.
⚪️ Lazio this season… 🔵
– 56 points from 24 games. Best record since 1999 ✨
– Unbeaten record now at 19 games 🧱
– Immobile on 26 goals from 24 games, only Angelillo did better 27 in 1958/59 ⚽️
– 16 goals at home for Immobile, more than anyone in the Top 5 🇪🇺 leagues pic.twitter.com/gf8DKDNoE8
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) February 16, 2020
This is still, largely, the team that finished eighth last season.
A so-far unforgettable campaign is down to long-term planning and the coaching ability of Inzaghi and his staff. When looking at Lazio's squad on an individual basis, it’s nothing special.
Albanian keeper Thomas Strakosha was a one-time Liverpool transfer target but despite all the rumours linking him with a move away, he’s still the No.1 in Rome.
Similarily, Sergej Milinković-Savić was the next big thing a couple of years back. Regularly linked with €100million moves to Real Madrid, Manchester United, Inter and Juventus, the Serbian powerhouse has rediscovered his form this season and looks back to his very best.
Joining those two as key components in this rampant Lazio side are 22-year-old Luiz Felipe, 33-year-old Ștefan Radu and 32-year-old Francesco Acerbi in a back three. Shielding them in the middle of a five-man midfield is 33-year-old Lucas Leiva.
Partnering Lucas and Milinković-Savić is another ex-Liverpool man: Luis Alberto. Borussia Dortmund flop Ciro Immobile is the mainstay in the attack, usually paired with one of Felipe Caicedo, formerly of pre-money Manchester City, or Joaquin Correa.
Sergej Milinković-Savić's game by numbers vs. Inter:
25 duels contested
7 aerial duels won
2 shots on target
2 fouls won
1 match-winning goal
Strong, skilful and straight-up superb. 👏 pic.twitter.com/UH47BZCJRK
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 16, 2020
Individually, this group of players would be a mid-table Serie A side. But in Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 shape, it just clicks.
Alberto is a creative menace and no player in Serie A can better his return of 11 assists this term. Immobile is a goal machine, leading the charts with 26 from 23 starts. Since making the move to Rome, the 29-year-old has 93 Serie A goals in 129 appearances and he’s on course to better his career-high return of 29 in a single season.
The Spaniard creates and the Italian finishes. It's as simple as that.
Not only are Lazio one of the great entertainers in Italy, they also possess the meanest defence in the league having conceded just 21 goals. Only Atalanta have scored more (63 to 55) but no team can better Lazio’s goal difference of +34.
They are massively overperforming as a team. They're up eight goals on their expected total and they've conceded eight fewer goals than predicted, too. They've picked up 11 more points than they should have but this isn't the biggest overperformance in Serie A. Juventus are 12.3 points better off.
Overperformance isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. For example, Liverpool are 20 points ahead of where they should be in the Premier League. But, given the Reds have been performing at such a high level for over a year now, the truth might actually be that they've found a way to win that can't be quantified yet.
Lazio have that same belief. In January, Milinković-Savić posted a picture on Instagram with the caption: “Two things are certain in life. Death and Lazio never giving up.”
The shift in mentality is what is responsible for this title challenge. Statistically, Lazio haven't changed much since last season. They're averaging the same number of shots, attempting a similar number of passes and defensively they're just as busy.
The difference this time is the belief. This crop of players believe they will win every single game. And they're doing just that. Inzaghi’s man-management is responsible for this turnaround.
If they dethrone Juventus it will go down as one of the biggest shocks in history. And Serie A needs that to reinvigorate the league. There has to be hope the powerhouse in Turin is beatable.