Pedro Obiang: De Zerbi is more than a coach at Sassuolo, he’s a teacher who wants that the players decide how to play

Date: 29th April 2021 at 9:00am
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Atalanta have stolen a lot of headlines as Serie A’s feel-good story in recent seasons. But Sassuolo’s own tale isn’t too dissimilar, and the Neroverdi’s rise in Italy’s top tier has gone largely unnoticed away from the peninsula. When they meet, they tend to put on a show.

Their two meetings last season produced a total of 10 goals, which was a little bit underwhelming after the 12 they had managed in their two games the previous season, and their last bout in Bergamo in January saw La Dea win 5-1, even with many tipping Sassuolo for an upset then. In all, their last five games have thrown up 28 goals, but only six of those have gone Sassuolo’s way and the Neroverdi haven’t managed to take a single point against the Bergamaschi since a 1-1 draw in 2017.

“We’re looking for revenge,” Sassuolo midfielder Pedro Obiang told Forza Italian Football in an exclusive interview, briefly looking ahead to their Round 34 match on Sunday. “When you look back at our results [against them] in the last three years, we haven’t had one go our way.

“We want points, but at the same time we have to know and respect who Atalanta are.”

The two clubs are often compared, and not in an unfavourable way for Sassuolo. Both represent fairytale stories, having seemingly come from nowhere to compete with the biggest clubs in Italy and both sides have reached Europe as well.

The comparisons aren’t lost on anyone at Sassuolo, and Obiang believes that the path followed by the Nerazzurri is one that his Neroverdi would do well to follow.

“That’s the dream. One of the owner’s wishes was to get to Europe,” Obiang said. “If we get there the whole club will be proud because we’ve always said that they [Atalanta] have done very well and have worked every day to get to where they are.

“Of course, it’s not easy. Sassuolo is a tiny place and our reality is very different, but everyone who comes here is trying to reach that point.

“For us, Atalanta are like a mirror because they’ve worked little by little. They’ve changed stadium, they’ve changed training ground, and they’ve even changed players. They always change but they have a philosophy and now they’re where they deserve to be.

“Sassuolo have to think about being like Atalanta, but we know that takes a lot of time.”

Gian Piero Gasperini is the mastermind behind La Dea’s rise since his 2016 appointment, and Sassuolo have a man of equal importance leading their charge in Roberto De Zerbi.

The Brescia-born 41-year-old prioritises his philosophy and idea of football in as devoted a way as is possible, adamant that results and progress will come by wholeheartedly following his beliefs.

“He’s more than a coach,” Obiang said of De Zerbi. “He tries to be a teacher and that’s why we change formation a lot.

“He always says that ‘I don’t like to just give you guys one possibility, I want to give you more and then, on the pitch, you can decide how we play’. Other players study us, so we know we have to change.

“We know that we don’t have top top players who can decide things, but if we’re ready for any situation then we can probably do well.

“The difference [between De Zerbi and other coaches] is that, at Sassuolo, we always play with the ball. That hasn’t always happened in my career but De Zerbi doesn’t care who you play against – it could be Real Madrid or Inter. Obviously, we can’t always get the result we want with the ball, but we always have the courage to do more and, when the result is good, he’s happy.”

De Zerbi’s players “don’t have total freedom, and there are rules to follow”, but he trusts the XI he puts on the pitch to act on their own instincts when out there, which can lead to intense tactical sessions during the week.

“It’s all about the ball,” Obiang said, laughing when asked about how tough those sessions must be. “We do a lot of tactics because, to play his way, we have to understand what he wants. But he lets us enjoy it a bit.

“He wants us to feel what we need to do ourselves, and not to do something because we think he wants us to do it.”

Few teams are as unapologetically committed to their playing identity as Sassuolo, and it’s not an uncommon sight to see their goalkeeper and centre-backs exchange a series of five-yard passes to play their way out from the back after a goal kick.

Naturally, their approach involves a level of risk. That, though, is something that De Zerbi and every player who comes to the club signs up for, even if it means making the occasional costly mistake.

“It’s difficult at the beginning,” Obiang said. “But when you train it every day you get more confident and there’s less pressure in those situations because that’s what he [De Zerbi] wants. If we concede, okay, but he wants us to try that.

“He understands that there is the risk. We’ve always said that there’s a risk with the way we play.

“It’s not the same as playing somewhere where there’s a lot of pressure and there’s no time to work. The pressure with Sampdoria and West Ham is totally different because everybody is looking for a result and expects to finish in the top eight. Here, we have that from the coach of course, but not from the club. Sassuolo is totally different”

With that approach, the Nervoerdi have held both Napoli and Roma, drew twice with Juventus last season, and recently won away to AC Milan. They have also been something of a bogey side for Inter for years.

That win at the Stadio San Siro came just days after the Super League had been announced, with the Rossoneri as one of the founding members. Ahead of the game De Zerbi said that, had it been up to him, he wouldn’t have taken his players to play the game, which Obiang believes is another example of how committed he is to his ideas and desire to do what he thinks is right.

“He’s really serious in some situations, just like a teacher,” Obiang said. “He explained the situation to us and that he really didn’t like it.

“As a player, we didn’t get a lot of information about it. But in his mind, he said that if it was his decision we wouldn’t have played. Of course, if we did play we knew we had to do well and, in the end, the result was good for us.”

That loss for Milan was just one of a number of results that haven’t gone the way of the 12 clubs involved in the Super League. In the same round of fixtures that saw Milan lose to Sassuolo, Inter were held by Spezia and Juventus had lost to Atalanta in the previous set of fixtures. Those results, though, haven’t come as a surprise to Obiang.

“Of course [there’s more motivation], obviously!” Obiang said, again laughing when asked if the players went into that game more fired up than for most. “It’s probably because of that but also their players are under a lot of pressure now.

“Because of that, everything was focused on them so, that week, they probably didn’t work as normal and that makes a big difference.”

For now, though, Sassuolo and Obiang are only looking forward to Atalanta and beyond, hoping for a good result to continue their unlikely challenge for European qualification. Sunday’s match in Reggio Emilia is sure to entertain the neutral but the Neroverdi will be demanding a result because, as Obiang himself explained, “everything is okay when you get points, that’s football”.

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