Alasdair Mackenzie Date:25th May 2022 at 12:55pm
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The final game of Lazio’s season on Sunday provided a  convenient summary of Maurizio Sarri’s first season in Rome.

The helter-skelter 3-3 draw with Hellas Verona saw the Biancocelesti concede soft goals, score plenty of their own, mount a comeback, and produce the odd moment of free-flowing Sarrismo – all trademarks of their 2021/22 campaign.

The end result was a creditable fifth-placed finish. It won’t send pulses racing, but it did at least secure Europa League football and a third consecutive year of finishing above rivals Roma.

Although Lazio’s points total of 64 was four worse off than last year, they finished one place higher and with a goal difference that had improved by 13 – not a bad outcome considering the major transition in system and style since Simone Inzaghi departed.

LAZIO’S STARS SHINE BRIGHTLY

Where would Lazio be without Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic? Not fifth, that’s for sure.

The Italy striker had another outstanding season, despite facing significant changes to both his role (3-5-2 to 4-3-3) and his attacking teammates (Joaquin Correa and Felipe Caicedo to Mattia Zaccagni, Pedro and Felipe Anderson).

Immobile’s haul of 27 goals earned him a fourth capocannoniere crown, a feat only achieved once before, by AC Milan legend Gunnar Nordahl, who won it five times between 1949 and 1955.

Still disrespected by far too many, and unreasonably – if unsurprisingly – scapegoated by the same people for the World Cup play-off disaster against North Macedonia, ‘King Ciro’ continues to underline his status as a modern Serie A great.

Milinkovic-Savic has had the best season of his career under Sarri, providing 11 goals and 11 assists from midfield to help the Biancocelesti register the second-best attacking record in the league with 77 goals, only behind Inter.

That form has once again seen the Serbian linked with a move away – by now an annual tradition – but Sarri said after the Verona game that he “would be very happy to restart from Sergej next season”.

NO CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

Lazio have been every bit as bad at the back as they’ve been good going forward.

Individual errors have plagued their season, not for the first time, leading to a final tally of 58 goals conceded in 38 games – only nine teams have done worse.

Sarri was left in the lurch last summer due to the club’s failure to strengthen what was already its weakest department.

Luiz Felipe and Francesco Acerbi began the season as a strong-looking partnership.

But the former soon had his head turned when it became clear he would leave when his contract expired, and the latter’s inconsistent form wasn’t helped by falling out with – and subsequently being booed by – a section of the Lazio support in December.

Against all odds, the often-maligned Patric has emerged as the great success story of Lazio’s season in defence, with the Spaniard putting in some excellent performances at centre-back to spark talks of a contract extension.

With Felipe, goalkeepers Thomas Strakosha and Pepe Reina, and likely Acerbi all leaving this summer, Sarri might have to start from scratch with the core of his defence – which could be for the best.

SARRIBALL SIGHTINGS INCREASE

Everywhere Sarri has gone since leaving Napoli, fans have waited for sightings of the elusive, stylish ‘Sarriball’ he produced in Naples.

Lazio aren’t there yet, but there have been encouraging signs of progress as the season has gone on, as the passages of free-flowing football become more common.

Pedro’s goal against Verona is a case in point. The move started from the midfield winning the ball deep in the opposition half, then moving it quickly and accurately to disorientate the defence and create the space for Anderson to get in behind for the shot that led to the Spaniard’s tap-in.

Lazio have averaged more than two goals a game, run further on average than any other team in Serie A, and only Fiorentina boast more possession per match on average than the Aquile’s 29 minutes and 48 seconds.

Considering the base Sarri started from – a team used to playing 3-5-2 and drawing opponents onto them before striking direct attacks into space – it has been encouraging.

OFF-FIELD PROBLEMS REMAIN

Although a fifth-place finish is a commendable outcome for Sarri’s first season, the coach has been powerless to contend with some off-field issues.

The squad depth has been poor after sporting director Igli Tare left some gaping holes in the team once again.

Although some new arrivals like Pedro and Zaccagni have impressed, the failure to strengthen the defence beyond the signing of Elseid Hysaj and Dimitrije Kamenovic – who only debuted in the second half against Verona – was a damaging oversight.

Additionally, a full campaign was played without a viable back-up to Ciro Immobile once again, with the last-moment signing of winger Jovane Cabral in January being the only attempt to even acknowledge the problem.

The squad depth simply isn’t strong enough to compete in several competitions at once, and with several players leaving and rumours of others being sold, Sarri admitted the club is “at risk of having another Year Zero”.

Beyond that, attendances have been poor throughout the season due to the club’s failure to sell any season tickets, and the high prices for the AC Milan game in April resulted in the fans who had been turning up going on strike.

A crowd of 50,000 for a relatively unimportant final game against Verona – thanks in large part to cheap tickets being on offer – was a reminder that the supporters are there, they just need to be encouraged to come to the stadium.

Tare now faces a crucial summer, quite possibly his biggest yet.

His shopping list includes: at least two new centre-backs, two goalkeepers to replace Strakosha and Reina, a regista to replace the outgoing Lucas Leiva, a natural left-back, a vice-Immobile, and possibly a big-name midfield signing if Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto, or both, are sold. Gulp.

Year Zero has been quietly encouraging on the pitch, but off it there remain plenty of doubts about what the future holds for Sarriball in Rome.