Take everything you know (or thought you knew) about Sassuolo and throw it in the nearest bin. Founded in 1920, Sassuolo spent much of their early history in the Emilian amateur ranks, only earning promotion to Serie D in 1968, before merging with other local clubs to officially form U.S. Sassuolo Calcio in 1974, earning a further promotion to Serie C 2 a decade later.
The Neroverdi would have to wait nearly 30 years before getting their first taste of the top flight in 2013-2014, where they've remained ever since. Not content to simply be an intriguing and oddly colored bottom dweller (you don't see a ton of green/black color combos), Sassuolo steadily climbed the Serie A ladder, earning Europa League qualification in 2016.
Roma vs. Sassuolo: December 6th. 15:00 CET/9:00 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
While Sassuolo's rise was a feel-good story—featuring up and coming players like Domenico Berardi and one of the hottest young managers in Italian football, Eusebio Di Francesco—they were little more than an entertaining mid-table club; never a threat for any real honors but not necessarily a relegation battling doormat either.
But a lot has changed in this pandemic-infused season. With five wins, three draws and only one defeat, Roberto De Zerbi's side have been one of the surprise stories of the season, and currently sit third on the table, ahead of traditional powers like Juventus, Napoli, and yes, Roma.
Led by Berardi and Francesco Caputo, who have combined for nine goals and five assists in league play so far, Sassuolo have been one of the league's most balanced sides, ranking in the top five in shots per match, goals scored and goals conceded.
De Zerbi's 4-2-3-1 has effectively played to his side's strengths and has proven to be remarkably adept at creating and finishing quality chances. In addition to ranking in the top five in shots, goals and goals conceded, the Neroverdi are among the league leaders (top 5 to 10) in total shots, shots on target, and shooting percentage, while their 15% conversion rate is one of the top marks in the league.
Sassuolo are undeniably a talented club, but it still feels somewhat strange to see them in third place, which has led some to question whether or not the Neroverdi can sustain this pace. A fair question considering this side finished a distant eighth last year, nine points adrift of seventh place Napoli.
But, what do the advanced numbers say about Sassuolo's surprising climb up the table?
Is a Sassuolo Slide on The Horizon?
Taking nothing away from their finishing rate, which is impressive, the advanced metrics don't seem quite as bullish on the Neroverdi's chances to sustain this pace.
Where Roma lead the league in expected goals with 22.55—a figure they've actually underperformed by three goals—Sassuolo rank seventh in xG with 14.33, a figure they've outperformed by over five goals. Using those expected goals figures as a guidepost, Sassuolo are also punching above their weight on the table and should, based on xG figures, sit in ninth place, behind the likes of Udinese and Bologna.
These figures were culled from Understat, but the new kid on the stats block, Football Reference, are equally pessimistic about Sassuolo's ability to hang with the big boys of Serie A. While their xG totals are slightly different than Understat's, Sassuolo's xG difference of +2 ranks eighth in the league. Similarly, per Football Reference, Sassuolo rank fifth in goal-creating actions per 90s minutes and sixth in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes; solid marks, but definitely not elite.
What's more, despite seeing a larger share of the ball than any club in the league (61%), Sassuolo aren't really making great use of that possession, ranking between 8th and 12th in shots per 90 minutes, goals per shot and goals per shot on target. Yet, somehow they've converted 15% of shots into goals—it's madness.
Now, none of this means that Sassuolo will suddenly fall off a cliff, but it does suggest they've been a bit lucky (and perhaps even a bit wasteful despite their excellent conversion rate) through nine matches, at least in terms of their goal production.
Stemming the Second Half Surge
So, then, how exactly can Roma upset this surprising Sassuolo side?
Well, the key to victory likely rests in the second half, where Sassuolo have absolutely bludgeoned opponents, outscoring all comers 16-6 in the second half—the league's best mark, both in terms of total goals scored and goal differential. With nine of those goals coming in the final 15 minutes, Sassuolo have been particularly effective closing out matches.
And, perhaps even more impressive, they've outscored opponents by an unbelievable 9-1 margin in the second half of road fixtures. Whether you credit that to focus, fitness, tactics or just De Zerbi's substitution patterns, Sassuolo have been the most dangerous second half team in the league, especially on the road.
Given all that, you can likely guess how Roma can best approach this match: score early and score often. While Sassuolo haven't exactly been woeful in the first half of matches, they are one of only eight clubs with a negative goal differential in the first half, playing to a -2 goal differential in the first 45 minutes. But, goals are a rare occurrence in the first half of Sassuolo matches, as only 10 shots have found the back of the net in the first half in all Sassuolo matches.
To put it in simpler terms, based purely on their first half performances, Sassuolo would be in 14th place with 10 points and a -2 goal differential (Roma would be 3rd with 17 points and a +3 goal differential). But they are beyond reproach in the second half, sustaining a +10 goal differential that would have produced a league best 20 points (Roma would be 6th with 15 points and a +1 goal differential). Needless to say, that's a pretty stark half-to-half discrepancy.
Fortunately, Roma are one of only four clubs with double digit goals in the first half of league matches and hold a +10 goal differential at the Olimpico overall, stats that bode well for their chances tomorrow.
Keys to Victory
Distill all these stats and all this talk about expected this or expected that and this match, much like life, is all about timing—with a healthy dose of control. While the xG figures suggest that Sassuolo have been a bit lucky (and their goals per shot, and goals-per-shot-on-target suggests more inefficiency than their conversion rate leads one to believe), in a sense they're making their own luck through sheer force of will and control.
With an average of 61% possession, no club in Serie A sees as much of the ball as Sassuolo, and when your top two scorers (Berardi and Caputo) are each converting more than 20% of their shots into goals, your defense has to be extremely focused. In a sense, it's almost like Sassuolo lulls you into a trance through slow, patient play, and while in a longitudinal sense their luck may runout, their top two scorers have been remarkably efficient when called upon this year.
So...what exactly should we expect tomorrow?
Roma will likely see less than 50% of the ball tomorrow, but if they can force the issue in the first half and then slow the tempo down, compact their defensive shape and absorb the blows, a victory could be on the cards.
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