Blissuolo

Young, hungry and enthusiastic: USS players celebrating the victory over Napoli.

Serie A’s recent history doesn’t leave much room for dark horses. For about ten years, it’s been all the same: Juventus on top, followed by other big shots like Roma, Inter, Milan and, occasionally, Napoli, Lazio or Fiorentina. The only exceptions in the recent history were: Chievo Verona (who finished fourth as a byproduct of Calciopoli scandal) and Udinese (who, during the short spell of their success, had Alexis Sánchez, Samir Handanović, Medhi Benatia, Juan Cuadrado and Kwadwo Asamoah all at their disposal). This is the harsh reality of a league in which smaller, less reputable teams need to rely on loaning multiple players who were previously deemed ‘not good enough’ by their high-profile employers. Three words: lack of stability. If a lesser club cannot even predict which players it will be able to field next season – what is their chance to mount any kind of top-of-the-table challenge?

And yet, Sassuolo are up there this season – at least for now. This summer, they’ve spent three times less money on new players than Juventus splashed on Paulo Dybala; two times less that Milan paid for Alessio Romagnoli. One of their leading strikers – Simone Zaza – was brought back by Bianconeri for an equivalent of about 1/4 of Neroverdi’s entire budget. Zaza also remains their biggest signing ever, having been brought for £6.75m two years ago. To put things in perspective: only last summer, there were nine Serie A transfers that exceeded that amount of cash. Based in a city ten times about ten times smaller than Bournemouth or Cardiff, the team takes on their opponents at Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia – 16 miles away from their original training and football ground, Stadio Enzo Ricci. Why? Well, the ground in Sassuolo has the capacity of just 4008 seats…

Sassuolo’s current Serie A run is truly the culmination of a beautiful story. Twelve years ago, Neroverdi have barely managed to stay up in Serie C2 – the lowest professional tier of the Italian football, which is also an equivalent to the fourth league. Ten years ago, they would already barely miss the Serie B promotion. But that was also the time when the team’s sponsor Giorgio Squinzi has decided to tackle another challenge. In times of a gruesome Serie A crisis (set off by Calciopoli), he took a big risk. Despite the very successful, freshman season in Serie C1, he allowed the author of his club’s rise – manager Gian Marco Remondina – to depart for Piacenza. A certain symmetry between Sassuolo and Leicester can be seen here: both of these relatively small clubs have got rid of their main architect just when the man’s policy seemed to be working well. In both cases – it all turned out great.

As for Squnzi, his idea of successful club management was: building it’s strength from the top of the hierarchy. The businessman, known for owning his father’s chemical company called Mapei, has decided that a good manager is a priority over good footballers. Acting in that spirit, in August 2007, he appointed Massimiliano Allegri as the head coach. At the same time, he forced his new subordinate to build a team capable of moving upwards without any money to strengthen the squad. Between 2006 and 2009, the team saw 49 players being introduced to the green and black jersey – and only one of them, Tiziano Polenghi, was a subject of an actual transfer fee. it didn’t take long for Allegri’s team to satisfy Squnzi’s ambitions: under the guidance of new boss, Sassuolo have secured the first place in Serie C1 in April 2008, winning C1’s Supercup as well – and the superb work by their boss has been awarded with a Cagliari appointment, leaving USS without a commander-in-chief prior to their first ever Serie B start.

This is where Sassuolo’s owners’ ability to pick the right managers began to shine again. Andrea Mandorlini, his next subordinate in charge of the team, has later turned out to be a formidable coach, leading Neroverdi to the 7th place in their Serie B debut. He then went to CFR Cluj, won a double in Romania, got back to Italy and preserved two promotions for Hellas Verona – only proving Squinzi’s ability to notice the coach’s potential. After Mandorlini, there was ex-Piacenza’s boss Stefano Pioli, who got the nod at Mapei Stadium. He led the club to their first ever Serie A playoffs (lost to Torino), used that success as a jump-off point to get a Serie A chance – and the rest was, again, a complete success. Last season, Pioli ended up stealing the Champions League spot from a soon-to-be Real Madrid manager – yet another testament to Squinzi’s impeccable judgement.

Still, the last step to top-flight glory was the hardest to make. 2010-11 season marked a spell of chaos in the team, which lost 17 out of 42 matches and finished the season only 2 points above the relegation mark. Managers like Daniele Arrigoni, Angelo Gregucci and Paolo Mandelli were all unable to live up to the expectations – and neither did Fulvio Pea, whose side lost another Serie A playoff in 2012 – this time, to a very strong Sampdoria ensemble (with Sergio Romero, Shkodran Mustafi, Graziano Pellè and Mauro Icardi all Blucerchiati’s shirts). The club sponsor was pushing for more: by the June 2012, Pea had to go and has been replaced by Eusebio Di Francesco.

From Rome to a small town: Di Francesco is now a force to reckon with.

Many fans are old enough to remember that character from his footballing days. He used to be one of the AS Roma’s most underrated players, having spent four years with Giallorossi. Cafu, Candela, Montella, Nakata, Batistuta, Totti… – those were the teammates he played alongside during his spell in the Eternal City. He was lucky enough to be a part of the side that won the last ASR Scudetto in 2001 – always the same, hard-working left midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation. Seven years after that glorious season, his former Roma teammates talked him into coaching business and he jumped right into the managerial shoes. At first, it was all very bumpy: a narrowly won, Serie C1 relegation battle with Virtus Lanciano; an average, mid-table season at Pescara; one, temporary stint with Lecce in Serie A, where he won 2, drew 2 and lost 9 games before he was sacked. There were very few signs of excellence to come out there – and yet, just like all of his unproven predecessors, he’s been given a chance.

Under Di Francesco’s guidance, Sassuolo have become even bigger oddity on the football map of Italia. Following the Serie A promotion in 2013, the boss insisted on attacking, 4-3-3 style of football which, in his own words, has been largely inspired by the ideas of his Lecce colleague, Zdeněk Zeman. The attacking approach was soon to be backed up by the transfers. Ten new strikers were brought to the team – including the likes of Zaza, Berardi, Antonio Floro Flores, Sergio Floccari and Diego Farias. This largely unbalanced approach, combined with the lack of experience against the biggest sides in the country, resulted with a fair number of disasters. In their few first top-flight experiences, Neroverdi were smashed 1-4 by Livorno, 0-7 by Inter and 0-4 by Juventus. They conceded 72 goals that season – only Livorno shipped more. However, thanks to few exciting 4-3 wins (against Sampdoria, Milan and Fiorentina), they’ve won just about enough points to stay up.

Although the sophomore spells tend to be even more difficult for Serie A newcomers than the first ones, Sassuolo have managed to cement their position as a legitimate first-class side during the 2014/15 season. Just like before, they lost 0-7 to Inter; just like before, they remained winless for quite a while (7 games); just like before, they beat Milan at San Siro. This time though, the team managed to overcome a couple of reputable opponents like Genoa, Torino and… Inter, who fell 1-3 in a rematch for previous two demolitions. Neroverdi have finished 12th, full fifteen points above the relegation zone, with the same number of points as Palermo – team that could regularly field stars like Paulo Dybala and Franco Vázquez.

Meanwhile, Di Francesco has fleshed out his starting XI to the shape it’s in today. Former Atalanta stalwart Andrea Consigli in goal; towering Francesco Acerbi as a centre-back; ex-Juventus squad player Federico Peluso in the left-back role. The middle of the park has been conquered by two fan-favourites: local lad Simone Missiroli and experienced Francesco Magnanelli – the only player who’s been around since the old, Serie C2 times. Berardi and Zaza, both dumped by Juventus to gain experience on loan, have scored 15 and 12 goals, respectively. Croatian right-back Šime Vrsaljko has proven himself as one of the bargains of the season, joining for just £2.6 million from Genoa – only to produce 3 assists in 21 league appearances. Add Antonio Floro Flores’ 67% shot accuracy all through the season, and you’ll get a solid backbone to a dangerous team.

As of today: for a change, Sassuolo have registered a marvelous start. The 2-1 inauguration against Napoli marked only their second ever league win scored over a truly formidable opponent (since AC Milan obviously doesn’t qualify for that category anymore). Even more glorious time for big-club scalps was October, when Neroverdi have beaten both Lazio and Juventus – all in the span of just ten days. In all three cases, Di Francesco’s lads were satisfied with fairly low ball retention. Most of the chances they’ve created came from playing long, aerial passes to one of the strikers, who, at all times, would drop back to the #10 position – just to control the ball and then set up an actual goalscoring opportunity for one of his two fellow forwards. That plus couple of decent crosses and Nicola Sansone’s amazing free kick against Juventus were quite enough to cause three major upsets long before Christmas.

The most recent shock came at San Siro, against title-hungry Inter – the same club that inflicted a lot of pain on USS fans in the past. To a large degree, this was a case of incredible luck. Icardi and Ljajić should’ve both scored from their clear-cut chances in the first half: the Argentinian missed a one-on-one and the Serb failed to convert a free header. After Palacio’s open goal shot has been cleared off the goal line by Peluso, after Consigli brilliantly parried at least three thunderstrikes by Inter’s players – it finally became clear that the hosts don’t have the football gods on their side. Some injury time drama that unfolded after Miranda’s foul on Grégoire Defrel – and that was fate’s revenge for all the spoiled opportunities from Mancini’s team. 0-1. The team that lives off the scraps from the rich men’s table has climbed to the 6th spot.

Can they stay there? Unlikely. Their next fixture is Napoli at San Paolo – pretty much the worst nightmare a Serie A club could imagine at the moment. Torino at home, Atalanta away, then games against Roma and Palermo – that doesn’t sound very promising either. But let’s keep the right proportions here: it’s a miracle that Sassuolo ever got into the Serie B, let alone excelled for a while one level higher! Their squad is almost exclusively based on young, talented, homegrown players. Their manager saw his future at a beach manager job just ten years ago. Their owner recently mentioned winning Scudetto to the journalists – and he was only half-joking. At the moment, Neroverdi are simply having fun. Maybe that is the universally right way to create something out of nothing?

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