div>After transforming Chievo into a small exponent of the middle class of Serie A, or at least in a team that was not struggling to save itself, at least until he remained on his bench, Rolando Maran is also bringing Cagliari – another team perennially fighting for survival – in ranking positions that theoretically should not compete for them. With the best start in the league in the three-point era (ie since 1994), the Sardinian team is now in third place tied with Lazio, ahead of teams like Atalanta, Roma and Napoli.
Cagliari has not even lost since September 1st, when it was defeated 1-2 for Sardinia Arena by Inter, and beyond how it will end it certainly represents the main surprise of this Serie A. Not only for the results in itself , which perhaps could have been expected from the excellent summer market (which led to Sardinia, among others: Nainggolan, Nandez, Rog, Olsen, Simeone and Luca Pellegrini), but how they arrived. After a season, that is, that had seemed gray and without too many prospects, in which Cagliari seemed to lack precisely that identity that the company hoped to bring with the engagement of Maran.
It was not just the market that gave Cagliari the decisive push, raising its technical level. It also took an end job of his coach, who with some small moves managed to sew his ideas on the measures of a different rose than last year.
The unexpected and contradictory importance of Simeon
Simeon, first of all. Arrived in the last hours of the market as a desperate lifesaver after the injury to the cruciate ligament of Pavoletti in late August, the Argentine striker represented for Maran the cornerstone on which to gradually change Cagliari. In the first place giving a new form to the attack.
Last year Maran was never able to find an attack partner suited to the characteristics of Pavoletti, flanked by Joao Pedro, Farias and sometimes Sau. Beyond the names, however, were the same movements of the offensive pair that did not work, with Cagliari slowly settling on the game back to the goal and headed by Pavoletti, who ended up conditioning his entire offensive game . Last season, Maran's team increasingly relied on long balls to climb the field and crosses to attack the area (a good 20.9 per game), to the point of not being able to do more. A strategy that allowed Pavoletti to score a senseless number of goals from the head (even 11), but which ended up drying up the Cagliari game.
With the serious injury of Pavoletti at the beginning of the season and the increasing influence of Joao Pedro on the Sardinian offensive game, Maran has thus decided (especially starting from the match against the SPAL) to definitively renounce the second striker, overturning the triangle of attack and going from 4-3-1-2 to 4-3-2-1 – the famous "Christmas tree". It is a change of almost nothing, which has involved shifts of a few meters, but which has made some of Cagliari's tasks much easier.
Without the ball, first of all. With the roar very tight to protect the center, in fact, Maran asks the midfielder to go out on the external defense opponents when they are about to receive the ball from the central and at the same time to the two points to shield the diagonal passage line that opens from the outside of defense to the intermediate corridors of the trocar.
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The shielding of the external-internal diagonals in 4-3-1-2 …
The Christmas tree allows Cagliari to already have two men in those spaces – two men already accustomed to defending, among other things – instead of asking for long runs backwards to his two points of 4-3-1-2, without which the entire structure risks becoming unsustainable from a defensive point of view.
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… and in 4-3-2-1.
But the 4-3-2-1 helps the Sardinians even with the ball. With two midfielders already positioned in the middle spaces, ready to receive and associate with speed (we will come back later), Maran can exempt Simeone from what he can do worse (that is, come between the lines to act as a wall for his companions) and ask him to focus on what he can do best, that is, run deep.
With a man constantly threatening the depth Cagliari takes two birds with one stone: it opens the space between defense and midfield opponent for receptions between the lines of his midfielders; and gives a long pass line to his midfield or his defense, which can attempt sudden verticalization when opponents are going up to shorten the field with the offside line.
On the continuation of this verticalization of Castro for Simeone, the Argentine striker will need a big ball in the area for the overlap of Cacciatore, which he will send to the center of the Joao Pedro area. Only a great posting by Djimsiti will prevent the goal.
In this way, Cagliari has not only almost solved its dependence on the cross (now they are 18.3 per game), a weapon that would be even more ineffective than it normally is without Pavoletti in the center of the area, but it has also found those vertical technical associations that characterize Maran's game since Chievo.
A game that was worth the candle, in short, even if Simeone is anything but the most effective striker in Serie A and is often not very clear in goal (and in fact he is also statistically underperforming, having scored 4 non-penalty goals from 5.4 Expected Goals). That an attacker who signs so little is so important for his team is certainly counterintuitive, and in some ways paradoxical. But it is likely that Maran is happy to be satisfied with the tactical benefits of his vertical runs, and his extreme sacrifice in pressing, sometimes even backwards, after the opposing team has passed the first line of pressure.
The axis Joao Pedro-Nainggolan
As we have already said, the reversal of the attack triangle and the consequent passage to 4-3-2-1 had the great merit of bringing Joao Pedro and Nainggolan, whose connection has thus become the true creative fulcrum of this Maran's new Cagliari as it was clear in the first goal of the Sardinians in the last bombastic victory against Fiorentina.
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In reality, however, it was not an obvious solution as it seems to us now, and indeed the Trentino coach had to make several attempts to get there. When the Belgian midfielder arrived in Cagliari, in fact, it was not clear what position he should occupy, and both in the pre-season and in the first few days of the championship Maran even decided to field him from low top of the midfield to three. A solution that helped Cagliari cover the field, especially when he tried to slide horizontally into the ball area, but on the other hand ended up sacrificing the creative and creative qualities of Nainggolan.
Maran has therefore changed his mind since the third day of the season against Inter, putting Cigarini back on the field as a low summit, and bringing Nainggolan back to higher pitches, first as a midfielder and then, also thanks to Birsa's injury, as a playmaker (curiously for the first time just against the team that first put him in that position, Roma). The Nainggolan position dilemma recalled in some ways what had gripped the Cagliari coach last year with Barella's position, moved to almost all midfield positions without ever finding the best mechanisms to enhance his talent.
With a player with the strongest offensive qualities, and thanks to the connection with Joao Pedro, however, Maran succeeded this time in finding the right balance. And so, in the field, some of the typical mechanisms of his game were revised, which we had already learned to appreciate with Chievo. For example, the idea of overloading the lines of passage of men to create uncertainty in the opposing defense on who will actually receive the ball, and systematically exploit weapons like the veil or play it back to the door in a short time to free the man in front of the door.
A typical action, for example, is the one that sees the defense circulate the ball horizontally until the quarterback is reached, while the two midfielders and the halftone on the opposite side with respect to that ball are positioned on the same diagonal passage line from the outside towards the center. And at that point take advantage or the veil to mess up the opposing markings.
An example from the match against Atalanta of using the veil to untangle the man-made markings of the Gasperini team and arrive at the goal with literally two passes.
Or of the supports of before that free the man on the free trocar and in front of the door.
Here the diagonal track of Pellegrini is directed to Joao Pedro, who with a simple horizontal touch of the first serves Nainggolan, free in front of the door. The Belgian trequartista with a verticalization will then serve the run deep in Simeon.
In this way Joao Pedro and Nainggolan have become the main source of Cagliari offensive danger. Together they scored 34.8% of the goals of the Sardinian team, and achieved 22.6% of their key passes. And this despite having played together only the last six league games together on the trocar.
The defense and the moment of form of Olsen
But Cagliari is also and above all a team that makes defensive solidity its main strength. After a year in which he seemed to want to raise the center of the team and aim more convincingly at pressing high as a source of play in his own right, Maran retraced his steps, squeezing the team into his own half of the field without the ball and trying to attack then long field.
Cagliari, at the moment, is not only fifth in Serie A for medium ball possession (45.8%), but also fourth last for offensive ball recoveries (10.4 per game; Serie A average is 12.6), last for passages completed in the opposing area, second from last in the third offensive and third by PPDA, that is the ratio between the passes made by the opposing team in the first 60 meters of the opponents and the defensive interventions carried out in the same area. The lower the PPDA, the greater the intensity of the team's pressing, and the only teams with a higher value than Cagliari in Serie A are Lecce and Brescia.
The low center of gravity and the squashed lines have above all allowed Cagliari to create the space behind the opposing defenses to attack with long transitions, without which Maran's game becomes ineffective. The great central density created by the 4-3-2-1 also helps the Sardinian team to approach the players between them and thus facilitate the recovery of the ball just lost. A weapon, that of gegenpressing, which not only allows Cagliari to mitigate the negative effects of a game of transitions that inevitably tends to lengthen it on the field, but which it often uses even in offensive terms, allowing Maran's team to trigger transitions when opponents are more disorganized.
Gegenpressing which, among other things, has been transformed into a real hell for opponents by physical and aggressive players like Rog and Nandez, and who from an athletic point of view is perhaps the aspect of the most impressive game of Cagliari in a championship that certainly does not make its strength its intensity.
An example, from the match with Atalanta, of how Cagliari knows how to narrow the field around the opponents in a fraction of a second: the "Papu" ends up losing the ball a moment after controlling it, surrounded by Maran's three midfielders.
To see also the goals conceded by Cagliari (12; only Juventus and Verona in Serie A did better), one could therefore think that Maran's move to lower the center of gravity so much has actually worked, in terms of his team's defensive solidity.
To tell the truth, however, things are more complex than that. Cagliari is in fact one of the teams that has granted more Expected Goals in Serie A (only Parma, Verona, Brescia Genoa, Turin and Lecce have done worse) and owes much of its impenetrability to the moment of form of Robin Olsen. At the moment, the Swedish goalkeeper from Roma is the one who is statistically more in the Serie A stakes, having suffered just 9 goals from 14 xG * (the new metric created by Alfredo Giacobbe to measure the effectiveness of goalkeepers in rejecting shots on goal). In other words, Olsen has conceded 5 goals less than those who, on average, are cashing in with Cagliari's shots on goal so far.
The data on the defensive solidity of Cagliari certainly do not change the perspective on what the Sardinian team has done so far, but they must be a further stimulus for improvement for Rolando Maran, if it is true, as he said a few days ago, who does not want to "forfeit anything". For a team that continues to create little (it is sixteenth in Serie A for xG created) and that does not have high level finalizers, maintaining this level of defensive effectiveness is vital if you want to keep this pace. And I think that nobody in Sardinia, after gray and disappointing years, really wants to lose this rhythm.