Hillary Clinton is running for president. José Mourinho has left Chelsea by mutual consent. And in keeping with the 2007 theme, Roberto Mancini is once again in charge at Inter, and the Nerazzurri are once again on top of the Serie A table.
But that might be where the parallels end. In 2007, Inter were the undisputed kings of Italian football. The Calciopoli scandal had weakened Juventus and Milan, allowing Inter to strengthen. Inter won the league with a then-record 97 points in 2006–07. Now, Inter have ceded that position to Juventus, who have won the last four Serie A titles.
The wage bill is often considered a decent proxy for the quality of a team, and by that measure Mancini is over-performing. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, a Milan-based sports daily, Inter have only the fourth-highest wage bill in the league, behind Juventus, Roma, and Milan.
Figure 1 can be seen interactively here.
Yet other statistics suggest that Inter’s results have not matched their performances. Their campaign has been based on the stingiest defense in the league – eight of their 11 wins have been won 1–0 – but in a ranking of fewest shots conceded per game, Inter are eighth. Samir Handanović, Inter’s goalkeeper, has made the third-most saves in Serie A. Among the top 10 in the aforementioned statistic, only two other goalkeepers from top-half teams feature (Roma’s Wojciech Szczȩsny and Atalanta’s Marco Sportiello). The numbers suggest a defense that has not quite clicked yet and is too reliant on Handanović to keep goals out.
Inter are also struggling in the final third. All teams in the top six have outscored Inter. Inter do not fare well (relative to their position on the table) in rankings of possession (sixth), total passes (fifth), or shots per game (eighth).
Most of these statistics favor Napoli and suggest that they have played the best football this season. That has been the conclusion of more than one pundit. Maurizio Sarri, a Naples native, has been praised for the fluidity of his team’s attack. Yet for all the cohesion Sarri has instilled in Napoli, there are reasons to be cautious. Gonzalo Higuaín has scored 16 goals to take himself to the top of the scoring charts. That is obviously a positive, but, combined with his two assists, Higuaín has directly contributed to (i.e., scored or assisted) 58% of Napoli’s goals. No other player has been directly responsible for over half of his team’s goals. Napoli fans may worry about Higuaín picking up an injury or losing form; Lorenzo Insigne, who is having the best season of his career and is the second-highest attacking contributor for Napoli, has scored or assisted 39% of Napoli’s goals, a significant drop-off from Higuaín.
Perhaps the biggest surprise thus far have been Fiorentina. Many observers were shocked when the Viola sacked Vincenzo Montella, who had over-performed to lead Fiorentina to fourth place for three years in a row. But Paulo Sousa, despite coaching the only team in the top six to cut their net spending over the summer, has Fiorentina sitting in second place and just one point away from the summit. Sousa has not made drastic overhauls. Like Montella, Sousa prefers a possession-based style of play. Fiorentina have both the highest average possession and successful pass rate in the league. But in line with Sousa’s preference for more verticality than his predecessor, Fiorentina play more through-balls per game than any other side.
Can Fiorentina win the league? It is unlikely. Fiorentina have only the seventh-highest wage bill in Serie A, a reflection of their relative lack of depth. This season, they have used only 22 players (the third lowest in the league). As fatigue, particularly from European exertions, takes its toll, Fiorentina may fall away. But that may be no huge loss to Viola supporters – their current performances and results have already exceeded their expectations.
The same cannot be said for Roma. Many thought that after two years of finishing runners-up to Juventus, this would be the season for Rudi García to push on. But Roma are still struggling to break down defensively organized opponents using García’s favored passing approach. Instead, they have resorted to long balls; they play the fourth most long balls per game, only behind relegation battlers Sampdoria and Bologna and mid-table Atalanta. And while they have plundered more goals than any other team save Fiorentina, an unusually high proportion (31%) have come from set pieces. That may not be a sustainable source of goals in the long term.
Perhaps the bigger problem is at the other end of the pitch. Like Inter, Roma concede too many shots on target and rely on Szczȩsny to keep them out. Along with Roma, Milan are also not doing well. Although both teams are still within reasonable distance of the top three spots, their form is faltering. Both clubs have just two wins in their last six. Considering the sums spent and the wage bills at both clubs, it is no surprise that the papers are whispering that García and Siniša Mihajlović, Milan’s manager, face the axe.
On the other hand, Juventus have racked up seven straight wins to head to the top of the form table. They had picked up just one win out of their first six matches amidst rumors of manager Max Allegri’s sacking. There were caveats – Juventus lost Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez, and Andrea Pirlo over the summer. But cynics noted that Juventus spend €124 million on wages, more than anybody else and €11 million more than the nearest competitor. Yet Allegri has revived his side, and Juventus sit just three points away from first, after having been in the relegation zone at one point. It is not hard to see why many are resigned to yet another Juventus championship.
If Juventus were to win the Serie A title, it would be their fifth in a row and match the record set by themselves, Torino, and Inter. But there is potential for record-breaking at the other end of the table as well. With 17 matches played, Verona have failed to win a single one and are just one match away from breaking the record for most winless matches to start a Serie A season. And with just eight points, Verona are also on course to record the fewest points ever in a Serie A campaign since the current format of the league (three points for a win and 20 clubs) was adopted. That record was broken last season by bankrupt Parma, who finished on 19 points. And unlike Parma, Verona may yet do so without a seven-point deduction for wage troubles.