Sassuolo's thrilling collective keep up their remarkable Serie A emergence | Nicky Bandini

A team that plays relentlessly attacking football under Roberto De Zerbi has been piling up some extraordinary results

They were playing Chumbawamba on repeat in Reggio Emilia again on Wednesday night. Sassuolo have used the late-90s anthem, Tubthumping, as their goal celebration music ever since they moved into the Mapei Stadium in 2013. The song, with its “I get knocked down, but I get up again” chorus, was intended by the English band as a celebration of “the resilience of ordinary people”. This week, even more than usual, it felt like a fitting choice. Tubthumping played over and over as Sassuolo came from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 against Juventus in the second half.

Resilient? Yes, you could say that of a team which never abandoned its playing principles despite conceding twice in the opening 12 minutes to opponents who sat 30 points ahead of them in the table. Ordinary? Sassuolo have the 12th-highest wage bill out of 20 teams in Serie A. You won’t find many top-flight footballers who fit the “everyman” label better than Francesco Caputo – the man who put them in front.

At 32, the striker is playing just his second full season in Serie A. He celebrates every goal by pretending to take a swig of his favourite booze – not the whisky drink, or the vodka drink, but the beer drink he launched in his spare time, using bread from his hometown in Altamura.

Caputo has spent most of his career bouncing around the lower leagues. When he did get a chance to play in Serie A, with Bari in 2010-11, he lasted six months before being packed off on loan, having scored once in 12 games. He would not return until 2018-19. This time Caputo scored 16 goals for Empoli, and celebrated by sending free beer to fans who picked him on their fantasy teams.

Siamo emozionati.
Ciccio Caputo saluta SOS Fanta e ringrazia tutti i fantallenatori che l’hanno preso al fantacalcio 💙
Per ogni suo gol regalerà una birra autografata: seguiteci nel weekend per sapere come fare a vincerla e avvisate SUBITO i vostri compagni di lega 🍻👇🏻

— SOS Fanta (@SOSFanta) December 7, 2018

He surpassed that tally with his strike on Wednesday, sliding in at the back post to jab home Domenico Berardi’s low cross. Caputo wheeled away past the advertising hoardings, raising an imaginary bottle to his lips. Just four days had passed since his 91st-minute goal sank second-placed Lazio, and now he had put his team in front against the leaders.

Not that this was any sort of one-man show. Sassuolo have quietly emerged as one of the most thrilling collectives in the division, a team that plays relentlessly attacking football under Roberto De Zerbi and who have been piling up some extraordinary results. Caputo is their top scorer, but both Berardi (13) and Jérémie Boga (11) are also into double figures.

Sassuolo celebrate after Francesco Caputo made it 3-2.
Sassuolo celebrate after Francesco Caputo made it 3-2. Photograph: Massimo Paolone/AP

Their team selection against Juventus spoke volumes. Caputo led the line with Berardi and Boga on either flank but also Filip Djuricic in support – effectively giving Sassuolo a front four.

The hosts’ first goal carried a degree of fortune, possession pinballing to Caputo via the boot of Alex Sandro, but the speed with which he found the pass for Djuricic in a crowded penalty area spoke of the understanding between them.

The Serb buried his shot beyond Wojciech Szczesny. If the Juve goalkeeper had not been on top of his game, Sassuolo might have been level before half-time. Instead, they had to wait until the 51st minute, when Berardi whipped a free-kick into the top corner from a yard or two outside the corner of the box. Play had barely restarted when Caputo made it 3-2.

Juventus responded. Cristiano Ronaldo and Adrien Rabiot both went close before Sandro got the champions back level with a near-post header from a corner. Sassuolo’s marking, it must be said, was atrocious. This is a team built to outscore its opponents, not to keep them from scoring. Szczesny was soon being called on to make another full-stretch save from Hamed Traorè before Sandro headed Boga’s follow-up off the line.

The game finished 3-3. Juventus could feel relieved to escape with a point, though they had now conceded nine goals in eight days. Their hold on the Scudetto still looks assured – another nine points from their remaining five games would guarantee it – but performances such as this will do little to reassure fans that they can challenge for the Champions League. Were it not for Szczesny, this could have been a mauling.

Sassuolo are the story here, though. The Neroverdi returned from lockdown with a 4-1 defeat by Atalanta, but are unbeaten since – scoring 20 goals in seven games – despite running into Juventus, Lazio and Inter. With Milan and Napoli still to play, the six-point gap to the Europa League qualification spots might not be unbridgable.

They are a delight to watch: a team, like Atalanta, who always seek to play on the front foot. De Zerbi’s commitment to playing out from the back had drawn praise from Pep Guardiola as long ago as 2018, but this season it feels as though the various parts have come together like never before.

Their success owes much to Giorgio Squinzi, the late managing director of Mapei, a company which produces adhesives and other chemical materials for the building industry. Sassuolo were playing in the fourth tier when he took over and had never before reached Serie A. They have been a fixture of Italy’s top division now since 2013.

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Squinzi’s decision to purchase the Mapei Stadium has allowed Sassuolo to develop improved revenue streams, turning a profit for four seasons running even while expanding their wage bill. A new training facility was inaugurated last year. He passed away in October but his two children thus far appear keen to continue his legacy at the club.

Sassuolo itself is a town of 40,000 people, and a survey conducted by StageUp-Ipsos found that theirs is the smallest natural fanbase in Serie A. The resilience, and brilliance, of an ordinary team might just be starting to win admirers from further afield.

Talking points

• The standard of goals scored in Serie A since lockdown ended has been, frankly, outrageous. Does an empty stadium and absence of jeers encourage greater audacity? Who knows, but 2014 Guardian Next Generation prospect Federico Bonazzoli produced two of the best in this midweek round, pelting his first in from 25 yards and following-up with a kung fu kick volley that recalled some of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s finest. Sampdoria have now won four of their last five games, climbing nine points clear of a relegation zone that seemed so perilously close when the league came out of lockdown.

• Nobody piles up the goals like Atalanta, who beat Brescia 6-2 and have now scored 93 times in this Serie A season. That is, to put things in perspective, 23 more than Juventus and 25 more than both Lazio and Inter – the next most prolific sides. No team has broken the 100-goal threshold since 1951, but at this stage it would be astonishing if Atalanta don’t.

.@Atalanta_BC 🆚 @BresciaOfficial#SerieATIM Matchday 3️⃣3️⃣
Final Result: 6️⃣ - 2️⃣
8️⃣ total goals and many more top moments! Rewatch them all! 👇#WeAreCalcio

— Lega Serie A (@SerieA_EN) July 16, 2020

• Also scoring a belter this week: Franck Kessié for Milan, who recovered from a goal down to beat Parma. Make that five wins and two draws since lockdown for Stefano Pioli, the man who is apparently just keeping Ralf Rangnick’s seat warm

Atalanta 6-2 Brescia, Bologna 1-1 Napoli, Lecce 1-3 Fiorentina, Milan 3-1 Parma, Roma 2-1 Hellas Verona, Sampdoria 3-0 Cagliari, Sassuolo 3-3 Juventus, Udinese 0-0 Lazio

Thursday fixtures
SPAL v Internazionale, Torino v Genoa

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Juventus 33 35 77
2 Atalanta 33 50 70
3 Lazio 33 33 69
4 Inter Milan 32 34 68
5 Roma 33 17 57
6 Napoli 33 9 53
7 AC Milan 33 6 53
8 Sassuolo 33 5 47
9 Verona 33 0 44
10 Bologna 33 -5 43
11 Cagliari 33 -1 41
12 Parma 33 -2 40
13 Fiorentina 33 -4 39
14 Sampdoria 33 -12 38
15 Udinese 33 -15 36
16 Torino 32 -22 34
17 Genoa 32 -20 30
18 Lecce 33 -33 29
19 Brescia 33 -40 21
20 SPAL 32 -35 19


Nicky Bandini

The GuardianTramp

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