Sunday May 28, 2017  
     
 
  25/11/2013: Under the Microscope: The Middle Men
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Six weeks ago, I wrote an editorial about Petkovic and Lazio's future with the 4-3-3 and as I wrote the match preview on Saturday morning, I began to wonder why I even bothered. The Sampdoria match saw yet another change in tactic as the Bosnian manager turned to a 3-4-3/4-4-2 hybrid to try and nab a precious away win against i Blucerchiati. Once again, I think everyone has been left feeling underwhelmed by the change in tactic, although I completely understand the manager's logic. 

As I mentioned in my preview, Sampdoria tend to play with a plethora of midfielders and so our change in tactic may have been influenced by the opposition. More importantly though, it enabled Petkovic to field a team that was on form and fresh. The defence almost picked itself thanks to injury but in midfield, both Lulic and Ledesma were fresh while Antonio Candreva had stress-free friendlies to contend with and Ogenyi Onazi had been scintillating against both Ghana and Italy. In attack, Petkovic was able to put his faith in Parma goal hero, Keita Balde Diao and the experienced Sergio Floccari, who was fit and raring to go and got the nod over Brayan Perea.

The frustration ultimately lies in the change of system, but in order to understand the changes, we need to consider a key factor that is being overlooked time and time again - Alvaro Gonzalez. If you have read any of my editorials from 2012, you will know my opinion on Gonzalez - he is the engine that keeps this team ticking over and he is very often the sole link between defence and midfield and midfield and attack. He gives 100%, parades up and down the pitch without complaining and from time to time, he will provide that killer long ball that unlocks the defence or he will pop up when least expected to win you an important game. He is no world beater, but he is effective.

In 2013, we have not been able to count on Gonzalez as he has been injured for the past 10 months with a repetitive strain injury known as plantar fascitis. Athletes with plantar fascitis experience pain in the sole of the foot and as with any tendon injury, the best cure is rest. If Gonzalez continues to train and play with this injury, it can put his career in jeopardy. A good example of what this condition can do to an athlete is tennis player Rafael Nadal - Nadal was suffering from the same injury in 2011 and has had difficulty with his knees ever since, having to take months out of the sport to rest on two separate occasions. Training and playing with plantar fascitis can cause severe knee pain.

Every time Gonzalez takes to the field he is putting his career in danger. He needs to rest for a significant period of time, but understandably, Lazio do not want to pay Gonzalez to put his feet up in front of the television. Uruguay do not want to leave him out of their World Cup plans and Lazio cannot stop them from calling him up anyway and also, there is no way a player like Alvaro Gonzalez wants to sit around at home and watch his teammates compete against the best in Brazil next summer. Right now, rest is not an option, but you will have noticed that Lazio are only using him when they absolutely have to. After all, Gonzalez at the moment is not even half the player he once was and his form has noticeably deserted him since he was diagnosed with the injury. No coincidence then that Lazio's form has also gone out the window.

Given that we knew about Gonzalez's condition in January, you would have thought we would have done something about it in the summer transfer window when Cristian Brocchi hung up his boots. It is only in recent weeks that I am beginning to think that we have actually tried and ultimately failed to address the issue. If you look at the team that defeated Roma on that famous day in May, you will notice that Ogenyi Onazi was preferred to Alvaro Gonzalez on that day. Fast forward three months later to that day in August when Juventus walked all over us and you will find we fielded the same midfield as we did in the Coppa Italia final except for the fact that Lucas Biglia was preferred to Ogenyi Onazi and Alvaro Gonzalez as Ledesma's midfield partner. Was Lucas Biglia drafted in to replace Alvaro Gonzalez only for the idea to be abandoned after a single game? Considering we played the same midfield yesterday as we did in the Coppa Italia final (with the exception of Hernanes), it would make sense. It is as if Petkovic decided during the international break that he needs to go back to basics and abandon the midfield trident of Onazi, Biglia, Hernanes. Fitness levels probably factored into his squad selection, and a lack of form has probably influenced his decision to change system.

The above logic also explains why Ogenyi Onazi has found himself being moved from his role as vice-Ledesma at the start of 2013 to his current role as successor to Brocchi and alternative to Gonzalez. I believe Petkovic sees the selection of his central midfield duo as a simple choice between Ledesma and Biglia, and Onazi and Gonzalez. Given the Uruguayan's injury, this makes it a case of Onazi + 1 at the moment and unfortunately for us, the Nigerian was absolute spent on Sunday. The key to our season may well be finding a new midfield partnership that works in Gonzalez's absence and I would like to use the goal we conceded against Sampdoria as evidence of that. 

There are three sentences I tend to say a lot in life, and I apply these little mottos to everything I experience and that includes Lazio games. Firstly, I believe the only certainty in life is that there is a beginning and an end. As our manager, Petkovic has a responsibility to analyse every single phase of play in every game from beginning to end and establish what was good and what was bad, what went right and what went wrong. The second thing I say is that problems can only be solved if you extract their root. Many will point the finger at Abdoulay Konko's calamitous defending as the reason why we conceded yesterday, but Petkovic has to look at the entire phase of play and question why Konko was put in that position in the first place. The final thing I say is that we live and die by our decisions. Every single decision an individual player makes in a game has a consequence and sometimes that can be the difference between a win and a draw, one point or zero, and so on.

The goal we conceded yesterday began with Lorenzo De Silvestri who attacked down the right and exchanged the ball with Palombo and the post-mortem should begin here. As De Silvestri received it for the second time, he was being closely marked by Ledesma and Lulic, who were both covering for Radu as the Romanian found himself being occupied by Manolo Gabbiadini. De Silvestri played the ball to Gabbiadini and at this point, it starts to go wrong because of the actions of one man - Ogenyi Onazi. Onazi decides that he needs to close down Gabbiadini, and as the Nigerian has chosen to deal with the situation, Radu decides to go off and cover De Silvestri's run and as Onazi is now out of position, there is an incredible hole in the middle of the pitch for Gabbiadini to exploit once he receives the ball back from Obiang. Now Cana is faced with Gabbiadini and to make matters more difficult for him, the man Onazi should have been marking is now running uncontested into the box. Ciani sees the runner and decides he has to abandon his man to cover the runner, leaving Konko on his own in the centre of the pitch and now faced with the task of marking Pozzi. As the ball is parried out by Marchetti, Konko not only has to keep an eye on Ciani's man, Pozzi, but he also has to watch Soriano and he subsequently crumbles under the pressure. We all know how it ended.

Now, you might wonder why I have chosen to focus on this one incident in serious depth but my reason is simple - a series of bad decisions with fatal consequences were triggered by one single bad decision from Onazi. To solve any problem, you must extract the root and the root here is not a lack of intelligence from Onazi, but a lack of trust between Onazi and Ledesma. Onazi simply did not trust Ledesma to take care of business on the Argentine's own flank, and so Onazi made a split-second decision to take matters into his own hands. These things happen on the football field, but if you have a regular partnership who fully trust each other and know each other's capabilities, you can eliminate a large proportion of these errors. These types of errors have cost us points game after game this season and the longer this goes on, the further down the table we will finish this season. Maybe we can no longer rely on the Ledesma - Gonzalez partnership, but Petkovic needs to find the right duo, trio, whatever because it takes time to build trust.
Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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