Valentino Lazaro’s first start gave us a nice indication of why the wing back was such a sought after target this summer, and why Antonio Conte opted to bring the young Austrian along slowly.
Lazaro was chucked into the starting lineup and played 84-minutes in Inter’s come-from-behind win over Bologna. Prior to Saturday, he had played just 58 total minutes in two appearances off the bench. Rumors of discontent and a January loan move started to linger.
Those can be put to rest now. Lazaro’s 84-spell was chockfull of excitement. Bologna away is a tricky fixture. Lazaro injected some burst into Inter’s attack and provided a consistent spark whenever the team started to lull.
Lazaro is a fascinating player. He came through at Salzburg and then Hertha Berlin as a midfield flier who could take on, beat a man, then whip balls into the box. Like any player who fits that description, flashes are common, but consistent, sustained performances are hard to come by. Lazaro would flit in and out of games. Moments of brilliance were shadowed by minute upon minute of sludge.
Being consistent is hard. It’s what makes the great players great. Highlights warp perspectives in this shallow, viral-based culture. Lazaro is a scintillating YouTube prospect and many expected him to come straight into Inter’s side as a free-flowing wingback.
Conte had different plans. Lazaro could be a gem, sure, but only if he was willing to play within the team construct. Pre-set attacking designs, positional discipline and intelligence are non-negotiable parts of Conte’s ecosystem.
Since his arrival from Berlin, Lazaro has been slowly indoctrinated into the ways of Conte-ism. It has taken time for Lazaro to see the pitch, but our first glimpse of the new, improved model was encouraging.
Initiating the attack
So much of evaluating new signings is about body language. Do they know where they’re supposed to be at all times? Do they look overwhelmed by the volume of instructions? Do they act like they belong? Do they seek the ball or are they fearful of it coming their way?
Lazaro played on the front foot from the first minute. He wasn’t afraid to travel with the ball out of the back:
So much of Conte’s system is predicated on making the field as wide as possible, pinning the wingbacks along the sidelines where they can isolate and attack fullbacks, while also freeing up the midfield – along with a dropping striker – to gain a superiority of numbers in the middle of the pitch.
It’s a system tailored to Lazaro’s skill-set. He is a take-on artist. Lazaro is somehow both chaotic and balanced all at once. He is all speed and tricks and twitch and smarts. The width Conte provides allows him go do what his does best: Sit out wide, arc and weave in one-on-one duals, and then burst past his man. Glimpses of the spark that made him so wanted this summer were on display:
You can’t do it any better than that. That’s old school, down the line, winger play. Lazaro plays with explosives shiftiness and it unnerves defenders. They want to back off and give themselves room. Lazaro does a nice job of playing at different speeds. He baits defenders into reaches – and then blows by them. Out of a fairly secure defensive situation, Inter should have scored. He turned on the jets, beat his man, and laid it on a plate for Lukaku who, had he gone with his right foot, likely scores.
It’s always nice to have someone who can inject some chaos into Conte’s carefully constructed symphony – Victor Moses at Chelsea might be the best example. Lazaro coughs the ball up a bit. But his daring reveals easy looks that otherwise would not exist. That payoff is worth it.
His turbo-charged runs, along with his up-and-down touch, led to a decent penalty shout:
Those are examples of Lazaro doing some out-of-structure artistry, while being aided by that very structure. But he was also happy to play along with Conte’s carful crafted designs. Quick, chipped, channel balls are a staple of Inter’s transition game and Lazaro obliged.
Final third delivery
Lazaro averaged 0.21 expected assists per 90 during his two years in Germany, decent if unremarkable figures (0.30 and above are “top of the league” numbers). The numbers tell you a lot, but the process behind them – the “how” – is the most important predictor of future success.
Lazaro setup a raft of chances on Saturday. He had space down the right-hand side and his teammates fed him over and over again. He had the beating of Ladislav Krejčí – a left winger who’s in the team to provide a similar role to Lazaro – and could have finished with three assists.
Most impressive: the variety of deliveries. He delivered lazer beams on the run, beating a man to the outside and flashing the ball across the box. Then there was this:
That, that is audacious. It looks basic and easy: a ball turned around the corner. But there’s such brilliance under the hood. Roll the play back. Lazaro was marauding down the right-hand side. He had a bunch of space in front of him and wanted to put his head down and await the killer ball. But it didn’t come. The ball arrived a tick late and a beat behind. Lazaro was forced to stop and re-evaluate. Dribbling down a cul-de-sac or losing the tempo of the break happens to even the best in those kinds of spots.
Lazaro kept his cool. The poor initial pass had shut off a smart run inside by Lautaro Martinez. So, Lazaro reset the board, twinkled towards the inside, and re-opened the cross-the-face run for Martinez. It was a wonderful wink-wink play, deserving of a goal if not for a quality save. That little shift is everything. Lazaro knew he couldn’t just play the pass. That would be too obvious. So he gave it a little nudge towards the middle, apexing the fullback and opening up a nice angle to feed Martinez.
One extra point: the quality of Lazaro’s first-time crosses was brilliant. The pick of the bunch was an on-the-run effort that was well weighted and could have led to the winner:
There are a pair of explanations for Lazaro’s late arrival into the first team rotation: Candreva’s excellent form; Lazaro’s understanding of the defensive nuances demanded of Conte’s wingbacks.
What Conte demands of wingbacks is specific and intense. Bologna looked to expose Lazaro with quick diagonal switches from right to left. The hope was two-fold: that he would get caught up-the-field excreting too much energy in attack; and that a lapse in concentration or energy would lead to an opening.
On the whole, Lazaro did a good job tracking runners. He played with good concentration and always seemed engaged, which is somewhere between a quarter and a half of the battle. He was bailed out on occasion by the smarts and sophistication of Skriniar. That is partly the product of the system – such high demands inevitably lead to transitions in which a CB must cover – and the brilliance of Skriniar.
Lazaro was at his best facing up runners --- call it the intuition of a winger. He closed ground quickly (the ball moving to the wing is a press trigger in Conte’s system), never lunged in and was able to nick the ball on occasion:
The most worrying moment came during Bologna’s opening goal. Reasonable minds can differ on whether Lazaro was at fault or not. But he did seem in two minds as to whether to charge at the oncoming attacker or hold his ground, which essentially led to him being outmuscled if not outthought:
Most players don’t develop a bunch of high-level skills all at once. They build brick by brick, using one skill to enable another. There’s enough there to be encouraged with Lazaro’s potential defensively. Only those inside the building will know whether Lazaro is the kind of guy who will put the work in to reach his two-way potential or if he only cares about bombing forward.
Lazaro’s development is a pretty big deal. Adherence to dogma can sink you in a title race -- which is a fancy way of saying you must be versatile. Lazaro brings a different element down Inter’s right hand side which might help unlock certain opponents, even if it leaves Inter slightly more exposed at the other end.
Conte and co. cannot rely on Candreva to continue his form all season across all competitions. Injuries happen. Form dips. Candreva is 32 and playing his best football in years. He has been one of Inter’s best players this season; It might not sustain.
Lazaro, at least, offers a change-up to the Candreva-D’Ambrosio axis that is more static.
Some fans and media have been quick to jump on Lazaro. His not playing has been an indication that he cannot play. Sometimes transfers take time. Conte’s system is demanding, physically and mentally. And the manager demands perfection. He has gotten great performances out of Candreva and, to a lesser extent, D’Ambrosio this season. Why bother with the young freelancer?
But that young freelancer brings something nobody else offers down the right of Inter’s attack. If he becomes a reliable player, Conte can pick and choose his spots based on the upcoming opponent and fatigue.
Titles are won through match-winners and squad depth. Lazaro could provide both.