Despite an outdated reputation of being a defensive, boring, league, Serie A boasts the highest goalscoring record of any major European league in the 21/22 season. The 574 total goals scored on the peninsula are more than thirty ahead of second-placed Ligue 1 and 134 more than the Premier League. The entertainment effect runs deeper than just the big teams in Serie A, however. Italy has perhaps the best midtable stock in Europe, with entertainment guaranteed by teams big and small every weekend.
To check in with how Serie A is faring below the glamour of the European places, we brought in a crew of Midtable Experts™ (in other words, people with a bit too much time on their hands to devote to religiously and joyously watching hours of Serie A every weekend). Jake, IZCheeks, and Shango were generous enough to offer their time and answer questions ranging from who’s stood out so far, to analyzing the latest round of coaching changes, to relegation predictions. You can follow everyone mentioned on Twitter (Jake, IZCheeks, Shango).
From players to coaches to clubs, what have been the biggest surprises of midtable so far?
David: The current table might resemble preseason predictions more often than not, but there’s no shortage of revelations either. Hellas Verona found its footing after Ivan Juric’s departure quicker than anyone expected and once more sit comfortably midtable, far from the relegation battle it was expected to be in. After some initial troubles with Eusebio Di Francesco, who lasted just three days, ex-Juventus assistant Igor Tudor steadied the ship and reinstalled Juric’s 3-4-2-1 and heavy emphasis on pressing. It’s paid off, as Verona has beaten Roma, Lazio, and Juventus and picked up a draw against Napoli. Once again the Mastiffs show an impressive ability to shake off the loss of key parts (Juric and Zaccagni both departed over the summer) to remain a thorn in the side of big clubs and one of the more consistent teams in the league.
Playerwise, Gerard Deulofeu has stepped up admirably to fill the gap left behind by Rodrigo De Paul at Udinese. The Spaniard has six goals and two assists so far compared to one of each last season, carrying the majority of the Friulani’s attacking load and keeping them at a relatively safe 14th place. Few would have had a Deulofeu revival on the cards but so far the 27-year-old is hitting his best form yet. Sassuolo midfielder Davide Frattesi has also burst onto the scene, taking hold of a starting spot left behind by Manuel Locatelli. He’s getting transfer interest from quite a few top teams and you can’t see him staying in Sassuolo for long.
IZCheeks: The biggest shock in the league is without a doubt Empoli. An attacking minded team getting promoted typically turns into a defensively minded team that gets relegated once they touch Serie A. They lost the man who led them to promotion before the league kicked off. Their squad was filled with so called “meme players” and rejects. It was all doom and gloom from the start.
From the start of the season, Empoli showed they weren’t a team to be taken lightly. Albeit they started off with a loss, it was an intense game where they outplayed Lazio for massive parts of it. Followed up by a statement win against Allegri’s Juventus, proclaiming to the league that they were here to stay. After a half season packed with high octane games, the side that were favoured for relegation find themselves 5 points out of the European places.
After the loss of Ivan Juric, an unispiring season was on the cards for Hellas Verona seemed imminent. That sentiment was compounded with the loss of their star man Mattia Zaccagni. After the season kicked off Verona earned zero points from 3 games and were seemingly set for a relegation scrap. However, with the appointment of Igor Tudor the side became fully reinvigorated. El Cholito, who was a write-off at the start of the season, started firing on all cylinders and the transition from Zaccagni to Gianluca Caprari was seamless.
Jake: There have been quite a few positive surprises this season, especially when it comes to players. The first player I’m going to point out is Sassuolo’s Davide Frattesi. He’s been Sassuolo’s property since 2017 and had loan spells at Ascoli, Empoli, and Monza before earning the trust of the newly appointed Alessio Dionisi, who put his faith in the 22-year-old to fill in the big boots of the Juve-bound Manuel Locatelli. Frattesi had just come off an impressive season in Serie B, scoring 8 goals along with 2 assists for Brocchi’s Monza, as well as making the Serie B team of the season. He hasn’t missed a single game this season and has inserted himself well into Sassuolo’s midfield, working tirelessly and creating quite a few goal-scoring opportunities for himself in each match. He’s already got 4 goals and an assist this season and I expect this trend to continue.
The next man has probably been the surprise of the season so far. Bagging 12 goals and 2 assists in 14 starts, Giovanni Simeone has been Igor Tudor’s revelation, despite being brought in by Eusebio Di Francesco, who was the first victim of the sack this season in Serie A. Simeone is a player who has always had frustratingly low lows, and impressively high highs. In my opinion, he lacks the confidence to overcome spells of poor form and criticism and it can be seen in his game. However, we have been able to enjoy Cholito at his very best this season, as he sits 3rd in the capocannoniere race. The most impressive thing about Simeone’s 12 goals is that he isn’t on penalty duties, as that responsibility rests on the shoulders of Antonin Barak, who has also been a joy to watch. The two men ahead of Simeone in the capocannoniere race both happen to be on penalty duties, and if we had to exclude Vlahovic and Immobile’s goals from the spot, 5 and 3 respectively, Simeone would find himself leading the race. Despite Simeone’s fine form, a dip would not surprise me as that is what has always been the case with the 26-year-old Argentine.
Bologna are a team full of surprises this season, from the authoritative Arthur Theate to the veteran gunman Marko Arnautovic, but the Rosso-blu player I’ll be addressing is the 19-year-old Scotsman Aaron Hickey. The young fullback joined Bologna last year and showed glimpses of what he can do, but he’s certainly upped his game this season. Despite his tender age, he never looks out of sorts and gives every opponent a tough time. He has even added goals to his game this season, bagging 4, just 2 goals less than their top goal scorer Marko Arnautovic. Hickey had already been closely monitored by big clubs, most notably Bayern Munich, before joining Bologna last season. His signing has been a fantastic piece of business for Bologna as their 1.5-million-euro gamble is proving to be a success. The Bologna directors must be licking their lips at Man City and AC Milan’s rumoured interest.
AC Milan loanee Tomasso Pobega has also been doing bits at Torino, becoming pivotal to Ivan Juric’s system. The 22-year-old Italian midfielder spent last season out on loan at Spezia and impressed there too, playing 20 games and scoring 6 goals. However, this loan spell at Torino was a much greater test as the competition is fiercer and the expectations are higher, particularly after Torino’s subpar past few seasons. Pobega has passed this test with flying colours. He barely ever misses a game and is hardly replaced for tactical reasons. He gets a lot of defensive work done and is an absolute engine in that midfield. He also has a natural eye for goal, bagging 4 goals. The only downside to his game is the fact that he gets booked very often. In fact, he has already received 6 yellow cards this season. However, this could also be seen positively, as eagerness to impress or hunger for victory. I really hope that Milan decide to recall Pobega next season as I believe he can become a top player one day.
Another positive surprise this season has been Udinese’s Beto. Standing at 196cm, Beto is a formidable striker who possesses great strength, speed, and awareness. He is currently on loan with obligation to buy from Portimonense. Udinese have come a long way from having to service the likes of Kevin Lasagna and Cyril Thereau and seem to have stumbled upon a gem. Beto has found the back of the net 7 times this season, not bad for his first season in Italy. The 23-year-old is entertaining to watch as he loves driving forward, and it sometimes feels like he’s a one-man army on the break. A breath of fresh air in Udine.
The last player I’d like to highlight is the veteran midfielder Antonio Candreva, who is having the season of his life at Sampdoria, even though the Blucerchiati have been particularly poor. Candreva’s success might not come as much of a surprise to many considering his previous season, but he has switched gears this year and is already on 6 goals and 5 assists. Everything Sampdoria do goes through him. He is an absolute menace when he charges towards the area and smacks in one of his trademark cross-shots.
Regarding the most surprising teams of the season, Empoli have got to take the cake for me. They play very entertaining and fluid football and have taken their game to the top sides in Italy too. Aurelio Andreazzoli has a clear idea of how he wants his football to be played, and does not seem to believe in fixed starters, claiming that Empoli is a team that consists of 25 starters. They have looked solid in every department. Vicario has been generally reliable between the sticks. Lupeto, Stojanovic and Parisi are the standouts at the back for me. Their midfield is probably their strongest department, boasting the likes of Bandinelli, Henderson, Zurkowski, Bajrami and the gem Ricci. Cutrone and Pinamonti form a hungry, industrious duo, with La Mantia proving to be a reliable solution off the bench. I hope this team can keep up their good work, as they have been an absolute joy to watch so far.
Bologna have also been a surprise this season, particularly after their chaotic start to the season. Earlier this season, it was announced that their sporting director, Walter Sabatini would not be renewing his contract. Bologna owner Joey Saputo might want to try to convince him to stay, considering their position in the table and overall performances. It had been clear for a while that Bologna were in desperate need of a striker and boy have they found one in Marko Arnautovic. He has looked inspired since his return and has been leading this young team to important victories. Keep an eye on Bologna as the season continues, as they’re proving to be this season’s wildcard.
Rocco Comisso’s somewhat stubborn decision to stand by Giuseppe Iachini last season seems even more baffling considering the way Fiorentina have played with a talented manager at the helm. Vincenzo Italiano has transformed this side into a super sexy version of 2020 Spezia. They are proving to be disciplined, structured and yet expressive. Italiano has held onto Saponara and has been deploying him to perfection. In fact, Gonzalez, Sottil, Saponara, and Callejon are brilliantly rotated to service the formidable Vlahovic. Their midfield works like clockwork and their defensive line has been immaculate, even when plagued with injuries.
The Serie A coaching carousel is as busy as ever, with ten clubs (Venezia the sole exception) in the bottom half of the table making a managerial change since the summer. What moves have caught your eye? Who’s been the biggest success/failure?
David: Walter Mazzarri for Leonardo Semplici is looking more and more like a disastrous decision each week. The man who guided Cagliari to a narrow safety in the second half of last season was ousted just three games into the 2021/22 campaign. It seemed like an incredibly harsh call, perhaps due more to Semplici’s disliking of a very feeble summer transfer market than the actual sporting results. And so far, Semplici’s complaints have been well justified. Mazzarri has shown no signs of improving the players currently on the roster, or even orchestrating a clear style of play. Had Semplici stayed at the helm, you can’t help but feel Cagliari would be in safer waters.
As for the biggest success, Vicenzo Italiano to Fiorentina takes the cake. He’s taken La Viola from relegation contenders to the European places, scrapping the unwatchable style of play frequented by Beppe Iachini for an entertaining possession-based 4-3-3 setup. Give him a few more transfer windows and Europe will become the new norm in Florence. Aurelio Andreazzoli also deserves a shout for taking newly-promoted Empoli into 9th. Alessio Dionisi, the manager who secured the Azzurri promotion, left for the greener grass of Sassuolo in the summer only to find himself four places below his ex-club at the midway point. That’s no dig at Dionisi, rather a compliment of Andreazzoli for crafting Empoli into a very effective attacking side that more than deserves its lofty place in the table.
IZCheeks: The replacement of Dionisi, who left to Sassuolo, with Andreazzoli was a masterstroke from Empoli. Although the season is still young, ninth place with a newly promoted side is an unbelievable achievement.
Fiorentina in recent years has been just another team that was a part of the ever-stale manager carousel. Year after year, talent after talent was wasted playing under two or three different systems a season. This season they finally jumped off the rotating wheel of midtable managers and signed one of the highest regarded Italian managers in Italiano. The switch is already paying dividends and la Viola finds themselves tied on points with sixth place Roma.
Lazio is a side that finds themselves stumbling after the switch to Maurizio Sarri. Touted as a winner who could improve the side enough to push for champions league spots, Sarri is falling short of his goal nineteen games in. There’s already been two very public fights with two of his best three players, and sitting on the eighth spot outside of the European places, Sarri’s stint up to this point can only be described as a failure.
Jake: The most successful managerial change since the summer (for the bottom 10) has got to be Torino’s. Bringing in Ivan Juric was genuinely a masterstroke, and has left me wondering if this is the same Torino side I watched last season. Torino now have a system in place and we’re seeing many players grow. I’m excited to see what this side can do with some time (and a striker).
Hellas Verona’s gamble in Eusebio Di Francesco was not handled with patience, and they sacked him just 3 games into the season. Initially, I thought this decision was rash and unfair, but hindsight has proven otherwise. Igor Tudor has done wonders with this squad and has got to be regarded as the top in-season managerial hire so far.
Serie A newcomers Empoli and Venezia have also proven to be a handful for their opponents. I have already touched up on the great work Andreazzoli is doing, so I’ll highlight Paolo Zanetti’s work. Venezia have shown to be brave, organized, and adaptable. Zanetti’s got a very talented, young squad and he has them performing above everyone’s expectations so far this season. Let’s hope this entertaining, stylish team lives to fight another year.
I’d highlight Alessio Dionisi’s work with Sassuolo so far as a success, but there have been too many upsets for me to do so confidently. Sassuolo thrive against the top 7, stealing points from the likes of Milan, Juve and Napoli, while leaving empty handed against the likes of Empoli, Udinese and Bologna. This, however, might say more about the players than the coach.
When it comes to the losers, Salernitana, Cagliari and Genoa go without saying. Salernitana and Cagliari have both made in-season managerial changes and saw pretty much no improvement. The latter the least from the 3 due to the announcement of their new ownership as well as the confirmation of Shevchenko at the helm (even though he’s only secured 1 point since being appointed).
I had planned to highlight Spezia as losers for hiring Thiago Motta, and will go ahead and do it, despite their freak win against Napoli. I can’t help but feel that Motta is punching above his weight in Serie A and has only lasted this long due to the dire state of the teams below him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Motta getting the sack after Genoa inevitably start scraping points, as they always do.
In the summer, Sampdoria hired D’Aversa to replace Ranieri. The only thing this move did was prove to everyone what a great manager Ranieri is. More often than not, Sampdoria have looked shaky this season and have only recently found some form. It would be harsh to label D’Aversa a flop, as Sampdoria’s objective this season is merely survival.
Shango: Biggest success from the carousel: Hellas Verona. The very justified sacking of Eusebio Di Francesco was a shock for many people but for those who actually watched one of the games Di Francesco was manager of, you can blatantly see the “attacking” style of play he was trying to implement was not going to work and would end up like Cagliari last season. Instead Verona cut the losses early to prevent a deep slump and got a coach in Igor Tudor who revived them quickly and turned Giovanni Simeone into a man on fire.
The biggest failures from the managerial switch is the duo of Cagliari and Salernitana. Salernitana’s switch really wasn’t necessary as no matter who they brought in as head coach, the quality of the squad would never be able to get out of the relegation zone. So keeping Fabrizio Castori would’ve been the right choice, albeit unsuccessful. But hiring someone even worse than him (Colantuono) was a very bad choice. They didn’t move forward and still play the same, if not worse. As for Cagliari, Leonardo Semplici had done the most he could in the short term and was on a poor run of form going from last season. So he packed his bags and off he went. However, hiring Walter Mazzarri was quite frankly a stupid decision. There were many better options out there to pick and their squad has a balance of some actual quality footballers alongside Serie A pros + Godin. So I assumed they’d be ambitious and actually aim for a Fonseca type coach that’ll focus on attack. But alas they chose to do it the Italian way and pick from the never-ending cycle of mediocre managers.
What players are most likely to make a jump to a big club? Is there anyone you see as a perfect fit for a top-of-the-table side?
David: Torino’s Bremer has gotten a lot of transfer interest, and deservedly so. He’s been the anchor of a very good Granata defense and looks like the perfect fit for Inter’s back three. Torino is notoriously difficult to negotiate with (see: Andrea Belotti), though, so it might take more cash than the Nerazzurri have on hand to pry the Brazilian from Turin. Giovanni Simeone could be a wild card option as well. His early form has been nothing short of spectacular but quite a few of his goals have been wonder strikes from well outside the distance you expect a striker to score most of his goals. I’d wait to see if Simeone’s form lasts before making a move but he’s definitely been the league’s X-factor so far. Another name worth keeping an eye on is Empoli’s Samuele Ricci. At just 20 years of age, he probably has another season or two to go before a big move would transpire but the Italian looks like a talent in the making.
IZCheeks: The talents that can reach a top club includes but isn’t limited to: Beto, Scamacca, Raspadori, Caprari, Ilic, Molina, Singo, Ricci, Frattesi, Hickey, Theate, Bremer and Pobega. For the talents that are currently in or around the relegation zone that can comfortably stay in Serie A: Johnsen, Busio, Bellanova, Rovella, Cambiaso, and Antiste.
Jake: At 27 years of age, Cagliari goalkeeper Cragno could be a good replacement for the aging Handanovic. Torino’s Bremer or Bologna’s Theate would be useful for Milan since Kjaer’s injury. Atalanta could probably use a center back too, and Theate is as adventurous as they come. Sassuolo’s Frattesi would be a good option for Juve, whose midfield has continued to disappoint.
Hellas Verona’s Antonin Barak is another great player in his prime at 27. I’d say that Milan should swoop in for him but the current philosophy in place is focused on youth. Unless an extremely favourable opportunity arises, I don’t see it happening. Sassuolo’s Scamacca and Udinese’s Beto could be useful to many sides. Roma, Milan, and Juventus are all in need of another striker. Torino’s Belotti doesn’t have the hype he once had around him, but I still believe he has a lot to offer, and that a change of scenery could bring out the best in him too.
Inter loanee Vanheusden has been pretty solid for Genoa thus far and it could be a good idea for Inter to bring him back for added depth, perhaps instead of Kolarov. The same could be said about Pobega and Milan. I’m sure that many teams are keeping an eye on Cagliari and rubbing their hands. If the Sardinians do get relegated, there would be a lot of talent up for grabs. I don’t see the likes of Cragno, Bellanova, Zappa, Grassi, Nandez, Marin, Joao Pedro, Pavoletti, Keita Balde, and Dalbert in Serie B.
Shango: Gleison Bremer. Top-quality CB. His talent has always been obvious to me but he just needed time to make it work and under Juric it’s happening. Aggressive, good distribution, and an aerial threat, for me he’s a very complete CB. The club? Preferably Milan but he’d slot in well for a lot of the top six teams. Juve, Milan for a Tomori partner, Inter if worst comes to worst with de Vrij, Lazio to replace Luiz Felipe, Roma, Atalanta if they decide not to take the Demiral option, etc.
What midtable sides should we keep an eye on in 2022? Who’s been the most watchable?
David: Despite its lowly position in the table, Venezia has been a joy to watch this season. The Arancioneroverdi try to be on the ball as much as possible and Paolo Zanetti’s favored 4-3-3 shape lends a hand to its pleasing style of possession-based play. When Venezia is clicking it's been able to produce some superb goals and results like the 3-2 win over Roma. Wingers Dennis Johnsen and David Okereke played a big hand in most of Venezia’s biggest moments and boast an impressive combination of speed and dribbling skills. American midfielder Gianluca Busio, signed from MLS club Sporting Kansas City, is another point of interest for the US-based Serie A follower. Venezia’s porous defense means high-scoring games are almost always a certainty when it comes to the Lagunari and perhaps the best example of the newly promoted side’s volatility came when it blew a 3-0 halftime lead to lose 4-3 against Hellas Verona. But despite games of complete madness such as that one, Venezia should stay above the drop zone thanks to its progressive style of play that wins far more points than the bunkers preferred by Genoa and Salernitana.
IZCheeks: Venezia’s style of play does their kits justice. Paolo Zanetti has the team playing fast flowing football in every match. With complete disregard for the opponents at hand, Venezia will attempt to break the lines and send players forward. Despite what their scoring record may suggest, They create loads of chances in every game and attempt to overload the defense repeatedly.
There is a cost to the football that Venezia attempt to play. They consistently find themselves open in the back. Every game they partake in inevitably reaches a stage where either side find themselves pinned in succumbing to wave after wave of attacks, which leaves their games containing massive amounts of thrill. Combined with their raucous atmosphere at home, Venezia are an easy watch for neutrals.
Jake: Empoli and Sassuolo play very entertaining, positive football so they’re always fun to watch. Bologna have been involved in quite a few goal-fests this season too and have also been quite adventurous. Udinese are another fun team to watch, particularly due to their physicality. Most of their players are over 6 feet tall, making them a tough matchup for pretty much anyone. Venezia have also been fun to watch, particularly due to their playmaker Aramu and tricky wingers in Okereke and Jonsen.
Shango: Bologna. Mihajlovic has finally found the balance for this squad with his 3-4-2-1 and they’re a very attacking side with a lot of interesting young players in the squad. Players like Aaron Hickey, Theate, Barrow, Svanberg, Nico Dominguez, Skov Olsen, Binks, and many more young ballers are making a name for themselves under Miha. And massive credit to their former director Sabatini for finding a lot of these undervalued top-class youngsters.
What’s your prediction for how the relegation battle will look in May? What do the teams currently in the drop zone need to survive?
Shango: Salernitana, Spezia, and Genoa with Cagliari escaping on the final day with Joao Pedro excellence.
Shevchenko’s style of football will not last and won’t help them unless he gets extraordinary backing (unlikely to happen) and glues the unit together to get them fighting to the top. If I were then I’d be focusing on a RB, 2 strikers, and a better GK.
As for Spezia, it is quite simple what they should do: sack Motta. His way of football is not working whatsoever. The attack isn’t working (although you can see patterns of play working) and the defense has gone from bad with a slight bit of hope to absolutely dreadful. Zoet is saving them from being in Salernitana’s position this season.
Cagliari also needs to sack Mazzarri as he’s simply not got what it takes to keep the Casteddu up. Also need to bin off the likes of Godin and Nandez (been mediocre and could generate big money if sold to a PL club) and sign a LB, CB, midfielder, and another striker that’ll take the pressure off Joao Pedro’s back.
David: I see Salernitana (assuming they aren’t excluded from the league first), Cagliari, and Spezia going down. The only thing that could save Salernitana is a complete squad makeover and that’s not going to happen even without the question marks over ownership. Cagliari certainly needs to move on from Mazzarri, who’s showing no signs of tactical ingenuity or even competence, but apparently that’s not happening. In that case, the Sardinians have to prioritize midfield and the backline in January. Cagliari has the makings of a decent squad here and there but so far its veterans have been especially guilty of subpar performances, and that has to change if relegation is to be avoided.
Genoa has shown an impressive tendency to pick up 0-0 draws since Shevchenko was appointed but it’s obviously going to need more than that to stay up. A strike partner for Mattia Destro has to be on top of the Rossoblu’s shopping list along with a more creative midfield option. They can get by defensively, as the scoreless draw with Atalanta showed, but goals have to come from somewhere other than thin air.
Spezia’s two-year transfer ban starting in January somewhat limits their options, so the buck stops with Thiago Motta. Despite a 1-0 win at Napoli (more due to luck and Juan Jesus momentarily forgetting which goal was his to defend), it only feels like a matter of time before he’s out and someone like Rolando Maran is in. Spezia’s roster certainly isn’t much to work with but Motta seems to lack a clear tactical plan and even ditched his predecessor Vicenzo Italiano’s beloved 4-3-3 for a 3-5-2 in what reeks of desperation.
IZCheeks: 20) Salernitana were never truly a Serie A side, both on and off the field. They were doomed to relegation before the season started. They will finish last.
19) Genoa. The side is abysmal offensively and not much better defensively. Albeit they have been riddled with injuries, they were not much better without them. Shevchenko’s main priority for the winter market should be signing an offensive minded midfielder urgently. Currently they have no way to relive pressure on their defense as none of their players can carry the ball well, which results in the team always being pinned in.
18) Cagliari. A side which has an abundance of players that are actually good enough to stay in Serie A, are only in the danger zone because they are being mismanaged. The side should comfortably be in the safe zone ahead of Spezia. After the vote of confidence that Mazzari got from Giulini, and Spezia having rumors of looking for a replacement for Motta, Cagliari’s fate may have been sealed
Jake: Salernitana are gone. Even if they do go on a crazy run, their owner happens to be Lazio’s Lotito and the rules state that you can only own one team in the league. Cagliari probably have the most talent in the relegation pool, but they’ve been so abysmal and disorganized that I can’t see them surviving this year. It’ll very much depend on the winter market for them. I can see Spezia dropping into the relegation pool in Genoa’s stead, particularly because of their new owners in 777 partners. They will be eager to save the club, and I can’t help but feel that Genoa’s toughest times are behind them, as they have mostly recovered from their detrimental injury crisis. Venezia’s project seems more serious than Spezia’s, and I’d put my money on their survival this year.