By Gregory Caltabanis (@GCaltabanis)
With the top four separated by a mere five points, and potentially less if Roma win their game in hand, Serie A has kicked into full overdrive going into the Christmas period. Juventus’ most recent win over Napoli just a weekend ago blew open the Scudetto race even more while Spalletti’s Inter and Di Francesco’s Roma have kept pace impressively, with the Nerazzurri currently nestled comfortably into first place. Going into a crucial stretch, it’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders.
Looking at the underlying numbers on the season, it’s clear that Juventus have significantly overperformed up until now. Blessed with the finishing pixie in their favour over the first 15 games, the bianconeri have scored a staggering 41 goals. Compare this to their 26.24 expected goals, and it’s clear that regression is nearing for the Italian champions as they have currently outperformed xG by nearly 15 goals. Roma, on the other hand, find themselves on the other side of the spectrum and are performing almost exactly like expected goals would suggest. With Dzeko’s 11 goals in all competitions propelling them forward, Di Francesco’s Roma find themselves right in the thick of the title race and into the next round of the Champions League, despite being in what was largely considered as the group of death. If they are able to win their game in hand against Sampdoria, they’ll only be two points behind first place Inter.
League leaders Inter, by contrast, are slightly outperforming expected goals but that’s normal when Mauro Icardi is on your team. With the Argentine leading the line with 16 goals in 15 appearances, Icardi is one of Europe’s most in-form strikers and has found life under Luciano Spalletti to be particularly fruitful. Factor in Ivan Perisic’s deadly deliveries and it’s no surprise Icardi and Inter are finishing a majority of their chances. In fact, you can argue that he’s been one of, if not, the deadliest 18-yard box finishers alongside Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski this season.
Similarly to Inter, Sarri’s Napoli have slightly done better than expected goals would suggest. What’s concerning, however, has been their recent play since Faouzi Ghoulam went down injured against Manchester City. Without the Algerian overlapping Insigne and created numerical advantages down the left, the attack hasn’t looked nearly as threatening. Since his injury, Napoli have struggled to break down the opposition, picking up a loss against Juve in which they were shut out and a nil-nil draw v Chievo. In fact, over this four game stretch, they have underperformed expected goals by about two goals, highlighting their struggles.
While this stretch hasn’t been a convincing one for Napoli, the opposite is true for Juve. In their last four games, the Italian champions scored eight goals on about 8.02 xG, performing right around what’s expected of them. It’s almost as if Allegri flipped a switch like he has done so often in the past and Juventus’ overperforming has come to an end. Should it persist, Juve’s expected regression will become a distant afterthought.
The same is true for Roma who have been the peninsula’s most threatening outfit over this stretch, scoring 10 goals from 9.82 expected goals. Roma and Juve’s numbers are in stark contrast to Napoli’s relatively low xG. The biggest red flag over this stretch is raised by Spalletti’s Inter who have overperformed xG by 4.37. Their wins against Atalanta and Cagliari were far closer than the scoreline would suggest, and regression appears to be on the cards. With a clash against Juve on the cards, their title credentials will be put to the test.
Despite overperforming recently, Inter have one major factor going for them: Spalletti only has to prepare for one game a week compared to Sarri, Allegri and Di Francesco. This has led to Spalletti trotting out the same lineup 88 per cent of the time, allowing his starters to gain chemistry and flourish together. With Skriniar and Miranda playing 100% and 93% of their games respectively thus far, their center-back depth has yet to be put to the test while the trio of Valero, Perisic and Icardi have done the business in the final third.
Napoli’s rotation numbers, comparatively, are especially startling. Despite competing in Europe, Sarri has not rotated his men effectively which would lead one to believe that a burnout is nearing. In fact, the former Empoli tactician has used his starting eleven 81.95 per cent of the time and has relied heavily on Insigne, Callejon and Mertens. His failure to incorporate Adam Ounas, who only has 107 minutes up until now, will come back to haunt him in February as the fixtures begin to pile up and his key men have accrued an immense number of minutes. It should come as no surprise that the front three haven’t been making the same, sharp movements as of late. Even if they don’t take the Europa League seriously, Sarri has proven incapable of using his squad’s full depth.
In this regard, Allegri and Di Francesco have excelled compared to their Napolitan counterpart. Allegri has rotated prominently thus far and has only used his starting eleven about 67 per cent of the time. In defence, Rugani, Barzagli and Benatia have all rotated alongside Chiellini while Douglas Costa, Cuadrado and Bernardeschi have split the minutes on the wings. While Dybala and Higuain have featured heavily, Juventus are one of the few contenders with the necessary depth to give them the rest they’ll eventually need. Di Francesco, similarly, has done well. Despite relying significantly on Nainggolan, Kolarov and Dzeko, the former Sassuolo tactician has ensured his troops remained fresh rotating and has played his starting eleven about 75% of the time. With Emerson returning from injury and Roma’s midfield ranks bolstered in the summer, the only question mark at the moment is finding a reliable alternative to Dzeko. And no, Defrel does not count.
In sum, it would appear that we have a four-horse race for the Scudetto for the first time in almost a decade. Contrary to public perception, Roma are as legit as they have ever been while Juventus appear to have put their early season struggles behind them ahead of a crucial stretch, suppressing the fear of regression. Inter, similarly, are riding Icardi’s blistering form to the top and will continue to prosper for as long as their limited depth allows them to, however, we must be wary of their recent overperformance and not let it become a trend. Luckily, they only have to focus on one competition while other challengers are depleted by European competitions. One of these challengers are Napoli, whose players, especially their front three, will begin to fall off as their minutes played continues to rise. Juventus’ six-year reign of supremacy over Italian football may just be coming to an end, but which of the three contenders has it in them to claim the crown? Hint: They all do.