Maurizio Sarri was not trying to send a message. His decision to leave Luis Alberto out of Lazio’s starting XI to face Inter on Friday was simply a choice to trust Matías Vecino to run the left side of his midfield. The Uruguayan arrived in Rome this summer, but he and Sarri go a long way back having worked together at Empoli in 2014-15.
Plenty has changed since then, but Vecino’s strengths remain the same: robust physicality, positional discipline and a willingness to play vertically: using straightforward directness to help his team break the lines. His gifts are less eye-catching than Alberto’s but tactically he is a useful piece of the puzzle.
And who needs elaborate messages, anyway, when you can rely on an old-fashioned SMS? Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been the only truly indispensable element of Lazio’s midfield for at least the last six seasons. He reminded everybody why when he set up the opening goal against Inter with a half-pitch diagonal ball on to Felipe Anderson’s head, as the Brazilian attacked the back post.
It was Milinkovic-Savic’s 13th assist since the start of last season: joint-most across Europe’s top five leagues. Another opportunity to marvel at the outlandish talents of a midfielder built like a centre-back but blessed with the deft touch of a fantasista. Another moment to wonder how on earth, at 27, he was still here.
Few would have predicted such a scenario back in 2018, when Lazio’s owner, Claudio Lotito, claimed to have turned down bids of €110m. Milinkovic-Savic had scored 12 in the preceding campaign, drawing enquiries from Barcelona and Manchester United. His departure seemed only a matter of time. Lazio’s total revenue on that year’s accounts was less than €200m. They could not dig their heels in forever.
And yet, so far, they have. Perhaps it was a bluff gone wrong, Lotito setting his asking price too high, or perhaps those prospective buyers were not sure enough yet to commit fully to the pursuit. Milinkovic-Savic’s form would dip the following season, a niggling ankle injury playing a part as his numbers dropped to just five Serie A goals and three assists in 2018-19.
Since then, his trajectory has only been upwards: seven goals and four assists in 2019-20, eight goals and nine assists in 2020-21 and 11 of each in 2021-22. There were links to United again this summer, but Lotito once again refused to be bullied on price. Milinkovic-Savic’s contract expires in 2024 but the suggestion of a possible sale at around the €50m mark was dismissed out of hand.
Lazio’s squad has been overhauled drastically in the past year. The starting XI to face Inter on Friday featured only four players who had lined up for Simone Inzaghi in his final game before he left to take charge of the Nerazzurri in June 2021. Sarri has gradually moulded the team in his own image, adapting it from a 3-5-2 into a 4-3-3, establishing Danilo Cataldi as the centrepiece of the midfield and reinventing Manuel Lazzari as a defender.
It has been a delicate transition. Lazio consistently outperformed expectations under Inzaghi, winning the Coppa Italia once and the Supercoppa twice as well as qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 13 years. His team looked poised for a genuine title challenge before the pandemic hit.
Lazio were one point off first when play was halted in March 2020. They had thumped Juventus 3-1 twice in the month of December and beaten Inter in February too. But when the season resumed, the momentum was gone. They collected a single point from their first five games in the month of July.
But Sarri knew he could not succeed simply by trying to recreate his predecessor’s best work. He has not shied away from difficult decisions in remaking the team but his willingness to exclude Alberto from the side this season still surprised many. The Spaniard contributed five goals and 10 assists last season and was widely perceived, alongside Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile, as an untouchable element of the side.
Apparently not. Alberto played a total of 33 minutes in two appearances off the bench as Lazio opened their season with a win at home to Bologna and a draw away to Torino. He would get that many again against Inter, Sarri sending him on together with Pedro to replace Vecino and Mattia Zaccagni in the 57th minute.
The score was now 1-1, Lautaro Martínez having equalised at the start of the second half. Rather than retreat and try to protect the draw, Sarri saw this as the moment to counterpunch. “It looked to me like Inter were losing some intensity in midfield,” he said later. “I felt that I could risk sending on two players who are a bit lighter but very technical.”
That gamble paid off handsomely. In the 75th minute, Pedro served the ball to Alberto on the edge of the box. He drilled a shot into the top-right corner of the net.
In post-game interviews, Alberto would call it “one of the most beautiful goals of my career”. He followed it up with a celebration worthy of the feat, windmilling his arms and cupping hands to ears beneath the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Nord. Some observers read those actions as a message to Sarri. Others simply saw a footballer sharing his joy with the fans.
He would have a hand in the final goal, too, playing a pass into the box for Immobile, who appeared to be fouled by Matteo Darmian. As some Lazio players appealed for a penalty, Pedro arrived to sweep the ball into the far corner and seal a 3-1 win.
Alberto dominated the next day’s newspaper headlines, with inevitable questions about how the manager could justify continuing to leave out such a gamechanging player. It was Milinkovic-Savic, though, who had governed this match.
Everywhere you looked, there he was: resting an arm nonchalantly on the shoulder of Federico Dimarco as he dispossessed him with a backheel tackle or bringing Alessandro Bastoni, the face of a new generation of Italian defending, to his knees. Beyond their immediate impact, such moments broke the opposition’s mystique. Inter arrived as title favourites, and had chances to win the game at 1-1, but all the swagger belonged to the home team.
Even Alberto owed a debt to Milinkovic-Savic for his goal. The Serbian provided the assist to the assist, somehow spotting Pedro on the opposite side of the pitch despite running ahead of his teammate and having at least five Inter players between them. His pass was every bit as important as the strike that finished the move.
“Afraid of no one,” read the post that Milinkovic-Savic shared on Instagram afterwards, SMS sending a message of his own to the league. Lazio supporters are counting down the days to the closing of the transfer window and release from their familiar fears that he could be delivered elsewhere.