By Leo Linden
Team of the Week: Lazio (Serie A)
After visiting the south of France last week, we take a short trip across the Mediterranean to Rome, where our next team of the week awaits.
S. S. Lazio, referred to simply as Lazio, are currently sitting in third place of Italy’s Serie A. Often regarded as “The second team in Rome” or “Roma’s biggest rival,” Lazio have recently been in almost yearly battles to secure Champions League football.
But the club has seen a resurgence in the past few years. There have been multiple finishes in the top six and a couple of Europa League campaigns. Despite a ninth-place finish last seasons, Lazio was only four points away from placing fifth and once again taking a Europa League spot. The lack of European competition this year has allowed the club to focus fully on domestic football and it is paying off.
This year’s Lazio team mixes fossilizing middle-aged men with some extreme youth excellently despite the major differences in age. They are banding together for quite an impressive league run, which has them sitting in Italy’s final Champions League spot.
Serie A is no stranger to aging talent. Due to the naturally defensive-minded players and tactics of Italian football in general, many stars use Italy as a landing spot during the latter stages of their careers. Although there is plenty of aging talent to go around, Lazio have built a firm core of players who are either on the wrong side of 30 or quickly approaching it.
Lazio has two top goal scorers currently (with seven each): Filip Djordjevic, who’s in his prime at the age of 27, and club captain Stefano Mauri, who turned 35 five days ago. However, the true age of Lazio is always on display when power-sub Mirsolav Klose enters the game. At 36 years of age, the German international, who played at four World Cups, has three goals and as many assists this year in 15 appearances, 10 as a substitute. Though often not a starter, his bench production is critical to the squad.
However, the antiquity of the roster does not stop there. Starting center back Marco Parolo will turn 30 later this month, and while that age is certainly not a deterrent for many Italians, it is generally the point at which a player will stop making significant improvements to his game. Keeper Federico Marchetti — who has started almost every game for Lazio — is 31 and will turn 32 in early February. Lazio has a host of other players who are pushing into the retirement zone. Lorik Cana, Edson Braafheid and Dusan Basta are all over 30 and are consistent starters or squad rotation players.
But what’s surprising about Lazio’s success isn’t just how old the squad is, it’s how few players the club have who should conceivably be approaching their prime. They only have 3 players aged 23-26, and all three of those are backups. It’s very surprising that a club who expects to compete every year has such an age gap. Between 23-26 years old is where a player almost fully develops and often goes through major improvements in their game. Lacking these players could be detrimental to Lazio in the next few years as they will almost certainly have to bring in these players at their peaks through transfers, which means spending money.
However, even more surprisingly, on the backside of this age gap, Lazio have some of their youngest players shining brightest. Rising Brazilian star Felipe Anderson leads the team in productivity with five goals and five assists despite still being considered a minor by the USA just nine months ago. Stefan de Vrij has started all but one game for Lazio at center back and has been one of their most consistent players too; he’s 22. Finally, there is youngster Keita, who came up through Barcelona’s youth system. Still only 19 years of age, he has the potential to blossom if given the chance at Lazio.
Lazio surely do have an eclectic mix of players. They have one of the least Italian-dominated sides in Italy. They have some of the youngest stars in the country and they also have some players who are integral to their team that could retire after any season. While in a few years Lazio may have troubles with lack of youth on their team, that isn’t the current concern. For now, Lazio are making a push to the Champions League, and just one point separates them from Napoli and Sampdoria (in 4th and 5th respectively). Should Lazio want to make it to their first Champions League since they were knocked out in the 2007 group stage, they will need their youth and age to continue to blend as a cohesive unit that can get some important wins over the second half of the season.