Are Italy finally making progress?

It is a telling sign that many of us would have signed below the dotted line for last night’s Azzurri performance. Was this a sign of how much Conte’s team had achieved, how low our expectations were, or both?

To be truthful, it was a relief that Italy weren’t passed off the park by Vicente Del Bosque’s men, but was this ever likely to happen? Though it was refreshing to see Italy harry Spain’s ball-carriers and never let them find their feet, La Furia Roja has yet to prove that it has moved on from the team that puffed and wheezed in the Brazilian sun.

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How swooping on cheap deals is keeping Lazio afloat

In these modern times, Italian clubs need to face the stark truth: money is, comparatively speaking, short. Serie A clubs aren’t earning anywhere near as much as Europe’s elite from matchday, TV, sponsorship and merchandising revenue.

With a nationwide plan to get Serie A out of its rut still sadly lacking, Italian clubs need to think about financial stability, if nothing else. A good start is Lazio, who have been remarkably successful at bringing in talent over the past few seasons, poaching a series of interesting players at low prices, as well as getting just about every cent’s worth out of their investments.  One of Italy’s Seven Sisters back in the late 90’s, the Biancocelesti showcased the decline of what was formerly believed to be the best football league on earth. Turns out the road from spending way beyond your means (or the ones your crooked owner convinces you he has) to near-bankruptcy is a short one, something many Italian teams learned to their chagrin.

Here, then, is a list of acquisitions Lazio have made over the past few seasons, ever since Claudio Lotito took over. As maligned as he is by the fans, he has helped his club wipe out most of the club’s €150 million debt the club had accumulated, as well as spreading out payment of €150 million to the taxman, and doubled the previously shoe-string player budget to allow him to keep some of his recent big-money acquisitions.

The Steals

We begin with the deals that have truly helped Lazio thrive, either because they got terrific value out of their players, or because they were able to sell them on for more. Sometimes both. Filip Djordjevic, for example, has been a triumph in his brief stint, netting five times in nine appearances. The Serbian was also able to force last year’s diamond in the rough, Keita, to sit on the bench, also making him look expensive in the process.

Djordjevic joined in the summer, and is already five goals to the good

Djordjevic joined in the summer, and is already five goals to the good

Keita, the former Barcelona hopeful, himself troubled the scorer five times last year, having been acquired from Barcelona for a measly €100.000*. Rumours of indiscipline had always accompanied Keita in Spain, the youngster even being sent out on loan to UE Cornellà by the Catalans as punishment for putting ice cubes in a team-mate’s bed.

Djordjevic’s goals, however, came free, as the Biancocelesti took a punt on a man one season removed from Ligue 2 football, whose contract had expired after a ten-goal campaign with Nantes in the top flight. Correctly judging that getting to double figures in France is not easy, they went for a player who has looked more and more convincing as time has gone by.

Speaking of free agents, Miroslav Klose is another striker Lazio snagged out of nowhere, a player many thought was on the way down quickly becoming on the most dangerous strikers in the Italian first division, even netting a brace the other day against Cagliari to prove that he still has it.

Stefan Radu cost Lazio almost nothing on his first loan from Dinamo Bucharest. He has easily repaid the £3.96 million fee he garnered at the beginning of the 2008/9 season, as we can see from long rangers like this one.

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Even he’s surprised he was such a bargain

Another strength of Lazio’s is delving in European leagues that do a good job of spotting and molding young talent.  This is how Lazio snagged both Senad Lulic (Young Boys Berne) and Stephan Lichtsteiner (Lille).

Lichtsteiner cost just as much as Liboz Kozak (£1.06 million), the two both being sold for far more, the former to Juventus for £8.8 million, the latter to Aston Villa for £5.72 million. The list goes on and on: Alexksander Kolarov and Fernando Muslera cost £704.000 and £2.64 million respectively, whilst long-term servants Giuseppe Biava and Andre Dias cost less than £3 million combined. Lulic is still here, showcasing another one of Lazio’s strong points: endurance. Stefano Mauri may not be the kind of fellow you’d take home to meet your parents, but he cost the Biancocelesti just over £3 million back in 2006. He is still at the club, his performances on the pitch earning him a flurry of Azzurri caps, his misdemeanours off it attracting the interest of the police. He arrived at the same time as Christian Ledesma, who for under £4.7 million has truly been a find. He may not have started all the time, but has always been a reliable mainstay.

Hernanes has been one of Lazio’s most expensive recent deals, being finally bought from Sao Paulo at the hefty price of £11.88 million in 2010. Thing is, Inter were willing to pay even more (£17.6 million) in order to secure his service this year. So Lazio not only bought one of the best midfielders of their (and Serie A’s) recent history, but also made a decent profit out of it. Though he has been a definite plus in Milan, suspicions abound that he is on the way down. It’s not every day you sell a 29-year-old for near £20 million.

The Good Deals

Claudio Lotito and Igli Tare have been just as adept at restocking their roster, and finding the right talent at the right price. One of the Eagles’ cleverest deals is their signing of Stef De Vrij, likely one summer short of going for a bigger sum (Lazio picked him up for £7.48 million). The Oranje international has done much to turn heads in the Eredivisie, and looks more and more like the future of the national team too.  Though he’s had a couple of rough games (which include a sending-off), he’s adapting to life in Italy quite quickly, and is currently the 22nd best central defender in Serie A with a healthy 7.22 rating. Because he’s only 10 weeks into his current adventure, he remains in this category. For now.

Typical Italian welcome

A typical Italian welcome

Edson Braafheid is, on the other hand, a good example of finding a cheap fill-in for the Biancocelesti’s defence. At 31, his resale value is limited, but Lazio have re-stocked their squad with a former Bundesliga talent, one who should supplement one of Serie A’s least convincing defenses last time round.

Lazio have generally scouted cleverly in Italy, too: Marco Parolo was one of Serie A’s most consistent performers last year, bossing Parma’s midfield in their (ultimately futile) European campaign. Lazio paid just below market value for him, and though there is the risk that they may have overpaid considering his sudden (and possibly unsustainable) spike in goalscoring form, chances are that the investment is justified. Worst case scenario, Lazio have picked up one of the most sought-after Serie A players available. And at £4.84 they certainly didn’t pay through the nose for him.

At £4.58 million, Federico Marchetti joined Lazio at just the right price: a former No.2 for the national side in their disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, Lazio bought low on someone who has certainly not looked bad since, though he hasn’t reached the heady heights once expected of him. He was even replaced last year by Etrit Berisha (another steal at £264.000), as his fear of recurring injury saw him hesitate when diving. Lazio were said to be considering offers for the shotstopper earlier this season, but he has since recovered and played four games in a row for the first time in months.

Antonio Candreva should truly belong to the steal category for the amount of seasons he played at Lazio for very little, the result of a co-ownership (how we will miss it) deal that had the Roman team pay around £404.000 a year in loan fees to the Little Zebras. A bargain for a player who has become one of Serie A’s most consistent midfielders, scoring a monstrous 12 goals last season. He is, at the time of writing, the most expensive midfielder available in one of Italy’s most popular fantasy football leagues, costing just under what one can normally spend on a reliable striker. Comparatively speaking, Lazio certainly didn’t stake the house on him even when finally spent in excess of £9 million for him.

Abdoulay Konko is another example of good Serie A recruiting, the reliable contributor being bought for £3.52 million from Genoa.

The worthwhile punts (even if they’re misses)

Lazio’s policy of searching for low-cost diamonds in the rough has also come up with a few stinkers: Luis Saha and Gael Kakuta barely contributed, but were good ideas at the time. Saha was a former EPL hitman and, as odd as it sounds, wouldn’t have been the first player to remain injury-free after a change of air. Kakuta was a teenage prodigy Chelsea ended up getting suspended over, but who had had a rough time of it at Vitesse. Had either made it big, they’d have been major coups.

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Yeah… not so much

Pereirinha may not have turned into the kind of contributor Lazio were expecting, but arrived from a team on the brink of financial ruin for free, and was a regular in one of Portugal’s premier clubs. Felipe Anderson
came up at Santos at the same time as close friend Neymar , and still has time to emerge at Lazio. Having been slowed down by injuries and homesickness last season, he is working his way into the setup.

Where Lazio can improve

The Biancocelesti’s transfer policy has been excellent when it is viewed within the context of the club’s terrible finances. A few bad deals are par for the course for any club, even for one that has been so effective at finding talent at low prices or getting as much as possible out of each acquisition. What’s striking, however, is how few of these players have been sold on. It really does feel like Lazio squeeze every single ounce of football out of its players.

It’s almost as if Lazio are buying players to survive, not to thrive. The club only made £132.000 over the last transfer window. One of the reasons for this could be that many of their targets are of a certain age. Parolo was 29 when Lazio bought him, and wasn’t the only one to have arrived too late to truly score a big fee. Even worse, Serie A’s limited exposure isn’t helping when it comes to promoting talent.

To sum up, it’s almost as if Lazio’s model has gone from making virtue of necessity, to making necessity of virtue. Just because they have been successful at picking up talent of a certain age and doing well enough, doesn’t mean they have to keep doing this.Though Lotito has made a concerted effort to sign some of his bigger players (like Candreva) to important contracts (and has doubled the players’ budget), it doesn’t feel like the club is doing more than plodding along. Though putting a lot of money into youth, only to see many of those players leave soon after, also has its drawbacks, it does at least bring in more: Ajax have raked in £112.44 million over the past five seasons. Lazio £73.67.

* all numbers are provided by the excellent