From Relegation to Elevation: Cagliari’s Epic Journey Back to the Serie A

Against all odds, Cagliari Calcio secured their promotion back to Lega Serie A. From their difficult start of the season, to their playoff heroics, we delve into the team's 2022/2023 season and depict their journey from relegation to elevation.

Cagliari football team celebrating their promotion.

A story like no other. An achievement too improbable even for the world of fairytales and fables. This is the enchanting of a team that rose from the cindered ashes of relegation to reclaim their spot among Italy’s elite. This is the extraordinary journey of Cagliari Calcio's triumphant return to the Serie A.

1. A Glimpse of Despair

To understand the significance of Cagliari’s accomplishment, we must first go back in time to the 2021/2022 season. Coming into the season, the Sardinia based team was realistically targeting to a mid-to-high table finish in the Scudetto. But what started off as an ambitious target, quickly faded into a fierce fight for survival as Cagliari quickly found themselves struggling to keep up with the competitiveness of the league.

As the curtains fell on the 2021/2022 season, Cagliari found themselves relegated to the Serie B, leaving the team and fans left to lick their wounds and face a new reality of Serie B. The feeling of failure continued to linger, but instead of putting the players down, it fueled a burning desire to reclaim their rightful place among Italy's footballing elite and continue their hunt for the coveted second Scudetto title.

Cagliari conceding a goal to Ascoli during the 2022/2023 campaign.

2. A Rocky Start

Cagliari started the 2022/2023 season with a renewed sense of ambition. From their training facilities to the mentality of the staff and the quality of their players, the team was constructed with the singular purpose of competing against Italy’s very best. So when the team only won 3 out of their first 10 games of the season, both the fans and the club's leadership could sense that the team’s competitive spirit was slowly evaporating.

Cagliari was floundering. Struggling to find their rhythm and chemistry, it appeared their promotion aspirations were as short-lived as the 90 minutes they spent on the pitch each week. The team's performances were lackluster, and their position in the wrong part of the table was a far cry from where they planned to be.

The squad embracing their supporters after a loss.

As doubt started to take hold, the team had a choice - to either interpret their poor performances for what they were - a temporary lapse in form and a chance to improve or to accept their failures as the norm, write off their aspirations and settle into the second tier for the long haul. Thankfully, the resilience within the squad refused to waver and little did they know, the boost that they were waiting for was just around the corner.

3. A Ray of Hope: The Arrival of Ranieri

At the midpoint of the 2022/2023 season, Cagliari had managed to accumulate a mere 12 points and was sitting in 14th position in the Serie B standings. And although they showed some glimpses of brilliance during the first 20 games, it was evident that something needed to change. And change it did.

At the end of December 2022, Cagliari appointed Claudio Ranieri as the team’s new manager. Returning to the club after 31 years, the Italian specialist was tasked with turning the tide and rejuvenating Cagliar’s competitive spirit. Expectations were high as Ranieri had a reputation for nurturing a winning mentality at every club and notoriously managed to win the Premier League with Leicester City - the odds of which werewas over 5000/1 before the start of that historic 2015/2016 season.

Ranieri’s first official game in charge of the Sardinia-based team came on January 14th and as the world celebrated the beginning of the new year, Cagliari’s renewed focus was aimed solely at achieving their prized goal - return to the Serie A. And within just a couple of games, it was evident that Casteddu’s mentality, as well as their performance on the field, had received the proverbial new coach ‘bounce’. The experienced manager instilled a renewed sense of belief and unity within the team, with the confidence of each player growing by the day.

Lapadula and company celebrating after a goal.

Under Ranieri's guidance, Cagliari’s performance improved significantly and their exciting style of play started to catch the eye of football experts and fans alike. Their defense tightened and the team started playing more aggressively off the ball, resulting in less chances conceded and ultimately, and most importantly, fewer goals conceded.

Moreover, Ranieri completely reshaped the structure of Cagliari’s offense, which translated to a higher volume of chances created, chances converted and ultimately - goals scored. Cagliari’s transformation was reflected not only in their on-field performances, but also in their statistical averages.

Offensive Output Before vs After Ranieri

During the first half of the season (13.08.2022 - 14.01.2023), the team was predominately playing in the 4-4-2 formation, relying on a large volume of crosses, long passes and horizontal passes to build up their offense. They averaged 26.7 crosses per game, just over 171 successful horizontal passes and attempted a bit over 67 long passes per game, only 40.45 of which managed to find their target. And although it might seem like the team was applying a lot of pressure on the attacking end, they managed to convert on a mere 7.62% of their chances, which resulted in just 1.15 goals per game, a statistic that summarizes their struggles in front of goal.

In comparison, the first adjustment Ranieri made was to transition to the 3-5-2 formation, which provided more depth to their build-up play and positioned more players on the attacking end. Cagliari regained their hunger for goals and that was reflected in their increased goal conversion rate of 11.11%, translating to an average of 1.45 goals per game - a significant increase from the first half of the season. Moreover, it is notable to mention that the majority of their goals came from inside the box (1.32 per game), showcasing how the increased number of attacking players translated to Cagliari outmanning their opponents in the offensive box.

Additionally, the team displayed a more direct style of football, focusing on moving the ball forward rather than stretching the play along the flanks; out of all their passes during a given game, 48.25% were forward passes, meaning that the team tried to make forward progress with approximately every second pass. Tactical changes made Cagliari a dangerous team to face.

Cagliari’s offensive statistical comparison. (Black=before Ranieri, Green=after Ranieri)

Defensive Output Before vs After Ranieri

Despite their solid defensive foundation, the team was also struggling with keeping their opponents away from the 18-yard box. Despite conceding only 209.25 passes in their defensive half per game, the players struggled to win their individual assignments, leading to the team winning only 25.4 defensive duels per game (SPAL leads the league with 31,7 defensive duels won per game). Their inability to keep up with the opposing players and their struggle to retrieve possession of the ball in a timely manner (only 7.7 interceptions per game) led to the concession of a large number of changes and the team conceding an average of 1.15 goals per gamer, which was on par with their offensive output.

Arguably Ranieri’s biggest contribution was his ability to solidify Cagliari’s defense and turn it into a brick wall that opponents could rarely (and barely) penetrate.t. By the second half of the season the team had conceded just 0.64 goals per game, which ranked in the top 5 of least goals conceded in the Serie B. Central to Cagliari’s improved defensive cohesiveness was and their ability to win a larger percentage of defensive duels; the Casteddu managed 10.05 interceptions during the second half of the season and won an impressive 51.41 duels per game (with 30.55 of which on the defensive end). They also recovered 57 possessions per game, leading to an upsurge of attacks per game, goals, and ultimately - wins.

Cagliari’s defensive statistical comparison. (Black=before Ranieri, Green=after Ranieri)

4. Climbing the Ladder

With the progression of the season, Cagliari’s impressive form propelled them from 14th, to a coveted playoff spot. The tide was turning and both the team and their fans could feel that Ranieri was creating something truly special during his second spell in Sardinia.

At the end of the regular season, Cagliari placed 5th in the rankings with a total of 60 points - a feat that seemed highly unlikely after the first half of the season. However, for anyone who watched the team’s ascend to the top of the Serie B rankings, it was easy to see the heightened collective determination of the players and the undeniable tactical brilliance of Ranieri. The team looked rejuvenated and their improved form didn’t seem like a fad but rather the new performance standard for the squad. And as Cagliari managed to clinch their spot in the playoffs, there was only one thing left to do - finish the job.

Cagliari returns to winning form after the signing of Claudio Ranieri.

5. Playoff Heroics

Entering the playoffs in 5th position meant that Cagliari were at an immediate disadvantage to their future opponents. They had to win all of their games/series on aggregate to advance to the next round as even a draw would mean that the team that placed higher during the regular season would advance forward. They knew that returning to the top flight was preconditioned to being at their very best, for the full 90 mins of each game. Prepared they needed to be and prepared they were.

As the playoffs arrived, the stage was set for Serie B’s most important stretch of games. a crucible where dreams were either shattered or realized, the playoffs were the last obstacle in Cagliari’s way and their draw was by no means favorable. Cagliari's first foe was a hungry Parma team, which came out firing from the get-go, leading 0-2 after just 45 minutes of play during the teams’ first clash. However, Cagliari did not give up, and similarly to how they clawed their way back into playoff contention. Scoring a last-minute goal to win 3-2, courtesy of Zito Luvumbo’s ballet likeballet-like poise in the box and hammering right-footed finish.) t The team then went on to draw 0-0 in the second leg, ensuring their spot in the final.

In the final series of the season, an inspired Cagliari had to jump over one final hurdle - Bari. A team known for their tenacity and intense pressing style of play. After a hard-fought draw during the first game, Cagliari needed a win in the second game to book their spot in the Serie A for the next campaign. After a hard-fought game, it seemed like Bari would be able to hold off Cagliari’s advances and hold them to a 0-0 draw…however, Leonardo Pavoletti had other ideas. One of the team’s most experienced players managed to score the club’s biggest goal of the season in the 94th minute of stoppage time, ensuring a deserved fairytale ending to Cagliari's incredible season.

The team never gave up on their goal and defeated both Parma and Bari in the playoffs.

6. A Return to the Elite

As the final whistle blew, Cagliari's journey from relegation to elevation was complete. Ranieri and his men secured one of the most dramatic turnarounds in Italian football history and gained the admiration of sports fans around the world. The triumph of the “underdog” became a symbol of hope and inspiration for supporters across Sardinia and beyond and demonstrated the power of grit, determination, and most importantly - belief in one’s own abilities. The team had rekindled the fire that once burned within them and had proven all the doubters wrong to reclaim their rightful place in the Serie A.

As Cagliari returns to the top flight of Italian football, they open a new chapter in their already rich history. From next season, they will once again be competing against the top teams in the county for the chance to secure their second Scudetto title. And although the challenges that lie ahead will be formidable, their indomitable spirit and newfound confidence will serve as their guiding light on their thrilling journey. Forza Casteddu!

Forza Casteddu!

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