Born and bred in Sardinia’s capital, it is no surprise that Barella’s career has been coloured in shades of red and blue.
After beginning his footballing education at the academy of Cagliari icon Gigi Riva, Barella was signed by his boyhood club at 8 years old. He rose through the ranks as a trequartista, but has since developed into what Italian’s refer to as a tuttocampista; a jack of all midfield trades.
His technique, composure, passing vision and dead ball ability ensures he can operate effectively as a creator, whilst his dynamism, determination and reading of the game make him an equally efficient midfield destroyer. After a spell on loan at Como in Serie B last season, he played an integral role in Italy’s run to the final of the Under-19 European Championships over the summer and since Cagliari’s return to Serie A, Barella has established himself as a regular in the midfield.
His form has attracted the attention of Inter and drawn plaudits from Alessandro Del Piero. Make no mistake, in Nicolò Barella, Cagliari have one of Italy’s brightest prospects.
The signing of Linetty was an astute piece of business by Sampdoria. Having made his senior debut for Poland aged just 19, the Lech Poznan youth product had been on the radar of both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur before the Blucerchiati secured his services in July 2016.
Following his move, the diminutive central midfielder has adapted seamlessly to the demands of Serie A and slotted straight into the Samp first team. Occupying the left-sided central midfield role in Giampaolo’s 4-4-2 diamond formation, the Pole is constantly on the move; looking to create triangles, exchange slick passes with teammates and initiate attacks. He is tenacious, industrious and an intelligent operator in possession. These attributes have helped him contribute effectively in both phases of the game and, at the time of writing, he has produced four assists and ranks in Serie A’s top 10 for most tackles per game (3.1).
Perhaps most importantly, Linetty suits the Giampaolo blueprint and whilst there is still plenty to come from the boyhood Poznan fan, he has already proved himself one of the signings of the season in Italy.
Club: Sassuolo (on loan from Juventus)
Owned by Juventus and currently on loan at Sassuolo, Pol Lirola is one of the most highly regarded talents in Europe.
After being spotted by Bianconeri scouts whilst at Espanyol, the Catalan born right-back enjoyed two successful seasons with Juve’s Primavera, where he learnt from head coach and Italian World Cup winning fullback, Fabio Grosso. Before the start of the current campaign, it was thought Lirola might be integrated into the Juve first team. However, the arrival of Dani Alves ensured the youngster was sent out on loan to gain valuable Serie A experience.
Lirola has continued to impress with Sassuolo, holding down a position in Eusebio Di Francesco’s first team, both in Serie A and Europe. Like many modern wingbacks, Lirola relishes getting forward and his pace, incision and dribbling ability makes him a potent attacking threat, skills he demonstrated to devastating effect during Sassuolo’s 3-0 Europa League victory over Athletic Bilbao earlier this season.
Though coach Di Francesco has stated the youngster still has a lot to learn defensively, his positioning and reading of the game is constantly improving. Lirola’s loan spell at Sassuolo is set to expire in June 2018. By that time, Juventus should have a formidable heir to Lichtsteiner and Alves.
Already a World and European champion at youth level with Serbia, and a fulcrum at the centre of Lazio’s midfield, Milinkovic-Savic is a delightful footballer.
Though he learnt his trade at Serbian SuperLiga side FK Vojvodina, Milinkovic-Savic was born in Catalonia, and there is certainly an element of Catalan flair present in his style of play. Standing at 1.91m (6’3”), he is an imposing presence but lacks for nothing in subtlety and silky skills. He is adept with both feet, balanced and confident in possession, while without the ball, he is combative and aggressive. He can beguile as well as bully opponents, making him a versatile player who is comfortable operating as a central midfielder, mezzala (half-winger), or trequartista.
This has made Milinkovic-Savic an indispensable member of Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio squad, and both the club and player recently rubbished rumours linking him with Juventus. The Bianconeri will not be the only club keeping a careful eye on the Serb prodigy.
Nagy was one of Hungary’s standout performers during their impressive Euro 2016 campaign.
Initially rejected as a youngster due to his slight frame, Nagy ignored his detractors, moved abroad and learnt his trade at an English academy in Spain. The experience served him well and upon returning home, he was signed by current Hungarian champions, Ferencváros TC. His low centre of gravity allows him to evade and shrug off tackles, whilst his intuition and reading of the game far exceeds his years. As a deep-lying mediano (defensive midfielder), these attributes allow him to offer a protective screen in front of the defence, whilst his careful and considered passing ability initiates attacks. In effect, he is what Andrea Pirlo would call a ‘thinking player’.
This convinced Bologna to invest and since arriving in the summer of 2016, the baby-faced Hungarian has become an integral component of Roberto Donandoni’s midfield. Indeed, the impact and influence Nagy already exerts should not be underestimated. The Hungarian has only failed to start four games in Serie A this season, all of which Bologna lost. Moreover, with Nagy in the side, Bologna have scored 16 and conceded 11, whilst without him, they have scored one and conceded 14. Read into that what you will.
In March 2015, Genoa president Enrico Preziosi made an astonishing claim. “I have the new Messi in my house,” he said, “let’s just hope it doesn’t get to his head.”
The prodigy he was referring to is Pietro Pellegri, who was just 14 years old at the time. Admittedly, the parallel was somewhat paradoxical; comparing a teenager to the world’s best player is hardly the best strategy to ensure he stays level-headed. It was also misleading; Pellegri is a classic prima punta (an out-and-out striker), more in the mould of a Christian Vieri rather than a Lionel Messi.
But Preziosi’s general meaning was undeniable; Pellegri is a precocious talent.
At 15 years and 280 days, his substitute appearance against Torino in December 2016 made him the joint youngest debutant in Serie A history, a record previously and exclusively held for 79 years by ex-Roma forward, Amedeo Amadei. The baby bomber is also a regular in Genoa’s Primavera, and is the only player his age to have scored at that level. To date, he has five goals in 10 games, which is impressive for a 15 year old mixing it with players three to four years older than him.
His physique, close control and turn of pace has attracted the attention of Italy’s biggest clubs, and though he has a long road ahead to reach the levels of a striker like Vieri – let alone Messi – Pellegri is already a record breaker and an exciting one at that.
Dinamo Zagreb is renowned as a hotbed of footballing talent and in Pjaca, Juve have signed one of the most highly rated prospects in Croatia.
After bursting onto the European scene in 2014 with a virtuoso hat-trick against Celtic in the Europa League, it was only a matter of time before one of Europe’s elite clubs came knocking. Though his playing time in Turin has been limited since his summer move, Pjaca has already shown glimpses of his immense talent. The speed at which he can dribble and perform tricks is flummoxing, and he wields a ferocious right foot. Preferring to play from the left, he is adept at cutting inside to open up spaces for a shot or create an opportunity for his teammates. His close control allows him to operate and turn in tight spaces, whilst his movement and runs off the ball tend to be timely and intelligent.
In a star-studded Juventus squad, Pjaca will have to stay patient and take his opportunities when they come. But this shouldn’t be a problem for the humble Croatian youngster, who has neither forgotten the importance of an unyielding work-ethic, nor the roots of his success; demonstrated by the fact he still sends his wages home to his parents in Croatia.
Rog is another player being touted as a future standard-bearer of Croatian football.
Like the aforementioned Pjaca, he is one of the latest starlets off the Dinamo Zagreb conveyor belt of talent and, like his compatriot, he moved to Italy after featuring in Croatia’s Euro 2016 campaign. There was great excitement in Naples when Rog was signed, but the fans and expectant Partenopei president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, were forced to wait until December to see Rog in Serie A action. Introduced in the last 20 minutes whilst Napoli were leading Inter 3-0, he immediately charmed the Neapolitan public with some deft touches and tenacious tackles.
The fact that Rog is versatile, diligent and tactically alert should ensure he sees more playing time under Maurizio Sarri. He can play in myriad roles, from holding midfielder to the false nine and has even featured on the wing at times. According to Croatian journalist, Aleksander Holiga, pigeonholing him would be unhelpful, as are comparisons to fellow Croatian midfielders Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic.
Instead, Rog is perhaps more comparable to his Napoli teammate, Marek Hamsik; an almost ubiquitous presence across the pitch who works assiduously and can pass, tackle, shoot, link the play and move intelligently to find pockets of space. Thus, it would appear Naples is the ideal place for Rog to continue his promising rise.
Country: Czech Republic
‘La vie c'est fantastique… quando segna Patrik Schick’ – ‘life is wonderful…when Patrik Schick scores’.
The Samp forward may not wish to copyright a slogan once used as a goal celebration by Lichtenstein’s Mario Frick, but Schick’s promising start to life in Serie A would entitle him to do so.
The 20-year-old was signed from Sparta Prague over the summer for a fee of £3.4 million. Since arriving at the Blucerchiati, he has netted six goals in 16 appearances, a goal ratio made all the more impressive by the fact he has only played a full 90 minutes twice. When he does feature, the Czech international is often deployed as a seconda punta in the strike duo of Samp boss Marco Giampaolo. This suits Schick, allowing him to float between the lines of defence and midfield. He is also happy to drift out wide, especially to the right, where he can cut inside and unleash his devilish left foot. With a languid yet graceful poise, he feints and shimmies past opponents whilst his height – standing at 1.87m (6’1”) – ensures he carries a substantial aerial threat.
Alongside an exciting young cast, and under the tactical nous of Giampaolo, expect to see plenty more of Schick in the coming months.
Tall, pacey and athletic, there is no doubt Milan Skriniar has the qualities required to succeed in his position.
Signed from MSK Zilina in January 2016, the Slovak international took time to adjust to the rigours of Serie A and was used sparingly by former Samp boss, Vincenzo Montella. When he did play, his inexperience and ingenuity was brutally exposed. On the final day of last season, he conceded a penalty and was consequently sent off in the opening 15 minutes against Juventus, a game Samp eventually lost 5-0. His next appearance was equally disastrous. Entering the fray against Roma as a late substitute, Edin Dzeko enticed Skriniar to dangle a leg in the penalty area and the Bosnian forward duly threw himself to the floor. Francesco Totti converted the last-minute penalty and Samp lost 3-2. Unsurprisingly, the critics questioned the Slovak’s readiness for Serie A.
That he has bounced back and become a regular in Giampaolo’s defence speaks volumes for the youngster’s fortitude. Defensively, his positioning and decision making has improved. But as well as demonstrating his mental resolve, he also boasts quality distribution and impressive technical ability, as evidenced in his 91.7% pass completion rate (the third highest in Serie A). At MSK Zilina, he even took penalties, though Giampaolo has yet to trust him with that responsibility.
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Words by Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25
Luca is co-editor of The Gentleman Ultra and wrote the guides to the Ultras of Italian football. His research interests lie in the intersection of football, socio-politics and history.
Thanks to Croatian football journalist Aleksander Holiga and Nemzeti Sport journalist Barnabás Kántor.