When Paul Pogba arrived at Juventus on a free transfer in 2012 he was a brash and raw 19-year-old. He had bags of promise, but hadn’t even begun to fulfil it. The Frenchman left last summer a complete midfielder, with intelligence and work ethic to match his undoubted skill. At 23 years of age, he became the most expensive player in football history with Manchester United paying an eye-watering £89.3 million to re-sign him.
Pogba’s story is a special one, though there are similar ones being told throughout Italian football. Historically, Serie A has been viewed as an old, or older, man’s league. However, in recent seasons the competition has been punctuated by a refreshing youthfulness. Perhaps forced by the financial dominance of the Premier League to innovate, Italian clubs are turning more and more towards younger players.
Nowadays, Serie A is a gateway for youngsters from around the world, an opportunity to mature tactically and grow as a player in a competitive, high-quality footballing environment. If you’re looking to find out more about football’s future, Italy is the best place to start.
We at The Gentleman Ultra wish to write about, analyse or photograph all that is good about calcio. Consequently, we bring you Grande 50.
Part scout report, part celebration; Grande 50 aims to profile 50 of the finest young talents on the peninsula at this moment in time. While those profiled vary from established first-team member to hot prospect, all were born on or after 1 January 1995.
So read on, learn and enjoy. And whether you agree or disagree with our selections, feel free to join in the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #G50.
Club: AC Milan
With Ignazio Abate slowing down and beginning to pick up injuries it can only be a matter of time before Milan look for long-term alternatives at right-back, and in Davide Calabria they may find hope in the form of a youth team graduate.
The 20-year-old is similar to Abate in that he loves to bomb on down the right flank, utilising his speed and direct running to cause headaches for opposition defences. All of this was on show during last season’s Coppa Italia final against Juventus, where he put in an impressive individual display.
This season, Calabria has added tactical nous to his play, starting from a higher position as per new coach Vincenzo Montella’s instructions. However, his growth continues to be stunted by a tendency to blow hot and cold.
If he can sort out his issues with inconsistency, Calabria could become the young, reliable, attack-minded right-back Milan desperately need.
Last summer, Empoli once again saw their finest on and off-pitch talent depart. Coach Marco Giampaolo left for Sampdoria, while regista Leandro Paredes returned to Roma and midfield buzzsaw Piotr Zielinski joined Napoli. Reinforcements were sought immediately, though the Tuscan outfit already had someone lined up to fill in the deep-lying playmaker position.
Assane Diousse made his debut in August 2015 against Chievo, but was unable to dislodge the precise Paredes last term. This campaign, however, he has made 16 appearances, the majority of which came as a starter.
A sound passer with unerring composure even when under direct pressure, the 19-year-old Senegalese has the raw quality to follow Paredes and the Argentine’s predecessor, Mirko Valdifiori, in providing both creativity and an incisive touch in midfield.
The rise of 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma from youth player to key first-team member was stunningly quick. Following shaky performances from Diego Lopez, Donnarumma was thrown into Milan’s lineup for a clash with Sassuolo by former coach Sinisa Mihajlovic in 2015. It was an inspired decision.
He didn’t keep a clean sheet on his first outing, but Donnarumma has worked wonders ever since. There were times last season, such as the away defeat to Verona and the home draw with Atalanta, where his reflex saves, commanding presence and composure under constant bombardment ensured a degree of respectability for Milan, if not wins. And the shot-stopper has continued to prove a vital figure this term.
On the opening day of this campaign, it was his outstanding agility that thwarted a last-gasp penalty and denied Torino an equaliser. And he made a similarly acrobatic stop to secure victory over Juventus in October. He’ll be a teenager for a while yet, but Donnarumma is no prospect. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in Serie A and, with two caps to his name, he’s the heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s Italy throne.
Manuel Locatelli is the latest Milan academy graduate to break into the starting lineup, following on from fellow Grande 50 members Davide Calabria and Gianluigi Donnarumma. Following the departure of Antonio Nocerino last year he was promoted to the senior squad, but it wasn’t until Vincenzo Montella arrived as head coach last summer that the 19-year-old made an impact in the team, thrust into the spotlight when club captain Riccardo Montolivo picked up a long-term injury on international duty for Italy against Spain.
Locatelli rocketed into the headlines with a brace of ludicrous strikes in October. His first came against Sassuolo, where his left-footed effort from outside the box was the equaliser as Milan came back from 3-1 down to win 4-3. His second, the winner in a 1-0 victory over Juventus, was equally stunning—receiving the ball in the inside right channel, he unleashed an unstoppable drive that screamed past Gianluigi Buffon.
But, while his goals and celebrations have warmed the heart, his game is more about penetrative passing, astute positioning and dogged tackling from a deep-lying midfield role.
Juventus have made a habit of snapping up the latest burgeoning Italian stars in recent years. Their latest acquisition of this kind is Atalanta’s 22-year-old centre-back Mattia Caldara, who will join them in 2018, though other examples can be found in Daniele Rugani, Stefano Sturaro and Rolando Mandragora.
The latter is the least experienced of the bunch—he has yet to make his competitive bow for the Bianconeri since signing from Genoa last year. But on the basis of what he has shown with other clubs, the 19-year-old has what it takes to succeed with the reigning Italian champions.
Mandragora actually made his debut as a professional footballer against Juventus, for Genoa, at the tender age of 17. He put in a composed showing that day and played in a similarly unruffled manner while on loan at Pescara in 2015-16.
He hasn’t had the chance to truly prove his worth in Italy’s top tier but, with positional awareness, clever passing and a smooth left foot, the teenager can’t be far away from his debut in black and white.
Club: Empoli (on loan from Milan)
Nobody really knows what’s happened to Jose Mauri over the last 18 months. In the 2014-15 season his tenacity and dynamism in Parma’s midfield saw some of Italy’s finest pay attention despite his team’s demise. He scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Juventus and, months later, was announced as a Milan player. The future looked extremely bright.
However, his first six months with the Rossoneri were a nightmare and he only made his league debut for the club in March last year. And, while he showed energy, vigour and an ability to drive forward into dangerous areas, he found himself loaned out to Empoli for this season, where he has once against struggled for playing time.
Mauri’s decline in fortunes has been strange, though thankfully at 20 years of age there remains plenty of time for him to get his career back on track.
Towards the end of 2016, an 18-year-old midfielder by the name of Joshua Perez began to feature regularly on the substitute’s bench for Fiorentina. The American has impressed for the Viola Primavera this term, scoring five and setting up four in 13 appearances, and it was that form that led to his senior debut for the club on 28 November, when he made it off the bench away to Inter Milan.
Perez is the nephew of namesake Hugo, a former USA international who made over 70 appearances for his country, and looks to have a huge career ahead of him. With great balance and a desire to cut inside from the right into the inside channel, he also seems to have the close control and technical qualities needed to fit into the fluid, high-possession style proselytised by Paulo Sousa.
The Portuguese coach has had no problem blooding youth since arriving at Fiorentina, giving opportunities to the likes of Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa, who is also on this list. Perez could be the next starlet to make a breakthrough.
When it comes to goalkeeping prospects and Serie A, the first name that springs to mind is Gianluigi Donnarumma, and rightly so—the 17-year-old Milan man is an extraordinary talent for his age. But 20-year-old Josip Posavec is also worthy of consideration.
While nowhere near Donnarumma’s level, the Croat has established himself as one of the most promising shot-stoppers in Italian football with a number of fine performances for Palermo since joining from Inter Zapresic. He has been tested frequently this term – the Rosanero have the second-worst defensive record in the league – but hasn’t looked out of his depth.
Palermo’s ‘goals conceded’ column may look poor, though this is no reflection on Posavec. Despite the occasional error and flamboyant dives, his goalkeeping has generally been punctuated by fine reflexes and close range defiance ever since his debut in a 0-0 draw against Bologna last February.
Watching Alessio Romagnoli play, it’s not hard to figure out which Italian defensive legend he bases his game on. He has always combined a sophisticated touch with good judgement and defensive positioning and since joining Milan, choosing the number 13 shirt and growing his hair, he has come as close as he possibly could to emulating his hero, Alessandro Nesta.
“Nesta was my idol,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport last year. However, with his left foot, ability to play on the outside of a back three or four, and his propensity for driving forward, the 22-year-old Romagnoli also resembles a younger, less grizzled Giorgio Chiellini.
After a tricky debut campaign with Milan in which he was seen as the defensive poster boy, Romagnoli is gradually fulfilling his potential at the San Siro and has also earned caps for Italy. His talent lies not only in the defensive phase, but in his building attacks through passes and attacking the opposition’s defensive structure.
At first glance, Lucas Torreira doesn’t stand out. Literally; at 5’6” he has to look up to Gary Medel, one of the shorter defensive midfielders in Serie A. However, while he has his physical limitations, the 20-year-old Uruguayan is one of the most promising players in a league currently fizzing with young talent.
After breaking out as part of Pescara’s successful Serie B promotion push last season, Torreira has made the defensive midfield berth his own at Sampdoria in 2016-17. He, along with a number of other inexperienced players, impressed in a pre-season friendly defeat to Barcelona, using that match as an opportunity to build a case for more concerted action.
Torreira has made more interceptions than any of his team-mates, while his passes per game average is bettered only by Luca Cigarini, a player who has had far less time on the pitch. He is a combative, calculating presser of the ball and a feisty tackler with unrelenting stamina, and he is not lacking from a technical perspective. Indeed, with his control, decision-making and passing, Torreira is an all-round midfield shield.