Parma's Dejan Kulusevski is Serie A's hottest young prospect
Inter and Juventus are not only contending for the title of Serie A but also for the ownership of one of the brightest prospects in Italy. La Gazzetta dello Sport has written about an ongoing bidding war between the two giants of Italian football as they fight over who will win the services of Dejan Kulusevski.
Born in Stockholm in 2000, Kulusevski, of Macedonian descent, has played just 17 games in Serie A but already looks set to command a price tag between 30 and 40 million euros. After making his debut with Atalanta last season, he was sent on loan to Parma to earn more playing time.
Before the loan, he spent a year demolishing the Primavera Championship, Italy's under-19 competition, contributing with 1.28 goals or assists every 90 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs. He scored a goal and served an assist to Nicolò Cambiaghi in the 4–3 win against Torino in the playoff semifinals and then repeated himself with the decisive pass for Ebrima Colley's goal, which earned Atalanta U-19 the title in the final against Inter.
This season, Parma's coach Roberto D'Aversa started Kulusevski on the right wing in the first match of the season against Juventus, where he put on a good enough performance to secure himself a place in the starting XI. He's gone on to start every match this season, scoring three goals and adding five assists (the third-most in the league; a title he shares with four others) so far.
The left-footed Kulusevski has played almost every game this season out on the right, but he can also play on the left or in a more central position, as he has done since starting center forward Roberto Inglese injured himself in October, further shifting his position with injuries to Gervinho and Yann Karamoh.
Parma is perhaps the most direct team in the league, with the highest percentage of counterattacking shots and the highest pace towards goal in Serie A at 3.04 meters per second, and Kulusevski's speed obviously helps in transition and whenever there is space to attack. He's quite fast considering how tall and heavy he is (listed at 186 cm and 76kg and looks well-developed for a 19-year-old). He excels at advancing the play in open field, so much so that his carries are on average the fourth-longest in the league (7.41 meters). It is no coincidence, however, that the king in this category remains his teammate Gervinho (8.89 meters on average).
On the other hand, his first touch is not exceptional and even his dribbling style is built on his physicality and his bursts rather than pure technical ability. Playing indoor futsal taught him to use both the outside and the sole of his foot, traits of his game that are evident when he carries the ball.
When he receives a pass on the flank, he tends to run vertically with the ball using the outside of his foot, but he is much more dangerous when he moves towards the center to receive the ball. Despite playing as a winger he attempts just 1.66 crosses per 90, completing them at a 39% clip and just 18% of his box entries are crosses. He also completes 1.87 passes inside the box per 90 (seventh-highest in the league).
Kulusevski does well to make himself available for his teammates off the ball and when he receives it towards the middle he looks to play the throughball or risky passes rather than shooting. He plays 2.44 key passes (2.37 in open play) and averages 0.26 expected goals assisted every 90 minutes, an exceptional amount for an under-21 player.
What is really interesting about his style is that he can pass the ball it without necessarily slowing his run much. This means that he can accelerate his decision-making and catch defenders off guard with his passes.
The Swede is undoubtedly a pass-first winger, but even if he doesn’t shoot much, his 0.14 xG/shot is quite high. This is because 82% of his xG are generated either from a throughball or a dribble.
As Parma’s right winger, he plays in a hybrid role, since the Gialloblu usually defend with a 4-4-2 (with Gervinho staying upfront) and attack with a 4-3-3. On the defensive end, he averages 24.12 pressures and 3.02 pressure regains, while also adding 1.94 tackles and interceptions.
D’Aversa's system obviously plays to Kulusevski's strengths, requiring him to think fast and to take on a lot of creative responsibility for a 19-year-old. He's been put to the test at a high level since his first Serie A game as a starter. The sample is still small to say how he could perform in a different system of play, with perhaps fewer spaces to attack in transition.
At first glance, he would seem to be a better fit for Inter, but it's possible he could settle into an attacking midfield roll in the 4-3-1-2 system Maurizio Sarri has begun using, given that Juventus lack a real offensive midfielder. He could even adapt to play as a wingback in Gasperini's 3-5-2, if Atalanta manage to retain him, although he would most likely play as a trequartista or false striker to make the most of his creativity.
Kulusevski has a mix of athleticism, size, speed, size and creativity that is hard to find, especially in such a young player. Running his current season through the StatsBomb compare-o-meter, the only three players with at least a 90% similarity are Leroy Sané and Julian Brandt in 2017–18 and Dijon’s Stephy Mavididi in 2019–20. His potential remains largely untapped, yet Kulusevski's career could reverse direction as quickly as he moves on the pitch: he'll have to carefully ponder his next steps so as not to jeopardize his development.