The top 10 Serie A players of the first 20 games; Part 2
On Friday we looked at the first half of the top ten attacking players in Serie A. Today we reveal the second half of the list, with the caveat being they are in no particular order.
Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín, Juventus
I thought long and hard about whether to include Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín among the top 10 players in Serie A. I was convinced that one of them deserved a place, but I couldn't make up my mind which because each brings a different contribution to the game, and objectively both have raised the level of their performance compared to last season.
So I'm cheating. The two Argentineans would be first-team players for any other club, and although they've been playing together with Cristiano Ronaldo in a three-man attack lately, previously Maurizio Sarri alternated them alongside the Portuguese.
What distinguishes them is the way they influence games. Dybala needs to touch and shoot the ball a lot and challenge his opponent with his elite dribbling skills to create numerical superiority, while Higuaín can influence matches with his movements and his extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time, which in recent seasons has turned him into a great assist man as well a scorer.
Dybala is approaching the peak of his career, while Higuaín has already surpassed it, but both had to sacrifice game time and touches to play alongside Ronaldo. However, this allowed him to bring out other qualities of their game, equally important for the team. That's how Dybala became one of the most effective strikers in pressing, and Higuaín one of the best creators in the league.
Lautaro Martínez, Inter
If there was an award for the most improved player in the league, Lautaro Martínez would likely take that trophy. The Argentinean forward made fans forget Mauro Icardi and the unfortunate vicissitudes of last season. Together with Lukaku, he forms one of the most powerful striker partnerships in Europe.
His shooting volume, as well as his involvement in the penalty area, are impressive for such a young forward. This is his first full season as a starter in a top 5 league, but he already has 10 goals (8 non-penalty goals + 2 penalties) and scores over the 90th percentile in shots, xG and touches inside the box per 90 minutes. What's also significant is how much he contributes to Inter's press, considering how little Lukaku offers in this respect.
At the age of 22, Lautaro is one of the biggest prospects in world football and is likely to be highly coveted in the market next summer. Currently, he has a release clause of over €100 million, but Inter want to either drop or increase that clause in order to either retain the player or get the most they can squeeze out of another club for this young talent.
You'd think that Josip Iličić, with his 13 goals (including a hat-trick in the 7–0 victory over Torino this round, would symbolize Atalanta's success. However, he's been with the club only since 2017, and has never before had such a successful season, so that honor belongs to Alejandro Gómez. El Papu is more than the captain of Atalanta, he the cornerstone, the talisman, of La Dea, having signed with the Goddesses in 2014, two years before Gian Piero Gasperini took his place at the helm. Catania, who had their best-ever season in Serie A with Gómez as playmaker let him go to chase both more money and Champions League football with Metalist Kharkiv, a decision the player soon regretted. But it ended well for Atalanta fans, as under Gasperini's wing he helped the team qualify for Europa League in the manager's first season in charge, and clinch their first Champions League berth last season.
Gomez is a decisive player in a team fighting for a top-four finish; he's already leaving his mark this season with 6 goals and 7 assists (2nd in the league). Only Iličić creates more chances in Serie A, when considering both open play and set pieces, while Papu is 4th overall in xG assisted per 90.
This season Gasperini is playing him deeper, so much so that he sometimes he switches positions with one of the central midfielders to encourage ball progression and relieve pressure on his teammates. In fact, he's fourth in Serie A in deep progressions per 90 (10.17). Papu belongs on this list as the technical and charismatic leader of the newest top 5 Italian team.
Edin Džeko, Roma
I felt compelled to include a Roma player as they're currently in the top four, but choosing between Edin Džeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini was quite difficult. In the end, I chose the Bosnian striker because Džeko is still the most solid certainty on Paulo Fonseca’s team.
Not only is he Roma's top scorer with 8 non-penalty goals, but he is also the main point of reference for the team when there is a lack of short passing lanes; that's when his teammates lean on him to collect a long ball. And you can surely trust a striker in the 90th percentile in aerial duels.
Džeko combines the rare ability to execute touches in zones away from the opponent's penalty area, and at the same time to record an elite number of touches in the box, depending on the game plan. He is also relatively wise in his shooting choices and often functions as bait to attract defenders to free his teammates. It's unlikely he'll put up the same goalscoring numbers that earned him the title of capocannoniere in 2016–17, but with the way he's playing, he's got no need to earn another top-scorer title. It's a team effort, and Džeko has always recognized that.
Domenico Berardi, Sassuolo
Sassuolo is, at the time of writing, eight points clear of the relegation zone; last season, they finished just five points clear. Yet, given certain neroverdi are having excellent seasons, it seems the side as a whole is not living up to expectations. The player finally having a breakout season—one many expected him to have a couple years ago, is Domenico Berardi, who at 25 has finally grown enough to no longer be considered a prospect in Italian football, but instead a player who has reached a higher level in his game (which, even if it means little to Sassuolo's prospects, should make Azzurri fans happy at least).
Choosing him as one of the top players in Italy may seem absurd, but the numbers back up this choice. He averages 0.66 non-penalty goals per 90, his best in seven Serie A seasons and the third-best individual output in the league. He also adds 0.14 assists per 90, for the third-league best scoring contribution.
His shot selection may be dubious, but his finishing is been superb, so much so that only Immobile and his teammate Francesco Caputo have a higher-level over/under performance. Berardi scored 9 non-penalty goals from just 4.51 xG. In other words, he’s scored way more goals than his .31 xG predicted, Normally that would make us skeptical of his performances persisting going forward but even if he scores only at his xG total for the rest of the season he's still likely be considered one of Italy's top performers. 0.31 xG for 90 is a good average for a wide player, and no other winger who qualified for this list is doing better. Moreover, even if he is not a great dribbler, Berardi still manages to attract a decent number of fouls, as well as offering an important defensive contribution.
Berardi's behavior has let Italian fans down several times in the past and his recent ban may keep him from another Italian call-up. Yet it is difficult to ignore a season like this, particularly as Italy are heading into Euro 2020 this summer, and want to put the embarrassment of not even qualifying for the 2018 World Cup behind them. Another brilliantly played half season may help him don the Azzurri jersey to help his country in the European Championships.