A year ago, Serie A’s transfer window closed on August 17. It was as hectic as ever, with all the clubs engaged in the search for the last few signings to complete the team or in finding a destination for those players considered surplus to requirements. This year the closing date of the Italian football market has been postponed by two weeks and, as usual, mid-August has returned to a period of holiday and procrastination for sporting directors, in view of the last deals to be completed before September. In the current holiday climate, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to devote my column to three not so well known midfielders who have already changed teams during the summer as we wait to see what their first season on a new club will bring.
Niccolò Barella (Cagliari to Inter Milan)
The topic of who is the strongest young Italian footballer is widely discussed, and Nicolò Barella’s profile merits inclusion in the debate. Manager Antonio Conte and Inter are obviously convinced of his qualities, especially if it is true that the club has invested in him a sum that could reach 50 million euros, bonuses included. If the bonuses are realized, Barella will become the second most expensive player in the history of the club after fellow summer signing Romelu Lukaku. Of the three midfielders presented in this column, Barella is the one on which there are the highest expectations, even though he is coming off the least convincing season of the three. In a mediocre (to be generous) Cagliari season he played the first half of league games in his usual role as the left sided number 8 in Rolando Maran’s 4-3-1-2 but at the end of January, he was moved behind the strikers because of Lucas Castro’s injury. Those who expected from him a more decisive offensive contribution in a role closer to the opponent’s goal were disappointed. Barella scored only one goal in the season, which also happened by pure chance (a lucky free-kick against Atalanta) and he failed to be an effective source of play, creating just a limited amount of chances. The 21-year-old shot the ball 52 times, showing a preference for shots from outside the box reflected in an open play xG per shot of just 0.044. He was also remarkably aggressively with his passes, collecting an abysmal 3.1 turnovers every 90 minutes, but his creative contribution remained almost unnoticed if we look at numbers (0.08 xG assisted and 1.0 open play key passes per 90). Even after splitting his metrics between the two halves of the season in which he played two different roles, his statistical peak is in winning fouls. Surely there was an improvement in xG assisted, but nothing suggests he should be a full-time offensive midfielder or even the main creative option of a team. During pre-season friendlies Antonio Conte moved him back in his natural role, fielding him as the left sided number 8 in his typical 3-5-2, with Brozovic in the middle and new signing Stefano Sensi on the right. His two midfield teammates have carried out build-up (Brozovic) and creative (Sensi) duties with Barella much more focused on attacking spaces and the box off the ball. Even if Barella is adept at carrying the ball in spaces and starting transitions with his trademarks runs, an important aspect of his game that didn’t consistently emerge last season is his ability to run behind defenses and to blitz inside the box surprising defenders. With two midfielders more focused on moving the ball with the passing game he will have much more freedom and probably have a more relevant offensive production. What will not change is his role and contribution in the defensive phase, in which he is naturally able to recover the ball and, despite his build, surprisingly effective in individual duels. No other midfielders won more duels than Barella (480) in the last two seasons combined and his last season averages in tackles and interceptions per 90 remain remarkable even when possession-adjusted. Conte will surely appreciate his defensive contribution and make good use of him when pressing high up the pitch. Playing for a bigger club like Inter would be beneficial for Barella’s career and it should finally liberate him from the tactical misconception that is often associated with those midfielders who can do almost anything well. That is to say, to be loaded with too many responsibilities and duties on the pitch and therefore to risk falling into a state of mediocrity without one’s own strengths emerging.
Ismael Bennacer (Empoli to AC Milan)
Despite being relegated to Serie B last season, Empoli once again proved to be the ideal springboard for young midfielders, regardless of who he is sitting on the bench. After Piotr Zielinski (Napoli), Matias Vecino (Inter) and Leandro Paredes (PSG) rose in Maurizio Sarri and Marco Giampaolo’s systems, in 2018/2019 it was Ismael Bennacer, Rade Krunic and Hamed Traore’s turn to shine at Empoli under now Genoa coach Aurelio Andreazzoli. After Empoli’s relegation all of them were able to secure a transfer to a top team during the summer. The first two will continue to be teammates at AC Milan, and the third was purchased by the Juventus and loaned out to Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo straight away. Other than being the player of the three who commanded the highest price (€16 million), the Algerian international is probably the most interesting midfielder of the lot. Bennacer is an atypical, maybe even unique holding midfielder, who does not limit himself to playing simple passes but has a wealth of surprisingly varied solutions to progress the ball up the pitch. After spending the 2016-17 on loan playing in Ligue 1 for Tours, Empoli purchased him from Arsenal for a fee of just €1 million in the summer of 2017. Bennacer immediately broke in Empoli starting XI and after playing 39 games in a successful Serie B campaign that saw the Tuscan side winning the championship and getting promoted, he retained his role as a starter in the Serie A, playing 3171 minutes in the 2018-19 campaign and emerging as one of the most interesting midfield prospects in the league. The 21-year-old has really good technique and is particularly skilled on the ball. His abilities with the ball at his feet, coupled with a natural ability to predict opponents’ defensive moves, make him an elusive player, particularly good at winning individual duels in a key zone of the pitch and at beating the opposing pressure. You usually don’t expect the holding midfielder of a relegated the team to complete 1.7 dribbles per 90 and to do it in critical zones like in front of the box. In the graph above you can see Bennacer’s successful dribbles in red, failed in yellow. When carrying the ball Bennacer can turn or change direction with speed, leaving the opponent unable to challenge for possession and getting himself in position to pass the ball into more dangerous zones. So even if his approach can seem perilous, the reward is usually worth the risk. The Algerian is comfortable playing the ball short, yet is average pass length was quite long (23.5) and his long-game is good considering he completed 5.6 long ball per 90 with a 67% success rate. As Emanuele Mongiardo stated on his analysis for l’Ultimo Uomo, it will be interesting to see how Giampaolo will exploit his ability to play long diagonal balls towards the flank, considering that his teams usually prefer to play short and without much width. In a team that should be more ball-dominant than Empoli, it will also interesting to see how he will increase his influence in the last third and in chance creation (he assisted just 0.06 xG per 90 last season). Physically Bennacer might not be imposing but has above-average balance and he is remarkably strong pound-for-pound considering he is listed at 175 cm of height and 70 kg of weight. These qualities make him a great ball-winning midfielder too: in his first-ever Serie A season he accumulated 4.6 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also being the player with the highest number of recoveries in the league (312). The new AC Milan midfielder is quite aggressive when pressuring the ball carrier and good at anticipating the game. He had a pretty decent 67% rate in tackles per dribbled past, but sometimes he is too impatient when trying to win back possession and this could expose his team considering he is expected to be the last man standing in front of the defensive line. To watch a midfielder with such a distinctive playing style is always a pleasure for the eyes. AC Milan have invested a relatively small amount of money considering the upside of the former number 10 of Empoli and Giampaolo is ready to give him the keys to the midfield. Personally, It will be exciting to watch Bennacer further develop his game.
Ruslan Malinovskiy (Genk to Atalanta)
To prepare Atalanta for their first-ever participation in the Champions League and in an attempt to repeat last season’s achievements in the league and the Coppa Italia, Gian Piero Gasperini asked the club for a roster including 16/17 footballers who could compete for a place in the starting eleven. A request that meant buying at least a central defender (Martin Skrtel), a striker (Luis Muriel) and a creative midfielder also able to add 5 to 10 goals a season. The latter profile matched with the characteristics of Ruslan Malinovskiy, a midfielder who grew up in the academy of Shakthar. The Ukrainian international was acquired from Genk for €13.5 million plus a percentage of the future resale. An exciting purchase, Malinowsky has been deployed this preseason Gasperini both as an offensive midfielder, as a replacement for Gomez in Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2, and as a central midfielder. At the start of his career, Malinovskiy was often deployed in between the lines, but at Genk, he was moved to the middle of the pitch. The new role, however, did not limit his scoring contribution, given that in 2018/19 he scored 16 goals in total, including 5 penalty kicks. With his deadly left foot, he is indeed an obvious choice for free kicks and dead balls in general. During the preseason he even attempted to score directly from corner kicks on a couple of occasions. In addition to having an excellent medium and long passing game, his past as a trequartista and his character mean that he is not scared of taking risky decisions in midfield (he turns the ball over 2.1 times per 90 minutes). He often looks to play killer balls for the attackers (16 assists in all competitions last season) and in his attempts to dribble his direct opponent, in which he often succeeds, allowing him to generate numerical superiority. He is extremely creative for a central midfielder (last season he played side by side with Sander Berge in Genk’s 4-2-3-1) as his 0.22 xG assisted per 90 demonstrate. The 10.5 deep progressions and 2.4 successful dribbles per 90 he notched in the Belgian league are elite values that he was even able to top in last season’s Europa League campaign (11.2 deep progressions and 2.7 dribbles p90 in 640 minutes played). At the same time, however, the Ukrainian can put into play that aggressiveness that is common to all the midfielders of Atalanta, which make him also surprisingly good in the defensive phase. It is difficult to overcome him when he fights for possession and therefore, he seems perfectly suited to play in Gasperini’s man-oriented pressing system which requires players to be particularly reliable in defensive duels. Despite several European teams trying to sign him, Malinovskiy has come quite cheap and he seems to be a safe bet for the club which has decided to rely on him to take another step in its journey to the elite of Italian football. Not only he is a player who adds depth to the roster and capable of carrying out, if necessary, the creative responsibilities in the last third of Gomez and Ilicic, but after an initial phase in which he will adapt to the requirements of a new team and a new league he could become a unique tactical weapon for Gasperini, who couldn’t count on a midfielder with these characteristics in the past few seasons. If Malinovskiy, 26, is able to match the statistical output of last season while making the jump to Serie A, he would be one of the best signings of the summer. Header image courtesy of the Press Association