On the Radar: Italian Serie A
With the 2020-21 season coming to a close, the international transfer window will once again open, and many clubs will be looking to invest in young talent from other leagues. In our transfer target series, we identify a series of players from a league who could well be on the radar of clubs within the top five European clubs this summer. Enrico Turcato selects five players who’ve impressed in Serie A this season.
Dušan Vlahović has been one of the revelations in Serie A this season. As we wrote last month, while the rest of Europe pines over the signature of Erling Haaland, Vlahović could well be the cheaper alternative.
Still only 21, The Serb has plenty of appeal, and it’s no surprise that he’s attracted attention from the top teams in Europe. Strong, deadly in the box and adept at bringing his teammates into play, Vlahović has 21 goals to his name so far in Serie A, a haul only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku and Luis Muriel. And with 18 of those 21 strikes coming from his left foot, it’s clear to see where that danger comes from.
Despite Fiorentina’s modest Serie A campaign, Vlahović has still managed to thrive. He became the fourth foreign player in Viola history to score at least 20 goals in a single Serie A campaign, following in the footsteps of Gabriel Batistuta, Kurt Hamrin and Pedro Petrone. Doing anything like Batistuta – the club’s record scorer – is probably a good thing. Seventeen of his 21 league goals have come in 2021, and since the beginning of the year only Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi have scored more in the top five European leagues.
Since March, no player has scored more Serie A goals than the Serbian (12, tied with Simy). Since April, the striker has scored more goals in the top five European leagues (nine) than anyone else. He’s one of just two players (see also, Cristiano Ronaldo) to have scored 10+ goals both home and away this season.
Vlahović has accumulated 18.5 expected goals so far in Serie A, the fourth-highest tally in the league. With almost three more goals than that the striker has found himself in red hot form in front of goal. The talent is there and Vlahović has proven he has the mental fortitude to back it up, with a 100% record from his six penalties in the Serie A so far. Coldness, desire and determination from a player who is destined to get even better.
Alessandro Bastoni has been of the cornerstones of an Inter Milan side who’ve just won their first Scudetto in 11 years. The young Italian has looked assured next to Stefan De Vrij in Antonio Conte’s back three and certainly looks to be emulating his manager from his playing days.
Bastoni has been almost ever-present for Inter this season, starting 31 matches so far, the joint-most of any outfield player. A left-footed defender, Bastoni began his career as a full back, but is also capable of playing as a centre back, a role in which he’s been deployed by Conte. Adept with the ball at his feet, he’s played over 1,900 successful passes so far this term at a 90% success rate. Only two defenders (Gian Marco Ferrari of Sassuolo and Danilo of Juventus) have completed more passes than that. Bastoni’s height and ability to exploit spaces allows him to be useful in both boxes.
The young defender doesn’t have any goals to his name this season, but has created 12 chances for his teammates, almost all of them with perfect long balls in behind. His talents are clear: He knows how to perform in both defensive and offensive phases of play, and he knows how to do it well.
At just 22 years old, Bastoni already has made 87 appearances and scored three goals in Serie A. He has been a pillar of Inter for two seasons now and is also starting to find space in Roberto Mancini’s national team, where he’s an alternative to Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. In November 2020 he made his national debut against Estonia and will almost certainly be among the list of 26 players selected by Italy for the 2020 European Championship.
“About six [or] seven Serie A teams wanted Bastoni last summer. But I wanted to keep him. Everyone has seen the results: He is very, very strong and he can still improve a lot.”
Conte did not hide his admiration for his young defender when questioned about his possible exit last summer. If he wants it, his future still looks bright in the Nerazzurri, but it’s certain that several teams will come knocking in the summer.
Hamed Traorè is the youngest midfielder to have scored at least five goals in the current Italian campaign. He’s also one of only three Serie A players (alongside Vlahović and Mikkel Damsgaard) born in the 21st century to have played at least 30 games this season. A midfielder whose star is growing, adept at playing between lines, Traorè is also a capable defender skilled at winning the ball back for his side. It appears that when Traorè removed the word “Junior” from his surname it coincided with a definite maturation. Juventus are one of the sides rumouring to be sniffing around the Ivorian, and Sassuolo now value the 21-year-old at around €20 million.
Like Vlahović, Traorè has also kicked on in the second half of the season. The Neroverde club, thanks to the careful work of head coach Roberto De Zerbi, has always nurtured young talent, giving them playing time that other Italian clubs have been reticent to grant. Giacomo Raspadori, Mert Müldür, and Manuel Locatelli are three other young players who have flourished thanks to solid minutes.
This is Traorè’s third season in Serie A, and after a disappointing debut season at Empoli (two goals in 32 appearances) it is at Sassuolo where he’s starting to blossom: Four goals and one assist in 2019-20, five goals and two assists in 2020-21. Since March, only Domenico Berardi (eight goals and one assist) has been directly involved in more goals than Traorè (three goals and one assist) among Sassuolo players. In the last two months of the championship, the midfielder has become a fundamental part of a Sassuolo side who sit eighth in the table.
Traorè sees spaces that other players don’t, creates opportunities for his teammates (33 chances created so far in the league), but he still has to improve his scoring numbers. So far, he’s had 40 shots, 23 from inside the area, without getting on the scoresheet.
In any case, with 32 appearances he remains De Zerbi’s most used outfield player this campaign. His manager is clearly a great admirer:
“Traorè has potential that I have not seen in any other player in my coaching career. He just has to believe more in himself. He can be the midfielder of the future.”
We will see what the future hold for him, but young central midfielders with Traorè’s qualities are few and far between.
Musa Barrow and Siniša Mihajlović. Siniša and Musa. It’s always them. A love-hate relationship that has lasted for two years now, is somehow starting to work itself out. Both for the player, for the coach and (most importantly) for Bologna. Barrow has eight goals and eight assists to his name this season. Of players younger than Barrow (22 years, 197 days old) only Jadon Sancho has more than eight goals and assists in the top five European leagues. Barrow’s 16 goal involvements in the current Serie A is more than any other Bologna player. These are numbers that highlight his offensive qualities.
Mihajlović has worked a lot on Barrow’s positional play. He’s tried to teach him the role of central forward, then deployed him as an attacking midfielder, before finally establishing him as a left winger who can cut inside onto his right foot with his lightning-fast dribbling skills. The Gambian has developed an excellent understanding with Roberto Soriano and Rodrigo Palacio, two more-experienced teammates who have helped him develop.
“Central forward, right? It depends on him, he certainly has the characteristics to play there. Now he is more wide, but we work every day to make him understand the movements to be made as a central. It takes patience, he’s a smart kid who learns fast,” said his mentor Mihajlović.
After growing up in the youth sector of Atalanta, Barrow has found himself in Bologna. The progression has been nine goals last season, eight this year and a feeling that the best is still yet to come.
For now, Bologna have no intention of selling Barrow. He’s created the most chances (55) on the team, taken the most shots (78) and has also been the most-used player by Mihajlović (36 appearances) along with Soriano.
Atalanta’s youth setup is a hotbed of talent. Just like Barrow, who grew up with the teachings of Gian Piero Gasperini in Bergamo, Roberto Piccoli has too risen up through Atalanta’s academy.
Now at loan with Spezia, Piccoli has five goals to his name. What’s more impressive is the opposition those goals have come against: Inter, Atalanta, Roma, Napoli and Cagliari. And his goal against Cagliari could prove crucial in the relegation race.
It’s safe to say Piccoli has made his opportunities count this season. Of all players to have scored at least five goals, Piccoli has started the fewest (seven), taken the fewest shots (14), but crucially has the best shot conversion rate (36%) and the best shooting accuracy (84%). In short, he is a real sniper, a player born to be a central forward.
As comparisons go, he is somewhat reminiscent of Mario Mandžukić or a smaller version of Christian Vieri. Strong in the air, formidable in the penalty box and lethal on the loose ball in the area, he’s a precious jewel in Atalanta’s growing collection of stars and is one they’ll rely on in the post Duvan Zapata era. Piccoli turned 20 in January and is one of only six players born after Jan. 1, 2001, to have scored at least five goals in the top five European leagues this season, alongside Jamal Musiala, Arnaud Kalimuendo, Mason Greenwood, Bukayo Saka and Matthew Hoppe.
“He sees and feels the goal like an experienced striker and has incredible power in his legs,” his coach Vincenzo Italiano said of him.
“Gasperini taught me how to move in the penalty area and to find space. Italiano is explaining to me how to play for the team,” Piccoli explained a couple of weeks ago when interviewed by Sky Sports. We are just at the beginning of his journey.