Adam Digby suggests the Old Lady need not look far to improve their side this summer...
It was supposed to be a one-off, an unrepeatable performance that would forever be remembered as Domenico Berardi’s coming out party. Two goals down against Milan within the opening 15 minutes, tiny Sassuolo stormed into a 4-2 lead before being forced to cling on for a narrow win. They celebrated this early-January result beating the San Siro side as though they had just lifted the Serie A title, their joy palpable after vanquishing the seven-time European champions on a foggy night.
The team from the smallest town to grace any of the continent’s top five leagues had beaten the Rossoneri at home, a remarkable achievement for the newly promoted minnows. At the heart of it was Berardi, a 19-year-old forward who netted all four Sassuolo goals, instantly sending casual fans scrambling to learn more about him. Enchanted by finding he was the second-youngest player ever to score four goals in Serie A, and the first to do so against Milan, they saw it took him to 11 goals for the season.
Already with a hat-trick against Sampdoria, a little research would uncover the story that his was a career that almost didn’t happen.
Without a club in his home town of Cariati Marina, Berardi was spotted in 2010 when he played in a university league with his brother in Modena. By this point 15 – and playing against much older boys – his ability stood out, despite the fact he had never had any formal coaching, something that would soon change after Luciano Carlino watched him play in those five-a-side matches.
Head of the Sassuolo youth system, Carlino got him a trial with the Neroverdi, which he passed with flying colours, before Berardi spent the next season with the club’s Allievi (U16) side. Quickly promoted, he would be part of the first-team squad within two years, a rapid rise which has yet to show signs of abating. The 2012/13 Serie B season saw him announce his arrival into national conscience; he netted 11 goals in his debut campaign as Sassuolo were promoted to the top flight for the first time in their history.
Talk of offers from Napoli and Milan surfaced, with rumours that both Manchester clubs were also interested enough to send scouts to see him action, but it would ultimately be Juventus who pounced. The Turin club took a 50% stake in him, and the Bianconeri must have been overjoyed to see him blossom in Serie A this season. He'd hit 12 goals before the end of January and looked every inch as good as advertised. Berardi's incredulous haul against Milan meant he was discussed as a potential member of Italy’s World Cup squad, despite the match being only his 42nd professional appearance.
While Berardi missed out on the Italy squad for Brazil, the fact he was among the names called for pre-tournament fitness tests last month means he is very much in Cesare Prandelli's mind. His early goalscoring form dried up for a time, largely as a result of defences choosing to focus upon him after that blistering start and – watching Sassuolo closely – he was still having a devastating impact upon matches.
"Berardi is a player of great talent, a modern footballer who plays for the team all over the field. The liveliness, intuition, temperament, strength combine with a good technique." – Arrigo Sacchi
Then came a vital Tuesday night clash with Fiorentina, with his team sat firmly in the relegation zone, and seemingly little hope of overcoming the high-flying Viola. Those who wondered if he could ever repeat his heroics against Milan got their answer in emphatic fashion against the Coppa Italia finalists. Berardi hit an early penalty confidently, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way, and, after ending a three-month goal drought in his previous appearance, didn't have to wait long for another.
Having tried – and failed – to gift a goal to Simone Zaza, Berardi lifted the team on his back once again, adding a second 10 minutes later as he drove home after excellent work from Nicola Sansone. He clinched his third treble of the season moments later, skipping round Stefan Savic before driving across the face of goal from an acute angle.
Where the first half was all about his goals, the second highlighted what he had been doing for the months between this display and his demolition of Milan. His clever running off the ball created space for fellow young talents Zaza and Sansone. While he'd gone nine games without scoring, his team had slowly begun to dig themselves out of a relegation battle, with other players taking advantage of the space his intelligence had forced defences to leave.
He did it again against Fiorentina, rallying the side after Gonzalo Rodríguez’s spot-kick had given the Viola a lifeline, as his pass set up Sansone for Sassuolo’s fourth of the night. Even a late goalscoring cameo by the returning Giuseppe Rossi would not be enough as the visitors held on for a superb 4-3 victory. It moved Sassuolo two points out of the bottom three, and another excellent performance from Berardi against Genoa a week later secured their Serie A status, although the player himself seems unlikely to remain with them beyond this summer.
Waking the Old Lady
Indeed, as a record-setting historic season drew to a close for the Old Lady, talk naturally shifted to the future; what the champions may do in the transfer market this summer and how they can look to close the all-too-evident gap between themselves and the European elite. While their campaign was an unprecedented success on the domestic front – they comfortably sealed a historic third consecutive Scudetto – the painful manner of their Champions League group stage exit will be the abiding memory many have of this current incarnation of the club.
Looking closely at the side, however, it is difficult to see where significant improvements can be made. Talk of a shift to a back four may mean a left-back is high on the list, but signing one – even a truly great one – is unlikely to make the difference at the highest level. With the quartet of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal providing Antonio Conte with one of the most talented and versatile midfields anywhere in the world, there is little need to make serious improvement there either.
In attack, Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez have proven to be a genuine throw-back to the attacking duos of Juve’s past, rightly drawing comparisons with the Alessandro Del Piero-David Trezeguet pairing, or even the celebrated classic partnership of John Charles and Omar Sivori over 50 years ago. Again, in looking to add a better backup than Daniele Osvaldo or Sebastian Giovinco, the Bianconeri need only to glance across town and recall Ciro Immobile from Torino to instantly boost the goalscoring prowess available.
Yet although Immobile has enjoyed a breakout season above Tevez atop the Capocannoniere charts with 22 goals, he thrives on service rather than being the player to break open a game by himself. It is here the quest for answers finally begins to bear fruit.
It brings us full circle to Berardi. The 19-year-old was described by Giovanni Rossi – the former head of Juve’s youth sector, now sporting director at Sassuolo – as "a predestinato". The word is used to describe a player certain to become great, one whose quality is evident very early in life. Speaking to TuttoSport, Rossi added that, “despite being young, Domenico does not feel the pressure” – a perfect summation of what Juventus need.
While La Madama boasts Serie A’s most prolific attack – they netted a league-high 80 goals while averaging more shots on target per game (5.9) than any other side – there is a distinct lack of creativity in the side. Many of those opportunities come from incredibly simplistic situations; a Llorente knock-down or flick-on, a cross from one of the wing-backs or a set-piece from ‘il Maestro’ Pirlo.
Indeed, with the Bearded Genius either shackled by a tactically astute coach or missing due to rotation/suspension, Tevez becomes the only game-breaking player in black and white.
Berardi’s speed – not only in the conventional with-or-without-the-ball sense, but also his mind – was clearly evident in his stunning performance against Milan, and has been ever since. His ability to read defences and defenders has seen him caught offside just nine times in total this term, holding his runs until the last moment, safe in the knowledge he can outrun his would-be markers.
He is constantly in motion, has a keen sense of where the ball will arrive, and then able to finish chances well. Good in one-on-ones, from long range and at set-pieces, his left foot is quickly becoming one of the peninsula’s most deadly weapons, and is responsible for 27 of his 33 professional goals to date. He's also able to play either out wide or centrally, and would fit in Juve’s existing 3-5-2 framework while offering the variety to shift to a 4-3-3 formation when needed.
Clearly at his age he is far from the finished product; his one footedness is an area needed of improvement, as his knack of being caught up in petty disagreements. He was banned from the Italian international set-up for nine months after failing to respond to an U19 call last summer, while his red card against Parma in March came just 48 seconds after he was introduced as a substitute.
Ten yellow cards in 29 appearances hints at a player with disciplinary issues, but those close to him believe that is most definitely not the case. With 16 goals and six assists to his name, his averages of 1.4 tackles and 0.8 interceptions are higher than noted workaholic Tevez (1.1 and 0.2), marking him out as an ideal player in Conte’s pressing system.
The co-ownership deal between Juventus and Sassuolo will be resolved quickly – the latter has nowhere near enough financial power to prevent an eventual move to Turin. All that remains is to watch him follow in the footsteps of Pogba, while young Domenico Berardi establishes himself as a major player for the grand Old Lady of Italian football.