Greg Lea on the Italy international making waves in Serie A...
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- Date of birth – June 25, 1991
- Place of birth – Policoro, Italy
- Height – 6ft 1in
- Position – Attacker
- Current club – Sassuolo (40 apps, 11 goals)
- Former clubs – Atalanta, Sampdoria, Juve Stabia (loan), Viareggio (loan), Ascoli (loan), Juventus
- International – Italy (4 apps, 1 goal)
Simone Zaza won his first Italy cap back in September, but it has been anything but an easy rise to the top for the Sassuolo striker. Zaza has learnt the hard way, developing his game in the lower leagues rather than the more cossetted environment of an academy or reserve team. Battling for points in real-life situations while pitting his wits against grizzled, no-nonsense defenders has been character-defining and, now aged 23, Zaza already has a wealth of experience under his belt.
Born in Policoro in the Marche region of central Italy, Zaza’s fledgling career began with local outfits Stella Azzurra and Valdera. It was when playing for the latter aged 15 that he was spotted by professional scouts from Atalanta, who immediately offered him a deal.
Having successfully negotiated the youth ranks at the Bergamo-based club, Zaza graduated to the first team, where he made just three appearances before being moved on to Sampdoria after a protracted contract dispute. From there, he was loaned out to a host of lower division sides with mixed success.
His time in Serie B with Juve Stabia in 2011 was disappointing, and Samp cut short the season-long loan in January with the then 20-year-old having played on only four occasions.
A sixth-month spell with Viareggio in the third tier was slightly more promising, Zaza scoring 11 times in 18 games and rebuilding the confidence that had taken a knock after a series of setbacks.
Back in Serie B with Ascoli, 2012/13 was Zaza’s breakthrough year. Despite the club getting relegated, Zaza netted 18 goals in 30 starts, making him the division’s sixth-highest scorer.
In a transfer that could only ever take place in Italy, Sampdoria concurrently sold half of Zaza’s rights to Juventus for €1 million and the other 50 percent to Sassuolo for €2.5m in the summer of 2013.
It was agreed that Zaza would spend the season with the latter, a sensible decision that has played a significant part in the player’s progression: rather than sitting on the bench in Turin for a year, Zaza assumed a key role in a Serie A side, scoring nine goals and creating numerous more opportunities for his team-mates as Sassuolo survived relegation against the odds.
Zaza has made a promising start to the current campaign, too. After a nomadic period as a young player, he is profiting from the off-field stability that comes with playing for the same team in consecutive years. If Sassuolo are to retain their top-flight status once more, Simone Zaza will be essential.
Why you need to know him
Zaza is considered one of the hottest properties in Serie A, his performances as one-third of Sassuolo’s all-Italian attacking trident (which also includes Domenico Berardi and Antonio Floro Flores) thrilling coaches, fans and pundits alike.
Sassuolo are one of the easiest teams on the eye on the peninsula, with coach Eusebio Di Francesco committed to a proactive, attacking brand of football. Zaza is key to that approach, and his superb domestic showings have led to him becoming the symbol of Antonio Conte’s fresh, new-look Azzurri side.
The recent preference for the dynamic Zaza over the more static Mario Balotelli is perfectly representative of the vibrant feel to the national setup at present.
Many were surprised when Juventus sold their stake in Zaza to the Neroverdi in pre-season and signed the more-expensive Alvaro Morata instead.
Zaza has since been linked with Milan, Arsenal and PSG as well as the Old Lady in recent months, and it will surely not be long until he is testing himself at the highest level.
There are many adjectives associated with the left foot in football – cultured, trusty, wand-like – and Zaza’s is worthy of them all. Capable of subtle finishes (witness the superb cushioned volley against Cagliari in August) and powerful strikes (such as last term’s close range-thunderbolt against Napoli), the 23-year-old’s left peg is an undoubted strong point.
His vigour and work ethic also set him apart. Zaza’s hard-running is not just a crowd-pleasing, needless exertion of energy, either: he has the tactical understanding as well as the physical capacity to press intelligently and at the right moments. Together with his appreciation of space and clever movement, Zaza has all the off-the-ball qualities expected of a modern-day forward.
In fact, it is his willingness to defend from the front that has most endeared him to Conte, rather than any of his numerous technical attributes. The former Juventus manager’s high-tempo, relentlessly intense style of play relies upon constant interchange and closing down up top, making Zaza the perfect fit.
Zaza’s prowess in the air is something that could be improved upon, as the man himself has acknowledged. His leap is decent enough and he is often able to rise above defenders, but Zaza will be disappointed with some of the headed chances he has squandered already this campaign.
Indeed, it is the accuracy of the connection rather than the ability to win the aerial dual that Zaza should focus on. Like many left-footers, Zaza’s right side is also a weak point.
The deadliest of frontmen are excellent one-touch finishers, and Zaza has occasionally failed to capitalise on opportunities by trying to transfer the ball onto his left rather than taking the shot on first time.
Zaza has scored just one header in Serie A and no goals with his right foot. If he can advance in these departments, the youngster’s already-respectable strike-rate will only get better.
Gigi Delneri may not have given Zaza much of a chance in the first team during his time as Atalanta manager between 2007 and 2009, but he was always aware of the forward’s talents.
“A pure centre-forward, like Christian Vieri”, Delneri told Corriere dello Sport in September. “He makes the same movements and is left-footed, but Simone is better technically than Vieri.”
It is fair to say that Azzurri colleague and Juventus centre-back Leonardo Bonucci has also been impressed: “He may be young, but he is mature. He has excellent technique as well as being physically strong. He has everything to become a great striker.”
Did you know?
Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Zaza also has experience of Taekwondo. The Korean martial art was the first sport he took up as a child, attending classes between the ages of eight and 11.
Sassuolo have former Milan striker Marco van Basten to thank for his conversion to football. “Every morning [was] the same story,” Zaza’s mother recounted in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Simone in front of the TV watching the goals of Van Basten on video”. From then on, football was the only pastime that commanded the youngster’s attention.
Ibrahimovic has always maintained that his Taekwondo expertise benefited his football – and a look at some of the goals the Swede has scored throughout his career certainly support that conviction – but Zaza is unconvinced: “I don’t know if it’s been any use to me in football... maybe it [helps] with acrobatic stuff, though I’m not sure about that. In any case, I haven’t tried any yet”.
- Shooting 8
- Heading 6
- Passing 6
- Tackling 5
- Pace 7
- Dribbling 7
- Creativity 8
- Work-rate 9
What happens next?
Zaza’s deal with Sassuolo runs until 2019, but Juventus may take advantage of the €15m buy-back clause they insisted on when selling their share in the 23-year-old to Sassuolo last summer.
Zaza himself has not exactly played down the speculation, admitting in October that “if I continue like this, my future will be in Turin”. In the meantime, Zaza is almost guaranteed regular playing time with the Neroverdi, which is vital for a player who still has just one full top-flight season to his name. Antonio Conte has clearly taken to the forward’s exhilarating mix of verve, flair and work-rate, and Zaza looks set to become a mainstay in the national setup for years to come.