Italian football has long held young players with scepticism, but the abolition of the co-ownership system and Serie A’s lack of financial power compared to that of rival nations has seen clubs turn to them with increasing regularity.
Here are some intriguing under-21 talents, beyond the more household names, to keep an eye on in 2015/16…
1. Federico Mattiello (Chievo; on loan from Juventus)
While champions Juventus have clearly invested heavily in young players from other clubs (Dybala, Coman, Morata), there is something of a disconnect between the club’s own youth sector and the first team, with very few players progressing from one to the other. Indeed, Claudio Marchisio is the only member of the current squad to make that leap, but Federico Mattiello is arguably the one who could change that pattern after his debut under Max Allegri last November.
In the January transfer window he moved to Chievo on loan to speed up his development, only to suffer a broken leg in his third appearance for the Veronese side. Now fully recovered, the versatile midfielder – who can also fill in at wing-back if required – is pacey and has the skill to open up tight games, possessing good accuracy with both crosses and shots when the opportunity arises.
2. Elseid Hysaj (Napoli)
While Napoli were unable to sign Rugani this summer, they did manage to bring Elseid Hysaj to the Stadio San Paolo. He too played for Maurizio Sarri at Empoli last term, and the new coach quickly entrusted the Albanian-born defender with a place in his starting XI this past weekend. Still only 21, he has played over 100 games for the Tuscan side since his debut back in 2011 and been used as a full-back on both flanks, looking comfortable in either role.
Tough and defensively sound, Hysaj averaged 2.1 tackles and 1.3 interceptions in his first top flight campaign, though might need to contribute more to the attack this time around. His distribution is neat and tidy if unspectacular; often playing short and simple passes rather than looking to get forward and cross.
3. Alessio Romagnoli (Milan)
Like Sarri, Sinisa Mihajlovic has raided his former club for a defensive gem, insisting Milan did whatever it took to bring Alessio Romagnoli to San Siro. At a press conference to announce the completion of a €25 million deal, club vice president Adriano Galliani stated his belief that the Roma youth product can become “one of those great defenders from the Milan school”. An elegant and left-footed defender, the 20-year-old arguably has all the tools to do just that, and has proven capable of playing either as a full-back, on the left of a three-man defence or as an orthodox central defender. Impressing last year on loan at Sampdoria, he is a perfect fit for Mihajlović’s tactics - able to press and harry opposition strikers, while combining defensive physicality with solid technical ability when in possession.
Romagnoli’s partnership with 19-year-old Rodrigo Ely did not get off to the best of starts, the Brazilian sent off on the opening weekend while his partner conceded a penalty in the defeat to Fiorentina.
Yet their talent is obvious, and the Rossoneri must have patience to allow them to develop together, while they form part of an exciting young group at Milan that also includes M'Baye Niang (20), José Mauri (19) and 18-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
4. Assane Gnoukouri (Inter)
Across town at Inter, much has been made of the arrivals of Miranda, Stevan Jovetić and of course Kondogbia, but the club’s underrated youth sector has also provided Roberto Mancini with yet another promising star. Ivorian Assane Gnoukouri made his debut last term, coming off the bench against Hellas Verona and convincing the former Manchester City boss that he warranted a starting berth in their very next game.
That it was the Milan derby did not appear to prove daunting for the midfielder, who proceeded to run the game from the middle of the pitch. Demanding the ball before quickly passing it on, the 18-year-old was clearly the best player for the Nerazzurri and followed up with a similarly accomplished display against Roma. He’s made five appearances in total, and was once again in Mancini’s starting team this past weekend as they got the new season off to a positive start with a win over Atalanta.
5. Daniele Verde (Frosinone; on loan from Roma)
Frosinone reached Serie A for the first time this summer, and have taken some interesting young players on loan for their debut campaign. Roma forward Daniele Verde is arguably the most promising, the 19-year-old making his senior debut earlier this year after joining the Giallorossi back in 2010.
Rudi Garcia handed him eight further appearances before the end of the campaign, with his only league start coming against Cagliari. The Neapolitan impressed from the first whistle as he displayed the confidence and maturity of a much more seasoned player as he registered two assists: the first a delightfully chipped ball that fell perfect for Adem Ljajic to open the scoring.
“Daniele has everything to become a great player," coach Rudi Garcia said shortly after the final whistle, and Frosinone will hope that he takes a leap towards that this season.
6. Ricardo Kishna (Lazio)
While the changing attitude is evident across Serie A, perhaps nowhere captures the collision of this new philosophy with the old approach as much as the central striker role at Lazio.
With a thigh injury ruling out 37-year-old Miroslav Klose for the opening weekend, coach Stefano Pioli opted to hand youngster Ricardo Kishna his first start for the club.
Kishna scored seven times in 48 senior appearances for Ajax before moving to the Italian capital for around €4 million this summer, and he would make an immediate impact for the Biancocelesti. With his side already leading 1-0 against newly promoted Bologna, the Dutch star doubled their advantage as he smashed a low shot beyond Antonio Mirante.
His pace and ability to also play on the left wing means that, alongside Ravel Morrison (22) and Keita Baldé, Lazio now have the options in attack that they lacked a year ago.
7. Bruno Fernandes (Udinese)
Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes has risen to prominence over the last two seasons, going from being a reserve at Serie B side Novara to filling the role Alexis Sanchez once occupied behind Antonio Di Natale at Udinese. Also displaying the versatility to play out wide, the 20-year-old works hard to help out the team defensively but has the skill and vision required to play in such an advanced position.
He has contributed eight goals and seven assists in his two first two seasons with the Zebrette, at the same time progressing to the Portugal U-21 side and attracting the interest of Milan this summer.
Fernandes is part of Udinese’s latest crop of exciting young talent, with other clubs sure to pay attention to him as well as Swiss international Silvan Widmer (22) and full-back Ali Adnan (21) who has already played 34 times for the Iraq national team.
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