Serie A players to watch during January window

The end of the group stages in the Champions League, a better sense of who is a contender and who is a pretender in Serie A , a slew of injuries and some recent coaching changes have impacted clubs’ plans for the January window.

With that in mind, which players are now more likely to change teams during the upcoming winter market?

 

Ricardo Rodriguez/Frank Kessie’- with Theo Hernandez breaking out and Pioli favoring other midfielders, both are struggling to find playing time and could find a home with their former manager Rino Gattuso taking over at Napoli. The partenopei are looking at potential replacements for Allan who hasn’t been the same player since being heavily linked to Paris St Germain at the beginning of the year, Kessie’ would be a more natural defensive midfielder than Zielinski and was a Gattuso favorite at Milan while Rodriguez could replace either Mario Rui or Ghoulam.  

Allan- you have to wonder if De Laurentiis regrets not accepting Paris St Germain’s offer last January since the Brazilian midfielder’s form has dipped considerably and he was identified as one of the leaders of the player mutiny after the Salzburg match. Leonardo still holds Allan in high regard and De Laurentiis has previously sold Cavani and Lavezzi to the Ligue 1 champions.

Rodrigo de Paul- while we usually should take anything said publicly about transfers with a grain of salt, Udinese’s sporting director Marino recently stated that his club would be hard pressed to turn down a big offer for the Argentine international despite recently signing him to an extension. For his part, De Paul has used the Romelu Lukaku playbook and has stated his admiration for Conte in numerous occasions and even volunteered to play as a mezzala, a position Inter are looking to reinforce. De Paul is also a target for Napoli were he could be used as a replacement for either Mertens or Callejon.

Emre Can- the recent injury to Sami Khedira which will keep him out for about three months may have a significant impact on the former Liverpool midfielder who hasn’t hidden his displeasure from being kept off the Champions League squad. But Can has struggled to make an impact when getting an opportunity to play and with Sarri committed to giving Rabiot more opportunities after helping Bentancur develop significantly, he could still be sold which would net a significant plusvalenza for Juventus after signing him on a Bosman deal.

Can should at least take solace in the fact he has been linked to numerous big clubs including Barcelona in a potential swap deal for Ivan Rakitic, Paris St Germain who could offer Paratici favorite Leandro Paredes in exchange as well as Bayern Munich.

Matteo Politano- after thriving under Luciano Spalletti, the former Sassuolo winger has almost been an after thought for Antonio Conte. Fiorentina had pursued him last summer and can now offer him a chance for significant playing time to give Politano a chance to make the Azzurri’s squad at the upcoming Euros, he also could be used a sweetener to convince Parma to let Dejan Kulusevki go prior to his loan deal expiring next June.

Alessadro Florenzi- the giallorossi’s captain has found himself often behind Santon in Fonseca’s pecking order for the right back position and could leave in January to keep himself in shape for the upcoming Euro. Fiorentina are looking to make a significant statement during the January window and signing a starter on the Azzurri at a position of need would certainly fit Commisso’s modus operandi, Inter could also look to leverage their good relationship with Roma to give Conte a further reinforcement. You do have to wonder if however Roma, who are negotiating the potential sale of the club, are willing to let go of the last Roman institution on the squad following Totti and De Rossi’s departures.

Moise’ Kean- just like Mattia Caldara and Joao Cancelo, the promising striker struggled significantly after Juventus sold him. There has been already talk of Kean returning to Serie A on loan after a disastrous half of the season at Everton with Roma and Milan as potential destinations.  

Dejan Kulusevski- the new version of Milinkovic Savic has taken Serie A by storm after joining Parma on loan from Atalanta’s youth system. Kulusevski has made it clear he wants to keep playing regularly but his performances have been so convincing that he could do so at a top club like Inter immediately. In addition to the nerazzurri, the Swedish prospect has also been linked to Juventus as well as some top Premier League clubs.  

Mehdi Demiral- the Turkish defender struggled to find consistent playing time following a disastrous start against Hellas Verona at the start of the season, but during Juve’s recent Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen, he reminded everyone why he was so highly rated after a successful spell at Sassuolo.

Juventus would much rather sell Daniele Rugani, who also has a much lower amortized value remaining, but there is just much more demand for Demiral, from Premier League clubs as well as Milan, who maybe itching to play more often especially with Giorgio Chiellini expected back in March.  

Napoli moves on from Ancelotti to pivot to Gattuso

I often like to say that we should never apply the standards of clubs like Juventus, Inter or Milan to Napoli since the region where they play is truly unique and because the club simply does not have the revenues to compete with the classic powerhouses in Serie A.  This was confirmed to be true when president Aurelio De Laurentiis decided to sack Carlo Ancelotti right after a 4-0 win in the Champions League that qualified the team out of the group stage with an undefeated record for the first time in the club’s history.

Let’s be clear, Ancelotti is a true gentleman, one of the few managers who has been able to win significantly without being a hard ass with his players, so it’s very tempting to make him the victim in this situation when you consider that De Laurentiis isn’t afraid to be vulgar, abrupt and thin skinned, which he confirmed with the fact Ancelotti went to the post game press conference following the 4-0 win to say he would meet with him the following day only to be sacked, and that the squad went into full mutiny mode by refusing to go on a club imposed retreat about a month ago which started this, but life isn’t often in just black and white with heroes and victims.

Just like at Paris St Germain and especially at Bayern Munich, Ancelotti failed to live up to expectations at Napoli who find themselves 17 points behind league leaders Inter and eight points behind Cagliari for the final Champions League spot in Serie A. Certainly qualifying out of the group stage in Europe’s top club competition is impressive, but it’s not like the partenopei had any chance of winning the cup with the Mickey Mouse ears while on the other hand finishing in Serie A’s top four, to get the revenues from participating in said competition, is the bare minimum objective and one that should be a shoe in for a team featuring top players like Koulibaly, Allan, Fabian Ruiz, Mertens and impressive new additions that bolstered positions of need like Di Lorenzo and Manolas.

To be fair to Ancelotti, replacing Maurizio Sarri, who embraced the identity of the city of Napoli as well as almost anyone since De Laurentiis took over, was going to be very difficult. Ancelotti was seen as the ideal profile to reassure a group that had just lost a scudetto in shocking fashion to Juventus despite getting to 91 points (a record for a team that didn’t win the title) and while last season they never came close to keeping up with the bianconeri, they had shown enough to believe they could make one last run at a trophy with the current core.

In the summer, De Laurentiis retained all of his top players, broke his transfer fee record on a single player by signing Lozano and the squad had enough depth to compete in all fronts. But the wheels came off quickly, after a disappointing stretch and before the season was fully compromised, De Laurentiis decided to send the team on retreat- a decision Ancelotti publicly stated he didn’t agree with, shortly after the players- led by Insigne and Allan- went into full mutiny mode by refusing to go on retreat.

For the second time in a row, following his experience at Bayern Munich, Ancelotti’s training methods and (lack of ) intensity were questioned by his players. It got to the point that some assumed Ancelotti saw his job at Napoli as an opportunity to keep his loyal staff employed and continue to groom his son to become a top manager- at this point you have to wonder if he’s only really suited for a national team- where his ability to strive in a single elimination tournament like Champions League- at this stage of his career.

Napoli have never been the same in Serie A since and now Rino Gattuso finds himself replacing one of his former managers. The 2006 World Cup champion has been patiently waiting for the right opportunity since leaving Milan at the end of last season, seen the significant struggles by his successor Marco Giampaolo, Gattuso started being viewed in a better light as a manager when you consider he had the rossoneri in contention for a Champions League spot.

Gattuso has always been a loyal company man and was also willing to take a short term contract until end of the season (with a vested option for 2020/21 in case he qualifies for the Champions League), so he really was an ideal solution for De Laurentiis who is reticent to pay multiple coaches because of his fiscal discipline and just dealt with a manager disagreeing publicly with the decision on the retreat.

Gattuso will almost certainly go back to Sarri’s good old 4 3 3 formation after Ancelotti experimented with different looks, and you have to wonder if De Laurentiis will even be more motivated to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic to fully change the subject and re energize the team. During the season, Gattuso had been offered both the Genoa and Udinese jobs when they sacked their managers, he now gets a much juicier opportunity in a truly unique place in Serie A.

Does continuity pay off in football? Napoli and Lazio receive opposite results

The summer transfer window brought some radical changes to most top teams in Serie A. Juventus went from Allegri’s cautious pragmatism to Sarriball, Inter started a new cycle with Antonio Conte and numerous new starters, Roma took a (successful gamble) on hiring Paulo Fonseca, Milan had their squad built from their third sporting director in three years, while Atalanta had to deal with playing on multiple fronts after surprisingly qualifying for the Champions League.

Because of their competitors expected to go through growing pain because of all their changes, many expected Lazio and Napoli to get off to fast starts based on the fact they went with continuity. Both teams confirmed their managers and made just a few switches to their starting lineups to improve on their weaknesses, but after fifteen matches played the two clubs couldn’t be in more opposite trajectories.

Lazio are now riding a seven game win streak and have consolidated their position in the Champions League zone, with some even wondering if they can win the title. They finally were able to defeat Juventus at the Olimpico after sixteen years with Simone Inzaghi finally besting Maurizio Sarri in a match for the first time in his career.

Not surprisingly, the fallout of yesterday’s loss brought a lot of prisoner of the moment takes from Juventus fans with Sarri despite the fact the former Napoli and Chelsea manager had never previously been defeated on the bianconeri’s bench. Ironically Simone Inzaghi was seen as a front runner for the Juventus job once Max Allegri left in large part because of his close relationship with the club’s sporting director Fabio Paratici.

Instead Inzaghi ended up staying at Lazio by signing a new contract along with sporting Igli Tare’. Interestingly both of them had also been linked to Milan, but keeping them both has so far been a hige blessing for president Claudio Lotito. Tare’ has long been one of the most underrated “direttori sportive” in Italy- he has brought in the club’s entire nucleus in recent years including Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinkovic Savic, Joaquin Correa, Lucas Leiva and Francesco Acerbi who has been a brilliant replacement for Stefan de Vrij.

While in previous seasons, this nucleus has ended up being better individually than as a sum of its parts, during this campaign they are all performing at a top level. Tare’ and Lotito went all in with this group, retaining them with extensions was an expensive proposition and they decided to just make a few strategic additions to bolster their main weaknesses- Manuel Lazzari has been an upgrade over Adam Marusic while Denis Vavro has struggled so much he could end up like Durmissi and Berisha in the bust bin, so suffice to say continuity is at the basis of the team’s success.

Napoli took a similar approach last summer. They confirmed Carlo Ancelotti as manager and bolstered on paper made upgrades by replacing Raul Albiol with Kostas Manolas and bringing in Giovanni Di Lorenzo to upgrade the right back, they also invested substantially in Hirving Lozano to be the long term replacement for Dries Mertens.

On paper this seemed like an almost perfect plan, after all Albiol had missed a substantial part of the season and Manolas was seen as an upgrade, Di Lorenzo has been one of the only bright spots and even made his debut for the Italian national team and the club had the luxury to make their most expensive purchase ever in Lozano to essentially give him a year to get acclamaited to Serie A so he could eventually replace Mertens (or Insigne).

But instead Napoli’s campaign has been nothing short of disastrous. President Aurelio De Laurentiis spent significantly to retain his best players, he turned down a big offer for Allan last January, he made Koulibaly one of the highest paid defenders in Serie A and worked with Mino Raiola to make Lorenzo Insigne feel like a huge part of the project after some previous difficulties. 

All three players have not come close to their usual level of performances- Koulibaly has been a shell of his former self since playing in the Africa Cup this summer, Allan’s struggles date even further back to ever since his move to PSG collapsed and Insigne has been the poor version we have seen on the Azzuri in recent years for his home town club- if that weren’t enough Allan and Insigne were identified as the ring leaders of the mutiny when the team refused to go on retreat.

So how come Lazio and Napoli have taken such different trajectories despite using the same formula? You can argue Inzaghi is peaking as a manager after some growing pains in recent years, while the game seems to have gone past Ancelotti with substantial reports of both his Bayern Munich and Napoli teams not practicing enough.

But there’s probably more to this- Lazio has come so close to reaching their objective of making the Champions League that their intact core has shown the hunger to finally get over the hump this season, while Napoli have been the exact opposite, it feels the disappointment of having no titles to show for their impressive runs in recent years. Turns out continuity isn’t always a magical formula, the secret is knowing when your group is ready to peak as opposed to when it already gave you all it has.

Smalling to Roma on a permanent basis- the case study for a perfect deal

Universities use case studies to illustrate the various aspects of a subject and sometimes we can use a single player’s situations to cover so many details that go into a transfer. With the winter window just a few weeks away, Chris Smalling’s situation at Roma allows us so to cover so many topics that will be relevant through the end of January.

After Roma’s sporting director Petrachi failed to sign his top targets at center back- on paper the weakest position on his squad despite Gainluca Mancini’s arrival- in the last days of the summer transfer window, he struck a deal with Manchester United for Chris Smalling.

Because Roma’s financial situation didn’t allow them to add another fairly substantial transfer fee on their books during the current fiscal year, they had no choice but to structure the deal on the basis of a loan. However their preference was to include an option to acquire the English defender on a permanent basis during the following fiscal year.

But because the closure of the summer transfer window was looming in Italy and Roma was desperate to reinforce their defense, they agreed to a dry loan for a fee of €3 million with no future option or obligation ( a formula Roma also used to acquire Mkhitaryan). The thinking was they would explore later on what to do if Smalling adapted well to Serie A. For his part, Smalling needed some convincing to accept the transfer on such short notice to a new league, but his conversation with the giallorossi’s manager, Paulo Fonseca, energized him.

While Smalling has his doubts on the move at first, many Manchester United fans were more than happy to see Smalling go (at least if you go by my Twitter feed) as a matter a fact they were disappointed it wasn’t already on a permanent basis since they felt it was almost inevitable Smalling would return to England.

But then something rather surprising happened, Smalling not only performed like one of the best players at his position this season by even exceeding the standards Kostas Manolas showed in his last season in Italy’s capital and upon joining Napoli, he also fully embraced living in his new city despite being a vegan in the carbonara capital of the world.

Fast forward to this week, besides the color of his skin, Smalling has played so well that he was one of the subjects of the extremely controversial “Black Friday” headline alongside his former teammate Lukaku (if he wasn’t considered a top player this season he wouldn’t have been on it) which prompted Manchester United’s current manager to say he expected him back at Old Trafford next June.

Now aside from the fact that Solksjaer won’t likely still be Manchester United’s manager by next summer, his statement is a great reminder that what is said publicly about transfers is very rarely important. One of his predecessors, Van Gaal, swore up and down that he would continue to be Manchester United’s manager and Paul Pogba started he was staying at Juventus a few days before boarding a plane to rejoin his former club.

Following Solksjaer’s press conference, Gianluca Di Marzio reported that talks between Roma and Manchester United were ongoing. The Italian club were willing to increase their initial offer of €15 million from a few weeks ago, with a deal likely to be completed around €20 million.

While this figure may seem low in light of Smalling’s performances in Serie A, he’s also a thirty year old player who will have little resale value down the road- a very important factor for a club like Roma who have to often sell before they buy.

You could make the case Manchester United could receive more should other clubs express interest in Smalling, but in this case the will of the player is key. Smalling has had a rebirth at Roma, enjoys the city and has let it be known he wants to stay- it also doesn’t hurt that Roma already paid €3 million just for a loan.

When you consider that Smalling has no amortized value remaining to offset for Manchester United because he’s been on the club’s books since 2010, the €20 million (or whatever figure they agree to) would be a pure capital gain. In addition, completing this deal without many hiccups could also likely garner some good will for all involved which could benefit Manchester United down the road if they tried to pursue one of Roma’s most exciting players like Zaniolo or Pellegrini.

They say that with the best deals everyone involved leaves the negotiation table slightly unhappy because it’s a give and a take, but in this case Smalling staying at Roma permanently would make everyone better off.

Questions that will shape January Transfer Window in Serie A

Will there be enough playing time at Inter to tempt Kulusevski?

Serie A’s breakout player of the season had a clear vision for what he wanted to get out of the 2019/20 season after excelling in Atalanta’s youth system- his priority was to play regularly at professional level on a team that could get the most out of him. Parma checked all of the boxes and there’s no doubt the Swedish midfielder has made the most out of the opportunity in the first third of the season.

So while Inter are rather interested in bringing him in January as a way to bolster Conte’s squad while anticipating the competition for such an exciting asset, It remains to be seen if Kulusevski is willing to take a gamble and leave a team where he can start every game rest of the way.

 Inter would likely be able to convince Parma to let him go by offering a player or two (Politano and or Di Marco) especially since they are also interested in signing his teammate Darmian. Atalanta have made numerous deals with Inter in recent years and would be more than happy to make a significant capital gain on a player currently not on their squad.

Will Milan desperately need more experience?

Except for the dreadful match against Lazio, overall Milan have looked better under new manager Pioli but the results are still lacking. Certainly a point against Napoli under normal circumstances would be nothing to sneeze at, but considering that the partenopei are dealing with as much chaos as the guest on the birthday party featured on “Parasite, maybe a bit more was to be expected especially when you consider Milan’s position in the standings.

Does the fact that the rossoneri are much closer to the relegation zone than a spot in European competitions next season give them more urgency to bring in some veterans to get the team on track? Or does Milan see this as a lost season standing wise where the focus is just to develop their young players as long as there’s no danger of a shocking relegation? The next few games will likely determine this.

Will Juventus be forced to integrate more of their surplus players?

The bianconeri spent the last few weeks of the summer transfer window trying to offload veterans to lower their enormous wage bill. Their inability to get it done forced them to exclude Emre Can and Mario Mandzukic from their Champions League list, while new addition Adrien Rabiot has struggled so much to find consistent playing time that there’s talk he could be sold in 2019.

But considering the age of Juventus’ squad, there’s chance some injury or Sarri coming to his senses with Khedira that we could see a fairly significant radical change in the pecking order. But if the status quo remains, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Can, Mandzukic and Perin all leaving in January as Juventus tries to lower their wage bill before the end of their fiscal year. 

Will Napoli be able to start cleaning house in January?

“If things didn’t end badly, they wouldn’t end at all” is how you can sum up Mertens and Callejon’s current situation. The two pillars of the club dating back to the Benitez administration have expiring contracts, and even before the squad mutiny and public threats of lawsuits from De Laurentiis, it seemed rather likely this would be their final season under the Vesuvius.

Napoli have to figure out if making a push for a Champions League spot is worth it and if Mertens and Callejon can help them get there at the cost of losing them for nothing in June. Two summer acquisitions have also the chance to make the decision easier- Lozano and Elmas could become Mertens and Callejon’s permanent replacements sooner rather than later. 

Will Roma get enough of a boost from their returning players? Will they need to make some January signings?

Adriano Galliani would be in heaven if he were in charge at Roma- with so many key players returning from injury in recent weeks (Under, Pellegrini, Mkhitaryan, Cristante to just name a few) he could tell us how he doesn’t need to do any work in January because there are so many players who feel like new additions. 

You have to hand it to Fonseca, the fact that he kept Roma right in the mix for a Champions League spot despite a catastrophic spell of injuries is rather impressive. But does the fact that so many are coming back make sporting director Petrachi less likely to make moves in January? At the beginning of the season center back looked like a massive need, but Smalling has arguably been best new addition in Serie A and Mancini has established himself after a slow start, and his ability to play in the midfield gives Fonseca even more options on top of all the players returning from injury.

With Florenzi itching to get more regular playing time in light of the upcoming Euros, Petrachi will however be very active on the wing back marker with Hysaj as a logical target. Roma could also use another striker because Kalinic has not surprisingly not made an impact and Dzeko showed signs of slowing down after a very fast start.

Will the battle to avoid relegation make it impossible for Udinese to move Rodrigo De Paul?

The Friulani are just 3 points above the relegation and are still waiting to name the permanent replacement for manager Tudor who was sacked a few weeks ago. Can they afford to consider losing their best player in January considering their place in the standings? This is the decision Genoa had to make last year with Piatek, and while on one hand Preziosi got a great return on a striker who is really struggling now, the team had to wait until the conclusion of the final match of season to avoid relegation.

While De Paul did sign an extension about a month ago, Udinese sporting director Marino did recently state the club doesn’t have the resources to turn down a huge offer for him. The Argentine international has been linked to Inter, Napoli and Fiorentina.

Did Juventus fail to learn lessons from last summer with Bonucci and Cuadrado’s extensions?

Albert Einstein once famously said that “insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result” which applies to all sorts of walks of life. This mantra has become very popular with those looking to turn their lives around, but it applies to all sorts of walks of life including football transfers and signings.

More and more clubs are learning that signing older players to long term deals is usually a great way to hamstring your club financially, while focusing on younger players helps you lower your wages while providing assets to make significant capital gains down the road.

Juventus saw this first hand last summer when they were able to make a massive plusvalenza on Moise’ Kean since he was a home grown player while struggling so significantly to move the likes of Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi, Gonzalo Higuain and especially Mario Mandzukic that they strongly considered selling Paulo Dybala to make a big enough capital gain to cover the cost of having such an expensive squad.

While both Matuidi and Khedira found themselves frequently starting so far this season and Gonzalo Higuain had a very surprising renaissance, the squad is so bloated that Emre Can and Mario Mandzukic were kept off the Champions League squad and Adrien Rabiot has struggled to find regular playing time (things could have been even worse had Aaron Ramsey been able to stay healthy).

So with all of this in mind, you can make a case Juventus is engaging in some insane behavior since they are repeating same behavior with the announcement of extensions for Leonardo Bonucci through 2024 and Juan Cuadrado through 2022 (both players have the same agent by the way) despite the fact they are 32 and 31 respectively. On top of that because of their bloated squad, Juventus is carrying a massive wage bill which is now even higher because both Bonucci and Cuadrado

But is there a case to be made that these extensions do have some appropriate reasoning behind it? At bare minimum they have to be better decisions than last year’s puzzling decision to give new deals to Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic? Safe to say the latter is certainly true since at least Bonucci and Cuadrado have been amongst the best players at their respective positions this season which certainly could not be said for Khedira and Mandzukic last year.

Bonucci has certainly come a long way in the past eighteen months. He was a pariah with many fans of the club because of his one season at Milan and upon his return, he was often a liability on defense. When Juventus signed Mathijs De Ligt this summer and acquired the rights to Mehdi Demiral after previously parking him at Sassuolo because they didn’t have a non EU slot available, many expected Bonucci to leave when the first links to Paris St Germain emerged.

Paratici and Sarri have to be thrilled that those talks went nowhere and Bonucci stayed. On top of Chiellini suffering a torn ACL, Demiral looked completely overmatched when he started against Hellas Verona, which aren’t exactly known for having a potent attack, De Ligt has had some fairly significant growing pains adapting to a new league and living up to his price, and despite his former mentor Sarri joining the club- Daniele Rugani is as much an afterthought as Juventus as “Solo” is with Star Wars fans.

Bonucci has been one of the best center backs in all of Serie A this season and has kept the captain armband during Chiellini’s absence even when Gigi Buffon started- a clear sign he’s been fully accepted back at the club after his sabbatical at Milan. But it does remain to be seen how Bonucci’s contract will look like in 2022 and 2023 when he’ll be well into his mid 30s earning over 6 million after taxes.

Juan Cuadrado went from being a super sub to becoming Joao Cancelo’s replacement. There’s a lot of concern when the Portuguese international left Turin because he was such a devastating offensive weapon, arguably the only spark of creativity in Allegri’s pragmatic and predictable offense.

Cuadrado has more than made up for what Joao Cancelo provided offensively, while being nowhere near as much as a liability defensively as his predecessor who had to be benched in key matches because there was serious concern he would make a costly mistake. Now Cuadrado has been so effective that there’s talk Juventus will sell Mattia De Sciglio, who started over Joao Cancelo in those key matches last season, since he has nailed down the starting job.

Considering how thin the market at right back in, giving Cuadrado a new contract until 2022 doesn’t seem that bad because just a few months before the only realistic options to replace Joao Cancelo included overpaying for Trippier, bringing back Dani Alves who had off field issues previously at Juventus or hoping Hysaj could turn his career around.

So while on the surface it looks like Juventus is repeating the same behavior with contract extensions to older players, there are enough mitigating circumstances to say Paratici is right to gamble he can prove Albert Einstein wrong.

A Great Sale- how Cagliari improved after losing Barella

When it comes to transfers, it’s very easy to get excited when a new addition arrives but player departures often bring disappointment and anger. In recent years Roma was mocked for being a supermarket, Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva’s move to Paris St Germain bookmarked the beginning of Milan’s decline, the triggering of Higuain’s release clause opened a significant wound, while the curse of the player’s will weakened Juventus’ midfield with Vidal and Pogba’s departures.

But there are instances where shrewd sales help clubs open new cycles. Napoli reinvested the proceeds of the Cavani and Lavezzi sales very well, Moggi turned Zidane into Buffon, Nedved and Thuram and Atalanta have built the current squad by previously selling the Conti, Kessie’, Cristante and Caldaras of the world. Interestingly this season’s surprise team in Serie A has been able to emerge despite selling their best player Nicolo’ Barella.

Cagliari were very patient with Barella who came up through their youth system and was a highly rated prospect since 2012 when he was named best young Italian midfielder for players his age. Barella started establishing himself in Serie A in 2016, made his debut with the Italian national team two years later and was linked to both Napoli and Chelsea last January. Cagliari decided to hold on to him a bit longer and were handsomely rewarded for their patience since Barella became a starter in the Azzurri’s midfield before fetching around 50 million for his transfer to Inter (12 million for loan, 25 million for obligation to buy plus 12 million in bonuses).

While Cagliari’s president Giulini softened the blow of losing Barella since he sold him to his favorite team Inter (of which he was a board member for 8 years) he was actually able to improve his club. The Sardinian club in fact reinvested the proceeds of the Barella sale very well, they acquired highly rated midfielder Nahtan Nandez for 18 million, which will look like a bargain should the former Boca Juniors continue to perform at this level. 

Nandez has been a rock in Maran’s midfield this season and will garner a large plusvalenza in the future to essentially repeat the Barella cycle, but he isn’t the only new addition making an impact. Cagliari also acquired Marko Rog on loan with option to buy, the Croatian international never fully settled under both Sarri and Ancelotti at Napoli, he has shown good improvements this season.

Caglairi had also planned ahead for Barella’s departure by acquiring Christian Oliva on loan with option to buy from Nacional last January- they exercised their option for 5 million and now the midfielder is finding space on Maran’s squad. Having the influx of cash from the Barella transaction also allowed Cagliari to take a flyer on bringing back Radja Nainggolan, whose had some sensational matches, as well as finding two quality replacements to replace the injured Alessio Cragno and Leonardo Pavoletti, who just happened to be Cagliari’s best players last season other than Barella.

Normally for a club like Cagliari replacing their starting keeper and leading goal scorer at the very end of the transfer window would spell doom for the upcoming campaign since by this time most clubs have already blown through their budgets. But having the cash flow from the Barella deal allowed them to get Giovanni Simeone, a more than adequate replacement for Pavoletti and a player with considerable upside. 

They say that the harder you work, the luckier you get and maybe that is the case with Robin Olsen. Cagliari had to scramble after Alessio Cragno suffered a significant injury to his shoulder at the beginning of August, and while Olsen has a good track record as Sweden’s keeper, he was as much as a liability as Rudy Giuliani on a cable news show while defending Roma’s goal in his first season in Serie A.

After Olsen’s expected move to Montpellier collapsed, Cagliari were able to acquire him at the end of the transfer window. Olsen has been very impressive and while he will likely cede the starting job back to Cragno, he’s a big reason the club is off to such a good start.

Cagliari have been able to make the most of the Barella sale. They planned ahead by previously acquiring Oliva and setting their sights on Nandez early, they weren’t afraid to gamble on reclamation projects with upside with Rog and Simeone and used their new fund cash flow to pay substantial salaries to veterans like Naingollan and Olsen- sometimes selling your best player is far from a blow. 

Serie A’s Best Players Of The Season So Far

If you had to pick an adjective to describe the current Serie A season, “balanced” would probably be towards the top of the list when you consider Inter are only a point behind Juventus, we have six teams within five points of the Champions League zone while all three newly promoted teams have been far from pushovers. 

The balance we are experiencing is confirmed by the fact that it’s very difficult to come up with a definitive answer as to who has been the best individual player in the first third of the season. Cristiano Ronaldo is off to a slow start, Napoli’s best players have been impacted (and are responsible) from the chaotic start, while Inter have multiple candidates.

Let’s go through the stand out players, starting with those who are head and shoulders above their teammates so far which makes them even more valuable:

 

Ciro Immobile- while his teammate Luis Alberto has been outstanding this season, Lazio’s main striker is probably the safest best for Serie A player of the season so far. After coming off a disappointing 2018/19 campaign at least for his lofty standards in the Italian league, Immobile now already has fourteen goals making him a virtual lock for his fourth season with 20 or more which would tie him with the player he most reminds me of- the great Toto’ Di Natale. In addition to his fourteen goals, Immobile has also 5 assists.  

 

Alex Meret- the fact that keeper has been clearly Napoli’s best player so far this season truly sums up their struggles. The former Udinese player has been very busy since Koulibaly has been a shell of his former self since playing in the Africa Cup, Manolas has battled injuries and a once mighty midfield is leaking as much as a former member of the Trump administration. On the bright side, Meret has made the most of his opportunities and has been flat out brilliant- but Napoli better hope his opportunities to shine start dropping dramatically after the international break.

 

Gaetano Castrovilli- after previous experiences at Bari and Cremonese, the midfielder born in 97 finally made his debut in Serie A. Fiorentina actually intended to loan him out again, but he impressed Montella during the summer retreat and has now a strong hold on a starting role. Castrovilli has two goals to go with his three assists and is now part of Roberto Mancini’s quad on the Azzurri, he surpasses his more famous teammates because he’s been more consistent than Chiesa and Ribery’s three game suspension have really hurt Fiorentina. 

 

Domenico Berardi- after a series of somewhat disappointing seasons, everyone stopped calling him the Italian Robben. But while he has slowed down a bit after a gangbuster start to the 2019/20 campaign, Berardi already has two assists to go with seven goal and this is with Sassuolo having played one less match (against bottom of the table Brescia) this season because of president Squinzi’s death. It’s hard to believe because he’s been in our lives for so long, but Berardi is still only 25, maybe he’s finally ready to make a permanent leap.

 

Joao Pedro- at first, I thought Cagliari were this season’s version of Torino- a team that is very hard to play against and one that won’t beat itself. But in recent weeks, the Sardinian club look more like what Atalanta was like in the 2018/19 campaign. To Maran’s credit, Cagliari are now tied for third place with a plus eleven goal differential (the same as Juventus) after selling their best player Niccolo’ Barella to Inter and with their outstanding keeper Cragno and top goal scorer from last season, Pavoletti, both missing all the games so far with injuries.

While it would be easy to pick Radja Nainggolan to represent Cagliari because of name recognition and his recent performances, Joao Pedro has been more consistent and has more than adequately replaced Pavoletti by scoring 6 goals. After being linked to Atalanta last summer, Joao Pedro recently signed a well deserved extenstion.

 

Chris Smalling- after a great summer and start to the Serie A season, Edin Dzeko has slowed down partly because of fatigue and as a result of all the injuries to Fonseca’ midfield. On the other hand, Smalling has been steadily improving and now even looks like an upgrade to Kostas Manolas- the British defender also gets bonus points for doing all this while being a vegan in the Carbonara capital of the world.

Smalling has been an attentive defender and has even exceeded expectations with his ball distribution, which is very important for center backs in Fonseca’s system which typically builds from the back. Roma are already working on acquiring Smalling on a permanent basis after paying Manchester United 3 million for a one season loan. 

 

Individual dark horses- don’t let the fact that most of his goals came off penalties taint your opinion, Andrea Belotti has continued the momentum from second half of 2018/19 campaign into the new season and now looks entrenched as Mancini’s number 9 on the Azzurri. Dejan Kulusevski has been the best player under 20 in Serie A and is already being linked to Inter (he’s owned by Atalanta but currently on loan at Parma) while Luis Muriel still has amongst the highest goals per minute played average in all of Europe.

What’s missing from this list so far? Aside from a member of Milan’s squad, we have yet to single out anyone on the top two teams in the standings, but they are represented by collectives for different reasons:

 

Stefano Sensi, Stefan De Vrij and Lautaro Martinez- had the former Sassuolo midfielder stayed healthy through out the season, he might be at the top of the list for the entire league, but he has only 6 starts. De Vrij has more than made up for Skriniar struggling a bit in a three man defense and Godin having to get acclimated to a new league, while Lautaro Martinez has made a huge impact even when he didn’t score (think of the penalty he earned against Bologna). Lukaku and Barella are also worthy honorable mentions but they did also come in for massive transfer fees. 

Leonardo Bonucci, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Gonzalo Higuain- while for Inter you can pick from so many options because the team has made a significant improvement from last season, at Juventus this list has more to do with Ronaldo’s less than stellar start, Ramsey and Douglas Costa missing significant time and Chiellini being hurt. 

Bonucci has been considerably better defensively although his long passing isn’t as important for Sarri’s system, Cuadrado has more than adequately replaced Joao Cancelo’s offensive output while also not being a complete liability defensively and Higuain is in the John Travolta in Pulp Fiction phase of his career. 

Sarri did say that his Juventus would never look like his old Napoli so while Pjanic isn’t playing exactly the Jorginho role, he has been outstanding while handling a much larger volume of passes

Napoli’s season on the brink

Recovering from a massive disappointment is hard enough in life but doing so while you are also trying to make the leap from very good to great, is truly a Herculean task. This is essentially the situation Napoli have found themselves in following Maurizio Sarri’s departure to Chelsea, and while the club has on paper made almost all the right moves, you simply can’t plan your way out of battling issues that are mainly mental.

Despite this challenging situation, I was very tempted to pick Napoli to win the scudetto when the season started. They kept all of their best players, added Kostas Manolas to replace Raul Albiol who had missed most of the previous season, made a big sacrifice to add Hector Lozano to an already stacked front line, acquired one of the most impressive players at a very scarce position on the market with Di Lorenzo and bolstered their bench with impressive Turkish prospect Elmas and veteran striker Llorente.

The assumption was that going into a second year with Ancelotti would give the team an advantage over Juventus who were going through a very significant philosophical change from Allegri’s pragmatic style to the vaunted offensive juggernaut known as Sarriball. But instead Napoli find themselves way behind Inter who now look like Juventus’ main antagonist for the foreseeable future and also trailing Roma, Lazio, Atalanta and incredibly Cagliari who defeated the partenopei at the San Paolo in the match that started their tailspin.

Napoli’s struggles are even more puzzling when you consider how well they operated on the transfer market since losing the scudetto to Juventus in dramatic fashion. While Manolas, Lozano, and Llorente were quite the haul of established players this summer, in recent years president De Laurentiis and sporting director Giuntoli hit grand slam homeruns on Fabian Ruiz and Alex Meret, two players who are now worth considerably more than when they were acquired and are now elite players at their positions league wide.

Even Arkadiusz Milik who arrived to replace Higuain has done his part when he’s been healthy, so it’s hard to fault the team’s philosophy and execution on the transfer market. What has held Napoli back this season are the veterans who have formed the core of the team in recent years- Allan, Koulibaly and Insigne.

Since Arturo Vidal’s departure from Juventus, Allan has held the title of the best box to box midfielder in Serie A (you can make a case for Nainggolan but he hasn’t been as consistent and healthy) but his performances fell off a cliff following his failed transfer to Paris St Germain last January. Napoli demanded a massive return for the Brazilian international since they knew that signing their top choice to replace him, Niccolo’ Barella, would cost a small fortune- in retrospect not selling Allan at right time also hurt Napoli in another way since Barella has been a key player for Inter who have no surpassed Napoli as Juventus’ main antagonist.

A player struggling after participating in the Africa Cup is nothing new since in recent years, we saw Gervinho and Benatia come back from that tournament and be a shell of their usual selves. But Koulibaly has been so outstanding in recent years, that many assumed he would get back on track after a few games under his belt. Except for his brilliant performance against Liverpool, Koulibaly has been a liability for Ancelotti on top of receiving an uncharacteristic two game suspension.

Home town hero Lorenzo Insigne has had his share of issues in 2019. His agent Mino Raiola met with the club multiple times this year to resolve a few disputes mainly centered around playing time. Insigne was sent to the stands for a Champions League match and confirmed in an interview while with the Italian national team, that he has had his share of disagreements with Ancelotti on a few topics but mainly his position on the pitch.

If that weren’t enough drama, De Laurentiis has been essentially publicly negotiating extensions for Callejon and Mertens, two of the best new additions to Serie A this decade. While it’s understandable that Napoli’s president wants to ensure he’ll be paying them for what they can do in the future rather than just reward them for their (considerable) past performances, his stance has created even more tension around the team, while alienating two key players for Ancelotti.

So despite doing all the right things on the transfer market, spending significantly to keep numerous key players, Napoli find themselves as essentially Serie A’s version of the Atlanta Falcons- a team that has never fully recovered from losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots in dramatic. The hangover effect has also been worsened by Napoli’s inability to make the leap from good to great- at this point there’s even a chance Napoli won’t qualify for the next Champions League, a scenario that would have been unimaginable at the start of the season. Ancelotti’s status at the club is now on the brink…

Can Inter’s great attacking duo deliver a title to Conte?

With so many teams moving away from a formation featuring two strikers, we are deprived of talking about duos who have great chemistry. In my lifetime I got to witness Maradona and Careca, Skuravy and Aguilera, Trezeguet and Del Piero, Batistuta and Totti and on and on, but it’s been awhile since we’ve been able to enjoy two radically different players complimenting each other as well as Lennon and McCartney.

On a somewhat related note, on Thursday’s Gazzetta dello Sport, Davide Stoppini compared Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku’s goal tally in their first ten matches together at Inter with the nerazzurri’s top scorers this decade- the only duo who surpassed them were Icardi and Perisic who have been shipped off on loan to ensure they wouldn’t taint Conte’s group.

But while raw numbers always give us an objective take on the performances of players within the same era, when it comes to Lautaro and Romelu I have flashbacks to Aldo Serena and Ramon Diaz, the two strikers who led Inter’s brilliant 1988-89 team to the scudetto with Trapattoni on the bench.

While Serena wasn’t as physically imposing as Lukaku (really what striker is?), his specialties were headers and opening space for his teammates, and back in 88-89 he had a perfect partner in Ramon Diaz- a small but very technical striker who arrived at Inter to replace Spillo Altobelli only after Rabah Madjer failed his medical but who only stayed for one season because they had Jurgen Klinsmann waiting in the wings.

While it remains to be seen if Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez can also lead Inter to a title, they have come a long ways to give Conte a guarantee upfront- an even more important development when you consider that Alexis Sanchez is currently rehabbing an injury, leaving them with no choice but to field them almost every game.

Romelu Lukaku was the main protagonist in one of the summer transfer window’s best soap operas since he was also linked to Juventus. He arrived in August after he had already stopped practicing with his Manchester United teammates, he didn’t have much time to get acclamaited to his new team as he prepared to play in a new league, but has already made a major impact by becoming the first Inter player to score 9 goals in his first 11 league matches matching the original Ronaldo’s tally back during the 1997/98 season.

Lukaku has so far lived up to the pressure of being the most expensive purchase in Inter’s history and the most costly transfer from the Premier League to Serie A. While he certainly has felt welcomed by his new manager Antonio Conte, who had tried to sign him at his two previous clubs, he has also had to deal with some ugly racist incidents and the pressure of replacing Inter’s best player of the post treble era in Mauro Icardi.

In many ways Lukaku has been the opposite of Icardi. While he’s been mocked for his first touch in recent years, he has been instrumental in building Inter’s run of play by opening spaces for his teammates and developing great chemistry with Lautaro Martinez, a player that Spalletti didn’t think could play at same time with Icardi because they were too similar. Off the pitch rather than being a distraction, he’s been a great ambassador for the club and a point of reference for his teammates.

Martinez had a fairly successful first season in Serie A despite some fears he could turn into the Argentinian version of Gabigol. He was also a protagonist at the recent Copa America where he developed good chemistry with Leo Messi which raised the expectations for what he could do under Antonio Conte. Martinez has shown he can make a big impact even when he doesn’t score, both with how he contributes to the run of play and by earning (well deserved) penalties in clutch moments. He has developed much more chemistry in just 3 months with Lukaku than he did after a full season with Mauro Icardi.

Can Lukaku and Lautaro do for Conte now what Serena and Diaz did for Trapattoni back in 1989 and help another former Juventus manager win a scudetto under the Madonnina? Both teams could count on great defenses (Zenga, Ferri, Bergomi and Brehme), a dynamic new addition in midfield in Berti and Sensi, the strikers Serena and Diaz scored 34 goals combined, a total Luataro and Lukaku are on pace to exceed, but Inter also had Matthaues in the midfield and while Serie A was stacked back then, this current Juventus will ensure no other team wins with 5 matches to go like Inter did back in 1989- regardless of how it ends, Inter have found a truly special combination upfront.