The reinvigoration of Hirving Lozano

Not many sides have taken Atalanta apart quite like Napoli did last weekend. At this stage it’s no secret how much Gian Piero Gasperini has changed the entire fabric of the club since his arrival four years ago. La Dea are usually the ones handing out a 4-1 mauling, they don’t tend to be on the receiving end.

But on Saturday they were. Napoli simply blew their top-four rivals away in the opening 45 minutes with an intensity and attacking verve that’s usually Atalanta’s calling card. Gasperini’s men were thoroughly given a dose of their own medicine. Pivotal to their success in that opening period was Hirving Lozano, who scored twice in four minutes.

Lozano’s second, a wonderfully executed curling effort just inside the penalty box, was indicative of the confidence the Mexico international is now showing at the club. With four goals already this season, Lozano has equalled the tally of goals he scored in Serie A last season. Continue reading

Do Juve really need Federico Chiesa?

In the end, Juventus got their man, just. Only hours remained of the transfer window when it was officially announced that the club had signed Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina.

Juve had to shift some pieces of the jigsaw around in order to get the 22-year-old; a Douglas Costa loan move to Bayern Munich here and a Daniele Rugani loan move to Rennes there, freed up the necessary funds in order to get the Chiesa deal finalised.

As has been the story of this Covid-influenced transfer window, Juve signed Chiesa on a two-year loan deal, but in reality it’s just a creative method of staggering the payments for the winger.

So everyone was happy: Juve got their man, Chiesa got the move he wanted a year ago, and Fiorentina offloaded a player who clearly didn’t want to be there for a cool €50m. But is Chiesa actually what the champions need?

There is no doubting Chiesa’s talent. The son of Parma and Sampdoria legend Enrico has seemingly unlimited barrels of energy, and can skip past players at will, when in the mood. Yet since his graduation to the first team at Fiorentina, Chiesa’s decision-making has been questionable. Too often he has beaten an opposing defender in a one vs. one situation, only to produce an inadequate cross or fail to pick out the correct pass. On occasion he’s simply been guilty of supreme selfishness, aiming for goal when a colleague was in a better position.

Chiesa posted 10 goals and six assists in Serie A last season for the Viola, a respectable record for a player in a side that finished 10th. Yet it should also be pointed out that he took more shots on goal than any of his teammates, with an average of 3.3 per game. Next in line was striker Dusan Vlahovic, with 2.2.

On the verge of his 23rd birthday, Chiesa is still incredibly raw. His development has been hampered by a succession of coaches at Fiorentina utilising him in a myriad of different positions, thus denying him the possibility to hone his ability in one position. Vincenzo Montella, Paulo Sousa, Stefano Pioli and now Beppe Iachini have shifted Chiesa everywhere from right wing-back to left winger, via stints as a second striker and attacking midfielder. It’s left the player as a non-accomplished jack-of-all-trades, and certainly a master of none. It’s a wonder Chiesa hasn’t been tried out at centre back, given the poor performances of Federico Ceccherini recently.

So where does Juve’s new €50m signing fit in Andrea Pirlo’s starting XI, and was Chiesa an essential purchase?

Due to the lack of pre-season games, Pirlo has been given little margin for experimentation as Juve boss thus far. In their opening game of the season against Sampdoria, Juve lined out in a 3-5-2 formation. A week later Pirlo changed to a 4-4-2 in order to accommodate the returning Alvaro Morata, but the switch didn’t work, and Juve played like the ghost of Maurizio Sarri had returned for one final game.

Speaking of ghosts, for the game that wasn’t against Napoli on Sunday, Pirlo had intended to line up in a 3-4-1-2 system. Should Pirlo return to this set-up in matches that actually happen, then this could be where Chiesa is set to play, replacing Juan Cuadrado on the right-hand side.

Chiesa’s arrival also gives Pirlo the option to utilise a 3-4-3 system, with Chiesa either being deployed as a right-winger, or on the right in the four-man midfield.

Whilst plotting theoretical positions for Chiesa is all well and good, do Juve actually need him? The answer is no, they don’t. Sporting director Fabio Paratici should’ve prioritised signing a right-back, with Danilo fluctuating somewhere between injury and unconvincing since joining the club from Man City a year ago. Cuadrado has done fine job as a makeshift right-back, but the Colombian is now 32, and defensively suspect, as is the case with someone who spent the majority of their career playing as a right winger.

Midfield is still another fragile position that’s been underfunded over the last half decade, with the shadows of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal still looming large. It’s early days in Weston McKennie’s Juve sojourn, but the American produced a positive display against Sampdoria on his debut. Is he the Vidal-replacement the team has required for five years? Only time will tell. The signing of Arthur may alleviate the creative burden from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Dejan Kulusevski, but the Brazilian lacks the dynamism the midfield area so badly requires.

Bringing things round to Chiesa once more, recent history isn’t on his side. Giorgio Chiellini, signed by Juve in the summer of 2005, remains the last player to arrive from Florence and succeed. Since then, the likes of Felipe Melo, Neto, Valeri Bojinov and Federico Bernardeschi have all made the switch and failed to make an impact, and in the case of Melo, damagingly so.

There are similarities between Chiesa and Bernardeschi, the most recent player to make the jump. Like Chiesa, Bernardeschi arrived at Juve as the Viola’s brightest star in the summer of 2017 with a price tag of €40m. Furthermore, Bernardeschi, again like Chiesa, possessed some degree of versatility. This has proved to be his downfall at Juve, with the Carrara-native operating in various positions in the final third of the pitch, and in the process blunting his own skillset. The club would’ve accepted an offer to offload him during the transfer window, but there were no serious takers.

The pressure is firmly on Chiesa now to make the qualitative leap that playing for Juve demands. He wanted the big move for over a year, and now he’s got it. His father Enrico never got to play for Italy’s biggest club, it’s up to Federico to demonstrate that he’s more Roby Baggio or Chiellini, than Melo or Bojinov.

How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Italian Football Fantasy Managers? Play now!

Growing excitement over Gattuso’s Napoli

“Nobody gave me anything,” is reportedly the mantra Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso is trying to instil in his players.

The former Milan legend understands this better than most. As a player, Gattuso wasn’t blessed with the divine talents of his partner-in-crime, Andrea Pirlo, or even with the skillset of vastly underrated teammate Massimo Ambrosini. Gattuso was a fighter, someone who wasn’t going to pick out a rampaging right-back with a sumptuous 40-yard diagonal pass or produce an outrageous piece of skill, he was the player who did the grunt work, who took the ball from the opposition and gave it to his more talented colleagues. The Calabrian-native made a career out of it, and won a flurry of accolades as a result.

And in his short stint as Napoli coach, he’s succeeding in transferring his ethos to the players. Gattuso has brought a tighter cohesion to the team, installed a more diligent work ethic than had seemingly been evident during the final months of the Carlo Ancelotti era.

Gattuso guided the club to the Coppa Italia title in June, beating Juventus 4-2 on penalties. It was their first piece of major silverware since lifting the same trophy in 2014. It must also be remembered that Napoli beat Lazio, Inter and Juve en route – three of the top four sides last season – and conceded a single goal.

Going into this season, the club has almost gone under the radar. The €60m signing of Victor Osimhen hasn’t received the coverage that a signing of that expense should garner. Much of the focus surrounding the club has been on the potential departures of Kalidou Koulibaly and Arkadiusz Milik.

Eight goals in their first two Serie A games without reply suggests that Gattuso’s side mean business. They looked sluggish in the opening half against Parma on the opening day, and didn’t spring into life until the introduction of Osimhen in the second half, who caused havoc with his mere presence.

The Nigerian was granted his first start against Genoa at the San Paolo, and was instrumental in Napoli’s 6-0 demolition job, including a deft touch for Piotr Zielinski’s goal. Whilst Osimhen hasn’t got on the score sheet himself, it’s evident that he offers more to the Partenopei than Milik, who’s more static and less nimble than the 21-year-old.

Furthermore, Chucky Lozano has impressed Gattuso with his start to the season following a disappointing debut campaign in Italy. “I’m not giving anything to him,” said Gattuso following the 6-0 win. “He’s a different player now, he’s got great strength in his legs, and doesn’t fall to the ground like a kid when he gets kicked.” Lozano has inherited the departed Jose Callejon’s position on the right flank in Gattuso’s 4-2-3-1 system, and with the pressure of being the club’s most expensive signing lifted due to the arrival of Osimhen, the Mexican is beginning to look like the player Napoli shelled out €42m on a year ago.

During the Maurizio Sarri reign, the point was always argued that Napoli had a great starting XI, but little in the way of players that could’ve come off the bench and made a difference. However this is no longer the case. The January signings of Diego Demme, Stanislav Lobotka, Matteo Politano and the summers arrivals of Andrea Petagna, Amir Rrahmani and Osimhen have given Gattuso a far greater squad depth than either of his two predecessors were afforded.

In addition to having a bigger squad, with Serie A allowing five substitutions for this season only, Napoli could be one of the main beneficiaries of the rule, as Inter exemplified in their 4-3 win against Fiorentina last weekend.

Whilst yes, one could argue that their two wins were only against Parma and Genoa and that it’s very early in the season to be making grand proclamations, but, whisper it quietly – Napoli look a formidable opponent, and are in with a strong chance of securing Champions League football next season.

How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Italian Football Fantasy Managers? Play now!

Napoli the losers in Allan deal

There’s an art form to knowing when to sell players. The selling club must navigate a fine line, to dance their finest tango, in a bid to make sure they produce a sizeable profit. Generally there are three roads for them to take.

The first road usually ends in the club striking prematurely, accepting a good offer rather than holding on for another season or two in the hope that player X develops even more and commands an even bigger figure. The second road tends to end with the club striking when the iron is hottest. This scenario is when player X is at the absolute pinnacle of their game, combined with them being relatively young and there is ample room to shift the player on in the future. Continue reading

Juve may struggle to offload Douglas Costa

Towards the end of July, Juventus’ Brazilian winger Douglas Costa went viral. It wasn’t however for any of the reasons one would associate with Costa: no lightening quick ‘elastico’ that beguiled an opponent, no mazy dribble that simultaneously beat several opposition defenders, nor was it for the occasional wonder goal that he’s capable of.

No, the 29-year-old’s choreographed TikTok videos with his girlfriend, Nathalia Felix, are what spread around the digital globe. Whilst the videos are indeed slightly entertaining, and even one in which Costa appears to ‘swallow’ his partner, highly creative, it’s a damning indictment of the direction Costa’s career is heading in.

Whilst not necessarily deemed a flop at Juve, the Brazilian has been blighted by injuries: 10 different injuries in his three seasons has seen Costa miss an accumulated 47 games. The perception of the winger in Italy is that he simply hasn’t been on the pitch with enough consistency to be judged a success or failure.

Bought alongside Federico Bernardeschi in the summer of 2017 to give then-coach Max Allegri further weapons in attack following the catastrophic defeat to Real Madrid in the final of the previous seasons’ Champions League. Costa had been earmarked as someone who could supply Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala with the service they craved, a player who could dribble past opponents in remarkably tight spaces at dizzying speed. A player of Costa’s skillset was a feature their squad lacked.

A somewhat productive first season ended in four goals and 12 assists from only 18 starts in Serie A as Juve won another domestic double under Allegri. The turning point in his time with the club came against Sassuolo early in the next season, when Costa – who had only been on the pitch for 25 minutes – was sent off for spitting at Federico Di Francesco after a coming together between the pair. Costa was handed a four-game suspension by the league, and it’s arguable his career at Juve has never really recovered.

As Maurizio Sarri replaced Allegri last summer, Costa was viewed as an integral part of Sarri’s 4-3-3 system, and started in the opening three games. Yet Costa’s kryptonite – muscular injuries – struck again. He pulled up only eight minutes into the third game against Fiorentina in Florence, and didn’t start another league game until the return fixture – in February.

The current iteration of Costa has been reduced to little more than an impact sub; someone who can terrorise fatigued defenders late in games with a moment of magic. A prime example of this was his solo effort against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League last November, when he danced through several weary Russian limbs before slotting the ball under goalkeeper Guilherme to snatch an unwarranted victory for Juve.

With Juve needing to embark on a major squad overhaul following their meek exit in the Champions League to Lyon, Costa’s name has been perpetually mentioned as one of the high-earners the club want to shift on. Juve’s management acknowledge that whilst there is a serious talent in Costa, his susceptibility to injury means they can’t count on him for large portions of a season.

In recent days he’s been linked to Manchester United as a potential substitute in case the Jadon Sancho move collapses, however the English side are rightly sceptical given his fitness issues. As he approaches his 30th birthday, Costa will be a risky investment for any potential suitor.

Furthermore, his €6m-a-season deal with Juve has another two years left to run, and the club will be desperate to offload the winger, who may let him go for less than their reported asking fee of €30m if they struggle to also shift fellow big-earners such as Sami Khedira, Aaron Ramsey and Higuain.

A move away would benefit all parties, but whether there is a club with any genuine interest in him remains to be seen.

Play the most challenging Fantasy Calcio game by clicking here

Atalanta’s future is bright, despite PSG defeat

Three minutes. That’s all it took for Atalanta’s Champions League dream to unravel against Paris Saint-Germain. Heartbreakingly for the Italian side, those 180 seconds arrived at the end of a pulsating encounter against their profoundly more wealthy opponents.

This was never more evident than in the 60th minute, when the French side called upon the services of superstar Kylian Mbappe – their €180m signing – from the bench to rescue the game for the Parisians. Such is the disparity in wealth between the two sides that Mbappe’s transfer from Monaco three years ago is just a fraction under the entirety of Atalanta’s €188m club revenue. Continue reading

Juve hope Pirlo move isn’t reminiscent of Ferrara stint

It didn’t take Juventus very long. Within hours of sacking Maurizio Sarri in the aftermath of their Champions League Round of 16 exit to Lyon, the club announced Andrea Pirlo as their new coach.

The announcement duly sent the footballing ecosystem into a flurry of bewildered questions, with the main one of course being: “Wasn’t Pirlo just confirmed as coach of the Juve U-23s?”

Indeed he was, on July 30th the club announced that Pirlo had returned to the club where he’d played for four years to coach the U-23 side, replacing Fabio Pecchia. Nine days later, he was sitting in the big chair. Talk about a fast-track promotion.

Club director of sport Fabio Paratici believes Pirlo is a ‘predestinato’ – bound for greatness – due to his remarkable gifts as a player. Many have used the examples of Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane as once legendary players who transferred their skills from the pitch to the dugout.

However as has been pointed out, Guardiola coached Barcelona’s B side for a season in 2007-08, and Zidane underwent an apprenticeship with Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, in addition to coaching their Castilla side for two years. Pirlo, by contrast, has bypassed all of this on the way to the black and white throne.

It’s a risky move from a club that for most of its history takes very few gambles when it comes to managerial appointments. In fact the last time they hired a practical novice was in the summer of 2009, when they hired Ciro Ferrara at the expense of Antonio Conte.

Ferrara, a Juve legend, had little experience aside from a brief period as part of Marcello Lippi’s backroom staff at the victorious 2006 World Cup. Ferrara had only gained his coaching licence a year before being appointed by the incompetent sporting director Alessio Secco, who hoped Ferrara would be their Guardiola.

After years of playing a mechanical 4-4-2 system under the likes of Fabio Capello, Didier Deschamps and Claudio Ranieri, Ferrara promised change. A switch to a 4-3-1-2 was in order he announced, due to the €25m signing of Brazilian No.10 Diego from Werder Bremen, and Juve would be more adventurous, more modern.

Seven months later he was sacked. A positive start soon gave way to disastrous results and supporter malaise, as it was fairly evident that Ferrara was out of his depth, and replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni at the end of January. In defence of Ferrara, he was handed a mediocre hodgepodge of a squad that consisted of ageing veterans and poorly-advised signings that were ill suited to the style he intended to play. Diego wasn’t long following Ferrara out of the exit door either, sold in the summer of 2010 as Juve appointed Gigi Delneri as coach and a return to 4-4-2.

Like Ferrara, Pirlo faces similar structural squad issues. Four continuous summer transfer windows of poorly-made decisions has now left a bloated, unbalanced squad filled with players on big contracts that they won’t get elsewhere. In the wake of the Champions League KO, Paratici has faced mounting scrutiny, who many feel has been a failure in the sporting director role since replacing Beppe Marotta in the autumn of 2018.

In the early years of their decade of dominance, midfield was arguably Juve’s strongest area of the pitch (with Pirlo himself being a key component), to such an extent that a player like Claudio Marchisio would often find himself relegated to the bench. Since 2015, Marotta and then Paratici essentially neglected the region, selling first Arturo Vidal and later Paul Pogba, whilst trying to plug gaps with ‘free’ signings such as Emre Can, Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot. It’s now reduced what was once a midfield of power, strength, guile and grace into one chronically short on quality.

Whilst it is fair to question many of Paratici’s dealings since taking charge, Marotta isn’t free of criticism. The €90m signing of a-then 28-year-old Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli made little sense in 2016, and makes even less now. Juventus have spent the better part of two years trying to offload the striker, however his €7.5m per season wages have deterred many suitors, a noose around the club’s neck.

The sacking of Sarri won’t magically solve all of Juve’s problems. A major rejuvenation is necessary, a purge of all the costly mistakes of the last several summers. Can Paratici, given the current climate, be relied upon to shift unwanted players? It remains to be seen if he will even remain at the club, given the latest rumours surrounding his future.

Ferrara struggled to make sense of the Juve side he inherited, club President Andrea Agnelli will be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself with Pirlo.

How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Italian Football Fantasy Managers? Play now!

Paulo Dybala is Juve’s MVP

It caused quite a stir this week when Juventus’ Paulo Dybala was named as Serie A’s MVP for the 2019/20 season. Many argued that Papu Gomez, pivotal to Atalanta’s on going fairy-tale story, should’ve been the correct recipient of the award for another brilliant season in which he provided 16 assists in 36 league games for La Dea.

Of course a large contingent of Cristiano Ronaldo fans flooded social media bemoaning the league’s decision to hand the award to his Juve teammate and not to the Portuguese striker, pointing out how his 31 goals in Serie A effectively sealed the club’s latest title in their streak of unbroken dominance.

Whilst there is an element of truth to those claims, there can be little argument that in a season of uncertainty for new coach Maurizio Sarri, Dybala has unquestionably been the one constant throughout. The Argentine was Juve’s MVP this season, which makes it all the more startling considering how Dybala started it.

The club made little attempt to disguise the fact that they intended to sell Dybala last summer. Juve shopped him around the biggest clubs in Europe, hoping to balance the books and layoff some of the expenditure involved in the Ronaldo deal from the prior summer. A transfer to the Premier League seemed closest, with Manchester United and Tottenham interested. Rumours circulated that Juve were demanding in the region of €70-80m.

However Dybala put the brakes on any potential move. Despite Juve’s apparent desire to offload him, he was happy in Turin, and refused any offer that was forthcoming. “I have not experienced an easy summer,” he told Tuttosport last August. “Obviously hearing your name with every team you don’t want to go to is not a nice thing, but this is football. But I wanted to stay here, I wanted to continue my career at Juventus.”

Despite hoping Dybala would stay, Sarri struggled to implement the 26-year-old into his starting XI in the earliest parts of the season. He was left unused in two of the opening three league games of the season, and got a mere 14 minutes in the encounter against Napoli. It seemed like in Sarri’s 4-3-3 system, there was no room at the inn.

However Dybala became the beneficiary of Douglas Costa’s fragile limbs, and was slowly integrated back into the starting XI in the aftermath of the Brazilian’s injury against Fiorentina. A first goal of the season arrived in the Derby d’Italia in early October – a scorcher that gave Samir Handanovic little chance – and Dybala never looked back.

With Sarri attempting to overhaul Juve’s style of play from his more pragmatic predecessors Antonio Conte and Max Allegri, their performances were often stodgy, lacking in rhythm and dynamism. Games were often won through moments of individual brilliance from Dybala or Ronaldo. A case in point was the game against Milan in mid-November, when Dybala made a mockery of Alessio Romagnoli on the edge of the penalty box before sliding the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma to seal a 1-0 victory over the Rossoneri.

As is always the case against the perpetual champions in Serie A, teams would entrench themselves in their own half of the field and invite untold pressure. With Ronaldo usually operating on the left hand side or on the periphery of the opposition’s box and often double-marked, Dybala would therefore float between the right and central positions, searching for minute pockets of space to manoeuvre in. Like all great Argentine No.10s, his low centre of gravity made all the difference when faced with a wall of opposing defenders.

Dybala was the biggest casualty of Ronaldo’s arrival in Turin, in 2018/19 he posted his worst stats since arriving at the club: 10 goals and two assists from 42 games in all competitions represented a personal nadir. Allegri struggled to accommodate Dybala and Ronaldo in the same starting XI, and there is a belief that relations were so poor between Allegri and Dybala towards the end of last season that had the former stayed at the club, the latter might’ve moved on.

This season however, Dybala has personally contributed to 31 of Juve’s goals in all competitions, and such has been his elevation in importance to the side that the club is sweating on his physical status ahead of tonight’s crucial Champions League Round of 16 second leg against Lyon.

“I love his way of playing,” new signing Dejan Kulusevski told Tuttosport in a recent interview. “He invents magic that is usually only seen on the PlayStation.”

As the club aim to end their prolonged agony of winning the Champions League for the first time since 1996, Sarri will hope that Serie A’s newly-crowned MVP still has more magic tucked up his sleeve.

How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Italian Football Fantasy Managers? Play now!

Jose Callejon – Serie A’s best signing of the last decade?

Recall the scene: Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne would receive the ball down on the left hand channel of the opponent’s half. Insigne would take several touches, cut inside and delicately float a beautifully weighted diagonal pass behind the opposition defence and into the stride of Jose Callejon on the right hand side, who’d timed his run impeccably.

Callejon would either take one of two options: he’d instantly kill the ball with his first touch and shoot at goal, or roll it across for Napoli’s central striker to tap it in. Throughout the Maurizio Sarri era, this scenario played out seemingly two or three times a game, with a goal usually the end result. Continue reading

Federico Bernardeschi’s time at Juve is up

It was a rare sight on a night that has become routine over the last decade. In the 66th minute Cristiano Ronaldo bore down on the Sampdoria goal from his usual left hand position of the field, nearing the periphery of the penalty area, the Portuguese cut inside before lashing a shot that was spilled by Samp stopper Emil Audero.

Audero desperately tried to regain the loose ball before Federico Bernardeschi, with all the anticipatory instincts of a modern-day Pippo Inzaghi, steamed towards the ball ahead of opposition left-back Tommaso Augello and fired home Juve’s second, sealing not just the victory, but their ninth straight title. It was the winger’s first league goal since September 2018, a collector’s item. Continue reading