Soccer

From Manuel Locatelli (Juventus) to Tammy Abraham (Roma), here are five Serie A signings to keep an eye on

Serie A returns this weekend (and Paramount+ and CBS Sports is your new home for calcio Italiano) with a host of new signings looking to impress in what promises to be a competitive season with a host of clubs believing they can compete for the Scudetto over the coming months. Here are five players to keep an eye on:

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1. Denzel Dumfries (Inter Milan)

It is a problem Inter Milan are facing across their side after the financial difficulties of owners Suning saw the Italian champions stripped for parts. How do you replace world-class talent on a hugely limited budget? Three of the most important figures in their title winning side: Antonio Conte, the first to fall, as the crisis engulfing the Nerazzuri became apparent early in the summer and Romelu Lukaku, the last to leave, so far, when the $135 million offer from Chelsea became too much to turn down.

Between them went Achraf Hakimi, the flying wing back whose seven goals and eight assists further burnished his reputation as one of the best players in the world on the right flank. Replacing a player who pressed with intensity, carried the ball many times over and kept getting open in the box is a challenge, indeed. It seems they have done rather a good job of it with the acquisition of Denzel Dumfries, one of the breakout stars of Euro 2020.

Signing any player on the basis of their performance at an international tournament is questionable, particularly a right back whose most significant contributions came in the scoring charts. But if Inter are looking for an approximation of some of Hakimi’s best qualities then Dumfries might have been the best option on the market for them.

Dumfries finds space in the penalty area
Wyscout/ESPN

The above image will be familiar to any defender that came up against the Netherlands at Euro 2020, the right back appearing out of nowhere to suddenly places himself in an excellent shooting position, even though on this occasion PSV midfielder Ibrahima Sangare rather misplaces the cross, forcing Philipp Max to flick the ball on into Dumfries path. Even if that gives the Feyenoord defense time to scramble back, the right wing back still manages to get a shot away. He does that a lot.

For club and country, the 25-year-old has an exceptional sense of timing to his darts into the box, waiting to move until the defense is set and charging into space late on. In the 2019-20 Eredivisie season, he averaged a remarkable 1.81 shots per 90 minutes, per fbref, a number that far eclipses Hakimi even when he is as unleashed as he has been in Ligue 1 under Mauricio Pochettino. Those are largely in the penalty area too. Whatever the competition, Dumfries does seem to find a way to get himself in there; in PSV’s last two Europa League campaigns, he averaged 1.17 shots per 90 minutes, all bar one of the 19 attempts coming inside the box.

Still, if his game were all about shooting, Dumfries would be a forward. Though Euro 2020 emphasized holes in his game on the back foot that he will need to iron out in Serie A, one could not accuse him of not committing to winning the ball back. He is in the 91st percentile (per fbref) compared to positional peers in Europe’s big five leagues in terms of interceptions, partly because of his willingness to charge up the pitch in pursuit of the ball. Dumfries’ explosiveness means he can punish a heavy touch by a defender as he does to David Alaba below.

Dumfries spots a heavy touch by Alaba and immediately presses the Austrian defender
Wyscout/BBC
Dumfries’ swift burst of pace allows him to steal the ball off Alaba
Wyscout/BBC

In a back-four, one might feel that these more high-risk attempts to steal back the ball are too dangerous, but in the 3-5-2 that Simone Inzaghi is expected to deploy with Inter Milan, he will have a high quality center back — possibly either Milan Skriniar or compatriot Stefan De Vrij — to mop up behind him, freeing him to charge up the field. Whether he is a success or not, Dumfries is certainly going to be one to keep an eye on this season.

2. Olivier Giroud (AC Milan)

Credit to AC Milan, it ought to be impossible to find anyone who can offer a comparable blend of target man qualities, link-up play and sheer, undiluted magnetism to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, if you were looking for an understudy to that unique cocktail of qualities, it would not be long before you stumbled on Olivier Giroud.

One of the great facilitating forwards of his generation, it is not for nothing that Eden Hazard waxes lyrically about his time with Giroud at Chelsea. “Olivier’s a target man, maybe the best in the world; I think so,” the Belgian said in 2018. “When he gets the ball, he can hold the ball and we can go in deep with him, so for us it’s a pleasure to play with him.”

The likes of Jack Wilshere, Christian Pulisic and Hazard all have very similar goals to their name, darting into space and finishing off a first time flick by Giroud. This assist he provided for Pedro in the 2018-19 Europa League is of that same mold, the Spaniard knowing that if he keeps his run going the pass will find him.

Olivier Giroud provides an assist for Pedro with a first time pass
Wyscout/Sky Sport

Since returning to Serie A in 2020, Ibrahimovic’s assists have been rather similar; he is perhaps not as quick with the passes around the corner as the Frenchman, but his ability to hold the ball up and draw defenders toward him has unlocked space for Franck Kessie, in particular, to exploit with late runs. Giroud will offer an enhanced version of that quality even if his own penchant for spectacular goals does not quite match the Swede. As for Milan’s wide forwards — particularly the highly-rated Rafael Leao but also Samu Castillejo, Ante Rebic and new signing Brahim Diaz — this could be a fun season.

3. Tammy Abraham (Roma)

Giroud is not the only former Chelsea striker to arrive in Serie A this summer. Thomas Tuchel was doubtless the happiest of the three managers from Chelsea, Inter Milan and Roma; after all, he got the world-class striker in Romelu Lukaku. But with Edin Dzeko and his sizeable wages heading north to the San Siro, Jose Mourinho may just be rather happy to have replaced him with a 23-year-old who has already proven his worth in top-tier competitions.

For all that, Abraham did not quite earn Tuchel’s trust in the second half of last season, but he did plenty over the course of his Chelsea career — especially under Frank Lampard — to suggest that there is a high-quality striker waiting to be polished over the coming years. Already, he has displayed that most valuable of traits for a center forward, an ability to get into scoring positions on a consistent basis. Over the past two seasons, only Sergio Aguero has a higher non penalty expected goals (xG) tally per 90 minutes in the Premier League and Abraham finishes at a decent clip too with 0.58 goals per 90.

Top non penalty xG strikers in the Premier League

Minimum 1500 Premier League minutes over 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons

Sergio Aguero

2013

0.63

20

Tammy Abraham

3255

0.63

21

Michail Antonio

3753

0.62

20

Olivier Giroud

1746

0.59

12

Gabriel Jesus

4087

0.58

23

Dominic Calvert-Lewin

5503

0.52

29

Kelechi Iheanacho

2417

0.50

17

Patrick Bamford

3061

0.49

17

He may well need time to adapt to Serie A. It was notable that Lukaku, the man who is succeeding Abraham as Chelsea’s No. 9, described the Italian game as more “technical and tactical,” so far the latter is not a phrase that you would associate with Roma’s new signing, who can look rather awkward even as he racks up plenty of goals. The Camberwell-born youngster will not find himself in the most patient of environments with Jose Mourinho as his manager, the former Chelsea and Tottenham manager is not exactly known for his proclivity to let youngsters play through their mistakes. Add to that a near club-record price tag for Roma and Abraham will be expected to make an immediate impact.

But that is what he did when he was finally given his chance at Chelsea, the moment where he felt he had a point to prove to those who doubted he could be the starting striker for the club he joined as a 7-year-old. Now he will feel he has to silence his critics again. That may just bring the best out of him.

4. Manuel Locatelli (Juventus)

As deals go, there can be few more impressive than the one that brought Locatelli to Juventus. In two years’ time, they will have to pay around $40 million to permanently sign the Italy international, but for now they have one of the stars of Euro 2020 on loan with a contract agreed until the summer of 2026. Fifth in Serie A last season for total ball recoveries, it is what Locatelli does when he gets it at his feet that makes him such a thrilling talent.

When the ball pings off his boot as he plays another through pass it just sounds special. Look at this pass below and you can almost hear the pop the ball makes as it flies off Locatelli’s boot, turning a Sassuolo attack where Genoa seem to have enough bodies back into a one vs. one between Jeremie Boga and Andrea Masiello. 

Locatelli spreads play with a pass wide to the left in a Serie A match between Sassuolo and Genoa
Wyscout/Serie A

For the most part, Locatelli does not take a lead in crafting out those sorts of scoring opportunities for his teammates, indeed for Sassuolo last season, both Domenico Berardi and Filip Duricic created more chances. What he did as well as anyone in Serie A — and latterly at Euro 2020 when he featured for Roberto Mancini’s eventual winners — was set the rhythm of attacks, moving the chess pieces up the board and getting his side in position to attack.

Last season, Sassuolo took 540 shots in Serie A. More than half (279) of the sequences leading up to them involved Locatelli. Remove counter attacks and quick transitions from the equation and the numbers become all the more impressive. The Neroverdi had 188 shots last season that came from moves involving five or more touches, per Opta. Of those passages of play Locatelli was involved in 60 percent.

At Juventus, he promises to be an integral cog as Massimiliano Allegri looks to thread the needle between rebuild and returning to title contention. Whether in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or the more narrow system the returning manager used early in his first tenure, Locatelli’s role will be clear and not too dissimilar to that which he did so effectively for Sassuolo: Spread the play. The likes of Federico Chiesa, Federico Bernadeschi and Alex Sandro can expect a lot of sweeping passes out to the flanks.

Where Manuel Locatelli played passes to in the 2020-21 Serie A season
TruMedia

5. Felipe Anderson (Lazio)

In football, the cliché “never go back” tends to be right far more often than not. For every Thierry Henry there are dozens of Diego Costas, Joe Coles and Robbie Fowlers, players who tried to revive their form at the club where their reputation was forged, but were unable to halt the decline. One would assume that Anderson fits into the latter category. Three years after signing him for a club-record fee from Lazio, West Ham were simply happy to get rid of the Brazilian, who had struggled for consistency in the Premier League and had his work ethic publicly questioned by Porto manager Sergio Conceicao during a loan spell in Portugal last season.

At 28, the signs are not great for a return to the form Anderson showed at his first spell with Lazio, where he scored 34 goals and provided 39 assists in 177 games for the Biancocelesti. That his new manager Maurizio Sarri could be heard berating the winger in a preseason game is yet another ill omen.

Still, this promises to be a fascinating union of coaching and playing talent, not least because the Lazio boss’ famed Sarriball tactics should give Anderson everything he needs to recover his best form. At every club Sarri has managed, his side focused their attack heavily down the left flank with the likes of Lorenzo Insigne and Eden Hazard enjoying some of the best football of their career. Where right wingers are often asked to track back and do their defensive work, it is on the other side that the magic happens.

The signings of Elseid Hysaj from Napoli and Pedro from Roma suggest Sarri is sticking to the plan, and that is no great surprise. It has worked in Italy even if it was not quite as popular at Juventus as at Napoli, where the former bank clerk won the admiration of Europe for his aggressive, fast moving style. If preseason is anything to go on the building blocks are being formed swiftly at the Stadio Olimpico. Whether it has been popular or not, Sarriball has invariably suited its wide attackers to a tee. It would be no mean feat to pull Anderson out of his career spiral; if the Brazilian does indeed recover his form, though, there could be few more electrifying players in Serie A.



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