From a failed Serie B loan to a millionaire transfer in less than one year. It’s hard to understand the meteoric rise of Roberto Gagliardini. How can a player be valued so fast in such a short period of time? What’s so special about him? That’s what we’ll try to find out.
Gagliardini is part of a special group of youngsters that took Atalanta by storm. Besides Gagliardini, there’s Caldara, Kessie, Petagna and others. An unusually rich crop of young players, even for Atalanta, one of the best academies in Italy. With Gagliardini, it’s hard to know who he really is, having played so few games. Is this meteoric rise due just to the individual quality of the player or has it been facilitated by Gasperini’s system? Well, it’s a bit of both.
Gagliardini doesn’t have any glaring weakness, at least one that can’t be worked on in the future. He doesn’t have any extraordinaire ability as well. What he does – and does it really well – is everything a modern midfielder is asked to do. He doesn’t have the technical ability nor the physical strength of other players in his position, but he understands the fundamentals of the modern game: pressing and verticality. Soccer is no longer an east-west game. It’s north-south. It’s all about verticality. Gagliardini is not technically or physically gifted. His abilities are less visible. Dynamism, aggressiveness and simplicity.
Gagliardini is one of the best ball winning midfielders in Serie A. Not so much because of how many balls he steals, but where he steals them. After losing possession, the first thing that comes into Gagliardini’s mind is to press the player on the ball trying to launch a counter-attack. He’s extremely aggressive, getting to the player almost exactly at the same time as the ball, giving just a few seconds for the opponent to think what to do next and execute it. That makes him a master of the second ball.
He usually roams outside the box, waiting to jump on the loose ball or jump at the opponent in charge of the build-up. That way he is able to recover the ball in extremely dangerous zones that almost automatically turn into a scoring chance. This behavior brings defensive value by interrupting other teams attacks at the start, as well as offensive value. His aggressiveness makes him a great defender when in contact with the opponent. However, he’s not that good at covering space and blocking passing lanes. That’s what makes his ability to press relentlessly so important. Without it, he could be a defensive liability.
It’s hard to categorize Gagliardini. He has a solid yet basic technique. When pressured, he lacks the agility to turn quickly with the ball and isn’t able to get out of tight spaces. He compensates that by using his body really well to shield the ball or to get a foul. His long pass accuracy is average. He’s clever, but not enough to be the maestro. That disqualifies him to be a regista or a deep lying playmaker. So, playing in front of the defense, at least alone, is out of the question, also because of his problems in covering spaces. He’s not a box-to-box midfielder either. In fact, he has very little influence in both boxes. His game is much simpler than all of that. He’s all about verticality. He tries to recover the ball and get it to the forwards as soon as possible. When on the ball, Gagliardini prefers the direct pass, even if there are easier alternatives. He’s always looking to play it to the halfspaces, to the space between the lines, where more creative players like João Mário can do some real damage. He gets his team moving forward, towards the opposing net. Lateral and backward passes are rare.
A player with such a specific toolkit only works in a specific way of playing. Gagliardini fits almost perfectly in Gasperini´s system. Atalanta’s coach is the major contributor to Gagliardini’s development in the past few months. With him, Gagliardini have learned how to use his abilities to best help a proactive team that wants to defend as far from their net as possible, and is in this kind of environment that the Italian midfielder can have the most impact. Stefano Pioli is not that different from Gasperini, less resourceful but with the same urge to press and defend proactively. In Gagliardini, Pioli now has a player able to lead the pressing. He brings an intensity in midfield that the Nerazzurri desperately lacked. Is that worth 25 million euros? I don’t know, but Gagliardini fits both style and needs of Pioli’s Inter. No wonder he has started all games since arriving in Milan.