Euro 2020: Sassuolo’s help in the rise of Manuel Locatelli
It was a goal made in Sassuolo, perfected under the club’s former boss Roberto De Zerbi, that gave Roberto Mancini’s Italy the lead in their 3-0 victory over Switzerland in a Group A clash at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Wednesday.
Manuel Locatelli started the move from midfield with an exquisite out ball to Sassuolo teammate Domenico Berardi on the right flank. The crafty Berardi ran at the Swiss backline, dragged the ball past the last defender and cut it back to the goalmouth. Locatelli, who had sprinted down from the middle of the pitch, tapped it in for a 1-0 lead.
The goal was long time coming and Italy would cruise from this point, with Locatelli hammering in a long-range stunner early in the second half before Ciro Immobile finished things off late in the game to seal a place in the Round of 16 of the European Championship. The only blot in the victory was Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini picking up a knock shortly after having a goal ruled out for handball in the opening exchanges.
“I know that Domenico tends to tends to pull wide. I switched the play beautifully with my left foot and because I switched it so well, I drew courage from that. I gambled on it and Berardi played a lovely ball to me. I was able to latch on to it,” Locatelli said of his partnership with Berardi for the opening goal in the post-match press conference.
Mancini was impressed too. “Two goals for a midfielder are not easy at all and not a given,” he said. “Manuel played a great match. His action in the first goal was great.”
Scoring goals isn’t exactly what Locatelli has been known for in Italy. The AC Milan academy product was earmarked for greatness when he burst onto the scene half-a-decade back at the club. Brought into the senior squad at Milan by then-manager Sinisa Mihajlovic, it wasn’t until Cristian Brocchi succeeded him for a brief spell that Locatelli finally got his first team debut.
The next season, the youngster would feature regularly under new manager Vincenzo Montella. But Locatelli would soon be a victim of instability at the club that saw frequent managerial changes. Milan were at a particularly weak point in their history and there was little patience in allowing a youngster time in the first team to develop.
As his starting appearances dwindled, first under Montella himself and then under Gennaro Gattuso, Locatelli pushed for a permanent transfer rather than accepting the possibility of returning after a season-long loan spell. The arrival of Franck Kessie at the time didn’t help Locatelli’s case for a starting place at Milan either.
The loan deal with Sassuolo with an obligation to buy was just the kind of move that appealed to all parties and, in hindsight, has worked out well for both Locatelli and the buying club. Milan, despite their recent resurgence, may look back at it with a tinge of regret.
In De Zerbi’s enterprising Sassuolo side, Locatelli found the perfect club for his development as a player. For a midfielder boasting of an impressive passing range, someone who likes to be frequently involved deep in central midfield, can help build moves and is also a good tackler, Locatelli didn’t take long to stamp his mark on De Zerbi’s team.
The club finished 11th in 2018-19 and secured consecutive eighth place finishes in the next two, including with an impressive haul of 62 points this past season. De Zerbi has left for Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine this summer but his effect can be seen in this Italy team in the form of Locatelli and Berardi.
“He is one of the best coaches around, and with him you learn a lot. My confidence has grown and now I am more sure of my possibilities,” Locatelli said of De Zerbi in an interview to Corriere dello Sport earlier this year.
The 23-year-old midfielder has also had a bit of luck in his rise in the national team. Had the European Championship been played last year, Locatelli would most likely have failed to make the cut. It was only in September last year that he made his Italy debut.
The injury to influential midfielder Marco Verratti also came as a blessing in disguise for Locatelli. Had Verratti been fit for the opening games, the PSG midfielder would have perhaps partnered Jorginho at the heart of the midfield.
Instead, it is Locatelli who is finally delivering the kind of performances that was predicted of him during his teenage years at San Siro. And that brings a dilemma for Mancini: where does he slot star midfielder Verratti when he returns to full fitness? Does he change his well-oiled midfield to bring in the PSG man? Or will Verratti be relegated to a back-up role during the knockout stages? Either way, it is a dilemma Mancini will be only too happy to have.