On October 22, 2016, AC Milan hosted Juventus. It was always going to be a tough contest for I Rossoneri.
The deadlock was eventually broken by a certain 18-year-old midfielder with the No.73 on his back. It was far from an ordinary goal, the ball was passed back to the edge of the box, he took a first touch and his second is the one that sent a rocket flying with one destination: Gianluigi Buffon’s top right-hand corner. The name of the teenager that everyone would know that day was Manuel Locatelli.
However, it would be the last time the mainstream media, at least away from Italy, would mention the prodigy for a while. Locatelli failed to fulfill his potential as a Milan player, moving to Sassuolo.
“I don’t know if it’s right to say that they abandoned me, but I no longer felt they had confidence in me. I suffered and I cried. Milan had been my life for 10 years,” recalled the midfielder. Nevertheless, the resilient player that he is meant that it was only the start. Producing incredible performances over the last two seasons.
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With I Neroverdi, he found redemption. Scoring four goals and creating two last season – though to focus on goals and assists would be to miss the point – becoming an integral part of a very capable side. All while establishing himself as one of the best passers in the league.
Locatelli is currently incarnating the Renaissance of an impressive Italy side. Playing alongside Champions League winner Jorginho and Scudetto champion Nicolo Barella in midfield. The Sassuolo player joined the starting XI after Marco Verratti got injured.
And ever since, the 23-year-old has been doing nothing but helping Gli Azzurri become the first team to qualify to Euro 2020’s Round of 16.
A brace at the Stadio Olimpico crucially contributed to his country’s 3-0 victory over Switzerland. Making it the second time the Italians won by that score in this year’s competition and in history.
Locatelli’s remarkable performance was at the heart of a Roberto Mancini masterclass. A very disciplined, resilient and coordinated side took the pitch on Wednesday night and offered some beautiful football.
La Nazionale fielded a 4-3-3, with Jorginho in midfield, guiding the side like a maestro of an incredibly pleasing orchestra. Wide wingers in Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne and tireless Leonardo Spinazzola causing all sorts of trouble. Stretching and creating spaces to exploit.
In defense, switching to a 4-1-4-1, suffocating the play out of the Swiss and marking the playmakers, victorious of the midfield battle. A high collective pressure forcing long, wide and imprecise balls.
“We created several chances and we deserved the victory,” Mancini said. “We were struggling in the opening minutes, but then we pressed them high and forced them to make mistakes. We wanted to win at all costs.”
Despite the effective game plan, the Swiss attempted to compromise their key players and tactics. The Italians had to play with few touches to breakthrough the small spaces.
A goal was desperately needed to draw the Swiss out of their area and leave spaces behind.
Quick football was what Gli Azzurri needed and it’s what Locatelli gave them. Being the player with the most one-touch passes in Serie A, a first-time long pass diverting the play to the right side towards Berardi was a piece of cake.
‘’It was a beautiful move,” Locatelli explained. “I saw him out right and ran towards the box.’’
Berardi was wide enough to have space to receive the ball and invite pressure. Beating Ricardo Rodriguez, cutting the ball back to Locatelli who escaped from the midfield press after a 60-metre sprint and tapped in to open the scoring in the 26th minute.
The Olimpico erupted, Locatelli was smiling, showing off his shirt, running towards an ecstatic bench who seemed as happy and proud of the 23-year-old as his parents would be.
“Usually, I don’t join in the attacks,” Locatelli confessed. “But I was a little crazy tonight and finished the move off.”
Following the first goal, spaces eventually opened up and after another 26 minutes had passed, another Locatelli goal was scored.
With a defense busy covering Ciro Immobile in the box, the No.5 was free to receive the ball and take all the time he needed to send a perfect shot towards the net, which he did, beating a static goalkeeper, becoming the first Italian player to score a brace in the European Championship since Mario Balotelli in 2012.
That was only his third goal in his country’s colours, magnifying a world-class performance. The Lecco-born athlete played a box-to-box role, in addition to his constant awareness and composure, he had the second-most touches in the opposition’s half with 39 after Jorginho’s 40.
Unsurprisingly as well, he was the joint second-best passer on the night with 45 completed passes out of an attempted 50.
After 86 minutes of play, he was met with a well-deserved star of the match award, Forza Italian Football’s Player of the Match, and a standing ovation from the Italian supporters in the stadium but also from the bench as he left the pitch with his name chanted.
Mancini now has a tough decision to make, with a three-man midfield all performing to the best of his ability. It seems impossible to be able to re-integrate Verratti with this current midfield.
His men are on 10 clean sheets in 10 games so far and one match away from completing a 30-game unbeaten streak as they face Wales on Sunday.