STADIO PIER LUIGI PENZO (Venice) – Italy’s repeated failure to qualify for a World Cup sparked a debate within Italian football. Roberto Mancini trusted the same group of players who had won him Euro 2020 in such style last summer to take the Azzurri to this winter’s tournament but, for the second straight, they won’t be there. The age of some of the players involved was discussed, and there was a general belief that too few young players are being trusted regularly enough in Serie A.
Most seasons, Atalanta are an exception to that. La Dea have built their reputation in Italy as being an academy that consistently produces high-level talent, but that’s easier to do when you aren’t a side competing at the top end of the table and trying to go far in European competition. In recent years they’ve brought the best out of players like Franck Kessie, Andrea Conti, Leonardo Spinazzola, Alessandro Bastoni, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Petagna, Gianluca Mancini, and so many others who have then been sold on to Italy’s so-called ‘big’ clubs. Kessie and Conti went to AC Milan, Spinazzola went back to Juventus and now plays with Mancini at Roma, Gagliardini and Bastoni joined Inter, and Petagna is now at Napoli.
“I’ve seen a few of the young guys playing and, four or five years ago their performances would have let them become automatic starters with the first team,” Gasperini said in October, speaking about the club’s latest academy graduate Giorgio Scalvini. “But now he’s having to grow behind more important players in front of him because the club has different and more lofty goals. Now, we need players who are ready, players who can complete the squad.
“Nowadays a lot of young players are thrown into situations and they end up being burnt out by excessive expectations. With Scalvini you’ll see, as he plays and matures, the evolution of a player who has a lot of talent.”
Scalvini made two Serie A appearances within a week then. There were some signs of nerves and slight jitters, but nothing catastrophic, and certainly nothing that would rule him out of contention. He’s gone on to accumulate more than 700 minutes this season, and though that’s still a long way from matching the prominence of the other defenders in the team, he’s found regularity in recent weeks.
He played a handful of times in 2021 and his appearances were scattered. But his rise in 2022 has been undeniable. He was on the bench for five of their six Champions League games without appearing, then he was listed as a substitute for every Europa League game before featuring in each leg of their quarter-final tie with RB Leipzig. With Atalanta decimated for their trip to Lazio in January, he started in central midfield and put in a brilliantly composed showing for an hour. He hasn’t looked back.
Scalvini has played at least half of the 90 minutes in each of Atalanta’s last six outings, completing the match twice and only once getting less than an hour on the pitch. He has earned Gasperini’s trust, and that is seen in how he is used. He’s not just there to make up the numbers, but he’s encouraged to do everything that Atalanta defenders do. He goes forward, he’s given the freedom to roam and shoot, and he got his first goal for the club in their 2-1 loss to Hellas Verona in April.
“He’s a star in many aspects of his game,” Gasperini said ahead of the recent game against Leipzig, before highlighting a mistake that he had made against Napoli, which led to a Partenopei goal. “He’s ready and he has proven it. He’s a very young player with a big future ahead of him.
“He needs to play, to grow, to improve. He only turned 18 in December, but he has done so well.”
At Venezia, Gasperini’s faith in him was evident. His protection of the teenager was clear, too. Scalvini might just have been the only away player at the Penzo who wasn’t on the receiving end of a scolding from the fiery coach. Hans Hateboer made the point of applauding almost everything he did, and regularly offered a congratulatory or encouraging high-five. Captain Remo Freuler, like Gasperini, showed no hesitation in instructing his teammates to give the ball to the youngster in order to have him carry it out of the defensive third and seek a passing option. He didn’t misplace too many, either. He tends not to, having completed more than 80 percent of his medium-to-long passes this season.
While others’ inaccurate or weak shots brought anger from the coach, Scalvini’s own tame effort was met with encouragement and applause from the sidelines.
Roberto Mancini, then, might be forced to turn to Scalvini ahead of the 2024 European Championship. With qualification being as good as a foregone conclusion for Europe’s bigger nations, the Azzurri coach has the luxury of being able to experiment somewhat in qualification, and that’s not to say that including Scalvini would be a risk or an unmerited call.
In a relatively small window, Scalvini has shown that he’s more than ready to be a lot more than a bit-part player at Atalanta, even with their newfound ambitions in Serie A and Europe. Gasperini’s words in October are evidence enough that he wouldn’t be playing if he wasn’t up to it. At 18, the sky appears to be the limit for the boy born in Brescia.
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