Manuel Locatelli: Made in Sassuolo

Manuel Locatelli is one of the one player that takes benefit of the postponement of Euro 2020. If the tournament washeld according to the initial schedule, perhaps the 23-year-old midfielder will not be included in Roberto Mancini’s squad of choice. He just got his Gli Azzuri debut in September 2020.

In 2020/21, an impressive performance with Sassuolo made Mancini unable to miss the player. Ahead of Euro 2020, Marco Verratti’s injury also gave him a kind of blessing in disguise. Mancini needed someone to replace the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder on the left side of midfield and Locatelli was chosen.

This 1998-born player played well as a tandem with Jorginho. He contributed to the dominant game of Italy which won six points from two matches. The match against Switzerland last Thursday (17/6/2021), where he scored a brace, became a showcase for the player’s talent. Locatelli has long been touted as Italy’s future midfielder. In his early days in the AC Milan senior team, he displayed talent and maturity that excelled among players of his age.

Manuel Locatelli was born in Lecco, a town on the southeastern shore of Lake Como and just 50km from Milan. He studied at the Atalanta academy before being signed by the Rossoneri in 2009. The player went through the U-11 to U-18 levels before being promoted to the senior team in 2016. Locatelli got his debut in the era of Cristian Brocchi. Despite having made a number of promising appearances, he chose to move in 2018. He considers Milan not to believe him. Sassuolo came with a loan offer with an obligation to buy clause. Locatelli has just realized his potential at Emilia-Romagna. He has matured, been consistent, and emerged as one of the best deep-lying midfielders in Serie A.

Blooming in Sassuolo

Since strengthening Milan, Locatelli has shown great talent. However, it was only at Sassuolo that he was able to develop his talents and translate them into consistent performances. Last season was the best season of his senior career, where the player became an integral part of the Neroverdi I midfield which successfully finished in eighth place for two consecutive seasons.

At Sassuolo, Locatelli got valuable coaching from Roberto De Zerbi. The positive play desired by the coach forced him to cope with pressure and develop decision-making, both with and without the ball. Locatelli’s playing opportunities are getting longer as he develops. In his inaugural season, he got 1,867 minutes from 24 games. The number rises to 2,586 minutes (33 games) in 2019/20 and 2,883 minutes (34 games) in 2020/21.

De Zerbi started regularly using the basic 4-2-3-1 formation since 2019/20 and he relied on Locatelli as one of the pivots. Usually, the Lecco-born player is in tandem with Pedro Obiang or Maxime Lopez. I Neroverdi consistently builds play from the back, demanding that his players always move to open passes. Two pivots are also important points to maintain possession of the ball.

Locatelli himself was burdened with the responsibility to channel the ball into the attack line. To do so, the player must hone his pass range and distribution accuracy. In addition to these technical demands, he is also forged to hone his reading of partner positions and their potential moves. In that aspect, Locatelli performed very well. He can consistently distribute the ball to players in attack like Domenico Berardi or Filip Djuricic. In the Sassuolo squad, in 2020/21, Locatelli has averaged passes to the final third (9.03 per game) and highest progressive passes (8.31 per game).

Locatelli is also the player who gets the most passes in the Sassuolo squad. The record indicates two things: the player is a vital point of possession as well as the progress of I Neroverdi because of his distribution ability, as well as being reliable in evading the opponent’s pressure.

Apart from having outstanding passing skills, Locatelli also developed control and dexterity when carrying the ball. The Sassuolo midfielder tends to be able to dodge the opponent’s pressing. He is calm in the face of pressure and moves around at the right time. He also recorded the frequency of passes from the highest pressing situations in the Sassuolo squad. This shows that the player is always aware of the opponent’s position before receiving the ball.

Locatelli was raised by AC Milan. However, he only matured thanks to Sassuolo’s approach to the game and environment. De Zerbi polished his talent, both in terms of ball and movement without the ball. “He [De Zerbi] is one of the best coaches out there. With it, you learn a lot. My confidence has grown and now I’m more confident in my potential,” Locatelli told Corriere dello Sport.

If you review his role at Sassuolo, it is not surprising that Locatelli can perform well in the Italian national team. The player is used to playing with the dominant team with a flowing collective movement. His interplay ability has been honed, able to be actively involved in the dynamic game of Gli Azzurri.

Locatelli was the man of the match for Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland. His appearance was quite surprising in that match. The reason is, even though he plays an important role in the construction of attacks, he rarely enters the penalty box let alone scores goals. Against Switzerland, he scored two goals which was the first brace of his career.

Locatelli’s second goal was scored from outside the penalty box. His shot went precisely into the corner of the goal. He passed the ball between the two Swiss defenders and made goalkeeper Yann Sommer unable to move. His first goal that opened Italy’s victory was even more impressive; shows what the Sassuolo connection can give the Gli Azzurri. The goal came from midfield when Locatelli volleyed into the right side of the attack. Berardi received the ball. He then dribbled to the edge of the box where Locatelli had gone deep to finish the attack with a close-range effort.

Locatelli’s actions were quite surprising. He usually takes a supportive position outside the box, but this time, he unexpectedly came alone into the striker’s area to convert chances. “I know Domenico tends to keep wide at the side. I sent him a beautiful pass with my left foot. Because I did so well, I got courage from that. I took a risk and Berardi sent me a good pass,” Locatelli said in his post-match press conference.

Locatelli’s impressive form has earned him a serious claim to a place in the Italian midfield. When Verratti was back fit, Mancini faced a difficult decision to choose one of his flagship midfielders. Apart from this dilemma, the coach should be happy because he has a qualified squad to navigate the knockout phase of the European Cup.


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