The tern ‘all-round player’ is thrown around perhaps a little too often these days. Any midfielder who can get stuck in, win a tackle and carry the ball well usually qualifies as a member of the all-round player club.
However, Cagliari’s hot prospect, Nicolò Barella, is a young talent who is truly worthy of the title. At 21, he is dictating games at club level and this week, made his senior international debut against Ukraine. Let’s find out more about the young gun whose reputation is growing seemingly every week.
Calgiari Born and Bred, But For How Much Longer?
Born in Cagliari, Nicolò Barella has spent his career with his hometown club, bar one loan spell at Como in 2015/16. Since his debut in 2014, he has become one of the most hardworking, lively and influential central midfielders in the league, attracting the likes of Inter Milan most notably. Whilst he will probably move away from the club at some point, at the moment it’s fair to say that he gives his all for the club, and then some.
His attitude is arguably his strongest trait, with a tireless engine and a mentality to win the ball back for his team at all costs. It is a misconception that players who share this trait compensate for a lack of technical ability (also known as the Fabio Borini effect), but Barella has more than enough skills in his locker to prove that theory wrong.
In the heat map above, we can see that although a centre-midfielder by trade, Barella also tends to drift towards the wing. Part of this is being played on either side of a three-man midfield in a 4-3-1-2, but also his natural acceleration means he is capable of providing width to a narrow and compact setup.
It’s hard to stress just how much Barella loves being in the thick of the action.
His style of play would convince anyone watching that he genuinely has some kind of magnetic attraction to the ball. Whilst his work-rate contributes to that, it’s also a tactical intelligence of where to be and when that sets him apart, a subtle trait which makes a huge difference, and one which the likes of N’Golo Kante have built careers on.
YouTube compilations are great for getting a jist of what a player is about who you aren’t quite familiar with; their strengths, weaknesses and usually terrible background music. They’re compiled mostly of clips taken from multiple games over the course of several years. Few, if any, are made up entirely of footage of a single match, but, Nicolò Barella only needs 90 minutes to show what he is about.
This clip from this season’s match again AC Milan epitomises all of what he does so well; recoveries, tackles, flashes of exquisite skill and hammer of a shot for good measure:
We can now start to understand how gifted Barella is on the ball as well as off it. His passing ability is far from perfect, on average completing 80.6% of passes so far this season, but when he gets it right, it usually ends up in a promising chance of some kind.
He has a knack for pulling off unusual, incisive passes, whether it be a reverse ball which catches out an entire defence, a dink over an opponents head or a bizarre and brilliant piece of improvisation, you can never quite tell where the next moment of magic will come from. It’s the kind of imaginative play which Italy have historically lacked, but something which seems to be valued more now in the new generation of the national team.
Despite being 5ft 8, he also packs a rocket of a right foot, and loves a good long shot, managing 1.6 shots per game this season, with the highlight being this superb free-kick against Atalanta:
A Bright Future For Italy’s Midfield
With a midfield roster which includes Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Roberto Gagliardini, Nicolò Barella is the latest to join what could become a world-class midfield. Arguably a hybrid of the three players, Barella combines all of the strengths of his counterparts.
The drive and aggression of Verratti, the flair of Jorginho and the presence of Gagliardini, Barella is, in theory, able to replace those names and fulfil their role on the pitch, somehow without becoming a direct threat to any of them.
With a solid performance in his debut for the Azzurri, there’s nothing to stop Nicolò Barella being one of the first names on Italy’s team sheet in years to come.