When looking for the most interesting young talents in world football, we couldn’t help but think of one of Serie A’s most surprising breakthroughs: Hellas Verona’s center-back Marash Kumbulla.

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Only two players born after 2000 have played consistently in Serie A: Matthijs de Ligt and Marash Kumbulla. If it was quite predictable for the first to play regularly as a starter after the astonishing season with Ajax and the amount of money spent by Juventus, the latter has been one of the most unlikely surprises of the season, as he only had one professional game before the kickoff of the 2019/20 campaign.

Nevertheless, Ivan Juric trusted Kumbulla since the very first match of the season against Bologna, giving him the role of center-back in his three-man defence. Instead of seeing the lack of experience of the young Kumbulla, fresh out of Verona’s academy, the manager trusted his player’s skills, as they’re a perfect fit for Verona’s aggressive style – man-marking and great defensive intensity.

Even being just 20, Kumbulla has what it takes to perform in such context: a strong physique and good timing to anticipate the opponent. Among all Verona’s defenders, Juric trusted him with the most aggressive tasks, encouraging him to seek the 1v1 against opponents even in forward areas of the pitch.

Kumbulla has almost double the number of individual duels compared to his defensive teammates, a situation for which he seems to have natural skills. Thanks to an almost perfect body position that allows him to manipulate his opponents, Kumbulla thrives in the 1v1 and is very good in aerial duels.

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Even with some limits, Kumbulla is an instinctive and ambitious defender, skills that allowed him to calmly face a challenging league like Serie A. In the win against Juventus, for example, he was one of the best players on the pitch, stopping a dangerous opponent like Douglas Costa.  A wonderful performance against a majestic opponent, as highlighted by his manager: “He’s been astonishing, physically and technically. A great all-around performance”, said Juric after the match. When Serie A stopped, Verona was one of the best defenses in the league, fighting for European qualification, an unthinkable goal at the start of the season.

His young age and the ease with which he defends in forward areas of the pitch made Kumbulla one of the most wanted defenders on the market. His price tag quickly skyrocketed over €20M and Fiorentina, Lazio, and Inter seem strongly interested in him and – not surprisingly – they all play with a three-man defense.

Of course, Kumbulla is not flawless. After starting as a center back, in recent games, Juric moved him to the left of defence, leaving his teammate Günter in the center, as he probably considered him being more reliable in a very difficult position, in which every mistake can be quite stiff.  His aggressive and forward-oriented style is not risk-free. On the other hand, Kumbulla is still quite conservative when it comes to building up the play, he doesn’t love to take responsibilities when he has to move the ball forward, also because in Juric’s system the build-up play is quite simple and is often managed by wingers and midfielders.

Anyway, Kumbella proved to be quite comfortable with the ball at his feet, even if it’s still to be seen how much he could improve in a team which requires more involvement from his defenders playing the ball out of defence.

This is not the only question around Kumbulla’s development. Verona’s man marking-based defensive system seems perfect to highlight his skills and hide his flaws. Kumbulla is a slow defender, especially in his first steps, and this could be a problem in a team that favors a lined defense, maybe even in a forward area of the pitch. Besides, Juric doesn’t want him to read the game, mainly asking him to press his man. It’s not easy to predict how he could react to more complex requests, like choosing when to press the opponent and when to keep the defensive line compact.

In his first season among the pros, it would be absurd not to have doubts about Kumbulla’s potential. However, the aggressiveness and instinct in the 1v1s that he showed with Verona’s shirt cannot be ignored: mistakes can be avoided with experience and training, but it’s difficult to find defenders with the confidence to quickly switch from the youth league to Serie A’s European qualification battle.

 

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