Serie B most promising talents
After presenting the 40 prospects to follow in 2019, L’Ultimo Uomo introduces us to the five most promising young footballers from Italian second tier, Serie B. After moving their first steps in professional football, they’re all having their breakthrough season in the league and we may see them in top clubs in the next months.
Andrew Gravillon was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, in Guadeloupe, the same city as Lilian Thuram. On 8 February he will be 21, but he’s already switched between three teams. At 18 he moved from FCM Garges-Les-Gonesse to Inter – after being noticed in a tournament when he was just 15 – and then, before making his debut as a professional, Benevento bought him for his first season in Serie A. Gravillon didn’t get to play much, just two games, but he’d already shown sufficient quality to earn himself a loan deal in the January transfer window with Pescara, a Serie B team with promotion ambitions.
With Pescara, Gravillon is showing all his talent and has stood out as one of the best defenders in the Italian Serie B. Gravillon chose Pescara because of Zeman – “I could have moved to Novara, which is close to Milan, but then I spoke to my agent and decided to come to Pescara because the manager here could turn me into “a lion” from a technical point of view” – but the Bohemian manager was sacked just a month after Gravillon’s arrival. He was replaced by Giuseppe Pillon, who this season has got Pescara back fighting for the top positions. Gravillon is one of the pillars of a team now ranked fifth, and with one of the best defences in his league, at least until they shipped five goals from Brescia’s attack (which is nevertheless turning out to be a one-off).
Like all teams with promotion ambitions, Pescara dominates possession and holds a fairly high defensive line. In this kind of situation, Gravillon can exploit his ability to cover deep. Gravillon is almost one metre 90 but he’s so well-built he looks much shorter. He has an impressive physique, which is one of his main assets: his power one against one, his speed in the open space, and his astounding elevation.
The modern aspect of Gravillon’s game shows with the ball at his feet. He is responsible for starting all of Pescara ‘s moves from the back, as his excellent reading of the play with his right foot. When he can’t rely on their playmaker – Brugman – he exploits the accuracy of his long game with his right foot, with which he often switches play to the other side of the pitch. Gravillon does not possess elite technical skills, but his passing is usually crisp and smart.
His greatest limitations, right now, are his management of defensive tactics in the penalty area. He’s not always focused on marking his opposite number in the area, and when space is lacking he has to work hard on his timing and reading of situations. At times he loses his man when he’s moving onto the ball or doesn’t close down with the right timing (in the match against Brescia, for example, he gave Terregrossa too much room to score the fifth goal).
However, these are in any case flaws that depend on his young age. A defender usually comes into his own around the age of 25, and Gravillon still has a few years ahead of him to try and cut out his mistakes and improve on his assets, which are already fairly numerous and apparent.
Gaetano Castrovilli has a very slight build, a very cultured right foot and a baby face. At first sight, he looks much younger and ungainly that he actually is. At the age of 22, he’s already played over 50 games in the Italian second division, where he made his debut three seasons ago playing for Bari.
A few months later the Puglia club sold him to Fiorentina, who had already had him on loan for the Viareggio tournament the previous year. The experience in the Fiorentina youth team lasted just a few months: after 6 goals and 8 assists in 14 matches, the club decided to send him out on loan to Cremonese, to test his mettle in Serie B.
Last season was a learning period for the young midfielder, and in just a few weeks he managed to get the hang of Tesser’s very aggressive and vertical playing style. Castrovilli was the first replacement for the inside forward Piccolo, but during the season he managed to eke out a little space for himself in the team as a wing forward, despite the very physical nature of the game in Serie B.
In time this midfielder has learnt to make up for his slight build thanks to his excellent timing, which enables him to disrupt his opponent’s game or cut him off on the run. He’s been improving rather fast, and in the second part of the season, he managed to secure his position in the first team, ending the year with 26 appearances, one goal and 4 assists.
In the summer Cremonese decided to renew the loan deal, and Castrovilli has established himself in the team’s midfield. Up to now, the ’97 midfielder has played every match he was available for, playing almost every position in midfield and attack. As a wing on the left and right, in both a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 formation, as an attacking midfielder in a diamond formation and when called up as an inside forward.
This versatility is dependent on his excellent technique, which allows him to run with the ball or hold it up, play narrow one-twos or switch play to the opposite flank. His best moves are when he’s allowed to set off from left field so that he can cut inside with his stronger foot. Although he’s 1.80m, Castrovilli has excellent balance, which allows him to keep the ball close to his feet even when faking and changing direction.
A few months ago, in an interview, the midfielder admitted that his first love was dancing. After a year of classical dance training, Gaetano chose football, without entirely relinquishing his former passion: “I often happen to think of a fake, or a dribble or a trick play and compare it to a dance step. It comes more naturally to me that way”.
This connection can be seen on the field as well: Castrovilli has great rhythm and progression, but he also knows how to slow the game down and leave his opponent stranded by pulling up suddenly, or waiting for a team-mate to charge forward on the overlap. In this particular skill, he has a great understanding of the game, although he’s sometimes too reliant on instinct. His right foot can often pick a defensive lock whenever it’s needed. He can play on the wing and is a good crosser of the ball from both wings (hardly surprisingly he takes all corner kicks and free kicks). Up to now, he hasn’t fully exploited his right foot shot in front of goal, even if his second goal against Perugia would seem to indicate that he’s developing in this area as well. Overall he’s a very flexible midfielder who is not yet fully developed but still has considerable margins for improvement.
(1997, La Spezia)
When at the beginning of December David Okereke scored the third goal against Cosenza with a hard and accurate right foot shot to the back post, the commentator couldn’t help shouting “this guy’s goooood”. It was the fifth goal of the season for this Nigerian born in 1977 playing for La Spezia, to go along with his five assists. From that moment on his name started to do the rounds of the transfer market, and was even twinned with Juventus as the new Kouamé.
Born in Lagos, Okereke learnt his football in the Abuja Academy, founded in Nigeria by Gabriele Volpi, the chairman of the La Spezia side. Others to move through this system were Sadiz and Nura, who also ended up playing for Spezia, and Okwonko, now owned by Bologna. After a short spell with the youth team, where he stood out in the Viareggio youth tournament in 2016, Okereke played an excellent half season on loan with Cosenza, in the third tier, which earned him a call back to Spezia where this season he’s making a name for himself as one of the most interesting prospects in Serie B.
In the Ligurian side’s 4-3-3- formation, Okereke usually acts as the central striker, except for the rare occasion when he’s played out on the right next to Galabinov. The idea of playing him in that role was a counterintuitive move by Pasquale Marino, given that he’s usually played as a second striker and is not so adept at scoring, but the decision is paying dividends.
Thanks to his speed and physical strength that are indeed out of the ordinary for Serie B, Okereke as a central attacking force has plenty of options: he can go deep thanks to his exceptional flight of foot or hold the ball up with his back to goal thanks to his 1 metre 82 and 75 kg in weight. But that’s not all, the young Nigerian covers the entire breadth of the attacking front, thus leaving defenders with no point of reference, seeing as he still has limitations when the ball is played to his feet. His constant movement opens up space for his teammates who the Nigerian is very good at setting free, to the extent that right now Okereke has more assists (8, second in the Serie B, even in terms of chances created) than goals (6).
His main weapon is his speed – both in short sprints or when accelerating over longer distances –, which means he’s a constant threat in open play (an example is the sprint he put on which earned him a penalty in the game against Brescia), but he also dribbles expertly, although he’s not a particularly technical player and hasn’t great close ball control. Okereke averages 4.44 dribbles every 90 minutes, with a 68.9% success rate.
In the penalty box, as the main striker, Okereke is still fairly raw, his movement is not very effective when it comes to anticipating his opponents for crosses, nor does he go in for very elaborate moves: scoring is still his greatest weakness. Okereke shoots with both his right and left foot and when he has time to set himself up his shots can be fairly powerful, but when he tries to create a shot for himself with a couple of touches or needs to work more to prepare a chance, his output is not so exceptional: his shots are often choked or off target. Only 36.8% of his shots are on goal and only 1 in 10 goes in.
At just 21, Okereke has time to work on the flaws of his game, which are still plenty. Then again his mix of power, speed and determination, which are his main attributes, seem to be fresh and natural and make him in an interesting prospect even in consideration of a move to the top league in the short term.
With the same speed as we celebrate the rising of a world-class footballer, we also hurry to designate his successor. In Italy, the debate around Andrea Pirlo reached levels of absurdity that might have even ended up distorting his actual characteristics. After Aquilani, Montolivo and Verratti, we’ve had to wait until the new Millennium to witness the arrival of a player that more than any other resembles Andrea Pirlo from a physical point of view.
Like Pirlo, Tonali has grown up and made a name for himself with Brescia, and there are very few immediately perceivable differences in their movements. The physical affinity should not, however, deceive us in judging the most critical aspect, which is the actual quality he brings to the pitch.
Unlike Pirlo, Tonali started his career from the outset in front of the defence, inheriting his development of the playmaker concept. Tonali seems to have borrowed from Pirlo what was one of his best qualities, the accuracy of his long passing with the ball in front of him. Tonali’s long game is also very accurate on his left foot, his weaker one, while he uses his right to hit long first-time passes. His margins for improvement in this area are related to his passing trajectories: the relatively slow pace of games in Serie B allow him to be accurate with rather lofted passes, but to adapt to Serie A or other leagues Tonali must add speed and penetration to his long ball, so defences don’t have time to reposition.
Tonali is very effective as a midfielder and an inside forward because his same ability in the short-passing game – especially his first-time passing with his right foot – and his ability to find through balls stand out most when he plays out from the back, while he still has a few failings when he has to find the telling pass against set defences. One limit to his build-up play is his ability to lose his marker: which is in line with his rather sedate approach on the pitch. Tonali has a hard time moving to receive the ball and getting rid of his marker. This trait could make it tough for him in Serie A against an organised pressing game, especially if he were in a team where the goalkeeper and the defenders were not particularly good at building play out from the back with the ball at their feet.
With his seemingly nonchalant attitude, Tonali develops his defensive phase by protecting his zone. He’s not aggressive when attacking his opponent not does he try to cut out the opponent’s passing game or attempt to take the ball off him. He is often cut out by his man as he passes in front of him, but he’s nevertheless good at protecting his area once the defence is set and intercepts everything that passes his way. In the 1-1 goal by Carpi against Brescia, there was also an indication that on set plays he’s not particularly good at man-marking.
We’re undoubtedly looking at the kind of talent that hasn’t been seen much in the last ten years, a player who also appears to be very well-developed in terms of personality and readiness to take responsibility on the pitch. He’s also very smart at using his physique, both through physical contact and with body swerves. Mancini’s national side is focusing on bringing top quality to every department and playing possession football: it will be interesting to see how Tonali will gradually fit into this kind of system in the coming years.
In a championship where the top scorer, Alfredo Donnarumma, has scored 21 goals, the other forwards tend to go under the radar. Yet there are a few strikers and attacking players who are making their mark and one of them – among the youngest – is undoubtedly Luca Vido.
This is not Vido’s first season in Serie B, a league he has already played in with Cittadella at first in 2017 and then in 2018, with a brief return to Atalanta in the middle, the team that bought him off Milan in the summer of 2017. Vido has been spoken of as a great talent ever since he played an important part in the bronze medal won by the National Under-20 side while he was signed up for Milan’s youth team. At the age of 22, he has however had a hard time finding a context where his very obvious yet particular talent could be fully exploited, and it has consequently lost some of its sheens.
Vido is, after all, an attacker who is not easy to pigeonhole. He doesn’t like playing with his back to goal and he’s not particularly good at working off the ball; he’s not a deadly finisher, nor great assist man. Vido, however, can do all these things rather well, and his talent is centred on his mix of physical and technical qualities. Vido is 1.82m and has a slim and powerful build. His acceleration is fearsome: he controls the ball with the outside of his right foot and his quick feet mean he can change direction very abruptly.
These qualities are coming to the fore this season with Perugia, where Vido is one of the two strikers in the 4-3-1-2 formation favoured by Alessandro Nesta. Vido has come up with 7 goals and 3 assists in 21 games, but his contribution has been seen in other areas of the pitch far away from the opposition’s goal, often on the wing, where he is very useful in moving play up the pitch. On the right flank, Vido tends to move inside, attempting to link up with his team-mates – the striker Melchiorri and the inside forward Verre – or trying to head straight for the opponent’s goal.
Although he’s not the kind of forward who lives to score goals, in the final third Vido can be dangerous. The quality of his shots is particularly effective – he likes to shoot hard with the outside of his right foot – but it’s how he prepares his shots rather than their accuracy that is his best features. Vido is not particularly skilled at moving without the ball but makes up for it with his explosive running with the ball and his fast footwork which enables him to get shots off even in very cramped spaces. A feature that often means he overdoes his shooting attempts.
Vido is the kind of striker who is ideal for teams that play a vertical and high-intensity kind of football, that focuses on retrieving the ball high up the pitch and playing it very quickly to seek out immediate attacking threats. At the same time, he seems to be at his best when he can head straight for goal, without working too much off other players, and that’s why he perhaps is best when he has players working in front of him that provide him with attacking options. At the moment Vido is owned by Atalanta, and who knows, it might be a great football teacher like Gian Piero Gasperini who will be able to get the best out of such an eclectically talented footballer.
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