Young, Italian and forever linked with a permanent move to one of Italy's top clubs, Andrea Poli's career seems to have been going round the same cycle for the past few years now. Play well, get linked with a move away, get injured, lose form, disappear off the transfer radar.
When he finally got his chance at a top club - thanks to a season-long loan at Inter - injuries and poor form restricted his appearances and the Nerazzurri decided not to take up their option to buy.
Even that was not enough to put off Juventus from trying to acquire him in a co-ownership deal this summer, with an option to buy the other half in June 2013. They failed, but it is nevertheless a sign of how highly clubs still think of a player whose career has not reached the heights of the 2009-10 season – his first as a regular member of the Sampdoria side – due to the factors described.
He has already missed games this season through injury, meaning he only played in three of that seven-game losing streak. But Ciro Ferrara’s decision to move Poli to a wide left midfield role, and more advanced than his usual position in central midfield, has started the cycle again.
It has also yielded Poli’s first goals in Serie A, after more than 70 appearances at the top level. He is not a player who, thus far in his career, has numbers that back up the hype or the talk, and so simply quoting stats does not quite do him justice. He brings more to the team than they suggest.
That does not mean that his output needs no improvement. For a midfielder of his type, two assists and two goals in over 80 League appearances represents low productivity and something he needs to work on if he is to have a long-term future at a bigger club. Averaging less than one goal or one assist per season is unlikely to be enough to keep you in the first XI of a top team.
Half of that struggle to produce has been due to the lack of consistency. His best season, albeit without great stats in a very good Sampdoria squad, came when he played plenty of games. Since then he has not started any more than 13 League matches in a campaign, and until this season his longest streak was five straight games.
The other half he let slip in September during the build-up to Italy’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Bulgaria and Malta, for which he was part of the squad called by Cesare Prandelli. “I like to play inside left or right in midfield,” he said. “I do not mind playing in a midfield two, but I prefer the role of interno.”
Poli spent most of his early career at Samp playing in a midfield two, usually alongside Angelo Palombo. Luigi Del Neri never wavered from 4-4-2, and even Domenico Di Carlo, a 4-3-1-2 man during his tenure at Chievo, played with two in central midfield in an attempt to provide continuity between his reign and that of Del Neri’s.
It was only during the last three games of Di Carlo’s time, when he was panicking and trying everything to get some points, and under successor Alberto Cavasin, that Poli started to get game time in his preferred position. Claudio Ranieri and Inter offered a more realistic prospect of minutes in a midfield three, but he spent most of his time injured or on the bench. Only upon his return to Sampdoria, with Ciro Ferrara at the helm, has there been a regular slot for him in his favoured position.
But now the latest move from that to an advanced wide left role, and the subsequent improvement in performance, leaves him at a slight risk of becoming another Riccardo Montolivo, a player who has been around for years but for whom nobody is quite sure of his best position.
Montolivo insists it is in front of the defence, yet his displays suggest otherwise. He has started to play very well at trequartista for Italy, and then spent all summer telling anyone who would listen that he is not a trequartista. For Milan he seems settled in the position Poli wants to play – either side of a midfield three.
When asked about his altered role in a recent interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, Poli wasted no time in confirming that he is a central midfielder. For the foreseeable future he might have to stick it out where he is, though if he continues to play well it will no doubt foster ideas of trying him more central, closer to the striker, in a role not too dissimilar to the trequartista slot for which Prandelli is desperately searching for alternatives. Cesare will be following this one closely.