To a casual observer, it may seem as if Leonardo Spinazzola magically materialised this March. There he suddenly was, feinting, dribbling, taking smart risks on the left side during Juve’s colossal Champions League performance against Atletico Madrid in Turin, and there he suddenly is in Coach Roberto Mancini’s squad for Italy’s upcoming Euro 2020 qualifying matches against Finland and Liechtenstein.
In truth, Spinazzola was called up to the Azzurri even during former Coach Giampiero Ventura’s misadventures with the national team, and he had featured both in the Coppa Italia and the league for Juventus before that sparkling Champions League debut against Atletico Madrid. But that match was his rite of passage, a crucible from which he emerged as arguably Juventus’s third best player after Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi. Mancini would have found that performance difficult to ignore.
For much of this season, Spinazzola has struggled with a knee problem, and he only started for Juventus in that Round of 16 tie because Alex Sandro was suspended and Massimiliano Allegri was missing several other key players through injury.
But Spinazzola is no stranger to taking the circuitous route to success. He finds himself in the Juventus squad after a meandering career spent on loan at clubs that have included Siena, Vicenza, Perugia (also the region where he was born), and most notably Atalanta.
It was under Gian Piero Gasperini’s tutelage in Bergamo that Spinazzola really flourished, playing mostly as a left wing-back, as Atalanta finished in the Europa League places the two seasons he was there.
Such a well-travelled career has granted Spinazzola a precociousness, a veteran’s temperament in his mid-twenties (he in fact turns 26 on Monday). Despite being on the periphery of the Juventus first team this season, he has not been over-eager to infringe upon the prerogatives of the club’s starters - but he is also prepared to avail any opportunity thrown his way.
“I want to let the Coach know I am here and ready,” he said when Allegri started him in a thumping 4-1 win over Udinese two weeks ago. In that game, Spinazzola was deployed as a right wing-back because of Joao Cancelo’s suspension, and despite it not being his favoured side, he performed admirably.
Mancini would have glimpsed Spinazzola’s versatility in that match against the Friulani. The Italy Coach primarily used Fiorentina’s Cristiano Biraghi as left-back in the Nations League, but in Spinazzola he has a capable alternative, who can also play further up on the left side and even on the right if need be. Under Ventura, Spinazzola appeared as a left-back in all three World Cup 2018 qualifiers he played, but as Mancini searches for the perfect Azzurri formula ahead of Euro 2020, he may employ him in various parts of the pitch.
Such fluidity recalls a former Italy international and Juventus player, Gianluca Zambrotta. Spinazzola has admitted to being inspired by and studying ‘Zambo’, who played variously as left-back in Marcello Lippi’s Juventus side of the early noughties, as practically a left winger for Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy at the 2002 World Cup, and as right-back in Lippi’s 2006 World Cup winning Italy side.
While Spinazzola shares several traits with Zambrotta - physicality, ability to beat his man - what sets him apart slightly is his outstanding dribbling.
Most crucially, playing in the same club as Zambrotta did will expedite Spinazzola’s growth, permitting him the possibility to refine his skills against the best teams in Europe. Just like many of his predecessors, Mancini can not only rely on a steady supply of Italian players from Juventus, but also Italian players who are accustomed to competing and winning.
Unless the Bianconeri catastrophically disintegrate between now and May, Spinazzola looks like he is at least going to win the Scudetto this season. Unlike the Italian Supercup, which he won in January despite not taking any part in the match against Milan in Jeddah, Spinazzola will feel a much more vital part of that success. That rarefied taste of triumph is what he will bring to the Azzurri camp with every selection, just like club teammates Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini have been for many years now, and just like his inspiration Zambrotta used to in the past.
Spinazzola will sense his own time is just beginning.