Cagliari’s campaign began with aplomb, but they’ve come down like a pack of cards in recent months. Rolando Maran was being hailed as the next Italian coach bound to be poached by a bigger club, but he’s already been axed in the wake of an 11-game winless run. Now he has gone and the early-season hype has faded, Nahitan Nandez’s performances should be taking centre stage, giving those bigger sides food for thought.
The Uruguayan was a key part of Cagliari’s midfield restructuring last summer, alongside the arrivals of Radja Nainggolan and Marko Rog, replacing hometown hero Nicolo Barella. Even before the transfer came about, Nandez was regarded as a talent back home. He had played at the 2018 World Cup after becoming a key player for Boca Juniors over the last three seasons. Indeed, his switch was seen as a coup for the Sardinians before he had even kicked a ball for them.
In Maran’s 4-3-1-2 system, which involved strong midfield pressing, Nandez played in what could easily be called his preferred role. For the national team, he was either the right wingback or right-sided midfielder. For Boca, he would often play as the central midfielder and constantly made inroads into his preferred right side. In Maran’s narrow system, Nandez was playing to his strengths.
Throughout the season, it has often been a case of Nandez running the right wing for the Rossoblu. Right-back Fabrizio Cacciatore isn’t the most attacking player in the world. The formation, though, does want someone to make runs from the right side of the pitch. Nandez does that a lot of the time and is key to build-up from deeper midfield, while playing as the right-central midfielder.
From that part of the pitch, Nandez has been key in bringing the ball forward. He completes 1.19 dribbles per 90 minutes, being helped by a low centre of gravity which allows him to twist and turn on the ball effectively. He isn’t flashy in that regard but still does the job in an economical manner.
He isn’t an exceptional tackler either. He makes little over four recoveries per 90 minutes and only wins 1.2 tackles per 90 minutes. While it is proof of how he isn’t prolific in this sense, he is very much a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The system demands him to dictate play and help out the deepest midfielder Luca Cigarini.
The Uruguayan has been especially key in keeping Cagliari’s play ticking over. In what was a well-oiled midfield under Maran, that became an important part of how they played. While Cigarini played deepest, constantly pinging balls into forward areas, and Nainggolan added flair in attacking midfield behind Giovanni Simeone and Joao Pedro, Nandez was right in the middle of them. He was the glue that helped bind them down the right-hand side.
He belongs to what can easily be called the ‘Golden Generation’ of Uruguayan football. Federico Valverde, Lucas Torreira, Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur already present what the country has to offer right now, but Nandez adds versatility and an added option on the right flank. He belongs to the same age group as Bentacur, who isn’t as mobile as Nandez. That makes the 24-year-old a unique commodity for club and country.
It is also crucial to bear in mind that this is Nandez’s first season in Italy or at any top five European League. He was linked with a move to the Premier League and the Championship not long before his Serie A move and it is concrete proof of how he has always had clubs looking at him. The way his first season has gone, judging by how he has filled Cagliari’s Barella-shaped void, it might be only a matter of time before he heads to a bigger team.