Watching Manuel Locatelli over the last two seasons has been an enriching experience as his development is an example of how a player can make it big despite leaving a big club.
The Italy international has taken quite a unique path since leaving Milan to move to the Mapei Stadium in the summer of 2018.
As scouts keep tabs on the Italian, he carries on going from strength to strength for Roberto De Zerbi’s side. Playing in a system that thrives on inviting the press from the opposition and playing through it, Locatelli has shown signs of being a top-class ball distributor from deeper midfield.
However, it would be unfair to refer to him as a defensive midfielder because the 23-year-old offers so many things on and off the ball.
De Zerbi uses a 4-2-3-1 shape at Sassuolo and Locatelli is usually one of the two midfielders, with the other being either Pedro Obiang, Mehdi Bourabia, Maxime Lopez or Francesco Magnanelli.
The Sassuolo capitan spoke about the development of Locatelli and what the future has in store for him in an exclusive interview with Football Italia in November.
De Zerbi’s pivots constantly change positions, but Locatelli predominantly plays the role of a deep-lying playmaker, as he constantly keeps play ticking, threads passes through the press and brings others into play.
De Zerbi’s system has found the perfect role for the former Milan man, who is now Sassuolo’s chief enforcer.
For players who have played over 1000 minutes in Serie A this season, Locatelli is fourth for most progressive passes per 90 minutes (8.03).
The 23-year-old completes the biggest number of carries per 90 minutes amongst those players as well: 70.3. That is testimony to his supreme technical ability and suggests how effective he is while playing the ball forward and carrying it with his feet.
Considering how Sassuolo play out from the opposition press, Locatelli comes across as a line-breaking midfielder who can be very effective in tight spaces, even against teams that play in a low-block.
Locatelli averages 9.55 passes out of the press, which is the third best tally in the league, only behind Nicolo Barella and Luis Alberto. While that shows how good he is technically, the 23-year-old is in the top ten for tackles won in the midfield this season and he also makes 1.59 interceptions per 90 minutes. The former Milan teenager makes 10.8 recoveries per 90 minutes, which shows how quick he is to win back loose balls in the heart of the park.
This paints the picture of Locatelli being the perfect deep-lying midfielder who has enough defensive prowess to play as a defensive midfielder in a possession-based system too.
Because of the variety of traits he has, along with a modern-day strength, it is easy to see why clubs would want him and especially those clubs that like to keep possession of the ball.
Football has slowly moved to an era where there is a lot more emphasis on keeping the ball, pressing high up the pitch and making quick transitions from midfield.
Locatelli isn’t just very suited to that style of play, he is suited to being an antidote to that approach from an opposition team, which makes him a very rare commodity in football. He understands what the game is these days.
Interest from Manchester City though, presents a rather intriguing chance for the Lombardian. It presents a dilemma about whether he should stay in Italy or move to England and play under Pep Guardiola, who has been on the lookout for some midfield reinforcement since the departure of David Silva last summer.
Man City have adapted well to the exit of Silva and have been closer to being a team that dominates attacking transitions instead of being a team that dominates possession.
Having Silva in the team allowed for better control in advanced areas and without the Spaniard, there is more emphasis on playing quickly and being more direct. Ismael Bennacer was linked with a move to the Etihad and as much as the Algerian may have helped the Citizens become more possession-dominated, Locatelli would allow them to do the same.
Having said that, Juventus are a very interesting option closer home. In their loss to Inter, Andrea Pirlo’s midfield showed signs of being bleak out of possession and it looked as if they are often suited to a midfield three while in possession. The likes of Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, Weston McKennie or Adrien Rabiot, are all very good midfielders, but they’ve historically been used in a midfield three.
Pirlo’s system relies on building from the back in a rhombus shape and then looks to play direct passes to the wide players, who are usually in 1 vs. 1 situations against the opposition full-backs.
If not that, the two midfielders are tasked with carrying the ball in advanced areas, going past the opposition’s midfielders. For that role, Locatelli is probably the best in Serie A.
Even though he suits both Man City and Juventus, Locatelli is still 23 and has many years of top level football in him.
Going to England may be an ambition for many, but going to Juve or returning to Milan would be a safe option for the Italian at his age. All suitors, however, must deal with Sassuolo’s €40m request if they are to sign the 23-year-old.
If Locatelli opts to stay in Serie A, he could have more assurances and require less adaptation. It would be a step-up to play for Juventus or Milan, but he’s absolutely ready for it.
Even if he joins a bigger Serie A club in the summer, he will still have time to move to England and shine in the future. Because all in all, the boy is special.