Friday June 3 2016
Dear Matteo Darmian

An open letter to Matteo Darmian, penned by Andrea Tallarita, in which we discuss the quality that makes this full-back unique.

Dear Matteo Darmian, let us start by saying that in football there is no consensus by which to determine if a player is 'strong'. He or she may be fast, skilled, or accurate; these are all terms that have precise meanings. But a strong footballer is rather more difficult to characterise.

You have been called strong ten thousand times, Darmian, usually for the wrong reasons. Pundits and fans dubbed you that because of your pace down the wing, or for your professionalism, or your tactical flexibility. These are qualities you possess, no doubt. But they're not what makes you strong.

Besides, the fact that you have a skill does not mean you're better at exploiting it than anyone else. Yes, you are fast down the wing. But there are many who are faster than you. Your own fellow right-back Alessandro Florenzi is quicker on the run, and has more stamina to boot. Yes, you are professional and always level-headed. But the palate of Italians has been spoilt: you can't compare with the legendary mental power of Paolo Cannavaro ten years ago, or that of Paolo Maldini before him. Furthermore, you've shown precious little of your old goal-scoring ability since you moved to Manchester United.

So why include you in a series on Italy's most important players at all? Why this letter?

Because in spite of everything we've said, Matteo, you are strong. You are one of Italy's strongest players, at least at their current level of development. And the foundation of that strength is a quality that is not nearly recognised enough in football: intelligence.

People confuse intelligence with vision or positioning skills. These things are hugely important, of course, but you can have them by instinct. Francesco Totti's passing vision seemed inspired by an Olympian god, and Filippo Inzaghi's sense of positioning in the box was preternatural, but they both had it in their blood. They refined these qualities through training, sure, but they didn't have to learn them.

You're not like that, Matteo. You never carried that type of music in your body. You graduated from Milan's youth squad but failed to make the senior team. You were loaned out, then sold to Palermo, then loaned out again to Torino, who ended up signing you for a paltry €2m. You had anonymity written all over you. If anyone back then had pointed to you as a future starter for Manchester United, it would have been the joke of the month.

You're not talented the way some of Italy's thoroughbred champions are. You're strong, sure, but not because you're gifted. Nor are you the type of player who ends up emerging thanks to an exceptional physique: mother nature never doted you with the legs of a basketball player or the chest of a rugby prop.

No, your football isn't something you were born with. It's something you have figured out. Watching you develop as a footballer, for those of us who had that privilege, was a joy. You added brick over brick, learnt trick after trick, and eventually you metamorphosed into a completely different beast. You're 26 now, and you're in a whole different league than you were at 21. Quite literally.

You became strong so suddenly that your debut with the Azzurri came only a few months before the World Cup in 2014. In Brazil, you turned out to be the only really good player alongside Marco Verratti. The only one whose performances Italy could be proud of.

Now you offer all sorts of alternatives to Coach Antonio Conte. You are a right-back at heart, but with Florenzi perhaps best employed in that position, you can simply be slotted on the left. People say that you're weaker there, but we're not sure. Your performances this year certainly don't suggest that.

As importantly, you can play in the centre of the defence. In a three-man back-line of the type that Conte likes to deploy, this gives you an unusual freedom – you can actually come forward and overlap with Florenzi, who can in turn overlap with whoever the designated winger-striker is – Antonio Candreva or Federico Bernardeschi. This lets the Azzurri overload the right wing in a way that teams with more traditional 3-5-2 formations simply can't do.

And as you do all this, you retain your intelligence. It shines in everything you do. You never lose your temper or commit reckless fouls. Your crosses need some polishing, but you know how to press forward without leaving holes behind you. Your tackles are so different in nature from those of Italy's former defenders. Franco Baresi could take the ball away from Romario because his movements were athletic perfection. Cannavaro could stop Thierry Henry because he combined excellent reflexes with an extraordinary physical elasticity.

By comparison, your tackles look ordinary, but the reason is that you don't destroy danger – you prevent it. You snuff it out before it happens. If a ball is going into a danger zone, you're there before anyone else can think of it. You're there before the ball even starts rolling. You may not be able to intercept a cross acrobatically the way Leonardo Bonucci knows how to do, but if the ball comes your way, the cross never happens. You know where to be before anyone else, and that's because you're so damn smart. Nobody in the Azzurri squad can think as quickly and as well as you can. Nobody but Conte.

To describe a full-back as an unsung hero is somewhat redundant – they are so seldom the stars. In your case, it is tautological. You will never be granted the spotlight, Darmian. You could play at your very best, and do all sorts of good things for the team, but football recognises skill, speed, precision and power, not intelligence.

Mind you, this doesn't make you any less crucial to the Azzurri. Achilles may have been the mightiest warrior in Greece, but it was Ulysses who figured out how to break down Troy. So what if you're sung, or half-sung, or unsung? Be that hero for us, Matteo. Be our Ulysses.

Have your say...
I've thuroughly enjoyed all of these letters and look forward to more. You execute the tone perfectly, and it's not one we often get (successfully, at least) in English-language sports writing. It has that same blend of whimsy, cynicism, and lightly poetic construction that's generally only found in Italian prose. Keep it up.
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 3:52pm
You can say the same things about any other italy's euro squad player. With a few exceptions - buffon and de rossi who belong to the talented old guard.
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 3:29pm
That was a stunning read.
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 11:33am
That was a stunning read.
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 11:32am
Am really worried .. do Azzurri need to play the next friendly ... ?? .... all the time picking up injuries ...... !!!!!!!! Anyways now is the time to get behind the team .. stop criticism ....... FORZA AZZURRI .......
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 7:10am
Please do not do any of these open letters anymore. They are horrible.
on the 3rd June, 2016 at 6:30am

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