Ola Aina’s Breakthrough in Torino

Historically speaking, British players rarely left the United Kingdom to play football in a foreign country, and only a few of the ones that did like Welshman John Charles and Englishman Kevin Keegan actually succeeded in mainland Europe.

Perhaps it was due to the comforts of home, the strength and prestige of the English First Division and then the English Premier League in recent years, or being accustomed to the pace and physicality of English football as opposed to the more technical and tactical styles of the continentals, but players from the British Isles saw little need or desire to play in rival leagues.  

With the influx of the world’s best players coming to the Premier League, it is harder for local footballers to earn regular playing time. Despite England producing an abundance of young talent in recent years, English starlets are struggling to find opportunities in their own country and have decided to take their chances in other European leagues.

Germany has become the preferred destination for British youngsters with likes of Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund, Reiss Nelson at Hoffenheim, and Reece Oxford at Augsburg, but one British-born footballer is trying his luck in Italy and has been able to adapt to Italian football in the short time that he has been in Serie A.

Temitayo Olufisayo Olaoluwa Aina, better known as Ola Aina, is a Nigerian international that was born and raised in England and he has become an established starter at Torino since joining on loan from Chelsea in the summer of 2018.

The 22-year-old has played in 24 competitive matches for the Granata since making his debut for the club in the opening round of the 2018/19 Serie A season and he has started in 18 out of his 22 league appearances.

Arriving in Italy with an open mind and the desire to learn as well as understand a different style of football compared to what he grew up with, Aina revealed his excitement when he was first presented as a Toro play in August 2018.

“Torino had been tracking me for some time and I hope to do well here,” the versatile wing-back said in an official club statement on its website.

“I know I can learn so much in Italy, above all in terms of positioning, tactics and organisation, as those are fundamental here.”

Granata president Urbano Cairo had also revealed that the club had been looking for a footballer with his characteristics and he already had the belief that the English-born Nigerian could improve in Turin.

“We were seeking a prospect like Ola Aina, a wing-back who is physically strong, quick and has stamina, able to work on either flank,” Cairo said when announcing the player. “Aina is an ambitious young player who Torino can further improve.”

Torino tactician Walter Mazzarri has a reputation for not giving youth a chance throughout the majority of his coaching career, but he has taken a liking to the English-born starlet and quickly integrated him into the team.

The wing-back came on as an early substitute in the 1-0 defeat at home to Roma as well as the 2-2 draw away to Inter and impressed the coach in both games. He had to replace Lorenzo De Silvestri against the Giallorossi and he took the place of Cristian Ansaldi against the Nerazzurri, two wing-backs in their early 30s and possessing an abundance of experience in Italy’s top flight.

“I’ve been really impressed with Aina, as he came off the bench against two great teams and behaved like a veteran,” Mazzarri said in his press conference prior to the 1-0 victory against SPAL in Serie A on September 2.

“I thought that I’d have to introduce him slowly, but he’s very focused on tactics and eager to learn.”

When he was on loan at English Championship club Hull City during the 2017/18 season, Aina played as a full-back in a back four and he was used on both flanks. So far at Torino he has been comfortable playing on either side of the pitch, operating as a wing-back in Mazzarri’s cautious 3-5-2 formation.

Adapting to a different formation has not hindered him as he has been able to demonstrate his ability to use both feet, accelerate quickly, and dribble past opponents. Although he is not overly tall, he is capable of heading the ball as he proved with both his solitary goal and assist for the campaign so far.

He provided the assist for Iago Falque’s half-volley in the 4-1 victory against Sampdoria in Round 11 of Serie A, heading down a cross from the right into the path of the Spaniard. In Round 23 at home against Udinese, he scored the only goal of the game after Ansaldi provided the cross from the left-wing.

Mazzarri has been so impressed with Aina, he has had to find ways to accommodate his wing-backs into his first 11. Ansaldi’s knee injury meant that the Nigerian international was able to gain more experience and he made the left wing-back spot his own while De Silvestri was sacrificed on the right sometimes in order to fit the youngster on the right and the Argentine veteran on the left.

Since the second half of the season commenced, the Torino coach has played Ansaldi as a box-to-box midfielder and that has allowed De Silvestri to play on the right flank and for Aina to occupy the opposite one.

Torino has the option to purchase Aina for €10 million at the end of the 2018/19 campaign but the club might decide to own him outright as early as March. In fact, reports already indicate that Torino have decided to exercise their permanent option on the Nigerian. Chelsea has been notorious for not integrating their youth academy graduates into the senior squad but it is evident that those starlets are appreciated away from West London.

British players might not have warmed to the idea of playing away from the United Kingdom in the past but the trend is changing more than ever. Ola Aina is clearly taking advantage of his playing opportunities in Italy, demonstrating that it is not necessary to wait for a Premier League club to give promising talents chances to make their senior breakthrough.

By: Vito Doria

Photo: Getty