1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Not exactly a hipster choice. Few football fans, this writer included, believed Cristiano would actually leave Real Madrid. Like previous transfer sagas with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, it looked more like a negotiation technique for him to get an improved deal at Los Galácticos, especially when, after the Champions League final, he raised the possibility of leaving Real the coming summer. At the Champions League celebrations, the Bernabéu faithful even chanted “Cristiano, stay!,” yet it would be the Juventini faithful, who applauded him after he netted a brace in their backyard this past April, who would enjoy his services this season.
Solely pulling off this transfer makes it a candidate for the signing of the season. A signing with significant repercussions for all three parties involved; a signing that can shift the power balance in Europe.
Not only has Cristiano produced 10 goals and six assists in his first 16 games as a Juventino, but he has increased the level of quality on his surroundings. Juve’s offense looks to have taken their lethalness up a notch from last season – something that seemed near impossible. Ronaldo’s presence itself is a huge boost for the Juventus offense, putting the fear of God in any defender. He took a few games to get adapted to the Bianconeri, but he hasn’t looked back since.
2. Krzysztof Piatek
Krzysztof Piatek would be an easy winner, had Juventus not signed Cristiano Ronaldo. The young Pole has amazed the entirety of Europe with his start of the season. After finishing as the third top-goalscorer in the Ekstraklasa, he earned a move to Genoa, but he was a relatively unknown quantity compared to his fellow Grifone strikers. Be it as an emerging talent or a proven veteran, Gianluca Lapadula, Christian Kouamé, Goran Pandev, and Andrea Favilli had all made a name for themselves in Italy, yet it has been Piatek, who has snatched the headlines.
Managing to score 14 goals in his first 14 games for Genoa is a remarkable achievement for a 23-year-old in his season in a top 5 league. Strong physically, positionally aware, and with a scoring instinct like few others. Piatek is a phenomenon that is currently drawing attention from Europe’s big fish. Amongst the sundry young Polish strikers cutting their teeth in Italy’s top flight (Chievo’s Mariusz Stępiński, Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik, Sampdoria’s Dawid Kownacki), Piatek looks the most ready for a move, and if he keeps his form up, it won’t be long before a big-money move arrives. Early hype can be deceiving, but the chances are good that we’re looking at the next Robert Lewandowski.
3. João Cancelo
After finding himself on the fringes of Valencia’s first team, João Cancelo wound up at Inter Milan in the final stages of the 2017 summer transfer window, with Inter retaining a €35 million option to buy. After a slow start, Cancelo eventually worked his way into the team, with Luciano Spalletti ironing out some concentration flaws that had once prevented him from being a top-level right back. He evolved at Inter, adapting to the defensive demands of Serie A, but with Inter finding funds scarce due to FFP requirements, they did not redeem him. Instead, Juventus swooped in, buying him for just €40 million.
If Spalletti improved the defensive side of his game, making him ready for Serie A, Max Allegri has helped him evolve into the best right back in football this season, furthering his defensive evolution, and turning him into a different animal offensively. Cancelo’s explosive acceleration allows him to be an attacking threat on the wing, while also giving him the ability to recover and prevent dangerous counter-attacks.
In terms of attacking, Cancelo has improved in his chance creation and crossing ability, but apart from just passing, he’s been lights out dribbling: only Federico Chiesa has completed more dribbles in Serie A. While his Portuguese compatriot will earn the plaudits and front-page stories, Cancelo has been just as vital to Juventus this season.
4. Christian Kouamé
After recording 11 goals and 11 assists for Cittadella, it was only a matter of time before someone snapped up Christian Kouamé, and in July, Genoa beat out Cagliari and Atalanta to the signing of the 20-year-old.
Having acquired his services for £4.50m, it appears Genoa have another gem in the making. A swift, smart, creative striker, the Ivorian has formed an exciting duo up top with Piatek. Kouamé isn’t the clinical striker type as Piatek, but more of a creator. Piatek receives the majority of the attention due to his scoring, but Kouamé is often the brain behind it.
In his first season in a top 5 league, he’s already made the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Mehdi Benatia look foolish. Expect more unsuspecting defenders to fall prey to this emerging talent.
5. Gregoire Defrel
Defrel joined Roma ahead of the 2017/18 season from Sassuolo with rather high expectations given his previous season, where he produced 12 goals and four assists for Eusebio Di Francesco’s Neroverdi. However, the adventure didn’t end up as planned and Defrel only scored one goal in 15 games – which lead him to be loaned to Sampdoria ahead of this season. At Sampdoria, he’s found his Sassuolo self again, having scored six goals in the opening 13 games of the league season. Amongst Serie A strikers, he has the best shot-to-goal ratio (6:8, tied with Mario Mandžukić). He has formed a terrific partnership with Fabio Quagliarella, and the two have combined for 64% of Sampdoria’s goals in Serie A so far this season.
6. Gonzalo Higuaín
Higuaín’s future was unclear going into the season, but with Juventus having signed Ronaldo, and with fan (and Allegri) favorite Mandžukić always going to stay, it was obvious the former Capocannoniere would have to seek a new team. At last, he ended up at Milan, who was searching for a prolific scorer – and found one of the best in Higuaín. It’s a mix of serendipity and irony; Milan have been searching for a proven, top-level goalscorer since Zlatan Ibrahimović left, and if rumors are to be believed, they might get both of them playing together in a few weeks.
“Pipita” started the season well, scoring 5 goals in 10 games, and is currently the club’s leading scorer. Despite receiving far inferior service than what he previously had at Juve, the Argentine veteran is getting the job done for his third Serie A team. He’s now serving a two-game ban after losing it completely against Juventus, breaking down and leaving the pitch in tears. “Pipita” is what Milan has been looking for, but he has only scratched the surface of what he can accomplish at Milan.
7. Matteo Politano
In the summer of 2017, Fiorentina aimed to sign him to replace Federico Bernadeschi. In January, Napoli narrowly missed out on him, offering €29m and Adam Ounas on loan. Sassuolo must be relieved; had it not been for Matteo Politano’s 10 goals and five assists last season, they would be fighting to climb out of Serie B right now. Instead, they’re challenging for a Europa spot.
Politano finally took the step up this past summer, joining Inter Milan on loan for €5 million with a €20 million option to buy. He has shown it was the right decision, and Inter look set to redeem their option. He has arguably been Inter’s leading creative force offensively throughout the start of the season. He takes great set pieces and is Inter’s most effective dribbler, having played in every single match so far, and starting the majority of them. The Italian has produced two goals and three assists in 13 league matches, but as with Kouamé, the stats don’t fully reflect his importance and impact for Inter.
His effective performances have also seen him win his first cap for the Azzurri. In Italy’s last match of the year, against the United States, he came on for club teammate Roberto Gagliardini in the 87th minute, and scored the winner with the last kick of the game. It’s more proof that, in Politano’s case, patience is a virtue.
8. Łukasz Skorupski
Skorupski had a fantastic season on loan at Empoli in 2016/17 and returned to Roma ahead of last season – where he only got to play one game all season long. With Alisson playing out of his skin each and every match, all the Pole could do was sit and watch, while hoping for more playing time elsewhere. Roma granted him his wish, and he was sold to Bologna, replacing Antonio Mirante, who would fill his shoe’s as Roma’s backup goalkeeper. While at Bologna, Skorupski has rediscovered the form and quality he displayed at Empoli, showcasing himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the league. With incredible reflexes and confidence, he’s been the sole bright spot of a terrible Bologna season, and if the Greyhounds are to avoid relegation, they’ll need him to continue playing at his best.
9. Robin Olsen
He wasn’t taken seriously at first, and in fairness, who could blame Roma fans? The club was selling Alisson, who, at 25, was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world last season, and certainly the most consistent performer of Roma last season. To replace him, they were getting a 28-year-old goalkeeper who had played in Denmark, Greece, and Sweden, but never a major European league. Shaky performances against Atalanta, Bologna and Milan didn’t help put Giallorossi fans at ease either, and by matchday 5, Roma had fallen to 14th in the table. Even if he clearly wasn’t the biggest issue behind their defensive woes, he was used as a scapegoat, another Moneyball experiment right out of the Monchi playbook that soon went awry.
Roma have steadily improved, inching their way up to 7th and qualifying for the Champions League knockout round last night. Had it not been for Olsen’s form, specifically standout performances against Napoli and CSKA Moscow, they’d still be caught in mid-table rut.
Having followed him since his debut for the Swedish national team as starting keeper, all that can be said is that Roma are lucky to have Olsen, who has finally settled down and acclimatized. With terrific reflexes, reading and positioning, he may not be the world class sweeper keeper Alisson was, but he’s certainly good enough for Roma. It would not surprise me if, in a few months, we will be talking about Olsen as not only Monchi’s best bargain buy in the capital, but as one of the most underrated goalkeepers in Europe. If you saw Sweden’s last two Nations League games against Turkey and Russia, I’m certain you agree.
10. Nicolas N’Koulou
After struggling over the previous two seasons, Nicolas N’Koulou left France for the first time since arriving from Cameroon as a teenager. He had found the pressure of replacing Samuel Umtiti too heavy a burden, he had tarnished his reputation amongst Marseille fans after moving to rivals Lyon on a free transfer, and his best years looked to be behind him. His destination? Torino.
He immediately impressed, finally looking like the player he was under Marcelo Bielsa. By the time the 2017/18 season ended, N’Koulou was voted as Torino’s Player of the Season, and Torino took up their permanent buy option.
Overlooked by many, N’Koulou has quickly implemented himself as the cornerstone of Walter Mazzari’s three-man defense at Torino. He is composed both on and off the ball, he has high footballing IQ, and he’s secure in tackles and re-gaining possession. Above all though, he is a born leader, one of those defenders who makes defending look so effortless. N’Koulou can usually be observed organizing his two companions in the three-man defense, Armando Izzo and Koffi Djidji. Between the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Alessio Romagnoli, and Milan Škriniar, Serie A continues to boast some of the most imposing defenders in football, and N’Koulou is right up there with the best of them.
Special mentions: Radja Nainggolan (Inter), Samu Castillejo (Milan), Mattias Svanberg (Bologna), Gervinho (Parma), Duván Zapata (Atalanta, Alban Lafont (Fiorentina).
By: Max Juhlin
Photo: Genoa CFC Tanopress