Elseid Hysaj: What’s Next for the Albanian Fullback?

“No one wants to be a fullback as a kid, no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville.” 


It’s been a decade since Jamie Carragher’s derisive comment of his former England teammate and current colleague at Sky Sports, but there is still an element of truth to his statement. Whilst millions of children grow up dreaming of becoming professional fullbacks, few players aspire to be the next Gary Neville, a player famed for his tenacity, aggressive style and work ethic, but not particularly technical ability and close control. Instead, many aspiring fullbacks look to base their game on attack-minded defenders such as Dani Alves, Marcelo, and Ashley Cole.


As more teams switch to three-at-the-back systems, as fullbacks in back-four defenses are given more and more attacking responsibility, as rule changes and VAR help to protect wingers and forwards from contentious fouls, the combative, tough-tackling fullback of Neville’s ilk is fading away. Neville himself admitted: “If I played now as a full-back against the types of players we’ve now got in the game, I would find it a lot more difficult. The speed of them is absolutely incredible now.”



Indeed, as teams across Europe continue to place a premium on attack-minded fullbacks, defensive fullbacks have waned in importance and prominence. And yet, there are still quite a few defensive specialist who are renowned for their 1v1 ability and discipline more than their attacking prowess. From César Azpilicueta to Nélson Semedo, from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Michael Kayode, these players relish the opportunity to do the dirty work, step in front of a cross or put in a crunching tackle when necessary.


One of the members of this dying breed of old-fashioned fullbacks is Elseid Hysaj. Despite being better at defending his own box than attacking the opposition’s, Hysaj has amassed 223 appearances for Napoli, 109 for Empoli and 109 for Lazio, and become the youngest ever player to captain Albania’s national team. However, with the 30-year-old’s contract t Lazio set to expire in June 2025, he could very well set for a new adventure this summer.


Humble Beginnings in Albania and Empoli


Two months after Hysaj’s birth in Reç, Malësi e Madhe, Albania, his father Gëzim left for Italy, where he would perform odd jobs and brave the perilous trip across the Adriatic Sea in order to send money back home to his family. As his father struggled to make ends meet as an undocumented worker in Italy, Hysaj began his footballing career at the age of seven at local side Klubi I Futbollit Vllaznia Shkodër, whilst living with his mother and grandparents.


In the summer of 2004, Gëzim found himself working as a bricklayer in the house of prominent agent Marco Piccioli. He asked the Italian intermediary if he could find a club for his 10-year-old son; Piccioli gave a tongue-in-cheek response, telling him to come back in four or five years.



Four years later, Gëzim returned and approached Piccioli about his previous promise. True to his word, Piccioli arranged a trial with Fiorentina, but due to bureaucratic rules regarding the children of immigrants in Italy, the move fell through. Nevertheless, Hysaj fell on his feet, joining Empoli’s academy, where he quickly progressed through the youth ranks before making his debut in a Coppa Italia match against Fiorentina on November 24, 2011. Having played the full 90 minutes in a 2-1 loss, Hysaj would spend the rest of the season with the reserve side, but his fortunes would soon change.


After narrowly defeating Vicenza in the relegation play-off to stay afloat in Serie B, Empoli sacked manager Alfredo Aglietti and brought in a little-known manager by the name of Maurizio Sarri. Sarri gave the 18-year-old Hysaj his Serie B debut in a 3-0 victory against Virtus Lanciano, and Hysaj soon became one of the first names on his team sheet, impressing at both right back and left back as Gli Azzurri finished fourth in the league, advancing to the promotion play-offs where they would lose to Livorno.


Hysaj went from strength to strength under Sarri, scoring his first professional goal in a 2-1 loss to Virtus Lanciano and becoming a regular squad member under Albania manager Gianni De Biasi. He later revealed that he was approached by the Italian Football Federation but rejected them to play for the country of his birth. After the bitter disappointment against Livorno, Empoli finished second in the league and earned promotion to the top flight, ending a six-year spell in Serie B.



Widely tipped for relegation, Empoli finished 15th in Serie A in the 2014/15 season, and they did so in style, boasting a dynamic, free-flowing style of football and an impressive crop of youngsters ranging from Matías Vecino, Simone Verdi, Mário Rui and Hysaj. It wasn’t long before Italy’s big fish came knocking at the door; Sarri left Tuscany and headed for his birth city of Napoli, and he brought Hysaj with him.


Coming-of-age in Napoli


 After arriving on a five-year-contract for a reported fee of €5 million, Hysaj quickly displaced veteran right back Christian Maggio in the team. Sarri ditched the 4-3-1-2 that had paid dividends at Empoli and switched to a 4-3-3. This system placed a strong emphasis on building through the left flank, with left back Faouzi Ghoulam bombing forward and combining with his attacking teammates, Dries Mertens and Marek Hamšík exchanging positions in the final third, and José Callejón pinning back the opposing left back and waiting to exploit switches of play.


In turn, Hysaj adopted a conservative position in possession, almost acting like a right-sided center back. In sharp contrast to Ghoulam, who registered 2 goals and 17 assists until suffering a season-ending knee injury in November 2017, Hysaj cut a far more reserved figure on the opposite flank, recording 3 three assists in 3 seasons under Sarri at Napoli.


Indeed, during the 2017/18 Serie A campaign, 46% of Napoli’s attacks came down the left flank as opposed to 29% on the right. Nevertheless, Hysaj rose to prominence at the San Paolo on account of his disciplined defending, positional intelligence, and brilliant anticipation.



It worked like magic. Having placed fifth in their final season under Rafael Benítez, Napoli finished second in Serie A on the back of a 36-goal season from Gonzalo Higuaín. Hysaj joined up with the Albania national team at the end of the campaign, becoming the youngest player to wear the armband for Shqiponjat in a 3-1 victory against Qatar, before playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland — the first European Championship match in Albania’s history.


The following match saw Albania take on France at the Stade Vélodrome. Not only was Hysaj composed and assured in defense, he was just as good in attack; in fact, he nearly created a goal with a lovely whipped in cross, but Ledian Memushaj’s effort bounced off the bar.


France would go on to eliminate Albania from the group stage via two late goals from Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet, but Di Biasi’s side secured a win in their final match against Romania. Alongside Joshua Kimmich, Arkadiusz Milik and Ondřej Duda, Hysaj was included in the short-list for Best Young Player of the tournament, although Renato Sanches would go on to claim the award after winning the Euros with Portugal.


Hysaj continued to establish himself as one of the best young right backs in Europe, playing a leading role in two title challenges that ultimately fell short against Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus. Despite never winning a trophy, Sarri’s Napoli were the talk of the town, and soon enough, Europe’s biggest clubs came knocking. After coming to blows with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, Sarri left Italy for the first time in his career and headed for London, where he would replace his compatriot Antonio Conte as Chelsea manager.



Chelsea successfully completed a £57 million deal for Jorginho, who had served as the midfield metronome at the base of Napoli’s 4-3-3, but when they lodged a £43 million (€50 million) bid for Hysaj, De Laurentiis refused to even pick up the phone and negotiate. Sarri was forced to settle for Azpilicueta at right back, whilst Hysaj was forced to adapt to a new manager’s style of play for the first time in six years.


Struggles under Ancelotti and Rebirth under Gattuso


With Sarri and De Laurentiis nearing an ugly divorce at the San Paolo, Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Napoli manager on May 23, 2018. Whilst Hysaj began the season as the undisputed first-choice right back, he found himself gradually displaced from the line-up by Nikola Maksimović, a center back by trade, and Kévin Malcuit, an attack-minded fullback who had arrived in the summer from Saint-Ètienne.


His fortunes worsened when Napoli announced the signing of Giovanni Di Lorenzo for €8 million. Di Lorenzo had joined on a five-year contract from Empoli — Hysaj’s former club — and he quickly cemented a starting spot under Ancelotti. Through the first half of the 2019/10 season, Hysaj played more minutes for Edoardo Reja’s Albania team (290) than Ancelotti’s Napoli (228).


Despite the bleak situation, Albania Football Association President Armand Duka argued that Hysaj should stay put in Napoli. “Hysaj deserves to play but for me he should not leave in January, because it will be Ancelotti who will depart,” said Duka in November. 



As it turns out, Duka’s prognostication would soon come to fruition. With the Partenopei sitting 7th in the table and trailing Sarri’s Juventus by 17 points, Ancelotti was given his marching orders on December 11. He was replaced by his former player Gennaro Gattuso, who had previously  spent 18 months in charge of Milan before departing the club by mutual consent.


Under Gattuso’s reign, Hysaj went from fringe player to a key first team performer, impressing at both the right back and left back position and gradually regaining confidence and form. However, despite bouncing back from his arduous spell under Ancelotti and finding consistency, Hysaj elected to join Lazio on a free transfer. Two and a half years after rejecting a bid of €50 million from Chelsea, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis had no other choice but to let him leave for free.


He reunited with Maurizio Sarri, who had replaced Simone Inzaghi in the summer, and it didn’t take long for him to lock down a starting spot in defense, operating both as a left back and a right back as the Biancocelesti finished fifth, made it to the Coppa Italia quarterfinals, and fell to Porto in the knockout round playoffs. The following season would see him make just three starts going into 2023, but Hysaj would nevertheless close out the campaign by cementing a starting spot, becoming one of the first names on the team sheet under Sarri.


Le Aquile were knocked out in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals by Juventus, whilst they were dispatched by AZ Alkmaar in the Europa Conference League Round of 16, but in Serie A, they enjoyed their best campaign in two decades. Lazio finished second in the table to seal their spot in the UEFA Champions League group stage, where they would finish second before being eliminated by Bayern Munich in the Round of 16.



This season, however, Hysaj has dropped down the pecking order, and with Igor Tudor replacing Sarri at the helm in March, it seems his time in the Italian capital could be coming to an end. I spoke to Toronto-based Lazio fan and the editor of The Laziali Steven K. Moore about Hysaj’s time at the Biancocelesti:


“Elseid Hysaj was brought in on a free transfer by former Albanian Sporting Director Igli Tare after 7 years at Napoli. The Biancocelesti knew that his experience in the league would be a bonus, especially being the captain of the Albania National Team, in addition to linking up with former manager Maurizio Sarri, whom he had worked with very well in the past. This is primarily why the deal transpired.


Being able to play on the left or right flank was a huge asset for Sarri and the club, as they did not have a lot of depth and a lot of the current squad players were not used to a 4-man backline (they came from Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2). This included the likes of Manuel Lazzari and Adam Marusic. However, his time at Lazio has been nothing short of average.


He has underperformed during his time in Rome, being one of those players who you almost forget is playing/plays for the club. He had an advantage over most when Sarri came in as he already knew what to do – but despite always making an overlap run to try and get forward, he couldn’t do the simple things right like actually defend or mark his man… At times, it felt like the only reason he continued to play was because of Sarri’s fondness for the player.



Fast forward to today under Igor Tudor, it seems more and more likely that he will be moving on. At 30 years old, he is a shell of the player he once was at Napoli all those years ago. He has looked incredibly unconvincing in the back-line, and with his contract expiring next summer, it would make sense for all parties involved to part ways.”


Over the past two weeks, Lazio have beaten Hellas Verona 1-0, drawn 2-2 at Monza, and they missed out on a trip to the Coppa Italia Final by the slimmest of margins, falling to Juventus. Le Aquile currently sit seventh in the table, four points behind Roma and Atalanta — the latter with a game in hand — five points above Napoli, and six above ninth-placed Fiorentina, who also have a game in hand. Whilst eighth place is set to qualify for the Europa Conference League playoff round, sixth and seventh make it to the Europa League league stage.


It remains to be seen whether or not Lazio can get their hands on fifth place and secure back-to-back UEFA Champions League qualifications, but it does seem that Elseid Hysaj will end up departing the Stadio Olimpico this summer in what looks set to be a transitional window for the Biancocelesti. Whilst attack-minded fullbacks have gone from being in vogue to being outright necessities for most clubs at the top level, Hysaj is evidence that traditional, no-nonsense fullbacks still have a place in today’s game.


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto