Wilfried Gnonto: On the Verge of a Breakout Year at Leeds

Wilfried Gnonto’s break feels like it is just over the horizon. The likes of Cody Gakpo, Enzo Fernandez and Sofyan Amrabat were just a few of the players who feel like they could be on the move after scintillating displays at the World Cup in Qatar. Gnonto, through no fault of his own, missed this particular chance to show what he could do.


The Italian international, born in the Comune of Verbania in the Piedmont region in the northwest of the country to Ivorian parents, watched on with the rest of the world as other names lit up screens and social media. The Leeds United youngster may not have had that International stage to perform on but the return of the Premier League marks Gnonto’s chance to show the world what he can do and whether he can become the player he has been touted to be.


Gnonto’s footballing education began on a small pitch just across from his childhood home. The impacts left by him dribbling across that surface and keeping the ball from neighborhood challengers as a child are evident in his direct style and willingness to take on defenders in his current game. Speed of thought developed on that small pitch was further nurtured by an education at Inter Milan where Gnonto excelled on the practice fields and in the classroom.


His ability to outsmart and get one step ahead of defenders made him a standout in Inter’s academy sides where he claimed multiple trophies with the U17s. This performance propelled him into prominence representing his country as well.  This moment of Gnonto representing Italy as a native-born Italian of Ivorian descent happened to coincide with the rise of Ivorian representation in a more direct way in Italy. Aboubakar Soumahoro, who immigrated to Italy in 1999 when he was just 19 years old, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) representing the Green and Left Parties of Italy’s Parliamentary system.


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In stark terms, this was a victory for progressives amongst a seemingly global shift right on the political spectrum. Soumahoro became the only Black member of Italy’s lower chamber which is comprised of 400 members. Soumahoro became an immediate ally of Italy’s growing migrant population and with Gnonto representing the country in a sporting sense, the visibility of Italy’s Ivorian communities and, by extension, their African migrant communities became more significant than it has ever been.


Gnonto started representing Italy at youth levels in 2018 and in the 3 years that followed he made 31 appearances, scoring 11 goals for the Azzurri’s various youth teams. During this period, while his aspirations seemed to be coming together on the national team front, he made a bold move to further his career. 


He had been learning and training at Inter Milan for the better part of eight years. His dream had been to step onto the pitch as a full senior member of the Nerazzurri. So when the then-16 year old made the decision in the summer of 2020 to turn down Inter Milan’s offer of a fully professional contract it stunned many who had seen him as a potential future star for the club.


Wilfried did not want to be “one for the future,” though. He had made the decision because he wanted to go somewhere he could make an immediate first-team impact. This leap of faith would take him from Italy and deliver him the opportunities he so craved. FC Zurich were able to secure Gnonto’s signature with significant interest from around Europe for such a talent available for free.


His move to Zurich was purely motivated by the promise of first-team football. That first season in Zurich could be described as one of acclimation. Gnonto took quickly to German, as he contributed a goal and four assists in 26 appearances. He made 23 of those off of the bench but his potential impact for the side was clear. He was employed primariliy as a foil for the starting forwards, Assan Ceesay and Blaz Kramer and his direct style and movement both with and without the ball made him an ideal impact substitution.


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Played in a role just off of the main striker, although he could also be employed across the front line, it allowed him to receive the ball between the lines and in the left or right channels. This flexibility then naturally provided Wilfried with options which he gladly surveys and selects. Even when his manager, Ludovic Magnin, was relieved of his duties and Massimo Rizzo took over the role, his role within the squad, and the squad itself, would only grow in stature the following year.


In 2021/22, he appeared in 33 out of 36 matches, missing out only due to either yellow card suspension (2) and he was left as an unused substitute (1). Avoiding any major injuries, he was available for virtually every match, and he made use of this availability greatly. Manager Andre Breitenreiter, who joined the club having departed Hannover 96 in 2019 and was replaced scored 10 and assisted 5 across FCZ’s competitions and these contributions elevated FCZ within Swiss football.


Having gone 13 years without domestic success, Gnonto and company brought the title back to Zurich, with FCZ finishing a full 14 points clear of closest competitors and traditional heavyweights FC Basel. He did not score or assist in what proved to be the title-decider against Basel on May 1, 2022 but when Zee City took on the RotBlau on February 27, his goal in the 88th minute ended Basel resistance in a classic, FCZ walking away 4-2 winners.


Lifting the Swiss Super League proved to be the apex for FCZ. Breitenreiter had left for Hoffenheim in the offseason and as the summer of 2022 wore on, Zurich’s manager situation was turmoil and Gnonto’s head had been turned. Franco Foda took over the squad for just 102 days, Genesio Colatrella took over for a couple of weeks in the interim and Bo Henriksen finally had the job fully by October 11. In the meantime, Leeds United hunted for a missing piece.


Leeds had actually signed Gnonto already but he was not supposed to come to Leeds yet. Leeds and FCZ had agreed a fee for the youngster and he had gone through the paperwork and medicals but had been scheduled to join the Premier League outfit in January rather than in the summer window. Leeds had already seen Brazilian superstar forward Raphinha off to Barcelona and were trying to replace him with more ready-made options.


They first tried for Cody Gakpo (who is now quite famously off to Liverpool from PSV) but came up short. Then they went for Bamba Dieng, who was out of favor at Olympique de Marseille. Dieng looked lined up to join Leeds and was actually on the tarmac headed for Northeast England but a late bid from OGC Nice hijacked the transfer. He changed destinations, failed his medical with Nice and ended up back and unfavored at Marseille where he has since logged just 6 appearances and 1 goal (for the record he scored in his only start against RC Strasbourg Alsace).


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So Leeds had no forwards signed for the summer and a gaping hole in their attack. With their first options out of the mix, they looked to the player they had already signed. Just an hour before the transfer window slammed shut, his arrival date was pulled forward and just 12 hours later he was at Leeds training ground.


This jump to the Premier League felt like Gnonto was skipping a step but while questions were posed to Leeds manager Jesse Marsch as to whether Gnonto was ready, Roberto Mancini was trusting him to play as a wide forward for Italy’s Senior National Team. He has logged eight caps and grabbed his first-ever goal for the Azzurri against Germany in the UEFA Nations League. Meanwhile, he hasn’t exactly been handed the keys at Leeds yet, with Jack Harrison ahead of him in the pecking order but in his 4 appearances, all made in Leeds’ last 4 matches, he has shown his quality.


He came on as a sub in Leeds’ dramatic win over Liverpool and was an absolute menace, with his directness eventually leading to Crysencio Summerville’s dramatic 89th-minute winner. Similarly, against Bournemouth, he came off the bench at half-time and helped Leeds pull off a huge win, this time assisting Summerville directly. If not for a late double from Rodrigo Bentancur, Leeds would have won another over a big side.


Summerville has been the star of Leeds’ resurgence but it has been sparked by Gnonto as well. Following the World Cup break, which again Gnonto and Italy watched from home, he started and played the full 90 minutes against Man City and despite the 3-1 loss to the Champions-Elect, Gnonto was widely praised for his performance.


Leeds United reporter Joe Donnohue said in a tweet after the match: “Another game where you’re coming away from Elland Road impressed by Willy Gnonto. Still only 19, but so direct, fearless and wins fouls in dangerous areas – that’s so valuable when you’re up against it. Jack Harrison has a job on his hands reclaiming that shirt.” Wilfried Gnonto is representing Italy but the Italian-Ivorian is poised to become a force in the Premier League and it seems he is on the verge of a true breakout year at Elland Road. 


By: Phil Baki / @PhilTalksFooty

Featured Image: @Juanffrann / Ross Parker – SNS Group