16. Nicolò Barella
Nicolò Barella is Cagliari through and through. Born in the Sardinian capital, the dynamic and versatile midfielder had to rise up through the ranks in his hometown before making his Serie A debut for the club on May 4, 2015, in a 4-0 win against Parma. Barella had to sit on the bench fifteen times before making his first Serie A appearance, which was quickly followed by his second and third, but it was to be a longer wait for his fourth as Cagliari were relegated, narrowly missing out on safety by just three points.
Serie B was a steep learning curve for Cagliari and in particular Barella, who enjoyed contrasting fortunes whilst gaining invaluable experience. Now in Serie B, Barella thought he could be trusted in midfield as their bid for promotion took off, but this wasn’t to be the case. Despite not making an appearance until May in the 2014/15 season, Barella featured for just 24 minutes less than he did in Serie B from September to December and, with minutes hard to come by, was even pushed back to the Primavera squad.
The Italian youngster knew he had to play, yet also knew Cagliari would not play him amidst a rat race for immediate promotion. So he left in January, with Como acquiring his services on loan for the rest of the season as they participated in an altogether different rat race. Whilst his boyhood club and fellow colleagues celebrated winning the Serie B title, Barella’s smile was tinged with sadness as Como finished bottom of the table by nine points. But the fresh-faced midfielder had learned important lessons; he had learnt the meaning of teamwork and togetherness, he had learnt what it feels like to be trusted by a manager, and he had returned to Cagliari ready and mature, but still unsure of his role as they took their place back in Serie A. Barella didn’t just want to make it, he wanted so desperately to make it at Cagliari.
In Cagliari’s preferred 4-3-1-2 formation, he can play as either the left-sided central midfielder or as the ‘diamond’ behind two strikers. More than capable of driving forward with the ball and exploiting space, Barella is also intelligent with his choices and almost always picks the right ball at the right time in pressured situations. His dribbling and ball retention is fundamental to Cagliari in a variety of ways; if a team is defending well, he can draw them out and break them down, whereas if Cagliari are
defending deeply themselves, he can get them up the pitch and fight for territory. Barella’s vision from deep is improving, expertly picking out the runs of his quick forwards in Marco Sau and Diego Farias. The 20-year-old is a referee’s nightmare, constantly winning free-kicks with his quick feet whilst his tenacity and willingness to get back also sees him end up in the book on occasion.
Barella is a familiar face to not only officials but also to head coach Massimo Rastelli, who appreciated his talents and versatility so much that he has placed him in the starting eleven for the indefinite future. With all of these qualities, it is no wonder Cagliari decided to bring him back to the first team squad upon promotion, with Barella playing just under 2000 Serie A minutes last campaign and starting every game so far this season. The tricky Italian still has to make advancements in his game, but with the trust of the Cagliari staff, he now has the time and environment to make them in, alongside the odd mistake. He scored his first ever professional goal on September 17, in a 2-0 win against SPAL, and this season more than ever, he is making a name for himself for I Rossoblu.
His leadership and eagerness to receive the ball has not gone unnoticed, and Rastelli, who himself played a season for Como, has had no choice but to make Nicolò Barella one of the first names on his team sheet, as he seeks to merge Cagliari’s future with its present.
The Gli Isolani started the season with two massively difficult away fixtures against Juventus and Milan, picking up zero points in the process, but the performances have been there, particularly at the San Siro. Many were shocked by the maturity and ability of Barella in the opening two games, but it was no surprise for the scouts and the media, who subsequently linked the youngster with moves to Chelsea, Napoli and Milan, as Barella has helped Cagliari take six out of the next nine points available.
The domestic stage isn’t the only arena privy to Barella, who was recently called up by Di Biagio to the Italy U21 squad for the first time amid a squad overhaul after another disappointing European Championships. It wasn’t Di Biagio who hailed Barella as a ‘national symbol’ but rather Gian Piero Ventura, current manager of the Italian senior squad. Ventura was asked about the future of the Azzurri and raved about the 20-year-old midfielder’s ability.
“We expect a lot from the future of Italy. Just look at the performance of Barella at the Juventus Stadium last week. They are young players, proactive and with huge potential, and there is therefore the possibility of doing something important.”
From the outskirts of Cagliari to a mainstay fixture, backed by club and international managers. Nicolò Barella is not here to stay, he’s here to thrive.
By: Elliott Martin/@ElliottM95