“Who the hell is he?” That was my initial reaction when Inter announced a deal with Atalanta in the beginning of January 2017 for the acquisition of its new #5, Roberto Gagliardini. The agreement was an 18-month loan with an obligation to buy for £17 million, and it seemed to be another case of Inter spending 20 million euros on an unknown midfield reserve. The Nerazzuri and I were left scratching our heads and furiously debating on social media, wondering who he was and why the Inter spent so much money on a player who had only played a handful of league games since the 2015/16 season.
After just a few short training sessions, his debut vs. Chievo was understandably clouded by a lot of scepticism. To the surprise of the Nerazzuri and the chagrin of the Mussi Volanti, he played his heart out, constantly involved in every facet of the game. Gagliardini had a passing accuracy of 89%, created two chances, had two successful take-ons, attempted three shots, and made three interceptions.
A stunning all-round performance! It was like he had been at Inter for years. I was mesmerised by his sleek passing, great tactical awareness and desire to contribute on the pitch. I fell in love with him from then on–a hidden gem with rough edges.
Over the past six months, he became a new ‘fan favourite’ due to his unwavering personality and the significant impact he has made with La Beneamata. The midfield artist has become a prominent figure in the middle of the park, offering Italy a calming presence at the base they have not seen since Andrea Pirlo, while becoming a much-needed controller to build around.
In fact, Gagliardini has some striking similarities with a former fan favourite, Thiago Motta. Just like the Brazilian, he has an imposing body physique that fortifies him in aerial duels, with brilliant tactical awareness, and resilience in defense that never lets up. They both have powerful shots, sleek passing ability and versatility along the central midfield positions, and if Gagliardini can become Motta’s heir apparent, perhaps Inter can replicate the treble efforts of 2010.
I’m getting goosebumps thinking there could be a modern-day Motta at the San Siro. Inter sorely miss an aggressive and tenacious character who can influence the game, who can pull off goals such as the Brazilian’s screamer vs. Milan, who remains ice-cold in the toughest scenarios.
The Italian midfielder was born on April 7, 1994 in Bergamo, Italy. Gagliardini joined one of the best youth academies in Italy, Atalanta at 7, where he developed and honed his skills for the next 12 years in his hometown. He was called up to the first team in 2013/14, and debuted in a cup tie in December 2013 against Sassuolo, winning 2-0.
To gain some first team experience, he was loaned to Cesena in January 2014, where he scored his first professional goal & made roughly 19 appearances, helping Cesena achieve promotion to Serie A. Over the next two years, the Italian had various loan spells in Serie B, and made 30 appearances between two loans with Spezia and Vicenza.
Gagliardini finally made his Serie A debut for his local club Atalanta in May 2016, in a 2-1 away win vs. Genoa. Thanks to manager Gianpiero Gasperini, who arrived in the summer of 2016, Gagliardini established himself as a starter for Atalanta – who went on to surprise everyone that season by challenging for a Europa League spot.
He hadn’t enjoyed the most hype-worthy career so far, but a string of solid performances caused Inter Milan to splurge on what will soon seem like a bargain, in January 2017.
Gagliardini made his senior international debut in a friendly match against Holland, winning 2-1 in March 2017. He was a key figure in this summer’s U-21 European Championships, where he helped Italy reach the semi-final, but got sent off in the semi against Spain.
Roberto Gagliardini is a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who often links up with the backline to help with defensive contribution. He distributes the ball from a deep position, drifts wide to make good use of free space, and develops passing chains from high-intensity areas. He also has immense ball control and is great with getting out of tight spots so the momentum doesn’t get lost. He is tactically aware, enabling him to do productive off-the-ball movements and a lot of instinctive, short passes to keep the play going. Finally, Inter’s #5 has a strong aura and usually leads his teammates to counter-press the opposing team up high on the pitch. Make no mistake, the double pivot brings the best out of Gagliardini’s abilities, and Matías Vecino’s signing will surely only help.
A standout example of his tactical impact took place in Inter’s 7-1 humiliation vs. Atalanta. Around the 34th minute, the No.5 decided to press and managed to dispossess Jasmin Kurtić. Icardi then collected the ball, dished it out wide to Candreva, who produced a cutback to Banega, who side-footed the ball into the back of the net. In the same game, around the 52nd minute, Gagliardini proved he was tactically aware enough to take advantage of a loose ball that was played into the box by smashing a first time shot into the roof of the net. Against Milan, Gagliardini dropped deep into his own half, picked up the ball and launched a 30 yards pass to Candreva, who scored a first touch half-volley. The goal was something else, but it was the pass that won Interisti’s hearts over.
Some may doubt his resilience, but with all due respect, let me squash these doubts. As Inter hosted Roma in February 2017, Gagliardini was found at fault within the first 5 minutes when he didn’t close down Nainggolan, who then went on to score an absolute banger. He was also partially at fault for Nainggolan’s 2nd goal. However, Inter’s No.5 still made an impact in the game and ended up with over 80% passing accuracy, 75% successful tackle rate, 3 clearances, 3 interceptions and 3 blocks. He played a large part in Icardi’s consolation goal as well. This losing effort showcases his ability to try and influence the game even when things aren’t going Inter’s way.
Gagliardini possesses a combination of strong attributes; he is hard-working, resolute, and boasts marvellous stamina, strong physique, excellent technique and confidence. At Atalanta, during the first half of 2016/17 season, he managed to achieve a 54% successful take-on rate but within 6 months, the success rate was significantly higher with 85% at Inter.
Despite his box-to-box tendencies, Gagliardini is defensively more reliable than many true DMs, and there is no doubt that he is Inter Milan’s finest defensive midfielder. He guards his defense, making interceptions and winning fouls while still managing to retain a clean disciplinary record.
Since January, Gagliardini has been making things click at the San Siro with relentless pressing, calmness in possession and a drive to make a difference. However, despite his success, he still has plenty he needs to work on.
In order to evolve into the world-class midfielder he can become, Gagliardini must commit less fouls and improve his tackling success rates. His shot accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, and even though it’s asking a lot for a player of his ilk to add goals to his game, doing so would allow him to rise to the top tier of Europe’s midfielders.
So far, Inter’s expensive gamble on the 23-year-old Italian international is coming to fruition as he continues to develop and become an important figure in Inter’s midfield department. I believe that Roberto Gagliardini can improve on his weaknesses fairly quickly, due to his gritty and dogged character and eagerness to learn.
Roberto Gagliardini has the ability to be a world class leader in midfield for both Inter Milan and the Italian national team. I feel blessed to see this diamond at the San Siro, because even with his shortcomings, he has the confidence and resilience to improve and evolve into Inter Milan’s first world-class midfield controller since Thiago Motta.
This breakout star list has been chalk-full of stars from Atalanta’s 2016/17 season-from Andrea Conti, to Mattia Caldara to Franck Kessié, but it was Gagliardini, the unknown flop from January, the late-bloomer, who ranked the highest on this list. The book hasn’t ended its chapter yet, and the diamond hasn’t finished crystallizing either.
By: Ahmad Kalim/@AKalim27
Photo Credit: @DanielHardman