20. Mattia Caldara
Calcio is entering a new phase this summer, with a carousel of bright-eyed talents rising through the ranks of their respective clubs, from sturdy goalkeepers to electric attackers. The Italian production line of quality centre-halves doesn’t look like ebbing away either; when Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli start to hang up their boots, it appears the Azzurri already have their defense for the next decade covered in Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara.
It is certainly not jaw-dropping to see or hear about young centre-backs who are physically mature and who are able to dominate the opposition forwards. However, when this repertoire of physical dominance is accompanied with impeccable positioning, great positioning and a prodigious reading of the game, you’ve got a future world-beater on your hands.
Enter Mattia Caldara. Almost as sleepy-eyed as he is bright-eyed, the Bergamo-born defender’s abilities reflect maturity way beyond his age. But the road to recognition wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Caldara came through the Atalanta primavera, and at the age of 17, he had already made his debut for Atalanta’s U-21 side. In the 2013-14 season, he made 23 appearances in the Primavera B team, which prompted a call-up from the senior Atalanta side. Two successive loan spells at Trapani and Cesena followed, and at the latter, he demonstrated what he can bring to the table, leading Cesena to a lofty sixth place finish.
It took Caldara two loan spells for Atalanta to be fully convinced that he could become an integral player for La Dea. After excelling on his return to Atalanta, Caldara, expectedly, nailed down a first team place. From here, the 23-year-old’s story starts to go uphill. In January, Juventus signed Caldara to a four-and-a-half-year contract, a deal which also included a free loan, meaning that he will stay at Atalanta until 2018. It was during this loan spell that he knocked it out of the park.
Caldara made 30 league appearances, and his 7 goals meant he was only a goal shy of becoming Serie A’s highest-scoring defender, which more than anything, bears eloquent testimony of his attacking proficiency, a trait missing in most young centre backs. In November 2016, Caldara scored a crucial equalizer for Atalanta against Roma en route to a 2-1 win. Three months later, he followed it up with a two-goal performance at Napoli – ending Napoli’s run of 14 straight undefeated league matches.
Caldara’s 6’3’ frame makes him indomitable in the air, but his aerial prowess is just as an important asset as his ball interception skills. A menace in both boxes, he made 101 interceptions last season – only four other players across Europe’s ‘Big 5’ Leagues made more. In Serie A, only teammate Rafael Toloi (106) and Sassuolo’s Francesco Acerbi (104) made more interceptions. Leonardo Bonucci, arguably the best defender in Europe, even comes up short in the interceptions department, number of aerial duels won, and tackles won last season. Caldara’s 10 clearances, five interceptions and two goals against Napoli in February was the best input by a defender in a match in the Serie A last term. His exploits didn’t go unnoticed as Giampiero Ventura, the Italian National team coach, called him up for the national team training camp in February. For all we know, he could well be on his way to take over the mantle from Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli. Only time will tell.
Much has been said about his goal scoring and defensive abilities, so it would appear that he isn’t all that stellar in ball retention. Quite the contrary, when Caldara is on the ball, he’s as cool as a cucumber – a simile which hardly does justice to his grace and calmness. His passing accuracy, which admittedly, is the only area that cries for an improvement isn’t abysmal – 85% compared to Bonucci’s 87.2% . Being a defender who can hold the ball well and play out of the back, his errors are few and far between as he is not the one to dive into tackles.
If he continues in this progression, he will establish himself as a regular for the Azzurri in the near future. The comparisons to Alessandro Nesta can only mean he is doing something right –not just because he favours the #13 shirt. Caldara is the heir apparent of a defensive dynasty, but he came to the dinner of kings looking like royalty.
By: Sidney Diogu/@sidneydiogu