This year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup was full of positives for Italy: the Azzurrini arrived third for the first time in the competition, as Luigi Di Biagio’s side showcased a couple of promising young talents. Winger Riccardo Orsolini was the standout player, but others ran the show, one of them being Azzurini captain Rolando Mandragora.
Born in the city of Naples on the 29th of June 1997, Mandragora had a couple of trials with Serie A clubs as a youngster, but all of them refused to sign him due to his size–all except Genoa.
Fabio Liverani, his youth coach at Genoa, immediately saw his potential and helped the young lad develop quickly, both physically and mentally. His improvements were so noticeable that, aged just 17 years and 4 months, Genoa’s coach Gian Piero Gasperini gave him his full Serie A debut on the 29th of October 2014 against none other than title holders and eventual champions Juventus–a baptism of fire indeed. Genoa won that match 1-0 and Mandragora played very well, managing to nullify a certain Paul Pogba for most of the game.
“I really liked Mandragora’s performance and I never give an opportunity that isn’t deserved,” said Gasperini during his post-match interview. “He is only 17, but he already has an important professional mentality. I needed a player with these characteristics, and he handled such a big game with aplomb.”
In the end, he only managed to grab five appearances overall for il Grifone, as Stefano Sturaro and Andrea Bertolacci formed a strong midfield partnership that term. The following season, which he spent on loan at Pescara in Serie B, was his breakthrough. Rolando thrived in Massimo Oddo’s 4-3-1-2 formation and was by far one of their best performers that season, as the Abruzzo-based club were promoted back to the top-flight division through playoffs. Ironically, Juventus bought him in January 2016 for about 6 million euros, although he didn’t debut with the club until the 23rd of April 2017 (due to two severe injuries), against none other Genoa.
This season, the 20-year old is on loan at Crotone to get adequate playing time and fully recover from his injuries. In Davide Nicola’s 4-4-2, he is the creative midfielder who launches long balls towards the attackers in a very direct manner.
Mandragora stands 183cm tall and weighs 75 kg–an extremely talented midfielder who can play as a regista or deep-lying playmaker, but also as a mezz’ala or even in a left centre back role.
“I’m a midfielder who loves to be on the ball. I have good technique but I also carry out defensive tasks,” Mandragora said. “My role model would be a player like Thiago Motta. I always try to give 100 percent for the team.”
On the other hand, his tactical adaptability isn’t matched by a technical one; he mainly uses his left foot but has gradually learnt to pass with his right. His key attribute is his passing: Mandragora is tidy, and extremely accurate at both short and long passes. His calm and composure also reflect his personality: he is a leader and is well respected by most teammates.
His desire and tendency to play penetrative passes make him an excellent playmaker when he is allowed to use the ball with ease. He can pull the strings between defence and attack from a deep position and doesn’t mind taking a risk. Defensively, his positioning and reading of the game are high quality; he isn’t afraid of diving into a tackle, but mainly relies on his intelligent reading of play. His physique has improved too–he is stronger now and can deal with more demanding midfielders in aerial
duels. His pace is decent for his role, and he has moderate strength.
It’s difficult to compare Mandragora to a player, but on account of his all-round qualities, I’d say he looks like a much younger version of Xabi Alonso. He is in the category of players who like to dictate tempo and act as a focal point for their team, protecting the ball well, adequately using space, offering passing lanes for the defenders, and making himself an elusive target for opponents. Discipline is also one of his key virtues, and his restraint and maturity has earned him plenty of plaudits in Italy.
Against England last summer, the former Genoa man-marked Dominic Solanke and hardly allowed the Liverpool youngster any room to play with. He sat in front of the back four, often dropping deeper to help out the centre-back pairing of Filippo Romagna and Mauro Coppolaro when England tried pressing Italy high up the pitch or overloading the box with numbers. Mandragora’s composure on the ball around the back four proved vital in the first half, as he did the simple things well and never looked to do anything too complicated. He circulated the ball forward in tight spaces and found passing routes in dangerous areas.
It is vital that Mandragora improves his use of the weaker foot, as the deep-lying playmaker is always under constant pressure. He hasn’t scored many goals, but this is mainly due to his deeper role, as he tends to stick to his position and doesn’t venture too much forward. Furthermore, he really needs to get his consistent form back, as injuries over the last 18 months have hampered his development. Despite all that, Rolando Mandragora is a true gem for his age, and with any luck, he can become the Thiago Motta replacement that Italy have needed for quite some time.
By: Charles Onwuakpa/@CharlesOnwuakpa