“Don’t believe the hype.” The relevance of Public Enemy may have faded, but those 26 year old lyrics remain as poignant as ever, particularly in sport. Every young prospect who breaks onto the scene is met with ridiculous levels of hyperbole, and are far more likely to fall below those lofty expectations than to exceed them.
The latest installment in football’s excessive praise machine came last weekend as, two goals down within the opening fifteen minutes, tiny Sassuolo stormed into a 4-2 lead before being forced to cling on for a narrow win. They celebrated beating Milan as though they had just lifted the Serie A title, their joy at vanquishing the seven time European champions on a foggy night palpable to all who witnessed it. The team from the smallest town to grace any of the continent’s top five leagues had beaten the Rossoneri at home, a remarkable achievement for the newly promoted minnows.
At the heart of it was Domenico Berardi, a nineteen year old forward who netted all four Sassuolo goals, instantly sending casual fans scrambling to learn more about him. Enchanted by finding he was the second youngest player ever to score four goals in Serie A, and the first to do so against Milan, they saw it took him to eleven goals for the season.
Already with a hat trick against Sampdoria, a little research would uncover the story that his was a career that almost didn’t happen. The tale of a youngster who fell through the cracks and was spotted when playing in a five-a-side game at his brother’s university in 2010 is spellbinding, watching a player in only his 42nd professional game destroying Milan is simply unheard of. He has already had his own outlandish comparisons, with Luciano Carlino – the Sassuolo youth coach who discovered his talent back in 2010 – likening him to Arjen Robben.
“No doubt he is predestined to be a star. Though he is very young, he does not feel pressure. He must keep up the good work.” – former Juventus Director Giovanni Rossi, now at Sassuolo
Like the Bayern Munich winger, he is predominantly left-footed and seems to prefer playing on the right of Sassuolo’s front three, cutting inside to devastating effect. While that comparison is – for now – extremely farfetched and leaves huge scope for disappointment, it perhaps shows the lack of high quality wingers in Serie A to hold him up against. The rise of the 3-5-2 formation which, if not sparked by Antonio Conte and the Bianconeri, then certainly perpetuated by their success, has seen the demise of attacking wide play in Serie A.
It is only this season, with the arrival of José Callejón, Dries Mertens and Gervinho that it has once again come to the forefront. With Sampdoria’s Manolo Gabbiadini and Berardi’s Sassuolo team-mate Simone Zaza, Juventus appear to have the Italian production line sewn up, perhaps looking for an alternative to their usual set up.
Those looking to discover more about Berardi were perhaps somewhat disappointed to learn that Juventus took a 50% stake in his contract this past summer. While that caused many shoulders to instantly slump, fans of i Bianconeri should perhaps be the ones with their feet most firmly on the ground. Since Alessandro Del Piero exploded onto the scene back in 1993 – or perhaps a year later with that goal against Fiorentina – the club has given its supporters plenty of reasons to be sceptical.
Davide Chiumiento and Alberto Libertazzi scored goals at a phenomenal rate for the Turin giant’s youth sides, but never really made the leap to Serie A, while Rafaele Palladino proved just too injury-prone to succeed. Sebastian Giovinco was excellent at Parma and has earned 17 Italy caps but, at almost 27-years-old, has largely flattered to deceive when pulling on the heavy black and white stripes.
Davide Lanzafame – described by none other than Antonio Conte as ‘the new Cristiano Ronaldo’ – is currently plying his trade in the Hungarian league. Victim of his own flawed personality and terrible advice from his brother/agent, he has been embroiled in the match-fixing scandal at Bari and had a contract torn up by Grosseto as a result.
Is Berardi the next to join this laundry list of Juventus washouts? At this point, with such a small sample size to assess, it is impossible to say but there certainly appears to be much more substance to his case. Measuring six feet/1.85 m – can we please stop calling him tall? – and weighing only 159 lbs (72 kg), he is slightly build, but that belies a fighting spirit rarely seen in Robben, the man he is most held up against. Having seen the Dutch international tear them apart in last season’s Champions League Quarter Final’s, Juventus are hoping Berardi can continue along that path however, and the parallels are there when looking deeper into his playing style.
A primarily left-footed player, he usually starts games on the right flank, cutting in as an inverted winger. He regularly drives into the heart of defences, causing opponents to back-pedal, and seeing replays of last week’s game will give Milan’s Daniele Bonera sleepless nights for a while to come. Unlike Robben however, he is comfortable using his right foot, often going on the outside of a defender and crossing the ball. That presents a rare problem for fullbacks, unable to gamble on him always going infield.
He can also play centrally, with five of his 13 starts this season coming in that role, and he has benefitted from an incredible coolness in front of goal. Only Giuseppe Rossi (14) has more goals than his eleven this season, but has taken 60 shots compared to just 32 for Berardi, who averages three per game. That he netted four times from just eight attempts in the win over Milan was one of the biggest surprises of that particular display.
At this point, the hyperbole lovers among you will enjoy the fact his shot accuracy (59%) is currently better than Cristiano Ronaldo’s (58%) according to Squawka.com. Similarly, nobody should be surprised by what happened when I tried to find the same statistic for Davide Lanzafame!
Joking aside, that accuracy is a key feature when looking at his high goal tally. The graphics above – also taken from stats site Squawka – show the simplicity to his scoring, with all his goals coming from a very central area. Those two left most strikes on the right graphic came against Milan, and aside from those two, all his goals have come from around twelve yards out.
A major factor here, is that his goal tally includes no fewer than four penalties, which would be reason to view his total with scepticism, until noting he has been responsible for winning three of those four. That was more than any player in Europe’s top five leagues at the start of November, according to WhoScored.com, and also notable is his perfect 4/4 record from the spot. That continues his excellent proficiency at dead ball situations which saw him net four of his eleven Serie B goals last term from free kicks.
He has relied on his favoured left foot in front of goal, netting ten of his eleven goals with it, very similar to last season when he scored just twice with his right and he has yet to find the net with a header. Often, as it did against Milan, his pace takes him beyond the defence and, as we see from looking back at his goals last season, he still remains calm in front of goal when one-on-one with the keeper. Knowing he has the edge over defenders in terms of speed allows him to hold his runs, resulting in him being caught offside just three times this term.
Reviewing that memorable match against Milan, Berardi often interchanged with Simone Zaza and went into the central role in the front three, and once again his acceleration was very evident. Playing there, he showed all the instinct you would expect of a more seasoned professional, gambling on where the ball could go and often making the right guess.
On his first goal, Jasmin Kurtic appeared to waste a pass into the box – note how well marked he appears to be in the screenshot – but Berardi kept running and by the time he reached the ball, Cristian Zapata and Daniele Bonera were left chasing shadows. From there all it took was one touch around the unprotected goalkeeper, and the ball was in the back of the net and the comeback had begun.
His fourth goal in that game also serves to highlight the fact that – and having revisited all his Serie A appearances to date, I feel confident in saying this – he rarely stops moving. By now Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco had put him back out on the right, and he runs onto the ball towards that flank. Closed down by Nigel De Jong, he passes the ball out to the left for Kurtic but, rather than waiting, Berardi bursts into the box to get into a scoring position.
The Slovenian midfielder, by now used to his team-mate’s tireless effort, immediately plays a return pass which both De Jong and Daniele Bonera failed to anticipate. Berardi times it perfectly, meeting the ball level with the penalty spot and again finishing easily past Christian Abbiati. It sounds simplistic, but many players would have stood outside the box and watched the play unfold, missing the opportunity to score what was another very easy goal.
It was a similar story as he netted those three goals against Sampdoria back in November, giving an incisive performance that was among his finest to date. He took just five shots in that encounter, giving veteran defender Andrea Costa a torrid afternoon. Berardi repeatedly took him on and forced Costa to concede a penalty which the Sassuolo star converted himself.
There is much more to his game than just goals however, as he showcased in a 2-2 draw at Cagliari in early December, a match in which he registered his only two assists of the campaign thus far. With his team-mates struggling to get him the ball, Berardi dropped deep to help, and held the ball up well when he was in advanced position.
Completing 15 of 23 passes – slightly below his average of 25.6 per game – he created three chances for his side as they opened up a two goal lead. He then slotted into midfield and fought to help them hold on to a vital point, completing nine of his ten passes in a combative contest. One of those assists came from a free kick which, again, shows just how good he can be in dead ball situations.
Yet it was perhaps his work off the ball against Sampdoria that would prove most pleasing. In that game, he made two tackles and two interceptions, slightly above his averages of 1.4 and 0.9 respectively this season – both higher than the workaholic Carlos Tevez’ contributions – while proving to be incredibly disciplined from a tactical standpoint.
All of which brings us to the two key questions: is he ready for Juventus and would he suit Antonio Conte?
If he can maintain his current exception form and growth, he could provide a third forward which would allow Conte to shift to a 4-3-3 framework comfortably either from the start, or during games. He has the same intelligence that often sees Simone Pepe or Stephan Lichtsteiner pop up at the far post to score when play advances down the opposite flank, moving in from the touchline and drifting in between the full back and central defender to slot home. The previously noted ability on set-pieces would provide a left-footed alternative to compliment Andrea Pirlo in deadball situations, a useful weapon in tight games.
He has undoubtedly carried the scoring load for Sassuolo, netting 52% of their goals which is a higher total than any player in Serie A according to WhoScored.com, as Eder (Sampdoria) and Rossi are second with ‘just’ 42%. That could initially make him look greedy, but the one attribute you routinely notice from watching him play is his predilection for passing when outside the area, a feeling reinforced by looking back at where his goals have come from.
“Juventus? We shall see… for now I am thinking of Sassuolo. These days I am staying humble, down to earth, because I still have so much to grow and improve.” – Domenico Berardi, January 2014
A large percentage of his assists come from curling balls outside the box, while many of his goals result from moves he began by passing the ball earlier in the build up. Berardi averages 25.5 passes per game, completing 69.7% of them, which is some way below the team average of 79%, but you would expect that to rise with better team-mates around him. The same can be said of his seemingly low creativity, having just two assists, but creating 18 clear scoring opportunities that Sassuolo’s other players have failed to convert (according to WhoScored.com).
He clearly has pace and skill, yet rarely dribbles, making just 15 successful take-ons this term from 47 attempts, and Juve’s possession based style would appear to suit this pass-first mentality. He would need to make an effort to cut down his turnovers, having made 33 already at an average of 2.4 per game, more than all but four other players in Serie A.
But for Conte, a coach who requires effort and defensive application from all eleven players, it is perhaps equally important he has an impact without the ball too. Milos Krasic and Eljero Elia failed comprehensively to grasp a fact best personified by Tevez’ non-stop harassment of opponents, and Berardi appears to share a similar work ethic to the Argentinean striker. Defensively, he has won 16 of 39 challenges, showing he is not afraid to work to win the ball back, which would remove one major stumbling block from a potential move.
If there is a question mark raised over Berardi, it is his mentality, as he missed the first four games of the season due to an unfortunate combination of issues. Called up by the Italy Under-19’s to take part in the European Championship in Russia, he – in agreement with Sassuolo – refused to attend and this is often used as a criticism.
The club were battling for promotion, and faced a game against Livorno in the middle of that tournament which could have seen them drop into the playoffs. They won, and clinched the Serie B title, but Berardi – who scored in the ill tempered game – picked up a three game ban for fighting with Livorno goalkeeper, Vincenzo Fiorello ,and was handed a further one match suspension for ignoring the Azzurri obligation.
To keep fit during his early season ban, it is worth noting he made two Primavera appearances for the Neroverdi, inevitably netting in the second away to Sampdoria. It also further enhances his goal scoring prowess, as he has made just fourteen appearances, leading to an average of a goal every 95 minutes played, almost double his usual rate according to TransferMarkt.it.
Sassuolo were fined €3,500, and until now Berardi has remained an outsider when national team squads have been announced. This week he attended an U-21 mini-camp, a small step in healing the rift, and one which indicates he has begun to mature, a pleasing thought for Conte and the Juventus management.
Another would be to realise this is merely an isolated incident, and one which shows Berardi putting the needs of his club above anything else, no matter the cost to him personally. If he was mentally weak, it would surely be reflected on the field, particularly given that he is the fourth most fouled player in Serie A. Impeded no less than 42 times already, he has picked up just four bookings himself, all four poor challenges rather than dissent. That is much fewer than those above him in fouls received; Alessandro Diamanti (8 yellow cards), Mario Balotelli and Pablo Barrientos (7 each), none of whom are renowned for politeness towards opponents or officials.
Given that he has kept Tevez engaged, the Bianconeri coach clearly understands how to coax the best from temperamental stars, while a dressing room boasting Pirlo, Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini should have no problem suppressing any similar outbursts. He also appears to have a great agent in Simone Seghedoni, who has spoken at length about the need to protect him from burnout and how important his continued development is.
We must remember this is only his second season as a professional player, but Domenico Berardi’s pace, directness and flexibility could well be the final piece to complete Antonio Conte’s otherwise unstoppable Juventus. Maybe this time, the hype is justified.