The Next Generation of Italian football: Azzurri on the rise

Sun 27 June 2021 | 13:30

In the following article from SportMob, we will have a look at the next generation of Italian football and analyze the 10 most exciting talents in Italian football.

Italy is one of the most successful national teams in the World Cup history, having won four titles (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) and appearing in two other finals (1970, 1994). But after failing to even qualify for the 2018 tournament, the golden generation of Italian players seemed to have moved on. But what the Azzurri need is rejuvenation.

Manager Roberto Mancini is building a national team full of young stars. The players among

the next generation of Italian wonderkids

are ready to prove themselves as gems. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli, Sandro Tonali and Moise Kean are young stars growing into world-beaters. But these are names that are already dominating headlines on the best young Italian footballers.

For years, many have been saying that Italian football does not express talents like 2006 or 2002 or 1994 Azzurri. Italy come from a mediocre cycle, somewhat repaired by Antonio Conte at the Euro 2012, and in the following Roberto Mancini restored it completely. Players like Maldini and Nesta, Del Piero and Totti, Inzaghi and Vieri, Pirlo and Cannavaro, Baggio and Baresi unfortunately are not born every day. However, there are some signs of recovery regarding

the next generation of Italian football

, especially after the dark period called Calciopoli.

Italy are still very far from the level of France and Spain and many others. Still, however, hope can be glimpsed for the first time, thanks to the explosion of potentially fantastic players such as

Federico Chiesa

, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Nicolo Barella foundations to become great footballers. Lack of experience on the pitch is one of the problems faced by our most perspective players. The number of appearances counts, but it is not enough to form the sample, so we intend to make a list of the best young Italian footballers that could form Italy's future and make the country shine.

The 10 most exciting talents in Italian football

Football is changing; its future is upon us. Today investing in young people and above all "building them at home" must be the next step in Italian football. For this reason, it becomes essential today to look at what can be done tomorrow and, in particular, to be able to compose "a generation Z" of players able to face the next challenges of the change implemented.

The players mentioned as

the next generation of Italian football

are the stars of their team. If you are interested in the list of The 10 most exciting talents in Italian football, keep reading.

10. Luca Pellegrini


Luca Pellegrini

is an exciting young star. The Juventus left-back - who is on loan at Genoa - signed for the old lady for a hefty fee of €22m in summer 2019. Although it is a lot of money, it is a clever investment for the future. It is an investment in a physically powerful and technically gifted ace who is also renowned for his innate quality, stamina, consistency, and work rate.

Pellegrini is a player with incredible pace. He has a desire to take players on and the ability to deliver good crosses. And he tends to create quality chances - last season, on loan at Cagliari, he created 1.04 chances per 90 minutes, compared to the league’s average for a left-back of 0.82. He is also an assisting sensation - at Cagliari, he racked up 5 assists in 24 games.

Pellegrini is a stunning dribbler of the ball. The former Roma player uses his pace, agility, and skills to beat his opponent, and then he often fires a low cross into the box. The Rome-born player has expressed his potential enough to have earned an international cap in November. The rising talent has caught the eye of Bianconeri as they have been reportedly interested in recalling Pellegrini after his impressive performances this season and last season in the Serie A. He is a future star in

the next generation of Italian football


9. Sebastiano Esposito

A product of Inter Milan’s academy, Sebastiano Esposito is a teenage gem. Deadly at dribbling, intelligent off the ball, and Lethal finishing, the striker, has a magnificent innate ability. The 18-year-old advanced forward is yet to establish himself for Nerazzurri. And although he hasn’t been given many chances at his clubs, he has impressed and given us glimpses of what is to come.

Currently, on loan at Venezia, Esposito relishes international duty - he has racked 25 goals in 38 games at the youth level. He is certainly on the radar of Mancini and his scouts. Esposito is a well-rounded team player and has developed great communication with his attacking teammates, and he understands how to utilize their movements. Not only has he fantastic flair and intelligent positioning, but Esposito is also very mature in motion, despite his lack of experience.

His technique and passing ability are also marvelous. He is seemingly a complete striker. The sporting director of Venezia appreciates the young prodigy’s ability: “

Sebastiano Esposito

is one of the stars of the next generation of Italian football.” And, having been nominated for the European Golden boy award in 2020, he looks set for the top.

8. Sandro Tonali

Tonali is a 21-year-old midfielder who joined Brescia as a teenager from Piacenza. After advancing in the youth category, Tonali made his Serie B debut in August 2017 for Brescia. In his first season, he played in 19 Brescia games. After turning 18 in May, Tonali has become a key player for Brescia. At the break of the national team, he was surprisingly included in the Azzurri squad.

Italy boss Roberto Mancini has made it clear in a statement that he is curious to see

Sandro Tonali

and that the midfielder is an incredible gift. These sentences are indeed the culmination of praise for a young player. He joined Milan in the summer of 2020 on a €32m transfer. The Brescia midfielder is one of the hottest properties in football right now. Despite not making a single appearance in the top flight, he has already earned comparisons with the majestic Andrea Pirlo, not only for his long flowing locks.

Tonali impressed all of Europe's elite with his dominant displays for Brescia last season, as he helped them gain promotion to Serie A, demonstrating an array of skills beyond his 19 years of age. He's not only a pass-master with an eye that Pirlo himself would be proud of, but he has great strength in possession and can play a box-to-box role if required. The youngster is an exciting talent in the list of

the best young Italian footballers


What makes Tonali compared to Pirlo interesting is that they both played their first career games for Brescia. It should also be added that Tonali, just like Pirlo, has long hair and uses his mental strength instead of physical strength. Comparisons are normal, but Tonali has a long way to reach at least half of Pirlo's ability.

Another key feature of Tonali is its ability to dribble. This is a skill that Pirlo also had, but it is rarely talked about. The Italian legend was a master of getting out of small spaces using quick steps and amazing techniques. Sandro Tonali dribbling, like Pirlo, is not static or other YouTube skills. Instead, we talk about deception, shoulder movements, passes, and other similar deceptive movements to cross the opponent.

Sandro Tonali is a very talented young midfielder, and his comparison with Pirlo is understandable and accurate. His appearance and style of play are reminiscent of the Italian genius, and his Tonali future looks very bright. Keep an eye on Italy's largest asset in the next generation of Italian football.

7. Riccardo Orsolini

Riccardo Orsolini

may be a little bit older than the other players in this list, but he showed at the end of last season that he has what's needed to take Serie A by storm. The 22-year-old showed great promise as a teenager, earning himself a move to Juventus, but left Turin without making a competitive appearance for Bianconeri.

Orsolini exploded in the second half of last season and was instrumental in Bologna's escape from relegation. The winger scored eight goals in 35 appearances as he demonstrated the form which convinced Juventus to take a chance on him as a youngster. Everyone indeed develops at different rates, and Orsolini may finally be ready to light up Serie A. Orsolini is considered as one of the stars of the next generation of Italian wonderkids.

6. Alessandro Bastoni

Alessandro Bastoni

is another Italian international who caught the eyes last season, following a successful loan spell at newly-promoted Parma. He helped them to promote to Serie A and then found himself in the plans of Inter boss Antonio Conte. Bastoni has been a big part of Inter's Scudetto campaign. His performances have been assured and confident whilst demonstrating a real understanding and reading of the game.

While he may not be a guaranteed starter for Conte, the 20-year-old could be the first-choice replacement for Nerazzurri and could find himself playing an important role over a long season as one of the important players in the next generation of Italian football. His limited early minutes at Atalanta in Serie A were spent on the left side of a back three. Less than a year after his first-team debut in 2016, Inter bought 18-year-old Bastoni for €31m and loaned him back to Bergamo for a further two seasons.

Inter, cut this loan short after the first season as Bastoni could not break through into Gasperini’s plans and instead sent him to Parma for the 2018/19 season. Bastoni arrived back in Milan at the same time as Conte. Conte’s center-back trios have rarely found room for teenagers cutting their teeth, no matter how talented nor expensive. However, Bastoni broke that image and remained at the club.

In a transitional campaign, where Inter lost only two league games in finishing a point behind winners Juventus and reached a Europa League Final, Bastoni racked up over 1,900 league minutes. This was more than seasoned defender Diego Godin in Serie A and made him the ninth most played figure in the squad. A promising breakthrough campaign, but it would be the following year when Inter and Bastoni together would hit their stride.

As Conte wrestled the Scudetto from the locked arms of Juventus, Bastoni recorded more league minutes than any outfield player on the team. Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij have all started over 30 league games as Conte’s chosen trio. The understanding and relationship bred through this repetitive action cannot be understated. Bastoni is an aesthetic center-back, no doubt aided by his tall frame and left-footed persuasion.

Defensively, Bastoni is a strong reader of space and anticipates the forward’s movement well to cut out passes. With only three full seasons under his belt at senior level in Serie A, Bastoni can already claim to be one of the stars of the next generation of Italian wonderkids.

5. Nicolo Zaniolo

Tipped as AS Roma’s next Francesco Totti,

Nicolo Zaniolo

is one of the most potent future stars in Europe. What makes the 21-year-old attacking midfielder so special is his ability to break the opposition’s backline using his dribbling ability. He is deceptive on the ball and is very dangerous when played in behind.

Zaniolo plays on both the wings and as an attacking midfielder. The stats show his fantastic on-the-ball quality. With 4.53 dribble attempts per 90 minutes, compared to Lorenzo Insigne’s 3.10, Zaniolo is keen to take players on and express his creativity. And he is very good at doing it. He often unbalances defenders and slithers out of tight spaces, and there are certainly sparks of Totti to be seen in Zaniolo.

His play is flair-infused, quick and he also has the composure to finish. Last season he had a huge shot accuracy rate which is outstanding compared to his striker teammate Edin Dzeko’s rate. Zaniolo scored six league goals last season, while he was also impressed in the Europa League. The Italian starlet has attracted interest over the past year from some top clubs, with Tottenham Hotspur and Juventus. But after signing a 5-year-contract in 2019, Giallorossi have seemingly managed to retain Zaniolo for the foreseeable future. 

. Injury problems have kept him out for most of the past two seasons, and his development has suffered as a result. But after setting the past few Serie A campaigns alight, he looks destined for big things.

After conquering the youth International level, Zaniolo has been capped for Azzurri over 7 times and has made a huge impact on Mancini: “He is a physically strong player, technically very gifted, he has a great left foot. I think he can become an extraordinary player if he continues to be serious, train seriously, to lead an athlete’s life.” Without a doubt, Zaniolo has a special in the list of

the 10 most exciting talents in Italian football


4. Stefano Sensi

Inter midfielder

Stefano Sensi

last season was the surprise that the Italian coach showed from the very first game of the new season. If you have followed Serie A, you may have noticed the great transformation of Inter with Antonio Conte, one of the main figures of midfield was Stefano Sensi.

7 games, 3 goals, and 2 assists. The 24-year-old midfielder had a brilliant statistic in the Serie A competition, and if the injury would allow him, he could be one of Italy's key players in Euro 2020. High creativity, great shooting power, and high running have made him a perfect midfielder. Sensi's brilliant performances in Serie A continued in almost all of the games before the game against Juventus. Last season, Inter finally lost their 100% Serie A record without Sensi and suffered their first defeat of the season to bring Juventus back to normal.

The defeat, however, clearly showed what role the Italian short stature player had in Antonio Conte's approach and how important he was to the team. Sensi played a key role in circulating the ball and playing from behind and was always one of the players in the team who recorded the most touches of the ball and the most passes during the game.

3. Manuel Locatelli

If we are talking about the next generation of Italian wonderkids,

Manuel Locatelli

should be there. Manuel Locatelli is a product of AC Milan’s academy, which has seen the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and more recently, Gianluigi Donnarumma progressed through. He started training with the first team at 17 under Massimiliano Allegri and was given his debut the following year under Sinisa Mihajlovic. As they once called him, the next Pirlo had had his ups and downs with the Rossoneri when they were going through a transitional phase in their history with the constant change in management.

In Locatelli’s 3-year spell in

AC Milan

’s first team, he has worked under 5 managers. This inconsistency in management has inevitably caused a dip in form, which eventually saw him dropped to the bench at the end. In his final season at the club, he only played the full 90 minutes on 4 occasions.

Locatelli took matters into his own hands and handed in a transfer request in search of first-team football and ended up with the Neroverdi, under Roberto De Zerbi for €12.5m. Since then, the belief placed in him has paid off massively, and the fee spent on him has proved to be a bargain. The midfielder has been an ever-present in Sassuolo’s midfield with 4 goals and 10 assists in his 3 seasons. His performances have also led to call-ups to the national team, where he currently has 6 caps.

This move has worked for both parties as Locatelli continues to develop into a world-class midfielder. Manuel Locatelli plays as the left-sided central midfielder for Sassuolo in a 4–2–3–1 system, much like Pogba’s position at United. Locatelli, playing as the deepest midfielder picking up the ball before utilizing his signature long-range passing against Juventus.

Locatelli has completed the most passes in Serie A with 1444 in the time of writing; this ranks him 16th when compared to other players in Europe’s Top 5 leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A). This indicates Sassuolo’s high possession and intensity style as they currently have the highest average possession in the league, with 59.2% this season.

Locatelli is also a very press-resistant midfielder. In the same style as

Nemanja Matic

, he would use his body to shield the ball from the opposition before making the pass. His awareness of the pitch also ensures he is always a step ahead of opposition players; at 23, this maturity and football intelligence level are rare, and Locatelli has used it to his advantage on numerous occasions.

2. Nicolo Barella

After missing out on the 2018 World Cup, Italy have now gone 30 matches unbeaten under the influence of former Premier League title winner Roberto Mancini. The Italian manager has reinstalled the nation's faith this summer's Euros, playing an exciting brand of possession-based football. After taking 9 points, scoring 7 goals, and conceding 0 in their opening three group stage matches, Italy now looks like genuine favorites for the crown. Here is our tactical analysis of Roberto Mancini's Italy after three matches at this summer's Euros.

Born in Cagliari, Nicolo Barella has spent his career with his hometown club, bar one loan spell at Como in 2015/16. Since his debut in 2014, he has become one of the most hardworking, lively, and influential central midfielders in the league, attracting the likes of

Inter Milan

most notably. Whilst he will probably move away from the club at some point, at the moment, it’s fair to say that he gives his all for the club, and then some.

His attitude is arguably his strongest trait, with a tireless engine and a mentality to win the ball back for his team at all costs. It is a misconception that players who share this trait compensate for lack of technical ability (also known as the Fabio Borini effect), but Barella has more than enough skills in his locker to prove that theory wrong.

His style of play would convince anyone watching that he genuinely has some magnetic attraction to the ball. Whilst his work rate contributes to that, it’s also a tactical intelligence of where to be and when that sets him apart, a subtle trait that makes a huge difference, and one which the likes of N’Golo Kante have built careers on.

YouTube compilations are great for getting a list of what a player is about who you aren’t quite familiar with, their strengths, weaknesses, and usually terrible background music. They’re compiled mostly of clips taken from multiple games over the course of several years. Few, if any, are made up entirely of footage of a single match, but Nicolo Barella only needs 90 minutes to show what he is about. However, Barella has all the potential to make it into the list of

the next generation of Italian football


1. Gianluigi Donnarumma


Gianluigi Donnarumma

made his debut for AC Milan at just 16 years old, he was the most talked-about goalkeeper in the world. His promotion to the first-team did not come as a surprise to anybody within the Milan establishment, with Filippo Inzaghi giving him his first taste of professional football, placing him on the bench against Cesena at just 15 years old in the 2014/15 season. At the international level, his youth team coaches were also quick to heap praise on him, with his former Italy under-17 coach labeling him as ‘the national team goalkeeper of the future.’

One thing which stands out about Donnarumma is his domineering physical frame. Standing at 1.96m, he towers over his opponents despite being the youngest player on the field almost every time he dons the Milan shirt. For many strikers, seeing the towering figure of Donnarumma rushing towards them tends to put them in a state of apprehension and often leads to an inability to fashion an effective one-on-one opportunity when up against him between the posts.

As was expected with the fact that he bears the same name as the Italian great Buffon, people were quick to draw comparisons with both Gigis, with many saying they were almost identical in style. Although they share some similarities, it would be quite misguided to make such strong comparisons as when analyzing both players, and it is clear to see the difference in their goalkeeping style.

Both have a wonderful ability to save shots from long and close range and have a command of their area that many goalkeepers would kill for. However, when observing Donnarumma’s style, one notices his tendency to rush out of goal when an opposition striker has breached his team’s defensive line.

He is quick to anticipate when the striker may receive the ball in behind the defense and, a lot of the time, has already prepared to rush forward and thwart the striker’s advancement on goal. Add to this his eagerness to contribute to Milan’s circulation in the build-up phase and his desire to position himself higher up occasionally. One can easily say his style is reminiscent of Germany and Bayern Munich shot-stopper Manuel Neuer.

That is not to say that they are anywhere near the same level as Neuer’s technique is clearly more refined, which is understandable considering his wealth of experience. In my opinion, though, it would not be fanciful to think that Donnarumma could reach the level of the German stalwart in about a decade or so. For this reason, no one would be surprised if we set him in the first place as a pillar of the next generation of Italian football.

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