PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
This profile was originally published in the eleventh edition of the Scouted Football Handbook, available here.
Who is Samuele Ricci?
Note: This profile was first written in August 2021. All statistics and facts are correct to that time period.
Serie B continues to be a happy hunting ground for emerging Italian footballers. In recent times, we have seen clubs such as Sassuolo and Atalanta take advantage of the loan market to send their finest prospects for a season of professional football in Italy’s second division.
This synergy between Italy’s top-flight clubs and Serie B has continued to get stronger since the famous Pescara side of Zdeněk Zeman, in which Marco Verratti and the on-loan duo of Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile catapulted the Abruzzese club into Serie A in style in 2011/12, scoring 90 goals in 42 games on their way to the title and promotion.
Like Verratti – and more recently Sandro Tonali – Samuele Ricci has been developed and is owned by a Serie B club: Empoli. Well, they were in Serie B, before a successful 2020/21 campaign saw the Tuscan club win the league to return to Serie A after two seasons in the second tier. In those two seasons, Ricci emerged as an important squad player for Empoli, playing over 60 times and racking up over 3,000 minutes of league football.
Ricci’s emergence as an 18-year-old came as a surprise to few. Empoli have a strong track record of bringing through academy players, and Ricci has been a regular Italian youth international at every age group since he was a 16-year-old. Most recently, he came off the bench in an Under-21 European Championship quarter-final against Portugal, which the Azzurri would go on to lose 5-3 in extra time.
Just as he turns 20 years old, Ricci is primed for a strong season in Serie A – not as a developing talent, but a senior-ready player that will be called upon to play an important role for an Empoli side that will be fighting to stave off relegation after their promotion-winning coach Alessio Dionisi left to join Sassuolo.
Samuele Ricci's style of play
Ricci spent most of the 2020/21 season developing as a mezzala, a role that asks a lot of central midfielders. In Dionisi’s preferred 4-3-1-2 shape, Ricci was tasked with being a willing receiver of the ball centrally, a player that could come wide to combine with the full-back to advance the ball forwards, as well as being capable of drifting into the half-spaces to help develop attacking moves in the final third.
Needless to say, he is a strong all-rounder that can adequately assume the responsibility and fulfil these roles, in large part due to a combination of physical, technical and mental qualities.
Physically, the Italian is a deceptive athlete. At around six feet tall, he looks like a rangy figure but immediately surprises with his robust approach to physical duels, both on the ground and in the air.
He is patient in his approach, but when the opportunity arises, Ricci does not hesitate to go shoulder to shoulder, levering himself into positions with his arms to then snatch the ball away with his legs. His robustness also extends to his ability to shield and protect the ball in possession, giving the 20-year-old the confidence to receive the ball under pressure, especially in positions close to the sideline.
Meanwhile, the slightness of Ricci’s build is advantageous in possession; he is very light on his feet, making him a tidy dribbler in tight spaces and a great ball-carrier driving through midfield.
In possession, Ricci is part of the new breed of Italian midfielder that we saw a lot of at the European Championships. Italian football has finally emerged from a decade in the murky wilderness, with a new breed of dynamic, technically-strong players of Ricci’s ilk breaking out over the last five years.
Of course, this technical skill is effectively paired with the stereotypical tactical awareness that many generations of Italian players have had drilled into them. Crucially, Ricci is active and reliable in all phases of play, meaning he can be plugged into any system and instantly provide value without needing an architecture built around his skillset or style of play.
Like the key figures of Roberto Mancini’s European Championship winning midfield – Marco Verratti, Jorginho, Nicolò Barella, Manuel Locatelli – Ricci is supremely confident playing in tight spaces, evading pressure and punching short, crisp passes to break defensive lines.
But he will keep things short. Barring low-risk opportunities to switch play out to the opposite full-back, the 20-year-old rarely seeks to play long. Conversely, when space opens in front of him, he will look to drive into it with purpose and attempt to spearhead the transition into attack. In doing so he becomes the embodiment of Dionisi’s tactical philosophy; he always tries to move the ball quickly, directly, and with purpose.
In terms of weaknesses, final third decision-making is probably the most glaring. Partial to a shot from range, Ricci’s technique is sound, but this is largely inconsequential because most of his shots are blocked before they can test the goalkeeper. And too many of those that are not blocked are taken from 30-plus yards, rather than a more justifiable range closer to goal.
Forecasting Samuele Ricci's Future
Recently bestowed with the Premio Manilo Scopigno, awarded to the best player in Serie B, alongside Italian under-21 team-mate Davide Frattesi, Empoli’s promotion could not have come at a better time for Ricci.
Big clubs swooping for Serie B players is an extremely rare phenomenon we have hardly seen since Marco Verratti’s move from to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012. Therefore, Ricci should enjoy the natural progression that comes with taking the step up from Serie B to Serie A after he seemingly outgrew the second tier last season.
The departure of Dionisi will be a hindrance, and we will soon find out what this means for his role within the team’s system, but success within this will only further prove his readiness for a step up to a bigger club. And that seems like an inevitability. Ricci has been a player that has largely flown under the radar in the media, and especially in broader football circles, but is rated very highly by those in charge at Italian football’s biggest clubs.
Interestingly though, it is not just Italian clubs interested in Ricci, but Arsenal and Leicester City have also been linked to long-term interest in the Empoli midfielder. Expect those links to be commonplace in a year or two.
Samuele Ricci is a versatile, all-action midfielder with excellent technical quality and a tidy short passer.
Samuele Ricci needs to improve his final third decision making. He is partial to a long-range effort when he is better off recycling possession.