Reassessing Manuel Locatelli
Manuel Locatelli’s career has taken him from Italian giants AC Milan to mid-table Sassuolo, the club where he has best demonstrated his high-level potential. Douglas Ramsey reflects on his journey so far.
Manuel Locatelli burst into Italian football with an explosive goal against giants Juventus in 2016. Just seventeen at the time, Locatelli was quickly burdened with being the future of the AC Milan midfield. Unfortunately, ownership turnover and the overhaul of Milan’s squad in the summer of 2017 left the academy product out of the first-team picture.
That did little to slow down Locatelli’s development. Since 2018, the Italian international has been honing his craft at Sassuolo. Now twenty-two, Locatelli has begun to turn heads and pop up in niche football conversations. His knack for switching the field, making incisive passes, and competing like an established veteran has turned him into one of the most effective midfielders in Italy.
Sassuolo provided the tools for their dominant midfielder to develop. Roberto De Zerbi's 4-2-3-1 provides the space for offensive ambition and creativity from the midfield pivot. Both wingers for Sassuolo have the requisite offensive awareness and ability to take advantage of Locatelli's passing. If players enter the box, then expect Locatelli to find them. He has the ability to punish opposing defences if they fail to defend spaces and track runners.
As the Serie A returns, the 22-year-old seems poised to continue his development in Sassuolo's midfield. His impressive performances at a relatively young age suggest that he can become a key cog for a good team in the Italian top-flight for years to come.
Manuel Locatelli switches play beautifully. It is by far the best feature of his game. During general play, he drifts towards the left side of the field but remains around 30 to 40 yards away from the goal line. When he receives the ball, he quickly scans the field and if a run is being made, he picks it out. Locatelli typically operates on the left side of the midfield in Sassuolo’s 4-2-3-1 shape, which allows him to sit deep and spray passes into the path of attackers. While his ability to shape passes is excellent, the most impressive aspect of his passing is how consistently he hits players’ feet with long balls. Instead of forcing a team-mate to adjust his run to collect, Locatelli understands how to identify a run and subsequently lead that player with a pass.
It is important to note that he is not a regista. He tends to be more active with his movement, unlike players in the vein of Andrea Pirlo and Jorginho. This allows Locatelli to function within a midfield duo.
For defensive midfielders, the Italian rates highly in progressive passes, with 6.23 per 90 minutes in the top-flight this season. His tendency to advance play with an incisive, press-breaking pass has helped spur on the Sassuolo offence; his xA per 90 of 0.18 shows his offensive ability from defensive midfield, and all while rarely straying from position. Locatelli does not need to spring forward to support attackers, instead comfortably supporting and supplying Sassuolo’s attack from deep.
Amongst deep-lying midfielders, Locatelli ranks in the 95th percentile for shot creation. Many of his attacking passes immediately result in a shot or guide a player into the path of a shot. The combination of his shot creation ability and his passes into the final third percentile ranking (95th) shows how difficult it is for oppositions to contain him. He can spring runs and pass players into space. He is not selfish with his passing. He has a tendency to break forward and find space to play a cutting pass. Expect him to enter the box to act as a passing option, and even play wall passes to help other players continue their movement. He supports everyone around him with his attacking awareness.
Not to be overlooked is Locatelli’s defensive ability. While no one is going to mistake him for Daniele De Rossi, he still has the skill to break up play with a tackle. He has won the eighth-most tackles in the league this year. He makes 2.39 tackles per 90 from his attempted 3.31 per 90. His pAdj (possession adjusted) tackles won and interceptions rankings are measures of his defensive success within his role. His ability to recover, find his position, and then provide defensive support through tackles and interceptions is impressive.
Coupling his defensive strength with his innate offensive ability makes him a dangerous transition player. He does not rely on anyone else to defend or progress the ball for him, he can do both himself. A 22-year-old with this ability is rare.
Sassuolo's build-up play can depend on the defensive midfielder. His ability to create shots from deep provides an intriguing deep-lying attacking threat for the Neroverdi. Not all of his passes lead to goals, but it is important to see some of his offensive creativity. This first example is his glorious assist to Hamed Junior Traorè during a fixture in December.
During the latter stages of a match against Parma, Locatelli picked out Francesco Caputo’s run into the box with a cutting ball over the top of the backline. The pass, of course, hit Caputo’s foot and culminated in a dangerous chance. The shot was saved, but it showed Locatelli’s attacking awareness. At the game’s end, he had the most shot-creating actions, with the mentioned chance as the most dangerous – impressive for a defensive midfielder.
Obviously, his passing is fantastic, but that is not all that he brings to a team. His ability to break through opponents with a simple turn or a purposeful run gives him options when progressing the ball.
The young midfielder has shown his ability to make a move past an opponent as he completes 1.83 dribbles per 90. He succeeds with around two of every three dribbles he attempts. However, the Italian could still improve in this area by working on his decision-making, picking better moments to attempt to dribble past opposition players.
During a fixture against SS Lazio at the end of November, Locatelli showed his ability to break through a defense with his on-the-ball movement. He slipped through a double challenge from Sergej Milinković-Savić and Bastos and drove toward the end line. As he approached the goal, he intelligently spotted Filip Đuričić making a run toward the penalty spot. Locatelli squared the ball to Đuričić, whose shot was blocked. No goal again, but an example of how willing this midfielder is to beat a man and progress the ball with his own movement.
His offensive ability should spark interest from teams in need of a ball progressing midfielder. Progressive passing and the ability to "break the lines" have become more popular in recent years. Examples like these clips show the importance of a player like Locatelli. He has the requisite passing skill to pick apart an opposing side. His versatility makes him suitable for many teams, whether they are counter-attacking or possession based.
Serie A will be challenging for him over the next few seasons as the talent level of midfielders in Italy grows. However, if he remains at Sassuolo or moves to a club further up the table in Italy, expect him to succeed. Teams like Juventus and AC Milan have holes in their midfields that Locatelli could easily fill. Clubs can always use an offensively minded midfielder who can initiate counter-attacks or transition play by himself. He should be highly sought after when the summer transfer window opens.
Forecasting Locatelli’s career is not easy. He has been overlooked by most top sides in Italy, but this is changing. He is a valuable and economically attractive option for any team trying to solidify their Champions League qualification chances, and would likely make an immediate impact with almost any team in the league. He brings midfield stability and flexibility: able to switch between a three-man and a two-man midfield.
Locatelli has high upside and has begun to show a return on it during the last two seasons. Any team with a need for a midfielder who can link play should immediately look to the Sassuolo player, and he will be much less expensive than many of the other notable options littered across Europe. Expect Locatelli to turn more heads in the upcoming seasons as he continues to develop.
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