The term ‘wonderkid’ gets thrown around a lot these days, specifically by Football Manager enthusiasts. It’s a term used to describe a young footballer aged between 16-24 with exciting potential who looks set to develop into the next big thing.
In Italy, there appears to be a promising new generation of youngsters who could be bestowed the title of ‘wonderkid’ and I’ve compiled a list of 11 high-quality Italian youth prospects all aged 24 and under. All have taken the Serie A by storm and have the potential take on the world next if all goes according to plan.
Of course, there have been many instances of Italian ‘wonderkids’ not fulfilling their rich potential with the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Federico Macheda, Alberto Aquilani, Mario Balotelli and Ciro Immobile all earmarked for greatness but have failed (thus far) to live up to their billing.
As a big Italian supporter and avid Serie A enthusiast, I firmly believe (and hope) the players listed below will all go onto to develop into world-class talents capable of winning domestic, European and international trophies… preferably the latter as another star on the Azzurri crest would look splendid.
Honourable Mentions: Antonio Barreca (Torino), Danilo Cataldi (Lazio), Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Andrea Petagna, (Atalanta), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Sassuolo)
Gianluigi Donnarumma – A.C Milan – GK – 17
“…to be THIS good THIS early is downright ridiculous.”
17 years old and the No.1 Goalkeeper at one of the most prestigious clubs in world football — he’s practically a child! After Siniša Mihajlović plucked him from the obscurity of Milan’s youth ranks and threw him in at the deep end last season, Donnarumma has flourished remarkably to be considered one of the best keepers in the league, preserving winning leads and saving points for Milan this term and is a big reason behind their push for continental football.
His potential is frightening. Goalkeepers usually peak and enjoy their best footballing years at around 30, so for Gigi to be THIS good THIS early is downright ridiculous and eases any concerns for when the legendary Gianluigi Buffon passes on the torch and hangs up his gloves. With two man of the match performances and the joint 3rd best clean sheets in the division – Donnarumma won’t be relinquishing his no.1 spot anytime soon.
Daniele Rugani – Juventus – CB – 22
“Rugani looks to follow in the footsteps of his seniors…”
Much like Donnarumma being the natural successor to Buffon, 22-year-old Daniele Rugani looks to follow in the footsteps of his seniors Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. In those 3 stalwart Italian defenders, Rugani has had the perfect mentors to learn from and add to his game. In his rotational role, the young ball-playing centre-back has not put a foot wrong this season. Former Italian defender Ciro Ferrara was recently quoted as saying ‘the future of the Azzurri is safe’ when talking about Rugani and it’s hard to argue with him.
Bonucci’s injury means he’s been able to get more game time this season next to Chiellini, Benatia and Barzagli – being in close proximity to such experienced defenders has only helped the young defender develop, also chipping in with 2 goals in 7 appearances this term. With 2 senior Italy caps to his name playing in that same Juventus defensive unit he plays with at club level, Rugani is in the perfect environment to flourish into one of Italy’s defensive rocks.
Alessio Romangnoli – A.C. Milan – CB – 21
“…easy to see why many are drawing comparisons to Maldini.” “
Many questioned Milan’s decision to spend €25m on the ex-Roma man two seasons ago but since then, Romangnoli’s rapid rise to being Italy’s premier defensive youth prospect has made that price tag a bargain — especially considering Chelsea’s summer pursuit with reported bids of £40m being turned down by the Rossoneri.
The 21-year-old has started all but two of Milan’s 19 Series A games this season and already has 4 senior caps to his name, impressing in the 0-0 stalemate against Germany. Unlike Rugani, Romangnoli is a no-nonsense defender who is also comfortable at left back — easy to see why many are drawing comparisons to Milan and Italy legend Paolo Maldini. Milan have him and Donnarumma to thank for their resurgence this season and would be nowhere near the conversation for European football without them. Italy have a history of producing quality defenders and Alessio is no exception.
Mattia Caldara – Atalanta (Juventus) – CB – 22
“In his maiden season in the top flight, he has seized the opportunity.”
Juventus have been quick to secure the future of the Atalanta academy graduate by sanctioning a €15m transfer this January but choosing to keep Caldara at Atalanta until 2018 to further develop and build on an already impressive senior career. This is the 22-year-old’s maiden season in the top flight and he has seized the opportunity. Despite being ‘only’ 6 foot tall, Caldara provides an aerial prowess that has seen him chip in 3 goals in his 12 Series A appearances this season and along with fellow wonderkid Frank Kessie, they’ve helped Atalanta rise from mid-table obscurity to top 6 contention.
Despite his relatively small stature, he knows how to impose himself on opposition forwards and has developed rapidly alongside the experienced Andrea Masiello in the Atalanta backline. A regular for the Italian U21 side, it won’t be long before Mattia receives his senior call-up.
Federico Bernardeschi – Fiorentina – RM/RW/CAM – 22
“The crown jewel of Florence.”
Already anointed as the new Roberto Baggio, Fiorentina’s talisman and joint-top goalscorer with 9 goals in 19 appearances has seen his prestige and value skyrocket over the last 18 months – with a reported €85 million price tag being slapped onto him by the Viola.
Rising through Fiorentina’s academy, it’s been a whirlwind 12 months for the 22-year-old tricky winger who can also operate behind the striker. His performances last season even earned him a spot in Antonio Conte’s Euro 2016 squad in the summer, making the one appearance against Ireland and 7 caps in total for the Azzurri. He’s been the only bright spark along with Nikola Kalinic in an otherwise average Fiorentina side this season, who have been overtaken by the likes of Torino and Atalanta. It won’t be long before the big clubs come sniffing to try prize away the crown jewel of Florence.
Roberto Gagliardini – Inter – CM/DM – 22
“All the tools for both Inter and Italy’s engine room.”
Despite only making 8 Serie A starts for Atalanta this season, Inter saw enough in the young box-to-box midfielder to sanction a €28 million plus bonuses transfer this January. Strong in the tackle with a range of passing and comfortability running with and holding the ball – Gagliardini has all the tools to develop into a top-quality midfielder capable of holding down a regular starting spot in both the Inter and Azzurri engine room.
He’s been one of the key players in Atalanta’s lofty league position so far and it’ll be interesting to see whether his departure signals a drop in Atalanta’s league position. After a solid debut in Inter’s 3-1 home win against Chievo, the future looks bright for the Atalanta academy graduate.
Marco Benassi – Torino – CM/DM – 22
“Without him doing the dirty work, it would be harder for Torino to flourish.”
Rising through the Modena youth system before being plucked by Inter, the Nerazzurri must be kicking themselves for not investing more faith in the box-to-box midfielder as, since his measly £4.08m sale to Torino two seasons ago, the midfielder has come on leaps and bounds.
Torino’s top goalscoring midfielder has chipped in with 5 goals in 18 appearances this term and has formed a formidable midfield trio alongside Mirko Valdifiori and Daniele Baselli that have seen Torino do so well this season. Much credit has gone to Torino’s forward line this season, but without Benassi doing all the dirty work to get the ball forward, it would have been harder for the likes of Ljajic, Falque and Belotti to flourish.
Manuel Locatelli – A.C. Milan – CM/DM – 19
“The next big star of Italian football.”
Since announcing himself on the scene with thunderbolts against Sassuolo and Juventus respectively, the young central midfielder has made quite a name for himself with many labelling him as the next big star of Italian football. Deployed in the ‘Regista’ role in Vincenzo Montella’s 4-3-3 Milan system, Locatelli has played in 15 of Milan’s 19 games this season — remarkable considering he was playing for the Primavera youth team only last season.
The “modern midfielder,” Locatelli can get aggressive in the tackle and show remarkable finesse and maturity in not only breaking up attacks but starting off counters in his deep-lying role in front of Milan’s backline. Although guilty of sometimes being too assertive and squandering possession from time to time, Locatelli’s constant exposure to first-team football under Montella will only help the youngster grow and develop into a star that could hold a place in the national team for years to come.
Daniele Baselli – Torino – CM/CAM – 24
“Played a pivotal role in Torino reaching dizzying heights…”
Another graduate of the Atalanta youth system and the oldest player on this list (at the ancient age of 24), Baselli has proved to be a valuable asset to Il Toro, contributing 4 goals and 3 assists in 20 appearances — impressive considering he’s played the full 90 minutes just twice this term.
Since his £5.10m move from Atalanta last season, Baselli has played a pivotal role in helping Tornio reach the dizzying heights of the top 6. Comfortable in possession, with an eye for a pass, Baselli continues to improve alongside Benassi and Valdiorfiori under the guidance of manager Siniša Mihajlović and with reported interest from A.C. Milan over a €20 million transfer — a call-up to the national side doesn’t look too far away.
Domenico Berardi – Sassuolo – RW/LW/ST – 22
“…looks set to join the growing legion of youth talents the Bianconeri are gathering.”
After an injury-plagued start to the season, missing 4 months with knee ligament damage, Berardi has finally returned to action and has already contributed 2 goals and 2 assists in 4 Serie A games for the Neroverdi.
His standout performances were last season, guiding them to the group stages of the Europa league with 8 goals and 7 assists. Cutting in off the right wing has earnt Berardi recognition from a host of Europe’s top clubs with Liverpool the latest to show interest in signing the Italian starlet. However, with an €18 million buy-back option from Juventus inserted into Berardi’s contact that can be activated this summer, Domenico looks set to join the growing legion of Italian youth talents the Bianconeri are currently gathering.
Andrea Belotti – Torino – ST – 23
“It won’t be long before he’s leading the line of one of Europe’s elite.”
Arguably the biggest and most talked about name on this list, Torino’s ace marksman has got everyone on notice with his outstanding performances this season. With 14 goals and 3 assists in 18 Serie A appearances already, as well as 3 goals in 5 Italian NT caps, it’s no wonder the Tornio board were keen to hand “il Gallo” (The Rooster) a new deal with a 100 million release clause.
The complete forward, Belotti has it all. He can score with his left, his right, is great in the air and holds the ball up to bring others into play – Italy may finally have the No.9 they have been so desperately been calling out for since the days of Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero.
Rising through the ranks at Third-tier side Albinoleffe, it was his successful spell with Palermo that earned him a €7 million move to Torino last season. Quality young strikers are a rare commodity in football at the moment and with reported interest from Arsenal and Chelsea ready to test Torino’s resolve with mammoth offers, it won’t be long before Belotti is leading the line of one of Europe’s elite.