The bar has always been set high for Federico Chiesa. At 19 years old, he is a fixture of Fiorentina’s starting XI and has already played one unofficial friendly with the Italian national team. And yet, during an interview with La Repubblica, he suggested it may be some time before he considers himself a top-flight footballer. “My dad once told me: you become a Serie A player when you have made at least 300 appearances,” he observed.
An outrageous standard, albeit one founded on personal experience. Federico’s father Enrico played 380 games in the domestic top-flight, representing Fiorentina but also the likes of Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio. Along the way, he won 17 caps for the Azzurri and was named Serie A’s player of the year in 1995-96 by the magazine Guerin Sportivo.
He was, in short, one of the most talented and popular footballers of a generation. To expect Federico to replicate that kind of career would be utterly unreasonable. Still, there’s no harm in trying, is there? Especially not when you’re capable of scoring goals like the one Chiesa did for Fiorentina against Atalanta on Sunday.
Running on to Cyril Théréau’s looped header, the teenager took one touch to nudge the ball away from a defender before belting a violent shot into the near top corner. The strike was from the edge of the box, yet Etrit Berisha had barely begun to dive by the time the ball got past him.
This was Chiesa’s second goal of the season, following another aesthetically satisfying finish during Fiorentina’s win over Bologna. It might not be enough to convince dad that he has arrived yet, but it has certainly whipped up excitement among Viola fans.
A team which bid farewell to Borja Valero, Federico Bernardeschi, Nikola Kalinic, Matías Vecino and Josip Ilicic last summer had begun this campaign in need of a fresh identity. Diego Simeone’s 22-year-old son, Giovanni, was signed to lead the attack, and Marco Benassi, 23 this month, to pick up the creative slack in midfield. Jordan Veretout, 24, arrived from Aston Villa (via Saint-Étienne) and Gil Dias, 20, from Monaco. Chiesa, though, was the homegrown talent. He had broken through into the first team under Paulo Sousa last season, but now appeared ready for a leading role.
There was a time, not so long ago, when that idea might have seemed far-fetched. Although he grew up with a ball at his feet, the younger Chiesa was not perceived during his early teenage years as a surefire talent. He had inherited a soft touch and keen work ethic but also a short, slender stature that no longer seemed so viable in the modern game. Signed to the Fiorentina academy as a boy, he seemed to be falling behind his peers as he hit adolescence. Chiesa played just a single game in a year with the Under-15s, and was sent to train at times with the younger age groups.
His parents had always prepared him for the possibility that a career in football might not pan out. Federico studied at the International School of Florence, where lessons were taught in English, rather than Italian. He developed a love for the sciences, telling reporters he would have been a physicist if football had not worked out.
Chiesa, though, never gave up on football. A change of coach and shift in tactical emphasis in the academy helped him to make his breakthrough. Instead of playing at centre-forward, like his father, he got the chance to play out wide in a three-man attack. His first-team role now is similar: lining up on either flank in a 4-2-3-1. With pace to burn and an admirable commitment to tracking back, he is well suited to the role.
Chiesa remains a long way from the finished article, with a tendency to lose himself and keep his head down in the dribble, but both his confidence and his commitment are compelling. Against Atalanta, he could be seen winning a tackle on the edge of his area one moment, and deceiving two defenders with a heel flick the next.
He faded, together with his team, in the second half, as Atalanta took charge in midfield and eventually grabbed a late equaliser. They had played well enough to merit a draw though the result was still contentious. Twice the referee waved away strong penalty shouts for the hosts without consulting the replay system.
Despite such frustrations, there is optimism in Florence about the direction in which this young team is headed. And there is optimism in Italy, as a whole, about the young talent emerging in Serie A. Already this season we have seen 16-year-old Pietro Pellegri strike twice against Lazio, 19-year-old Patrick Cutrone scoring for Milan, and 20-year-old Lorenzo Pellegrini staking his claim to a role in Roma’s midfield. Andrea Conti, 22, made a promising start with the Rossoneri before suffering a cruciate ligament tear. His former Atalanta team-mate Mattia Caldara, 23, is overdue a first full cap.
Nor is it just domestic talent coming through. Juventus have maintained their perfect start whilst blooding 20-year-old Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur. Inter, meanwhile, have Sampdoria to thank for developing Milan Skriniar, 22, into a tremendous steadying influence at centre-back. The Nerazzurri signed him in the summer, and have conceded just twice in six games since.
That might not be all for Inter, who unleashed Yann Karamoh this weekend. A quick-footed 19-year-old winger acquired from Caen, he came off the bench against Genoa and helped break a goalless stalemate, winning the corner from which his team scored. His feints and flicks so infuriated the opposition that he drew four fouls in 20 minutes, including a crude two-footer that earned Adel Taarabt a red card.
“He has blazing speed,” observed Luciano Spalletti. “He’s a promising talent, and that’s why we signed him … He still needs to integrate himself with the team, but he has taken the first step.”
Perhaps, one day, he will even be able to call himself a fully-fledged Serie A player. By the Chiesa family standards, he just has another 299 games left to go.
• A lovely moment of family bonding this weekend, as Cristian Zapata headed the ball down for Duvan Zapata to score Sampdoria’s opener against Milan. The only problem with this picture? Cristian plays for the Rossoneri. (Also of note: Leonardo Bonucci really not covering himself in glory, either).
Cheap gifts aside, Sampdoria deserve plenty of credit for continuing their impressive start. They did not just beat Milan, but dominate them – the visitors never managing a shot on target – and remain unbeaten after five games. Indeed, continuing the theme above, it was the performances of two young midfielders, the 21-year-old Lucas Torreira and 23-year-old Dennis Praet, that perhaps stood out most.
• So much for the idea Torino might provide Juventus with their first true test of the new league season. The Bianconeri were already a goal up before Daniele Baselli got himself sent off, and the match died as a contest. If the first booking was debatable, then the second resulted from a wild and needless challenge – a fact which only heightened the sense of frustration for those of us who had anticipated a hard-fought game. Still, you can’t fault Juve for taking advantage. Paulo Dybala is now up to 10 goals in six league games.
One man who didn’t add to his season tally was Gonzalo Higuaín, though that might be because he only got on the pitch for the final 10 minutes (and, even then, he did still get an assist). Max Allegri said afterwards that he wanted to give the player a rest, but already some are wondering whether that pause might extend through a game against Olympiacos on Wednesday.
• Napoli had it tougher, falling behind to SPAL, and then allowing themselves to be pegged back after getting their noses in front at 2-1. Faouzi Ghoulam’s goal was a gem, but the match ended on an unhappier note, Arkadiusz Milik tearing the cruciate in his right knee less than a year after he had done the same to his left.
• Are Roma hitting their stride, or simply beating up bad opposition? Since losing to Inter, they have won their next three by a combined 10-1 margin. And Stephan El Shaarawy got up and running with his first two goals of the season as well.
• And speaking of bad teams, Crotone came out on top in their bottom-of-the-table clash with Benevento. The standings make ugly reading for the newly-promoted side. Benevento have played six, lost six, scored one and conceded 16.
Results: Cagliari 0-2 Chievo, Crotone 2-0 Benevento, Fiorentina 1-1 Atalanta, Verona 0-3 Lazio, Internazionale 1-0 Genoa, Sampdoria 2-0 Milan, Sassuolo 0-1 Bologna, Roma 3-1 Udinese, Juventus 4-0 Torino, SPAL 2-3 Napoli.