Serie A: The Top 5 Young Midfield Talents in Italy's Top Flight
As the opening of the Serie A season approaches, excitement is reaching fever pitch.
The Italian financial crisis has increased the league's reliance on young talent, and there are many good young midfielders currently on Serie A rosters.
These youngsters are going to be the future of the league. Their development and success is what the Serie A can build upon in their effort to regain its place as one of the best leagues in the world.
But who are the best of the best? Let's take a look at the Serie A's five best up-and-coming young midfielders.
Club: AC Milan
Club Caps*: 0
*Current club, league only
Mario Balotelli was the biggest acquisition AC Milan made during last January's transfer window, but the Rossoneri made another important but lower-profile capture last winter in the 21-year-old Saponara.
A product of Ravenna's youth system, Saponara joined Serie B outfit Empoli in 2010. After two years as a winger, manager Maurizio Sarri moved the youngster to the middle as a trequartista this year, and the youngster exploded to score 13 goals in 40 games from the midfield. He led the team to a fourth-place finish, but the team fell to Livorno in the Serie B playoff final on an aggregate scoreline of 2-1.
His play drew comparisons from Kris Voakes of Goal.com to former Milan star Kaka and attracted the attentions of the Brazilian's former team. Milan bought him for an undisclosed fee on January 22, and they immediately loaned him back to Empoli for the remainder of the season.
He was awarded the No. 8 shirt on his arrival at Milan, a sign of just how highly Milan regards him. His potential playing time may get cut when Keisuke Honda finally arrives at the San Siro, but his talents are the main reason why, according to Football Italia, Milan is returning to a 4-3-1-2 formation this season.
Whether Massimiliano Allegri is making the change of his own free will or being forced into it by Milan president and owner Silvio Berlusconi is a discussion for another time. However, what is certain is that the formation will maximize the abilities of both Saponara and Riccardo Montolivo, who will be able to drop back into the regista role that is natural to him.
Watching Saponara against top flight competition is going to be a fun thing for Milan fans this year.
Club Caps: 117 (5 goals)
Belgian international Radja Nainggolan has been the subject of transfer speculation for several years now, and the fact that he has remained at Cagliari is something of a surprise.
According to the Daily Mail's Charlie Skillen, English side Southampton has made the most lucrative offer to the isolani, but Nainggolan has set his sights higher than the Saints and has so far rejected the move.
Closer to home, according to Goal.com, Inter and Roma have been interested, but so far Cagliari has been similarly resistant to sell their prized midfielder.
Nainggolan is a midfield maestro who, if he stays in Sardinia, now has a plucky young attack force in Víctor Ibarbo and Marco Sau to supply. If Ibarbo and newly-minted Italian international Sau develop into strikers of real malice, Cagliari could have a potent strike force with a wizard in midfield to back them up.
It's really no wonder that team president Massimo Cellino has little desire to sell the player.
A player that talented is bound to move to a bigger club eventually. When that big club does get their hands on him, they'll have a creative midfielder who can supply a quality strike force with a genuine goal threat.
Club Caps*: 104 (17 goals)
*Combined Serie A and Serie B
A product of La Dea's youth academy, Giacomo Bonaventura is an attacking midfielder and winger that is on the verge of a huge breakout.
Bonaventura made his first Serie A appearance in 2008 at the age of 18. He made another solitary appearance the next season before a pair of loan spells at Pergocrema and Calcio Padova.
After Atalanta was relegated in 2009-10, Bonaventura gained a regular spot on the team and scored nine times in 31 games as the club stormed to the Serie B title and regained the top flight only a year after suffering the drop. After a decrease in production on their return to the top flight, he flourished again last year.
In 35 games Bonaventura scored seven times and set up strikers German Denis and Guido Marilungo for more scores. He impressed enough for Cesare Prandelli to reward him with a call-up for Italy's May friendly against San Marino.
Atalanta is renowned for its excellent youth program, and Bonaventura—who now wears Atalanta's No. 10—is just the latest in its long line of quality products.
If one thing is certain, he's going to make Atalanta fun to watch in the coming season.
Club Caps: 39 (3 goals)
Roma has a long history of finding and developing exceptional Roman talent.
Francesco Totti, Alberto Aquilani and Daniele De Rossi are all examples of local boys who came through the Giallorossi youth setup to flourish at the Stadio Olimpico.
Twenty-two-year-old Alessandro Florenzi is the next in that line. A central midfielder in the vein of De Rossi, he is a creative force and an excellent passer. He's not the tackling force that Roma's vice-captain is, but he averaged nearly two interceptions per game at the recent U21 European Championships, and has a good sense of positioning. He's also similarly able to power through opposing tackles and keep possession of the ball.
Florenzi appeared in all five of Italy's games at the U21 Euros, scoring once. His performance through Roma's preseason preparation has signaled that he may have taken another step forward. When Roma faced off against the best of MLS in the July's MLS All-Star Game, Florenzi scored two minutes into the second half and was named the games Most Valuable Player.
Cesare Prandelli has recognized his quality and has called him up for friendlies against France, the Netherlands, and Argentina. It is likely that Prandelli is lining him up to be De Rossi's natural successor in the national team setup.
With Totti nearing the end of his storied career and De Rossi's status as a Roma player for the long term in question, Florenzi may have to step in and take the reigns of this club sooner than planned.
However, the player is proving every day that he's ready to take on more responsibility for the club.
Club Caps: 27 (5 goals)
The acquisition of Paul Pogba on a Bosman from Manchester United was already paying dividends when Udinese visited the Juventus Stadium on January 19, 2013.
It was then that Pogba cemented himself as a future star.
He scored two goals that night. The first was a screamer from well outside the box in the first half. After the intermission he went from even longer—nearly 40 yards out after giving himself room to shoot with a nifty spin move.
Pogba was playing at such an incredibly high level by the end of the season last year that Antonio Conte moved Claudio Marchisio to the trequartista position of a 3-5-1-1 in order to make a place in the starting XI for the Frenchman.
The acquisition of reinforcements for the forward line means that Pogba will likely start the year as a supersub and occasional starter when Juve's "MVP" midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo need a rest.
He proved that value in Sunday's Supercoppa Italiana. As an early sub for Marchisio, Pogba scored three minutes after coming on when he followed the scrum for the ball following a short free kick routine and buried a deflected ball with a first-time shot on the turn.
He also assisted on the last goal of Juve's 4-0 thrashing of Lazio. When Stephan Lichtsteiner's shot was saved by Federico Marchetti, Pogba headed towards goal only to be thwarted by an impressive effort by the Lazio keeper. Pogba calmly gathered his own rebound and laid the ball off to an onrushing Carlos Tevez to seal the rout.
Pogba's international star is also on the rise. He's already received his first senior cap for France—against Spain no less—and captained France to the U-20 World Cup title this past summer, winning the tournament's Golden Ball in the process.
If the Supercoppa is any indication, Pogba looks to pick up right where he left off last year at the Juventus Stadium. Expectations will be high, but he looks more than capable of meeting—or exceeding—them.
Fans watching Juventus this year will be able to watch not only the best young midfielder in Italy, but one of the best in the world.