Gigi Buffon had a stellar 2015/16 campaign, the 38-year-old arguably enjoying the best season of his career and setting a new Serie A record of 973 minutes without conceding a goal. He did so during a streak of 10 consecutive clean sheets—another new league-high mark—on his way to an incredible tally of 21.
That was six more than any other player despite the Bianconeri captain playing just 35 games, highlighting the gulf between him and the other goalkeepers on the peninsula.
Buffon was rewarded with a new contract and told a press conference to announce the deal that he was “looking forward to the next two years.”
While the Old Lady can be confident of the veteran's ability to perform over that period, what has also become apparent is that she must begin to prepare for life after the Italy international calls time on his incredible career.
1 - G. Buffon has not conceded goals for 973 minutes, a new record in the Serie A history. Goalkeeper. #OptaBest11 https://t.co/GdF8hLn4A42016-5-19 08:29:37
It is a frightening prospect, but it is one that the club has seemingly been preparing for over the past few seasons, signing a number of talented goalkeepers who could one day replace the skipper.
Brazil native Norberto Neto arrived last summer on a free transfer, but perhaps the most interesting prospect was snapped up by the Turin giants four years ago.
This is a dream come true.
To join such a prestigious club at my age is extremely gratifying and a great motivation to keep developing further.
Being part of the same club as a champion like Gigi Buffon is hugely satisfying, but it also makes me realise how much I will have to work for the opportunity to repay the trust placed in me.
Having previously spent time with Brescia in the top two divisions, he would make a few brief pre-season appearances for the Bianconeri before being sent on loan to Lanciano and Spezia in Serie B.
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Nicola Leali's first-ever save for @juventusfcen in the 2012 Trofeo TIM https://t.co/2C8ZtJedaY2016-6-4 14:13:55
He then spent the 2014/15 campaign in the top flight with Cesena but was unable to help the Seahorses avoid relegation, meaning that last summer saw him once again looking for another club.
On July 13, Juventus announced via their official website that he would spend the season with Frosinone, another small club where Leali could expect to see his goal come under major pressure.
OFFICIAL: Nicola Leali joins Frosinone on a season-long loan deal: http://t.co/RwLrEzIeYR http://t.co/zPVNGBl7WB2015-7-13 12:10:40
There would seemingly be little competition for the 23-year-old with the newly promoted side, but the Canarini were immediately proved to be outmatched in Serie A, opening the campaign with losses to Torino, Atalanta, AS Roma and Bologna.
Week five of the season would be something of a watershed moment for both the club and their underfire goalkeeper, however, heading to Juventus Stadium with few giving them hope of emerging with a positive result.
Yet they would manage to do just that, eventually snatching a share of the points in the 1-1 draw. However, they were only able to do so after Leali had frustrated his parent club, with ESPN FC showing he had made no fewer than six saves over the course of 90 minutes.
The same source showed he had made a staggering nine in the loss to Atalanta—including a penalty save from Mauricio Pinilla—and would continue to impress as a difficult campaign progressed for coach Roberto Stellone’s men.
The January transfer window would allow Frosinone to add Francesco Bardi to their squad, the Inter Milan man—who had kept Leali out of the Italy Under-21 side—arriving on a six-month loan deal. He was fielded in a 3-3 draw with AC Milan in early May but suffered an injury in the following week’s loss to Sassuolo.
Having battled in the relegation zone all season, Frosinone were unable to avoid the drop and their defensive woes make it difficult to properly analyse the standard of Leali’s play as he was continually left exposed by a subpar back line.
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Morata vs Leali, el duelo lo gana de momento Nicola | MT #FrosinoneJuve 0-0 #SerieA https://t.co/5T6nOofcGu2016-2-7 14:51:13
He had reminded the Bianconeri of his quality with another solid display in February’s rematch; conceding twice but pulling off another string of excellent saves that underlined his natural ability and added to his case to one day represent Italian football’s grand Old Lady.
By the end of the season, Leali had managed to keep seven clean sheets in 33 Serie A appearances, plus another one in the Coppa Italia. Statistics courtesy of Fox Soccer show that only Emiliano Viviano of Sampdoria (194) had faced more shots than the Frosinone man’s tally of 178, a figure he shared with Palermo captain Stefano Sorrentino.
The same source shows that only Viviano (140) and Sorrentino (123) were the only players to make more saves than Leali, who managed to repel no fewer than 120. Looking at the table below, what is even more impressive—given that goalkeepers mature much later in their careers—is his age compared to those around him.
Standing out as the only one of the division’s top six shot-stoppers still in his 20s, he still has much to learn. His distribution, particularly when throwing the ball out, is remarkably poor, but that is an aspect of his play that he can work on in the coming years, while his natural agility is second to none.
While many of his statistics clearly depend upon the performances of his team-mates and the coaching they receive, it is worth looking at what Leali achieved this season compared with the previous campaign.
The table below—compiled using data from Fox Soccer, WhoScored.com and the Squawka website—offers a glimpse into that, showing his passing and ability to claim crosses had got statistically worse while his punching and percentage of saves had risen.
All in all it was a fine season for the young netminder, who has begun to attract attention from other clubs ahead of the 2016/17 campaign. Indeed, the Calciomercato website (h/t Football Italia) has listed Atalanta, Empoli, Fiorentina and Deportivo La Coruna with a move for Leali, who will undoubtedly be loaned out again next term.
He has yet to hit the kind of form that would lead the Bianconeri to see him as Buffon’s long-term heir at present, but that new two-year contract for their captain means that the Lombardy native has plenty of time to grow into that role.
“He’s a promising youngster,” Italian goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff told the La Stampa newspaper (h/t Football Italia) back in 2012. “When you buy a player of that age then you are trying to secure the future.”
Based on his performances for Frosinone this term, Leali could—if he continues to mature and develop the way he has—prove to be just that.