It all happened in the blink of an eye. A spin to the left, a nutmeg and a cut to the right. Spezia’s left-back Francesco Migliore could do nothing about that moment of pure fantasy and instead, was greeted with a chunk of the pitch. A few magical seconds which set the entire online football community on fire. For those who may not watch Serie B on a regular basis, it was a jaw-dropping introduction to a budding young Italian star. For Riccardo Orsolini, it was simply another day at the office.
We often turn up the hype dial to higher levels when a talented youth player with phenomenal dribbling abilities arrives on the scene and every touch of the ball becomes a spectacle in the making. We are mesmerized instantly, to the point where we are guilty of producing the label of the next *insert world-class player’s name*, elevating eye-catching skills which overshadow certain flaws. However, in Orsolini’s case, he is much more than a bag of step-overs and fancy flicks. Beyond the three-second clips of leaving defenders in the dust, we find a vibrant player with an infectious smile and a high-energy style of play. The latest artist performing his own acts of brilliance in the theatre that is Il Calcio Italiano.
Born in Rotella, a town in the province of Ascoli Piceno, Orsolini’s journey to the height of his boyhood club started at a very young age.
“At three years old, my father took me to a pitch behind the house in Rotella to take some shots on goal. I have not stopped since. I began with Castignagno. Then at 7-years old, I entered the youth sector at Ascoli and made the trek up to the first-team”, stated Orsolini in a interview with Nicolò Schira of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
It was a passage that saw him rise through the ranks of the club, from the Pulcini (U-11) to the Primavera (U-20). At 18-years old, he made his maiden debut with Ascoli’s Primavera at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, against Lanciano. Under Giuliano Castoldi (replaced not long after by Cetteo Di Mascio), he was slotted in as a mezzala in a midfield three and completed the full 90 minutes in his first official start. From there, he became a regular presence in their starting XI. Bouncing from roles as a centre-forward and second striker, it was not until he made a move to left wing that he found his ideal position and experienced a goal-scoring surge. Five goals and a hat-trick (on a separate occasion) against Bari, a doppietta against Avellino and a hat-trick against Lazio — he was a force to be reckoned with in Girone C. In 21 games, he scored 17 goals and collected nine assists, good enough to be crowned capocannoniere (top goal-scorer) and earn a call-up to the first-team by Devis Mangia, for the remaining 11 games of the Serie B season.
Although this season saw Alfredo Aglietti appointed as bench boss for Il Picchio, Orsolini kept his spot on the squad and has been electrifying the league ever since.
Blessed with absurd dribbling abilities, what is most noticeable about the 20-year old is how his feet act like a magnet for the ball. Whether it be a lung-bursting sprint down the flank or a quick change of direction towards the edge of the box, he showcases great control of his body and the ball while running at different speeds. Such control allows him to excel in tight spaces, where he is capable of escaping defensive pressure along the touchline or near the corner flag. His lethal combination of pace, skill and creativity can turn a simple situation into a dangerous one for the opposition. A thirst for running directly at defenders and taking on full-backs one-versus-one, these are duels in which he owns an impressive success rate. It is to no surprise that the opposition resorts to fouling him in order to neutralize his threat.
A natural left-footer, he is equally as potent with his right. He has proven to be a quality crosser, delivering a number of balls into the penalty area using his weak foot which have lead to scoring opportunities. With four assists to his name so far this season, his contributions have gone beyond the goals department. Comparisons have been made to Dutch winger Arjen Robben due to their shared trait of cutting in from the right towards goal, on their preferred left-foot. Rarely does he waste time on the ball once he finds an opening to strike, testing opposing goalkeepers from both short and long-range.
Although his reputation of being a skillful dribbler and magician of sorts on the pitch has grown rapidly, discussions about his off-the-ball movements have mostly flown under the radar. Orsolini does not confine himself to the flanks despite it being an area of the pitch where he is most comfortable. When Ascoli are in possession, he has often drifted into the central space of the final third, taken on the role of trequartista by receiving the ball and releasing his teammates into the box via his decisive passes and intuitive thinking.
An example of this can be seen in the image below during Ascoli’s home match versus Bari on Christmas Eve. Orsolini had initiated a counter-attack following a clearance from the back, recovering the ball in the middle of the pitch and sprinting forward towards the opposing back-line.
Once in possession, he immediately spots a gap between two Bari players and executes a well-timed, line-breaking pass into the right half-space for midfielder Leonardo Gatto, who makes a diagonal run into the box.
Sensing that Gatto is likely to send the ball back towards the goal, he picks up speed and goes on an unmarked run directly to the center of the box. Even though he does not succeed in latching onto the cross with his head, his run creates a moment of panic and disturbance in the 18-yard area, catching the defending players off-guard.
Tactically, Orsolini fits seamlessly into Ascoli’s 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations where since his arrival to the main stage, he has been stationed on the right as an inverted winger. Due to his positional flexibility, the 20-year old can play on either wing, slot in as a secondary striker or even deputize in the #10 role if need be. Against clubs who play a deep defensive block, a player of his skill set can be the solution to unlocking even the most compact defending, through his dribbling acumen and decisive passing.
Any young player who possesses such creativity and confidence on the ball will often look to take matters into their own hands on the pitch, which can be helpful at times yet frustrating at others. There have been moments where the Italian has tried to force his way past more than one player, despite the opportunity to play a pass to a free teammate presenting itself as the better option. While he is most effective when the ball is at his feet, he has yet to show the same effectiveness in his aerial ability. Although he is tough to match up with in pace, his slender frame puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with more physical defenders, a situation he will encounter on a regular basis in the top-flight. As for his defensive contributions, he instinctively tracks back to support his teammates but his ball-winning abilities, marking and awareness are a work in progress.
Orsolini remains a special talent regardless and time is on his side to continue developing. Therefore, his areas of improvement will certainly be made a priority now that he has committed his future to Juventus.
For La Vecchia Signora, Riccardo Orsolini represents another gem added to their prestigious collection of young Italian talents. His stunning performances caught the eye of many clubs in Italy — notably A.C. Milan — however it is with the Turin giants whom Orsolini will now call home for the next five years. In a deal reported to be worth €13 million, Ascoli will receive €6.5 million and the remaining 5.5 million will be in bonuses, as per Tuttosport.
Before swapping black and white jerseys though, the dynamic winger still has unfinished business at the Stadio Cino e Lillo Del Luca. Should he succeed at guiding Ascoli into the Serie B playoffs and an improbable promotion to Serie A, it would be a fitting conclusion to his time at his boyhood club. Pressure and expectation may follow Orsolini when he begins his new adventure at Juventus but nobody can deny that he has an exciting future ahead of him.