As Lazio’s successful campaigns in Italy and Europe continue into the new year, the likes of Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinković-Savić will continue to grab the headlines. The Italian frontman is on track to win his second capocannoniere, leading the league with 20 goals in 19 appearances, while the Serbian’s impressive and consistent commanding of the midfield has linked him with a summer move to the red or blue half of Manchester, with a potentially record-breaking rumored fee of around €100M.
Having scored 57 from 22 matches and averaging a remarkable 2.6 goals per game, Simone Inzaghi’s side boasts the top attacking output in Italy and the third best among Europe’s top 5 leagues, only behind the star-studded likes of Barcelona and PSG. This statistic is not only a testament to the quality of Immobile, but to Inzaghi’s shrewd spending, first-rate player development, and belief in the talents of players unfairly dubbed as “flops” or “washed-up”. Commitment to these principles has also resulted in the blossoming of one of the Serie A’s most unorthodox and underrated players.
Luis Alberto’s rocky tenure at Liverpool saw him bounce around on loan Málaga and Coruña, making just 9 appearances for the Reds before he was sold by Jurgen Klopp in the late summer of 2016 to Lazio for €4M. His first season in the capital was no better, as he was bogged down by injury and illness that limited him to taking the field 9 times. But last summer’s sale of prolific winger Keita Baldé to Monaco paved the way for his entrance into Inzaghi’s XI. After an unexpected draw to newly-promoted S.P.A.L. in the season opener, the Lazio boss reshuffled the formation in anticipation for Chievo, slotting Alberto in behind lone striker Immobile as a trequartista.
The modification paid off as the Spaniard and Italian jelled immediately, combining in the 11′ to put Lazio up 1-0. The first signs of a promising attacking partnership were manifest.
Since establishing himself as the side’s main creative outlet, Inzaghi has given Alberto the license to roam across all areas of the pitch with virtually no defensive duties. An attacking midfielder by trade, the Spaniard excels in the central and left half-space of the attacking third, unlocking defenses with clever flicks and one-two passing. A nomad of sorts, Alberto exercises his creative freedom by dropping into the midfield, even as deep as the halfway line, to collect and advance the ball with a switch to one of the advanced fullbacks or with a line-breaking long ball to an advancing Milinković-Savić.
Despite possessing outstanding technical ability and agility that belies his 6′ stature, Alberto rarely tries to take on opponents. Rather, he torments the opposition by getting himself into positions where he doesn’t need to beat a man. He’s constantly thinking one step ahead ahead, moving off the ball into empty space where he can pull the strings of Lazio’s attack with devastating efficiency. Appearing in all 22 league matches this season, the playmaker has delivered 7 assists and scored 7 of his own, averaging 2.5 key passes, 2.7 long balls, and an 80% pass completion per game.
As his stock climbs, Inzaghi and Lotito will be keen on tying Alberto down on a long-term deal. His present contract is set to expire in 2021, but approaches from other Italian clubs and abroad are imminent and may tempt the Spaniard.
But the story of Luis Alberto’s success in the Italian capital helps reveal a hard truth about modern football. Alberto has joined Milan’s Suso and Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas as Liverpool rejects who burst into flames in their new settings. Calcio fans need no introduction to Suso, but Aspas sits third behind Messi and Suárez in goals scored with 14 on the season and has been Vigo’s star man as they push for a Europa League berth.
Now this may simply be the case of players’ inability to adapt to the speed and physicality of English football, players who shine in a lower-tempo, methodical approach to the game. But add Florian Thauvin, Iago Falque, Simone Zaza, and Juan Cuadrado, all of whom were granted 13 appearances or less before they were sent on loan or cut loose entirely, to the equation and you begin to notice a trend in which quality players are not allowed nearly enough time to prove their worth.
Now add the Premier League’s best winger in Mohamed Salah and center midfielder in Kevin De Bruyne, who appeared in a combined 16 matches for Chelsea before being sent on loan, and you have a damning indictment of the impatience of modern Premier League managers. Did both of these players develop in their time outside of the England? Yes. But the notion that players can be determined to not be cut out for the job entirely based on their performances in handful of matches is damaging to the league and individual clubs alike.
So long as Premier League managers maintain a paper-thin level of patience for new forwards and midfielders from abroad, the Serie A, La Liga, and Ligue 1 managers will be champing at the bit to tap into their potential.