The potential heir to Gigi Buffon at Juventus, young Nicola Leali is slowly coming into his own as one of the best young ‘keepers that Calcio has to offer. His time at Cesena has been rocky at best, but being the everyday goalkeeper at a Serie A club is crucial to Leali’s development, and he continues to improve on a week-by-week basis. Juventus will be keeping a close on eye on their young goalkeeper, and though he’s already been loaned out to three clubs (Virtus Lanciano, La Spezia and Cesena) since being formally purchased by the Bianconieri they haven’t been in vain. The best thing a young goalkeeper can acquire is a lot of first team action. Is Leali better than Marco Storari? Rubinho? Yes, he most certainly is, but those two don’t have any more growing to do, that’s why they are backups. Leali needs as much time on the pitch as possible, and his stock has nowhere to go but up. Allegri and Agnelli will have a big decision to make down the road if the young Italian continues to progress, but one thing is for sure; life after Buffon won’t be so hard if this kid is around.
Full Name: Nicola Leali
Current Team: Cesena (On-Loan from Juventus)
Height: 193 cm
Weight: 90 kg
Having represented Italy at all youth levels, his stint at Cesena this season is his first time playing it Italy’s top flight. Perin, Sportiello and Scuffet get all hype, and rightfully so, but Leali despite some of the numbers, deserves to be in the same conversation. For having played only 25 top flight games, Leali is progressing well. Cesena’s defense is far from top quality, and that is part of the reason Leali’s numbers have been so poor, but the player is more than capable of strong performances. The relegation threatened side rank 19th in goal differential, and have the 3rd most goals conceded in the league, numbers that are not all on the young ‘keeper. However, the rest of the season will continue to be micro-scoped by the Juve brass, and they will ultimately decide whether they want Leali in Turin, or if they want to send him out on loan for the 4th since joining the Bianconieri.
The young Italian possesses many positive traits that have helped him become a successful starting goalkeeper at almost all levels of the Italian game. First of all, Leali is a great passer from the back. He’s got a strong leg that allows him to accurately and powerfully boot balls down field, but he also has prowess enough to know when dumping one off to his defenders is a better option than a full field heave. A skill like that is very underrated considering how quickly some of the better Serie A teams can play off the counter, and how the best of the best like Juventus can win possession in the midfield. Early on in the season, this was one of the 22-year old’s biggest weaknesses, but since early December, he has begun to improve. His discipline in goal is also something I believe makes him stand out. In Cesena’s first match against Juventus, Leali correctly guessed on an Arturo Vidal penalty kick, but the shot ended up deflecting in. Regardless of the end result, what I saw there is how patient Leali was, how he waited until the precise moment the Chilean made contact with the ball to make his dive. It is one of the traits he shares with Buffon. I also like his ability to get to and deal with crosses. His decision-making is something I call into question, but he has a strong leaping ability, and is able to get rid of potential danger quickly. In all honesty though, the best thing about Leali right now is that he’s making the most of his situation. He doesn’t have the quality in his backline that Perin has at Genoa or that Scuffet has at Udinese. The quality of the defense the Seahorses’ possess is arguably the worst in Serie A, and without Leali manning the back, things could be worse. He has gotten a lot at acting as the sweeper for their back four, and it is something that has saved them a few times. Leali is averaging 1.8 saves per game from shots inside the box, good for 4th most in the league. This statistic right here proves why the goals conceded numbers is not indicative of his impact. Opposing attacks can easily break down the Cesena defense and penetrate into the box, Leali has become adept at stopping those close range shots.
The former Brescia man does have a lot to work on if he wants to join Juventus and potentially become the heir to Gigi Buffon. First of all, he needs to become a leader. Buffon hasn’t always had the luxury of a stout defense playing in front of him, but he has always known how to organize his defenders on set pieces and on counter attacks. That is something that Leali needs to build upon. His teams defense right now is far from elite, but if he can learn to properly direct them, they could become much better. As I previously mentioned, another thing he must work on is his decision making. Most notable in the early stages of the season, the 22-year old often likes to try to catch shots and crosses when parrying them away from goal would be a much better option. This is another one of those things that Buffon has mastered. It is key for Leali to think on the fly and know whether it is best for him to catch and control an incoming ball, or to bat it away and out of the penalty box. In addition to those things, he needs to work on shutting down attacking runs, and always be paying attention to what potential threats are doing. On more than one occasion I’ve seen him misplay a counter attack, or be beaten by a cutting winger, when in reality he should have been more than prepared to make a low save or mark the attacker getting too close to goal.
The best comparisons I can make to the player right now is Maarten Stekelenburg of AS Monaco, and Roman Weidenfeller of Dortmund. I make them not for shared strengths, but because they both have the same weak points that Leali does. They both have the shared decision making weakness that he has, and both have conceded goals on crosses they should have parried and shots they should have held on to. The Italian has a lot of time to work out those kinks, but making a habit of misplaying shots and crosses is something that will cost him dearly, especially if he plays against teams with a lot of attacking talent. Both Weidenfeller in particular has a hard time snuffing out opposing runs into the box, leading to many costly goals. Stekelenburg on the other hand, has trouble dealing with long shots. However, the important thing to note is that both of these ‘keepers have strong defenders, like Mats Hummels and Aymen Abdennour, respectively. What this means though, is that even if you have a talented defense, a strong ‘keepers success is just that, his own. He could live and die by how he chooses to handle attacking runs and shots.
The heir to Buffon?:
Growing up, my dad regaled me with stories of the great Dino Zoff, and how he embodied the heart of Italian football at the time, and what he meant in between the sticks for Juventus and Italy. He was proud to have watched a player like that. I one day hope to tell my kids that I had the privilege, the honor, to watch Gianluigi Buffon suit up for the Bianconieri. He is a Juventino to the bone, and has stuck with them through every high and every low. Can Nicola Leali be the next step in the great goalkeeping lineage in Turin? I think he can. His skill set right now is good, but he needs more time to develop, and that will be key. I believe he needs one more season out on loan, preferably at a mid-table side (Palermo, Hellas Verona or Torino come to mind) to gain even more meaningful playing time. He’s one or two seasons away from being ready to take over the net, and even with Neto potentially joining Juve, Leali should be considered the rightful heir to the Buffon’s throne.
Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on Leali? Let me know personally at @JLoftgren_LBR and tell me if you think Leali could potentially take over for Buffon, or if his future lays elsewhere?