Domenico Berardi – Analysis of a top-player in the making

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Domenico Berardi is one of the most gifted player of his generation, and even if he is anything but a friend of the media, is already on everyone’s lips.

He has just ended his third season as a professional player, playing all his carrier with the green and black jersey of US Sassuolo. He joined the youth system of the Emilian club aged 16: when in Modena to visit his brother,  one of his brother’s friend noticed his talent during a five-a-side match and introduced him to Luciano Carlino, an assistant coach at Sassuolo academy who immediately signed him.

At just 18 years old he made his debut in the Italian Serie B, becoming a regular in Di Francesco’s 4-3-3. He gave a critical contribution to his team championship win, scoring 11 times in the process and instantly drawing the attention of top-flight club such as Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson was a true admirer of the Calabrian prodigy, and straight after his professional debut he started to send scouts in Italy almost weekly. In the end, with Sir Alex retirement, Juventus won the run for Berardi, trading his co-ownership for the half of Marrone’s card (at the time valued 4,5 M €) in the summer before his first Serie A game.

Juventus purchase turned out to be a real bargain, given the fact that in his first season in the italian premier division, Berardi scored 16 goals, coming to the  fore of European football after scoring 4 times in the home match against AC Milan (becoming the 2nd youngest player to score 4 goals in a single Serie A game, behind Silvio Piola). Ironically, his exceptional performance provoked the firing of the same manager that now can’t wait to coach him at Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri.

His second Serie A season has been even better. After avoiding relegation on the penultimate game of the 2013/14, Sassuolo suffered a lot less this season, clinching the 12th place. Berardi confirmed his talent, scoring 15 goals, one less than the season before, but without enduring any drop of performance, like the ones suffered by his team-mate Simone Zaza and with a better distribution of his goals. 10 of his 16 scoring of the season before were gathered in three games: two hat-tricks against Sampdoria and Fiorentina and the notorious poker against Milan. With a total of 31 goals scored in two season (including 12 penalty goals, often gained by himself) Berardi became the youngest player to reach 30 Serie A goals, overtaking the likes of Roberto Mancini and Antonio Cassano in this special classification.

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Statistics from Whoscored.com

The left-footed Berardi, has played the majority of his career as Sassuolo right-sided inside forward, and more rarely as second striker during his experience with the “Azzurrini”, the Italian under-21 national team.

His technical attributes and his completeness as a player make him a multi-skilled and potentially a multi-positional striker and is not excluded that in the coming years of his career he will be deployed in a more central position, possibly even as trequartista.

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At the time of his spell as coordinator of the Italian youth National teams, Arrigo Sacchi, another admirer of the young forward, summarized well Berardi’s profile. « He is a very gifted player, a modern footballer who plays for and together with his team, all across the pitch and for all the 90 minutes. His freshness, his anticipation, his temperament and his physical qualities, combined with a good technique are the defining aspects of Berardi’s game.»

This “footballing business card”, both for the spokesman and for the words pronounced is quite hefty, but perfectly well-fitting for the  player he has proved to be. It’s very difficult to highlight a single weakness at a technical or tactical level.

His left foot is one you do not see every day, but he is also adequately able with the right foot, which however has room to be improved. Berardi’s ease and technique of kick have guaranteed him the responsibility of all Sassuolo set-pieces.

Sacchi spoke of a “modern player” capable of playing “all across the pitch and for all the 90 minutes”. His offensive and defensive statistics of the last two years talk for him. It’s uncommon to see a player so young and so consistent from the beginning of the career, especially in his role. He even improved his performance continuity during this season, as shown by the upgrading of all the analyzed statistics, highlighted in bold type. The truth be told, he has decreased his scoring stat by one unit, but he has amply compensated with 10 assists, a seasonal record for the Serie A (tie with Franco Vazquez, Marek Hamsik, Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala), nearly doubling up the amount (6) of the 2013/14 season: a clear sign of his ever increasing team work.

The improvement in his passing percentage, even if slight, has to be considered in the light of Di Francesco system. As a good Zdenek Zeman’s scholar, his 4-3-3 is very direct, with very high tempo and with a continual research of the verticalization. A footballer like Berardi, would be perfectly able to adapt even to different tactics, a more possession-oriented system included, given his first touch and his ability to play in narrow spaces.

At the beginning of his career, according to the questionable style of comparing different players followed by the Italian press, Berardi was hinted as “the Italian Robben”. The position on the pitch is the same, but the comparison is misleading, considering that the Dutch winger is well known for his dribbling, sometimes rather obsessive (4,2 per game), while Berardi dribbles less often (1,2 per game).

He has a remarkable ability to hold the ball. His ability to restrict the ball access to the defenders and his efficient and possession-focused movements with the ball, made him the most fouled forward of the Serie A, with a total of 106 fouls suffered during this season. He has a natural balance and a motor coordination which make him a more physical player of the one his 183 cm of height and his 72 kg of weight could prompt.

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The most overlooked aspect of Berardi’s  game is his defensive contribution, which entirely fit him in the modern player definition who Sacchi gave of him. Comparing to the 2013/14 season, when his aptitude for taking part at both the offensive and defensive phase of the game was already obvious, this year he has almost redoubled his tackles/per game, upgrading from 1,0 to 1,7, a seasonal record for forwards in the Italian league. At the same time he increased his stat in interceptions, moving from 0,8 to 1,0 per game, another seasonal record for forwards, denoting a particular predisposition to anticipate the opponent’s lines of passes and to the reading of the game. This stats are even more meaningful, compared to the ones of noted “workhaolic” Carlos Tevez (0,8 tackles/per game, 0,3 interceptions/per game).

This aptitude for the reading of the game with and (especially) without the ball, in all the phases of the game, together with the vision of a pure playmaker, is what make Domenico Berardi an extraordinary player.

Starting from the left-hand side, his style of play leads him to move inside often, to give a passing options to his team-mates or simply cutting inside with the ball. He is always involved in Sassuolo build-up play and very good at eluding defenders marking: it’s not random that the right side it’s the most utilized attack-side by “the Neroverdi”.

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When he moves inside with the ball, he became a true advanced-playmaker, also given his tendency to play vertical balls behind the defence, taking advantage of the runs into channels of Simone Zaza and particularly of Nicola Sansone.

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In the image, referred to Sassuolo-Empoli, the 9th game of the Serie A, we can clearly notice the central position assumed by Berardi. With four Empoli players around, he manages to see the running Sansone and to serve him with a long and precise ball, getting ahead of the narrow and compact Sarri’s defensive line.

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The action which led to Sansone’s goal against AC Milan in San Siro is very similar, yet occurred in a more advanced portion of the pitch. Berardi is again in a central position, drawing on him two Rossoneri players. His movement towards the inside of the pitch, has freed space for Sansone, assisted with a diagonal ball in the box, who put him in front of AC Milan keeper Diego Lopez,  in a perfect position to score.

However, is without the ball that he gives his best, becoming often lethal for the opponent’s defences. Floating in the half-space, the portion of the field between the centre and the side of the pitch, he can anticipate the play and systematically pick the defenders out of position.

Berardi didn’t accumulate his scoring haul with individual efforts with the ball glued to the foot, but thanks to calculated runs in the channels and meticulous cuts inside the penalty area, typical of wise and ready players. This aspect of his game has lead another comparison with a Bayern player, this time the Raumdeuter himself Thomas Müller.

His timing and his progression  ensure that he is often at the right place at the right time. His composure and his finishing ability make the rest. His curling of the ball his remarkably dangerous, too.

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In this image, again referred to Sassuolo-Empoli, Berardi definitely take by surprise Empoli defence. In the first part of the action, Berardi takes no part to the maneuver, staying far from the penalty area, before throwing himself in the box. The initial disinterest  for the action, makes the defenders unaware of Berardi’s position. Hysaj (23), Tonelli (26), Rugani (24) e Mario Rui (21), members of one of the most organized defence of the Italian football, ignored him, focusing only on Sergio Floccari. Quite the contrary of Sansone, who gifted the ball to Berardi’s head, assisting the third goal for his team.

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The goal scored in the game against Fiorentina, the 23rd game of the season, it’s a perfect example of the cuts from the half-space capable to hinder any defence. Cutting exactly between the left-back Alonso and the centre-back Savic, he tears apart Fiorentina line, and Sassuolo deep-lying playmaker, Francesco Magnanelli, is able to deliver the ball to his team-mate who scores the consolation goal. The chemistry between Berardi and Simone Zaza, the poacher who usually open the spaces to him, is also very good.

Berardi’s real weakness is his character: maybe he still lacks the personality to bear the pressure of top-flight football, but he is perfecting even this aspect with the help of his mentor and coach Eusebio Di Francesco, the manager who always trained him, excluding the brief break with Albero Malesani on Sassuolo bench. The total of 15 games of ban accumulated in the last two season are a black spot in his curriculum, but are also forgivable given his age and the potential at his disposal. After all he has already paid for his faults, like in the case of the 9 months of ban, after not answering to a call-up of the U-19 national team.  An episode which nearly jeopardized his path with “la Nazionale”.

The word “Juve” seems stamped in his future: he will almost certainly join the Turin club from summer 2016, if not already from the next season. However Juventus has to redeem his co-ownership from Sassuolo, in order to gift Allegri the player who deprived him of AC Milan bench. Antonio Conte wanted Berardi last summer, but the wavering of “the Old Lady” board, and the sum requested by Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi, postponed the affair. Precisely Berardi redeeming was one of the points of friction between Juventus and their manager, that caused Conte’s resignation.

A move to Juventus could be the perfect scenario for Berardi: an environment where he could train everyday with players of the maximum level, growing both as a player and as a man and maybe to become a top-player himself.

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