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Kulusevski, Donnarumma And Other U21 Stars To Watch In Italy

 

Everyone’s after the next big thing. But who might that be in Italy? We ran the data to find out who the hottest young properties are in Serie A.

By: Simone Bassi

Juventus must be feeling pretty good about the reported £31.5m they spent on Dejan Kulusevski in January of this year. After impressing in a half-season loan spell at Parma, Kulusevski has quickly become an integral part in Pirlo’s setup at Juve. And let’s be honest, if there’s anyone who can recognise midfield talent, then it’s probably il Maestro himself.

The Swede is clearly a favourite of Pirlo’s, having appeared in all eight of Juventus’ league games so far, more than any other outfield player.

When compared to other U21 players in Serie A, it’s clear that Kulusevski is the most established and integrated player within his side’s first-choice XI. Indeed, since the start of the 2019/20 campaign, Kulusevski has played more games (44), scored more goals (12) and provided more assists (eight) than any other U21 player in Serie A.

And if that weren’t enough, amongst all players to have been involved in 20+ goals over the last two seasons in Europe’s top five leagues, Dejan is the second-youngest. The only player younger than him to appear on that list is a certain Erling Haaland, who (obviously) made the U21 shortlist in our Bundesliga piece.

 

Hang on, why is Gianluigi Donnarumma here? This list is exclusively for players aged 21 or younger.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a player with a combined 239 appearances for club and country was far older than that. We’ve got so used to seeing Donnarumma play at such high level, it’s easy to forget how incredible his numbers are for a 21-year-old.

The AC Milan goalkeeper made his 200th club appearance on July 21st this year, at 21 years and 146 days old. At the same age, goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon had made only 134. And since his Serie A debut in 2015/16, Donnarumma has kept 61 clean sheets in the competition, only Handanovic has made more over that time.

He has been in fine form for Milan this season so far, with a 79% save percentage ranking him second-highest among keepers to have played more than one game. We can also isolate an individual goalkeeper’s performance using our expected goals on target (xGOT) model. Using this model, we can predict how many goals a goalkeeper would be expected to concede, given the quality of the chance (xG) and the end goalmouth location of the shot. As a result, we can directly evaluate the contribution of the goalkeeper and see how many goals they prevented for their teams.

Donnarumma was expected to concede 6.7 goals so far this season, according to our xGOT model. Given that he actually only conceded 3 goals (excluding penalties and own goals), the young Italian has prevented nearly 4 goals with his saves this season, a tally only exceeded by Verona’s Marco Silvestri (3.9).

Alessandro Bastoni is fast becoming one of Inter’s key players. Indeed, since he started getting regular minutes in 2018/19 at Parma, he’s clocked up the most minutes of all U21 players in the competition (4,148).

Antonio Conte leans heavily on Bastoni to build attacks for his side. The young defender is extremely good at carrying the ball out of defence and into the opposition half, ranking fourth for total carries (running 5m+ with the ball) in the whole league this season (133). Once there, he uses his good progressive passing skills to start attacks. No other defender in the league has started more sequences in the final third than Bastoni. He also averages 76 passes per game, the fourth-highest among the players with at least six appearances in the current campaign, demonstrating his involvement when Inter build up attacks.

One of the players who has benefited the most since the appointment of Stefano Pioli last season has been Rafael Leão. In 2020, the Portuguese striker has featured in 24 league games in total, and tops the list of goal involvements for U21 players (11 – 7 goals, 4 assists). He’s contributing to a goal every 102 minutes, the best ratio among U21 players with at least 100 minutes played in the league in 2020.

In this campaign, he’s been directly involved in five goals for AC Milan, with two strikes and three assists. What’s striking about his creative play is that each of his three assists have come after a ball carry; no player has had more so far in the competition (level with AS Roma’s Mkhitaryan).

If you asked Sebastian Walukiewicz what a bench is, he’d probably look at you with a confused look on his face. He’s played 810 minutes in the Serie A this season and has been an ever-present figure in Cagliari’s last eight games. He’s played at least 90 minutes more than any other U21 in the current Serie A campaign.

He’s been massively involved in Cagliari’s play so far this season, and his 474 touches and 389 passes are highest among all U21 players. He’s also a great spoiler of opposition attacks, having made the most interceptions among U21 players so far in the competition (19).


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