Serie A Analysis: Juventus Owned Simone Zaza
With Mario Balotelli left out of his first Italy squad, there was much interest in seeing which forwards Antonio Conte would opt to start for his debut on the Azzurri bench. Ciro Immobile – the top scorer in Serie A last term – was almost certain to feature, but the name alongside him came as something as a surprise. Rather than another well-known figure, the former Juve boss chose Simone Zaza, arguably not even the best attacking player for his club side.
Domenico Berardi, thanks to a maiden top flight campaign which yielded sixteen goals and six assists, perhaps steals that honour, and his ability was discussed in greater detail here. Yet, despite being somewhat overshadowed by the incredible impact made by his 20-year-old team-mate, Zaza too had a wonderful 2013-14. Unlike Berardi, his rise was not as meteoric or sudden and he has worked hard to achieve the success he is currently enjoying, having taken a well-trodden path that many Italian players have been forced to follow.
Born in the tiny town of Policoro in the deep south of the peninsula, he first played with local sides Stella Azzurra and Valdera, before being signed by Atalanta in 2006. Aged just fifteen, the move was a smart one for Zaza, the Bergamo club long having a reputation as one of the best academy set ups in the country. Slowly progressing through the various age groups, his first breakthrough came in late 2009 when Gigi Delneri handed him his first team debut, and the youngster would make three appearances for the Orobici before the end of the campaign.
The coach would move on that summer and his replacement – none other than Conte himself – failed to hand the striker any further appearances. That, allied with the major interest showed in him by another man with Juventus connections, would spell the end of Zaza’s time in Bergamo, and the following summer he would be on the move once again. Fabio Paratici, the right-hand man of Beppe Marotta, was fulfilling the same role with Sampdoria at the time, and was enamored with what he had seen from the forward, bringing him to the Genoa-based club for no fee.
The two men - along with Delneri - moved to Turin before Zaza arrived at the Blucerchiati, but he began to represent their Primavera and once again made a handful Serie A appearances. An ill-suited loan to Juve Stabia hindered his progress, just as similar moves have stalled the careers of countless other promising Italians, but a subsequent move to Viareggio soon saw him back on track. Netting eleven goals in 18 appearances in the third tier was followed by a spell with Serie B side Ascoli, where he scored 18 time in 35 matches.
Paris Saint-Germain – buoyed by the success of Marco Verratti – showed an interest in him that summer, and were rumoured to have tabled a €7 million bid for his services. That never came to fruition however, and Paratici would intervene once more, again his presence having a positive impact on the player’s fledgling career. A co-ownership deal saw Juventus invest €2.5 million in Zaza, who would join a newly-promoted and largely unfancied Sassuolo side, who had won the Serie B title and earned their first ever trip to the top flight.
Under the tutelage of Eusebio Di Francesco, the club’s vibrant attacking players would thrive, winning over observers and neutral supporters with a thrilling style which saw them involved in some of last year’s most entertaining matches. Making 24 starts, Zaza would play a full part in helping secure their survival, netting nine goals and adding a single assist in a season which saw him finally announce his arrival to a wider audience.
He works hard defensively, his averages of 0.8 tackles and 0.3 interceptions per game failing to display the effort he puts forth in closing down his opponents. His dribbling improved throughout the campaign, so despite the above graphic – courtesy of Squawka.com – showing he completed just 30% of his attempts, watching him closely his quality here is much more apparent.
Part of that comes from learning to better judge when and where to try beat a defender, and that he completed his only attempted take-on this season is indicative of that insight. Zaza has come to remind many of a young Christian Vieri, a player remarkably un-Italian in style and one who – when at his very best – played with a determination unsurpassed by his peers. Like the former Inter man, he is unafraid of physical battles, but has a delicate touch which stands in stark contrast to his bustling manner on the pitch.
Stats site WhoScored.com highlights his aerial ability, showing he won an average of 2.3 duels per appearance, trailing only much taller strikers in that department. His style of play often belies the fact he stands a mere 1.87m (6’ 1½) tall and he uses his muscular frame well in this regard, often forcing his way into an advantageous position.
Yet Zaza still has much room for improvement. Like Berardi, it must be noted he is overly reliant on his left foot, netting all but one of his goals with it – the other coming via a header – and he also needs to work on the accuracy of his shooting. That is clearly a by-product of his poor right foot, but the above graphic shows he found the target with just 37% of his 87 attempts last term whilst he also completed just 70.7% of his passes.
It is worth noting however, that he ended 2013-14 strongly, recording three goals and an assist in his last six appearances, and that he has begun the new campaign in that same rich vein of form. After netting to secure Sassuolo’s 1-1 draw with Cagliari on the opening weekend, he received his first call-up to the full Italy squad and looked immediately at home, despite still only being 23 years old. It was he who earned the penalty for Italy’s second goal, drawing the foul which saw Bruno Martins Indi sent off and effectively seal a 2-0 win over the Netherlands.
That impact saw him named man of the match by La Gazzetta dello Sport, the pink paper won over by his “incessant activity on the attacking front and his ability to create chances.” Indeed, the player himself acknowledged he wasted a golden opportunity to net a dream debut as speaking to RAI shortly after the match was over, he told the Italian state broadcaster;
“I am very happy and satisfied with my performance. I earned a penalty, but I also missed a sitter! Unfortunately my limit is that I can score some difficult goals and sometimes miss the easier ones, but I am trying to improve that too.”
Clearly his mind remains focused elsewhere, calling his maiden cap “just the starting point for me,” and he evidently has his sights set on much greater glory. Juventus are fully aware of ambition and his quality, ensuring the club retain a purchase option on the player for the following two summers.
Set at €15 million next year or €18 million twelve months later, it seems certain that Simone Zaza will pull on those famous black and white stripes at some point in the not-too-distant future. Fabio Paratici wouldn’t have it any other way.