BY LEE SCOTT (@FMAnalysis)
Those in the media like to find convenient ways to ascribe historical context to young players. When youngsters of high potential first make their name in the first team the norm is for them to be immediately compared to a past player for convenience.
So far Manuel Locatelli of AC Milan has been labelled as the new Demetrio Albertini, Carlo Ancelotti, Fernando Redondo and even Andrea Pirlo. These comparisons are as much a heavy weight for a young player to wear as they are a reminder of the glorious past of AC Milan. The truth however is that these comparisons are rarely accurate and never helpful. So far this season Locatelli has shown glimpses of real talent but he has parts of all four aforementioned players to his game.
The truth is that Manuel Locatelli is just that, the new Manuel Locatelli.
There are areas of the pitch in which it is without a doubt easier for clubs to blood their younger players. If they are fullbacks, wingers or even striker then it is easier to tolerate the mistakes that come with youth. Locatelli however plays in a key position in a key area of the pitch where mistakes are more costly and can lead to the penetration of the Milan penalty area. So far this season Milan have preferred the youngster as a traditional ‘6’ on the field. This means that he has key responsibilities both in the attacking and defensive phases of the game.
These responsibilities however mirror the strengths that the young Italian has to his game. His ability to read the game and position himself correctly on the field makes it seemingly easy for him to intercept the ball or engage the opposition in duels when they are in their attacking transition. He has the confidence on the ball and the vision to identify gaps in the oppositions defensive structure and play long, angled passes to access these areas. Perhaps more importantly, he is confident enough in his own abilities to play the ball forward in tight areas through the lines of the oppositions defensive structure. This enables his team to play into advanced and dangerous areas of the pitch.
Playing as the ‘6’ in a three man midfield for Milan under coach Vincenzo Montella there is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Locatelli as the player in the controlling role for the side.
He has to ensure that the defence is screened properly to prevent the opposition from bypassing the midfield block whilst Milan are in the defensive phase as well as reading the game well enough to recognise when he has to leave his position to engage either the man in possession or the ball as it moves through the thirds of the pitch. This role requires a high degree of concentration which is unusual in a young player learning his trade. One of the few comparable players that comes to mind is Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl.
Here you can see an example of the ability that Locatelli has to recognise dangerous situations and move across to engage the man in possession. As the opposition look to break quickly into an attacking transition Locatelli recognises that they are exposed and shuttles across to engage the space that the opposition are trying to exploit.
In this action Locatelli is displaying his awareness and capacity to read the game quickly and under pressure.
This time Locatelli has to move to engage a player in his own zone with danger to either side. The opposition have been able to play the ball through the two other central midfielders to a player in an advanced area. There are opposition players in space to either side of the receiving player exposing the defensive structure.
In this action Locatelli is able to isolate the man in possession and successfully challenge the player to create a turnover in possession.
Vision and Confidence
Another key aspect of the role that Locatelli fulfils for Milan comes with his ability to identify space in and around the opposition defensive structure and access that space through long range passes. Key, however, is his capacity to decide where these longer passes are appropriate and where there is a need to use shorter passes to retain comfortable possession.
The ability to do either of these things makes it difficult for the opposition to close the 18-year-old down effectively. If they press then he can play short and move around the pressing action whilst if they sit off and allow him space then he has the capacity to assess and identify the situation and play penetrating longer passes.
In this scenario, the opposition have dropped into a deep defensive block to try to restrict space for Milan to play through the centre of the field. With the two most advanced players being relatively passive in the pressing action Locatelli receives the ball between the two centre-backs and has time and space.
Against a deep defensive block the most efficient point of access is in the space behind the fullbacks and Locatelli has the technical ability to access this space with a pass.
Again Locatelli is able to take possession with relatively small amounts of pressure and against a compact defensive unit with a high defensive line and has the capability to identify and access the space behind the defence.
There is a weakness to Locatelli’s game here in that he prefers the longer pass from left to right with his stronger right foot. He can play the same pass from right to left but does not do so as often or with as much success. It is a difficult skill to master without being semi-ambidextrous or having outrageous outside of the boot technique, as the natural curve of the ball will often take it out of play. Improving technique on one’s non-preferred foot is always easier the younger a player is. Iin this case, the Milan midfielder has plenty of time to work on it.
As well as being able to play the longer angled pass Locatelli is perfectly comfortable playing a shorter game and he displays unusual awareness for his age in his ability to play through the lines of the opposition in to advanced areas which give Milan a huge attacking advantage.
In this movement we see Locatelli in possession of the ball in a central area with easy passing options in close proximity. Instead of using any of these options we see Locatelli choose to play the ball forward and through the midfield line of the opposition to a player in an advanced wide area.
By playing in to these advanced areas Milan give themselves the opportunity to either isolate a defensive player one on one against an attacker or to develop an overload with supporting runs from deep that will overwhelm the defensive unit.
Once again Locatelli has the ball in a central area and Milan are pressing forward in an attacking movement. The oppositions midfield line is too flat but is tightly structured making it difficult for Locatelli to play the ball safely through the lines. It is here that we see another example of his astonishing confidence and self-belief for an 18-year-old, as he is willing to play the difficult pass through and into space behind the midfield unit; waiting for his attacking players to exploit the space.
As with any young players there are weak points to Locatelli’s game. He reads the game well in the defensive phase and he is intelligent in his positioning, but he still needs to become more physically adept when challenging the man in possession. He can play through and around an aggressive pressing movement but needs to develop greater pressing resistance to hold possession and create better overloads and attacking situations for his teammates.
These weak points however will develop over time and Locatelli certainly has a lot of that to look forward to. We also have not touched on the danger that he poses in shooting around the penalty area. To date this season, he has two goals to his name in Serie A including the winner in the match against fierce rivals Juventus.
Locatelli is a player in whom you can see countless positive traits, he is a player for the present but more excitingly and perhaps more aptly he is a player for the future.