The young Empoli attacking midfielder has progressed in leaps and bounds in recent times, and will surely earn himself a big move this summer as a result.
It was a dream come true for Riccardo Saponara after agreeing to the terms on a move that would see him arrive at his beloved AC Milan in the summer of 2013. Milan were looking to rebuild following the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, and for Saponara it was a proud moment to join the club where his idol Kaka played. Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy had already established themselves as starters in Milan’s first team, and Saponara was expected to follow suit along with Bryan Cristante. However, things did not go according to plan as the philosophy of focusing on youth changed before the transfer window closed.
Ironically it was Kaka who prevented Saponara from realising his dream in the iconic red and black shirt. The Italian playmaker would see only about 200 minutes of action for Milan, as Kaka came back from his disappointing spell in Real Madrid. Saponara’s path to the first team was made even more difficult when Japanese international Keisuke Honda joined from CSKA Moscow. To compound the misery, Milan were struggling in Serie A and were in mid-table when head coach Max Allegri was sacked with Clarence Seedorf taking over. At the end of the season Filippo Inzaghi would take over at Milan, but despite his interest in the club’s youth sector he did not trust Saponara who eventually returned to Empoli.
Maurizio Sarri comes to Saponara’s rescue
It was with the Tuscan club that Saponara had first made a real impact after joining them in 2009. Initially he started as a winger but it was the present Napoli coach Mauirizio Sarri who started using him centrally. Saponara would register 13 goals and 15 assists using his pace and vision but Empoli fell short of Serie A promotion as they lost the playoff final to local rivals Livorno. Empoli would win promotion in Saponara’s absence, but when he returned it seemed as if he had never been away. He notched up seven goals and three assists and Milan allowed him to make the move to Empoli permanent for a 4 million fee. His strong run has continued this season where he has already scored 5 goals and has 6 assists to his name. His sublime form has drawn interest from Juventus and Napoli and it looks unlikely he will continue at Empoli next summer.
Today the most modern Italian trequartista is Saponara
Saponara possesses a wonderful first touch and has excellent close control; while on the pitch it seems he is always two steps ahead of the opposition defenders. Last season he created more than 20 goalscoring chances for Empoli, and if the attacking players were a bit more clinical, then Saponara would have had many more assists to his name. Saponara is a leader in Empolia s final third as everything flows through him and his impressive passing range is another key attribute of his game. His creativity has really come to the fore during his time with Empoli. Saponara thrives on the directness of his game; he is an eager runner with the ball, driving his team forward whenever he has possession. His influence on the game is pretty evident from the very first whistle, and throughout the 90 minutes he is constantly seen making intelligent runs to open up space for his teammates.
Usually a trequartista operates behind the frontmen but Saponara can be found drifting out on the wings as well while he is also seen creating space for the strikers. It is very difficult to mark him and often he finds acres of space on the field. He has the ability to anticipate a situation even before it happens. One potential area of weakness is his decision-making as sometimes his final ball leaves a lot to be desired. But this aspect of his game will improve with consistent playing time and such difficulties at this stage are quite normal for a player. Moving forward in his career, this attribute will probably be crucial in deciding whether he becomes a world class player. With great poise and leadership, Saponara has been the star man for Empoli, transforming a relegation threatened club to a team challenging for European places. Saponara slaloms with the ball at his feet. When without it, he explores for space on the field.
Will Antonio Conte listen to Saponara’s message?
These types of players are few and far between in the peninsula at this moment. The quality trequartistas are a dying breed in the footballing world currently, especially in Italy. As a result, the emergence of Saponara has come as a breath of fresh air for Calcio. At this juncture, national team coach Antonio Conte is without this type of player and going into Euro 2016 Saponaraa s development will be monitored carefully. One reason why Conte might be a bit hesitant in calling him up for the national team is Saponaraa s lack of experience on the big stage. The 23-year old did not have the best of tournaments for the Azzurrini in 2013 while his stint with Milan was disappointing to say the least. The only way to know if the attacking midfielder will be successful with the national team is to give him opportunities to prove himself. Less deserving players have been called up by Conte this year, so a potential call-up for Saponara is not out of reach. In addition to this, there is no way a player in such a rich vein of form can be overlooked for long.
Every year Serie A has some pleasant surprises breaking out like Felipe Anderson and Paulo Dybala last season, and Domenico Berardi before that. Saponara is looking more and more like the surprise package this season and if he is able to maintain his current form till the end of the season, he will surely reach double dights in both goals and assists tallies (a feat achieved by Dybala last season). Conte usually does not use a trequartista in his system but Italy are lacking goals at this moment. Saponaraa s imagination and vibrant connective play might just be the answer if he wishes to change the module. Having shown his loyalty to Empoli this summer surely it wona t be long before Saponara is once again representing a top team where his extraordinary talents can shine even more brightly.