As the Rome derby draws near, the big picture in Serie A looks more or less the way we expected it to look. Juventus are a few points clear at the top, with the expected names scrapping for the second and third champions league spots. The only exception is the inversion of the two teams from Milano, with Inter performing the way Milan were expected to perform, and vice versa. The hiring of Stefano Pioli will likely get the Nerazzuri moving in the right direction, but they already have a considerable hole to dig themselves out of.
The Milan derby was certainly an entertaining affair, despite the two sides wearing jerseys that were difficult to decipher from one another on TV, and now we can look forward to the derby della capital on December 4th. But rather than a simple match preview, I’d like to highlight six young Lazio players that fans should pay special attention to.
Lazio has one of the youngest rosters in Serie A, and every player on this list is under the age of 24. They have all been crucial to the team’s success thus far, and the biggest concern for fans is if they can prevent larger clubs from poaching them, and for how long. So, without further ado:
1. Stefan de Vrij (24) – Lazio began negotiations to acquire the young Dutch defender just prior to the start of the 2014 World Cup, and they were very wise to have done so. He wound up being named to the all-tournament team, attracting considerable interest from some big name clubs. However, Lazio managed to seal the deal and de Vrij was nothing short of fantastic in his debut Serie A season, anchoring the defense as the team overachieved and finished third.
Unfortunately he was forced to sit out the entire 2015-2016 campaign with a knee injury, but he picked up right where he left off at the start of this season, showing that he is easily among the best central defenders in Serie A and in Europe. He has incredible quickness and agility for someone his size (6’2”), and the sheer number of balls he wins in staggering. When Lazio found themselves somewhat confused and tired at certain points during games early in this season, de Vrij seemed to single handedly take control of the situation and have an enormous impact on the eventual outcome of the matches.
His current level and potential for further improvement cannot be overstated, and in the next a few years he will likely become a household name for fans all over the world. It seems inevitable that he will eventually wind up at one of the super clubs, but Lazio supporters are hoping to see him in their colors for another two years, at least.
2. Wesley Hoedt (22) – The other half of Lazio’s Dutch defending duo, Hoedt had a hard time last season when injuries to other players (especially de Vrij) forced him into a starting role that he was not yet fully prepared for. The difficult situation was exacerbated by Lazio’s poor results and considerable criticism from the fans, but he dealt with the situation admirably for a 21 year old, never losing too much confidence or lashing out against his detractors.
Starting the 2016 -2017 season as a reserve, he had the opportunity to settle down and take a fresh approach to Italian football. When an injury to Bastos thrust Hoedt into the starting lineup once again, he responded with greater confidence and precision, likely helped by the fact that he was working alongside his compatriot and friend de Vrij. When Stefan then suffered an injury of his own, Hoedt really came to the fore, taking something of a leadership role when paired with the similarly young Fortuna Wallace (see #3).
Hoedt is the tallest of Lazio’s defenders at 6’4”, but what he lacks in quickness he compensates for with excellent tactical positioning. He is also blessed with a great touch for big defender, and his superb ability to play the ball out of the back went a long way to help cover the prolonged absence of midfield orchestrator Lucas Biglia. Hoedt was moved back out of the starting lineup when Inzaghi showed preference for the quicker Wallace when playing with 3 defenders, but we will certainly see more of Wesley in the season to come.
3. Fortuna Wallace (22) – Fans were initially scratching their heads when Lazio paid 8 million Euros to secure the transfer of this little known (in Italy) defender, but Wallace has managed to change almost everyone’s mind in the span of just a few games. Physically, he has all the attributes to become a top defender in Europe, and his decision making and tactical ability have both improved rapidly.
After a shaky start to his Lazio career, including a silly mistake that gifted a potentially costly penalty to Pescara, Wallace managed to turn things around to the extent that Inzaghi entrusted him with the center spot in a three man back line. That is no mean feat for such a young player in Serie A, and Wallace has repaid that trust by playing nearly flawlessly. Very strong in the air and an able tackler as well, Wallace has the ball skills you would expect from a Brazilian defender, even if they aren’t quite up to the level of Hoedt. Now that de Vrij and Bastos are healthy again, it will be interesting to see how Wallace factors into Inzaghi’s plans going forward. Either way, expect to hear more about him in the future.
4. Felipe Anderson (23) – Ah, Felipe Anderson. Few players in recent memory have been as enigmatic as the young Brazilian, purchased from Santos in 2012 after prolonged negotiations with the club and the investment firm that owned a stake in his contract. Initially he struggled to make his way into the starting lineup, and at times looked frankly dreadful when he was called upon to play. And then, halfway through the 2014-2015 season, he simply exploded. He played a stretch of 9 games where he scored 6 goals and looked like nothing short of Cristiano Ronaldo. He was blowing past defenders with astounding pace, and when he wasn’t finishing off his amazing runs himself, he was providing perfect assists for his teammates to knock home.
And then, just as quickly as he burst onto the scene, he reverted back to his former self. There were still flashes of brilliance, but they were far less frequent. The team tried modifying its formation just to get him back on track, and there was even talk of sending him to a sports psychologist, but nothing seemed to work.
Skip ahead to the start of this season, and Felipe is finally starting to look more like the player Lazio fans were dreaming he could be. Likely helped by the dynamic presence of Immobile and Kieta (see #5) joining him in the attack, along with Inzaghi’s less dogmatic coaching style, Anderson looks more mature, determined and focused than he has in the past. His incredible individual runs are starting to become more frequent again, but he’s also helping his teammates defensively and avoiding the casual mistakes that frustrated fans and stymied his progress last year. Rather than waiting for another explosion of form, if Felipe continues on this incremental positive trajectory, he may regain the level of brilliance that carried Lazio to a champion’s league spot and actually stay there this time.
5. Keita Balde Diao (21) – Shown the door at Barcelona’s youth academy for disciplinary reasons, Lazio were willing to gamble on him way back in 2011. There is no doubting his raw talent, and he anchored the Lazio U-19 team that won the Scudetto Primavera in 2013 with Simone Inzaghi at the helm. After initially struggling to get playing time with the first team, he has now established himself as one of the most dangerous attacker players in Serie A.
One-on-one he is nearly unstoppable, and where his teammate Anderson is at his best with a full head of steam, Keita is particularly adept at shredding opposing defenses after starting with the ball at a complete standstill. He also has the capability to transition from dribbling to shooting in the blink of an eye, which is exactly what allowed him to beat Pepe Reina to the near post in Lazio’s 1-1 draw against Napoli.
Off the field he has been fairly well behaved, a highly publicized Lamborghini crash after a night of partying and quite a few immature tweets notwithstanding. However, he still seems to struggle with staying focused and productive for a full 90 minutes. He also remains a little on the selfish side, which is probably related to the fact that he thinks he has already outgrown a club like Lazio. There are rumors he could be transferred as early as January, and Napoli have recently offered a straight swap for Gabbiadini, which Lazio turned down, saying that it will cost suitors 30 million Euros to secure his services. Only time will tell how long he stays at Lazio, but for the time being the attacking trio of Anderson, Immobile and Keita is one of the most exciting and entertaining in the world to watch.
6. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (21) – He doesn’t look like trequartista. He doesn’t even really look like a soccer player. Savic appears big, lanky and somewhat slow at first, but when he touches the ball he immediately brings a certain Ibrahimovic to mind (Ibra is 6’5” and Savic 6’4”). It isn’t supposed to work. He isn’t supposed to have such a delicate and deft touch. But it does and he does. He seems to glide rather than run, and his vision is fantastic for such a young player. He is particularly adept at backheels and flicks, and he makes the most of his size to win plenty of balls in the air, serving as the target on long clearances and allowing the single striker Immobile to run onto the balls that he wins.
Watching Milinkovic improve and mature has been a true pleasure for Lazio fans the past 18 months. He works extremely hard, fights tenaciously and follows up every crunching tackle with a look of sweet innocence on his still boyish face. He is already the kind of player that brings beauty to the beautiful game, and his upside remains enormous. He is still filling out his large frame and finding his most comfortable position on the pitch, and Lazio are rightly banking on him being a cornerstone for many years to come. Just remember that you heard it here first.