Simone Zaza: Can the Sassuolo star be the man to solve Antonio Conte’s Azzurri striker crisis?

When the Italian national football team return to action at the end of next month manager Antonio Conte faces an attacking dilemma as he seeks returning the Azzurri to a team capable of competing for a major honour at Euro 2016 after disappointing showings at the past two World Cups.

Italy would score just 2 goals last summer in Brazil as they exited the World Cup at the group stages, spelling the end for manager Cesare Prandelli, and under Conte the troubles in front of goal have continued. Although they on course to qualify for next summer’s European Championships in France, Conte’s Italy have managed just 6 goals in four games, relying on centre-half Giorgio Cheillini to sneak past Azerbaijan while against Malta, ranked 149th in the world, they earned a narrow 0-1 victory with a goal from Graziano Pelle.

Conte has called on 10 strikers during those 4 matches, while also turning to a couple more against the Netherlands and Albania in the 2 friendlies he has faced so far, as he looks to move Italy on from the disastrous experience of last summer’s World Cup and the era of Mario Balotelli, who once again led the team, and struggled, out in Brazil. With Conte announcing concerns over Balotelli’s attitude amidst his poor form for Liverpool, the 24 year old has been called up under Conte just once, for November’s qualifier with Croatia in which he pulled out from the squad with injury.

Of those considered for Brazil by Prandelli, Giussepe Rossi and Lorenzo Insigne are now side-lined with injury while Antonio Cassano is without a club after being released by Parma last month. Alessio Cerci endured a wretched spell in Spain with Atletico Madrid after moving from Torino in the summer and has yet to score for AC Milan since returning to Serie A in January, and although Mattia Destro has fared slightly better at the San Siro since joining-up with Cerci in Milan, his campaign still only reads 6 goals in 23 games after his early-season struggles with Roma.

The Azzurri have explored various other avenues and will continue to do so before next month’s games with Bulgaria and England, though a solution is not obvious to Conte. Ciro Immobile seems a constant choice under the former Juventus boss but his struggles in-front of goal for Borussia Dortmund has left-him confidence-sapped, whereas Sebastian Giovinco’s 2 goals in 13 games for Juventus is hardly an irresistible advertisement.

Pelle endeared himself with his debut goal but he has just 1 goal for Southampton since late-December. Stephan El Shaarawy’s seemingly constant troubles with injury continue, Dani Osvaldo was shown the exit-door at Inter Milan after his well-documented off-field problems once again flared-up, while Fabio Quagliarella would represent a regressive step at the age of 32 despite 9 goals for Torino putting him fourth on the Serie A goal-scoring charts. Incidentally Quagliarella is tied with the erstwhile duo of Antonio Di Natale and Luca Toni, both aged 37 and still prolific. How Conte could wish he had the same qualities coming through in the new generation of Italian strikers.

With a goal less than that trio of veterans is Simone Zaza, the 23 year old Sassuolo striker who scored in Conte’s first competitive game as Italy coach in the 0-2 win over Norway. Since then the goals and the caps have steadily flowed, featuring in 3 of Italy’s 4 qualifiers to date and missing only the win in Malta where he was a sub. It has marked a sensational rise for the striker who just two years ago was playing in the third-tier for Viareggo.

A nomadic introduction to his career saw Zaza signed up by scouts at Atalanta at the age of 15 after impressing for his local sides Stella Azzurra and Valdera but after failing to make the grade at Bergamo, he was shipped on to Sampdoria following a contract dispute.

From there he was loaned out to Juve Stabia where he disappointed but then Viareggo became a pivotal point in Zaza’s progression, his 11 goals in 18 games restoring the confidence that had been eroded since joining Atalanta. He took that form up a level to Serie B with Ascoli where he became the sixth-highest scorer in the 2012/13 Serie B with 18 strikes.

Sampdoria would then sell him to Juventus in a deal that saw Sassuolo acquire 50% of the player’s rights for €2.5 million and an agreement to send Zaza on loan to the latter for the 2013/14 campaign saw the striker become a revelation in Serie A, scoring 9 goals and helping the northern Italian minnows escape relegation with a series of brilliant all-round displays.

Sassuolo now own Zaza outright and he celebrated the €7.4 million move with a stunning volley against Cagliari to earn the club a point in this season’s opening round of matches. That convinced Conte to partner Zaza alongside Immobile as he looked for a partnership to head his 3-5-2 system that had brought him success with Juventus. His replacement of Balotelli, scapegoated by Italian media for his nosedive in form since Euro 2012, inevitably drew numerous comparisons between the two strikers and their difference in background.

Zaza has been particularly appealing to Conte because of a work-ethic that together with Immobile’s energy allows the Azzurri to press from the front, not allowing the opposition defenders to settle on the ball and dictate the pace of the play, a style that is integral to Conte’s high-intensity, constantly-interchanging system. Contrast this with Balotelli, who can so often appear lazy and unwilling to make the off-the-ball runs or close down defenders.

Zaza stands just 2cm shorter than Balotelli and both possess gifted technical skill and a fine touch and control, though the Sassuolo man is more mobile than the Liverpool striker. Some put the difference in work-ethic and style down to the dissimilarity in career development, with Balotelli being indulged in as a prodigy by Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan’s academy while Zaza was learning his trade in the roughhouse setting of Italy’s lower leagues.

A dogged hunger for success that has been forged in constant competition has left Zaza with a bit of a toxic edge, suggested by the 10 yellow cards he has picked up this term as well as the 59 fouls he has committed. While his desire to press defenders is admirable, especially to Conte, it can often be over-zealous and he needs to calm that edgy side of his game down.

Another criticism can arrive in the form of accusations his left-foot can be one-dimensional, with 6 of his 8 goals coming on the same foot, chances can go begging due to his habit of trying to get the ball onto his more comfortable side. Furthermore, the 63% of the 113 headers he has lost indicate his problems in the air, not ideal for a lone centre-forward in Sassuolo’s 4-3-3 system, though he much-prefers to receive the ball into feet so he can utilise his upper-body strength and fine technique to create opportunities in the final third.

As a child Zaza used to constantly watch videos of Marco Van Basten and like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, took up Taekwando as a past-time. There are certain similarities to both strikers in the way Zaza bustles around the pitch but Gigi Delneri, the coach who originally signed the forward for Atalanta, thinks he is most like Christian Vieri. “A pure centre-forward, like Christian Vieri”, Delneri told Corriere dello Sport, “he makes the same movements and is left-footed, but Simone is better technically than Vieri.”

Despite a distinguished scoring career Vieri only managed 23 goals in 49 games for his country, though Zaza can possibly better that if he continues to persuade Conte he is worth a place in the side with his form.

Competition for striking places will come in the form of Napoli’s Manolo Gabbiadini and Sampdoria’s Stefano Okaka, both recently capped by Conte, though if Azzurri team-mate Leonardo Bonucci’s prophecy rings true, then Zaza will be the preferred choice. “He may be young, but he is mature. He has excellent technique as well as being physically strong. He has everything to become a great striker.”


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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