23rd January 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
Having enjoyed a fantastic season with Fiorentina so far, Federico Bernardeschi crucially carried his fine form into La Viola's clash with fierce rivals Juventus.
For the man who's unquestionably one of the brightest talents in Italian and European football, this presented him with another opportunity to prove himself against one of the league's premiere teams, just as he'd done against Napoli before Christmas, where he bagged a brace and supplied a delightful assist.
Although he couldn't replicate the same output as he did against Maurizio Sarri's men, the 22-year-old still played beautifully and chimed in with an assist in the Lillies' 2-1 win over the Champions.
Operating as Paulo Sousa's 10 in his chosen 3-5-1-1 formation, just in behind forward Nikola Kalinic, the Italian took up purposeful positions throughout to help his team gain superiority.
For the most part, Bernardeschi chose to position himself in the right half space. Indeed, this spatial occupation not only allowed him to persistently find space but also interact positively with his teammates. From these areas, he could combine effectively with Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina's right wing back, plus also with the more centrally located players such as Borja Valero, Matias Vecino and striker Kalinic. Upon parlaying the afore with the way Sousa instructs his players to move the ball quickly and form triangles and rhombuses around the ball carrier to ensure options are always present, and it's little wonder why Fiorentina enjoyed so many incisive passages in both wide and central areas.
In terms of disorganising the Bianconeri's defensive structure, creating overloads and freeing up the 10 spaces, Fiorentina's tactics were hugely successful.
Bernardeschi, who's forever scanning for space, never passed up chances to drift into true central attacking areas either, however. Helped by Kalinic's desire to run in behind, which stretched the space between Juventus' defensive and midfield lines due to a Juve player having to track him, Bernardeschi cunningly would then exploit the spaces this created. In addition, even when this wasn't the case, the starlet showed his excellent spatial awareness to find little pockets of space for himself or his teammates by performing clever decoy movements.
Another less heralded aspect of his game that served him so well on many occasions was the way he contorts his body into ideal positions just prior to receiving possession. Just as he's about to inherit the ball, he'd do a quick blindside check of his surroundings, surveying for any opposition pressure and to see where his mates are located. Then he'd make the call whether to open his body, to determine whether to play a one touch pass/embark on a dribble forward, or close off his body to protect the ball if an opponent was nearby.
Once he had the ball at his feet, the Azzurri international shone just as brightly, providing a real spark and sense of imagination to Fiorentina's attacking forays. Using his free flowing, elegant, unmistakable dribbling technique, in combination with his pace and bravery to run at markers, he set about making things happen. And he did just that, providing a constant menace to the away side courtesy of his surging runs and overall dynamism on the ball.
Crucially, though, Bernardeschi's passing ability allowed him to compliment this aspect of his armoury superbly. His assured, well weighted assist for Kalinic's opener gave a solid example of his capacity to unlock defences, in a match where his penchant to engineer chances arose as another glowing component of his output.
After another tremendous body of work by the versatile starlet, who's also capable of playing on either wing or even as a wing back, he suitably illustrated why he's one of the most coveted talents in Europe. With Barcelona, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, AS Roma, AC Milan and Inter Milan all showing a particularly keen interest in him of late, the die hard fans of La Viola will be desperate for him to stay for as long as possible.
They'll certainly be given hope by the strong attachment he feels for his beloved boyhood club, whom he joined in 2003 as a nine-year-old, and the fact he loves working under the stewardship of Sousa, a manager who has placed so much faith in him.
When listening to Bernardeschi speak on his manager, it's clear how highly he regards the Portuguese. "When Sousa became the Fiorentina coach, he called me up and said just four words: I believe in you. I'll never forget that. Last season he made me cover the whole flank, which was a real strain, so I feel better now in the trequartista role," he explained to La Repubblica.
"He immediately made a big impact on me, and from that moment everything went smoothly. I'm very happy with him. I have a wonderful relationship with the coach, on both a human and professional level."
The feeling is clearly mutual, for the tactically sophisticated Sousa clearly relishes working with the extraordinarily gifted sensation, a player that gives him such a high level of flexibility. "He is a player who has a strong desire to help the team, the city and himself," Sousa mused.
"When a player has this attitude, the coach has the ability to change tactics. Not everyone has this open-mindedness."
Although there was much talk about his courageous decision to take on the number 10 jersey last season and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Giancarlo Antognoni, Roberto Baggio and Rui Costa, there's no doubting that he's growing into the responsibility and handling the pressure that comes with this marvelously now.
Being the side's joint leading goalscorer, with nine, and having laid on a further three assists, while playing with such confidence and guile, has seen him emphatically answer any remaining critics in style.
He may not yet be at the level of said former legends of Fiorentina just yet, but this game changing genius is well on his way to conjuring a special legacy of his own at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
The one key caveat, however, will of course be if he stays at the club long enough to do so.
Federico Bernardeschi: One of Europe's Brightest Talents
23rd January 2017. By Edward Stratmann.