On the opening day of the 2016/17 Serie A season, there were a number of raised eyebrows as the team-sheets were circulated. Both of Juventus’ big money transfers – Gonzalo Higuaín and Miralem Pjanić – were left on the bench.
However, it was the inclusion of a slight, floppy-haired winger in Fiorentina’s starting XI which also caught the eye.
Against the unrelenting champions, Paulo Sousa threw Federico Chiesa in at the deep end as Juventus proceeded to emphatically and ruthlessly exert their dominance. By half-time, Fiorentina were lucky to be behind by just the one goal and were yet to register a shot of any kind.
Yet, in a blunt 45 minutes for La Viola, the few highlights they could salvage came from the dancing feet of their precocious 18-year-old.
Chiesa didn’t return after the interval but, four years later, he can stride into that same Allianz Stadium and call it home following his deadline day move to Juventus. An initial two-year loan could culminate in a permanent transfer worth up to €60m if certain conditions are met. A hefty fee for an unquestionably talented player who is yet to demonstrate consistent excellence.
After making that dizzying debut, Chiesa didn’t earn a regular starting berth in Fiorentina’s side until the turn of the year. But has since become a fixture of the side, starting more than 30 league games in each of the past three seasons.
Under the stewardship of four different permanent managers, Chiesa has been shoehorned into a number of systems but inevitably out wide on the flanks, often on the right to match his stronger foot. That is until that particular position was eliminated when Fiorentina moved to a 3-5-2 early last season.
So as to avoid hindering Chiesa’s obvious attacking talents, the 22-year-old spent much of the previous campaign playing as one of Fiorentina’s two strikers. Despite hitting double figures for league goals and laying on a further six assists, doubts have been raised as to whether Chiesa is best suited through the middle.
His international manager, Roberto Mancini, has been unequivocal in his stance on the matter, telling Gazzetta dello Sport (via Football Italia) in January: “Chiesa plays in a position where he doesn’t actually play. He’s not a striker, he’s struggling playing as a second striker. He needs the line, on the wing he becomes devastating.”
Mancini’s reticence to classify Chiesa as a striker perhaps stems from the stigma that the young man suffers from rather wayward finishing.
Chiesa’s perceived tendency to miss the target is only heightened by the fact that his father, Enrico Chiesa, was a revered and prolific striker in the 1990s and early 2000s. Mancini even mentions that he’s had a word with the former Parma and Fiorentina forward, saying: “I told his father: ‘Tell him to relax, to find peace and joy. He gets to play football, it doesn’t happen to everyone. It’s a privilege’.”
However, Chiesa has clearly improved upon his performance in front of goal. Between 2017 and 2019 Chiesa underperformed his expected goals (xG) tally by four. Essentially, this suggests that an average player presented with Chiesa’s chances would have scored four more goals than Juve’s new man in this period. Yet, last season the Fiorentina academy product netted ten league goals from open play against an xG of 9.7, hinting at some newfound composure when taking aim.
As well as improving his finishing, Chiesa has been taking his prolific number of shots from less ambitious locations, although he could still improve in this area. Always keen to beat his man, Chiesa is also adept at creating chances for his teammates, laying on 14 league assists since 2017. Though this tally could be closer to 18 based on his expected assists and he is unlikely to be let down by the finishing prowess of his illustrious Juve colleagues.
Despite his respectable output last campaign, Chiesa evidently agrees with Mancini’s assessment, saying in April: “I’ve played more as a second striker this season because the coach wanted that,” as quoted by Football Italia. “If they move me out to the wing, I could help my team to the fullest.”
At Juventus, Chiesa is likely to be faced with the same dilemma, as the early indications suggest that rookie manager Andrea Pirlo is keen for his side to attack in a system resembling a 3-5-2. However, Pirlo may opt for the same solution Fiorentina coach Giuseppe Iachini has plumped for post-lockdown. Namely, deploying Chiesa at right wingback.
From this role, the Italy international can operate on the flanks, in the position he so covets. In addition, given Juve’s tendency to dominate the majority of their Serie A opponents, Chiesa’s duties will, more often than not, have much more of an emphasis upon ‘wing’, rather than ‘back’.
Wherever Pirlo decides to deploy his new charge, Juve have added another burgeoning talent to a side peppered with grizzled professionals and increasing infused with youth.
Yet, whether the Old Lady can count upon this undoubtedly promising, but far from flawless, blend to secure a tenth-straight Scudetto – in a season equipped with numerous credible challengers – remains to be seen.