Manuel Locatelli is a product of AC Milan’s proud academy which has seen the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Madini and more recently Gianluigi Donnaruma progressed. He started training with the first team at 17 under Massimiliano Allegri and was given his debut the following year under Sinisa Mihajlovic.
The next Pirlo, as they once called him, has had his ups and downs with the Rossoneri when they were going through a transitional phase in their history with the constant change in management. In Locatelli’s 3 year spell in AC Milan’s first team, he has worked under 5 managers. This inconsistency in management has inevitably caused a dip in form which eventually saw him dropped to the bench at the end. In his final season at the club, he only played the full 90 minutes on 4 occasions.
Locatelli took matters into his own hands and handed in a transfer request in search of first-team football and ended up with the Neroverdi, under Roberto De Zeb for €12.5m. Since then, the belief placed in him has paid off massively and the fee spent on him has proved to be a bargain.
The midfielder has been an ever-present in Sassuolo’s midfield with 4 goals and 10 assists in his 3 seasons. His performances have also led to call-ups to the national team where he currently has 6 caps. This move has worked for both parties, as Locatelli continue to develop into a world-class midfielder, Sassuolo has developed into a team competing for European places with Italy’s elite under De Zerbi. The dashboard below shows the elite player he is now becoming and things can only improve if he keeps it up.
This analysis will cover Locatelli’s performance with Sassuolo this season when compared to other midfielders in Serie A.
All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb. Heatmap is according to Sofascore.
The Metronome of Sassuolo
Manuel Locatelli plays as the left-sided central midfielder for Sassuolo in a 4–2–3–1 system much like Pogba’s position at United. According to the visualization above, Locatelli is comfortable at both ends of the pitch but mainly deploys himself as a deep-lying playmaker. Upon receiving the ball, he will always scan across the field and determine the best option for the team, showcasing his maturity on numerous occasions and ensuring possession is not given away cheaply.
Comfortable with both feet, his playmaking abilities make him comfortable in possession in the attacking third of the pitch as well. In most games this season, Locatelli starts as the deepest midfielder, often playing as the third centre back, progressing balls from deep. When there is a need to score a goal, Locatelli will eventually advance further up, oftentimes at the left half-space area where he could still utilize his long balls to great effect.
Locatelli has completed the most passes in Serie A with 1444 in the time of writing, this ranks him 16th when compared to other players in Europe’s Top 5 leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A) This is indicative of Sassuolo’s high possession and intensity style of football as they currently have the highest average possession in the league with 59.2% this season.
The 23-year-old averages 73 completed passes in a game with a high success rate of 87%. This is much more impressive when you consider he completes an average of 10 long balls a game.
His long-range passes into the final third as well as progressive passes is what makes him stand out amongst the rest, often regarded as one of the best passers in the league.
According to the visualization above, the young Italian registers the most passes into the final third in the league amongst midfielders who have played a minimum of 10 games, averaging 8.32 final third passes per90. Only Lazio’s Luis Alberto betters Locatelli in progressive passes per90. This is very impressive when considering Alberto plays in a more advanced role compared to Locatelli, who mostly occupies himself as the deepest midfielder playing as the deep-lying playmaker of the team. This also highlights that the Italian does not have to always rely on progressive carries to supplement attacks, which could leave massive gaps behind, instead, he instigates the play from deep.
Manuel Locatelli’s seasonal heatmap (via Sofascore)
Locatelli is also a very press resistant midfielder. In the same style as Blaise Matuidi, he would use his body well to shield the ball from the opposition before making the pass. His awareness on the pitch also ensures he is always a step ahead of opposition players, at 23, this level of maturity and football intelligence is very rare and Locatelli has used it to his advantage on numerous occasions.
When Sassuolo attempted to counter Juventus after winning the ball back, Locatelli was the recipient of a ball just outside his penalty area with his body positioned on the wrong side of the goal. In an attempt to stop the transition, Arthur immediately instigated the press, but Locatelli intelligently took a touch before flicking it to Hamed Junior Traore for the counter-attack, sending Arthur back to Barcelona. This play here more than highlights Locatelli comfort on the ball and his great sense of awareness on the pitch.
When comparing Locatelli with Pogba, the Italian topples over the Frenchman in terms of final third passes, progressive passes and key pass in a significant amount. Although Pogba has been playing a more advanced role at times, this does showcase Locatelli’s immense passing prowess when compared to United’s most accomplished passer.
Stats via FBref
Spearheading Attacks From Deep
Speaking of progressive carries, Locatelli is an effective ball-carrier in Serie A as well. Amongst midfielders who played a minimum of 10 games this season, the young Italian ranks 1st for the number of carries contributed so far this season with an average of 68.6 and 5.13 progressive carries per90. Despite playing a deeper role, this highlights his composure when bringing the ball out of defence to spearhead the team’s attack in transitions.
Against Juventus this season, Locatelli impressively intercepted the cross in his own penalty area, only to pick up the loose ball and carry it through the midfield effortlessly and had to be brought down well in the attacking third of the pitch.
Although not the most dangerous of dribblers on the pitch with less than 1 successful dribbles per game, Locatelli makes up for this by having to pass the ball through the lines instead, meaning he doesn’t have to dribble when he could produce a quality ball as he did in the same game against Juventus. Locatelli picked up the ball and scanned his surroundings, only to play a line-breaking ball instead of taking on a myriad of Juventus players surrounding him.
Locatelli’s high carries could be explained through his body positioning. Whenever allowed to advance the ball forward, Locatelli positions himself well enough to receive the ball on the half-turn and either take it on his stride or pass it on to hurt opposition players.
Manuel Locatelli, taking the ball on the half turn and progressing it forward against Inter
When tasked to create opportunities for teammates, Locatelli is more than capable with a shot creating action per90 of 2.54 and a goal creating action per90 of 0.3. However, the Italian has never been an accomplished striker of the ball and should look to improve his shooting if he were to become a more complete player. He currently has 4 goals in the league with one being a penalty, slightly underperforming his low npxG of 1.5. So far his season, Locatelli has taken 24 shots this season but only 4 shots on target, which could indicate his shots are taken from a wider distance, but you’d at least expect a player with impressive technical quality to hit it on target.
Locatelli’s shots this season (Via Understat)
Being a deep-lying playmaker, you are expected to be at least competent when defending and not allowing oppositions to slice through the team through the middle. As much as he is impressed with the ball, Locatelli is also defensively solid in the base of the midfield. Locatelli has recorded 4.37 tackles + interceptions per90 so far this season. This ranks him first in the team and 5th in Serie A amongst midfielders this season.
This is indicative of Locatelli’s defensive responsibilities in the team when out of position and his great positioning to give him a great advantage in duels. His long legs were also helpful in retaining balls from attackers when necessary. Considering Sassuolo plays a possession heavy system, you’d expect the team would generally have lesser tackles considering how much of the ball they have throughout the game. In this context, Locatelli’s numbers are very impressive and indicate that he is very much dependable when the ball is given away, sweeping up the danger before it is too late.
In terms of his aerial abilities, he is also just as impressive. Standing at 6’1 feet, the Italian is comfortable in the air, winning 2.03 aerial duels per90, which ranks him best in his team and 7th amongst all midfielders in the league. In set-pieces, Locatelli is often deployed as the target for Sassuolo, winning the flick on at the near post to conjure up a chance.
Manuel Locatelli is a clear example of why a club should hold on to youth prospects and be patient with their development. Locatelli has been decent for Milan when called upon but was hardly given the opportunity in his final season under Gattuso. His development was stalled and swapping the red stripes with green maybe his best career decision thus far. I reckon this experience has ignited the fire in Locatelli, for he has now been a key player for Sassuolo and the Italy national team. Perhaps in another era, where AC Milan was a much more stable club than they were in 2015 to 2019, Locatelli would have flourished and continued his boyhood dream in Milan.
As for his future, his performances have attracted the attention of Juventus and Manchester City over the past 2 seasons. Ideally, a player with such maturity and technical abilities can play in any system possible. Given his tactical versatility as a traditional 6 or 8, he could be a world-class midfielder, following the footsteps of fellow countryman Marco Veratti. Those claims of Locatelli being the next Pirlo when he was 18, may start to make sense.