Back came Serie A, and back came the goals: a casual eight of them in the lunchtime kick-off alone. Inter were already the most prolific side in the highest-scoring of Europe’s top five leagues this season, but if anyone had forgotten what their football looks like during a 10-day winter break, then their win over Crotone offered an excellent refresher.
Against opponents who sit bottom of the table, the Nerazzurri conceded a cheap opener, battled back into the lead and then gave up a pointless penalty – all by the 36th minute. After making such hard work of the first half, they bagged four unanswered goals in the second, winning 6-2 and creating a perfect metaphor for a season in which they have seemed determined to make their own lives difficult, yet now have won seven games straight.
This was a day when many of Serie A’s frontrunners would follow their free-scoring lead. Napoli and Juventus had four goals each in wins over Cagliari and Udinese, while Atalanta put five past Sassuolo. Even at the other end of the table, Torino got in on the act with a 3-0 victory over Parma.
Yet the goal of the round – and possibly the season so far – came in a very different game between Spezia and Verona. Through 74 minutes, the game was a grim stalemate, each goalkeeper called on only once to make a save. And then along came Mattia Zaccagni.
Perhaps it is wrong to give him all the credit. The buildup to Verona’s goal was magnificent, too, Marco Faraoni releasing Ebrima Colley down the right before continuing his own run forward. Colley checked inside to Adrien Tameze, who kept the ball moving on to Miguel Veloso. With one touch, the Portuguese midfielder chipped the defence. Faraoni met his pass with a first-time volleyed cross.
It would all have been for nought, though, without the magic that Zaccagni applied next. Despite a defender lunging in front of him, the Verona midfielder read the flight of the cross perfectly, taking a step back and controlling on his chest while pivoting to face away from the goal. As the ball came back down, he leapt to meet it with a bicycle kick into the bottom left corner of the net.
By Monday morning, the newspapers were already referring to it as a “Zaccagnata” – a “Zaccagni-ism” – his very own signature move. This is the language of star players and household names, not uncapped 25-year-olds playing for a midtable side.
It was another little mark of how rapidly Zaccagni’s star is rising. Voted by his peers as Serie A’s player of the month in November, he has been linked over the past fortnight with a transfer to just about every club in Serie A’s top half. He earned his first call-up to the Italian national team in November, too, only to pick up an injury before he had the chance to make his debut.
Ironically, it was precisely his lack of highlight-worthy moves that might have kept him from winning such an opportunity sooner. Zaccagni is a player whose contributions do not always show up in those most measurable statistics of goals and assists.
The players he names as his footballing role models – Luka Modric and Miralem Pjanic – are facilitators first and foremost, players whose subtler contributions allow others around them to shine. That mindset is captured in the words of his manager, Ivan Juric, who has described Zaccagni as “one of the most intelligent footballers I ever coached, because he makes his teammates play well”.
It is Juric who pushed him to contribute more in front of goal. Zaccagni had played mostly as a box-to-box midfielder before the Croatian took over at Verona in the summer of 2019. Now he lines up as one of two trequartiste, between midfield and attack on the left side of a 3-4-2-1. Back in June, Juric prophesied that Zaccagni could win an Italy call-up: “If he just learns how to become more decisive in the final 20-25 metres”.
There were signs that he was getting there even before this weekend. Zaccagni has four goals and two assists in 15 games this season – enough to make him top scorer on a team whose safety-first approach runs counter to recent Serie A trends. Verona, with the third-lowest wage bill in Serie A, are a team making the most of modest resources.
Evidence of Zaccagni’s quality can be found in the numbers, if you know where to look. Only one other Serie A player – Torino’s Andrea Belotti – has been fouled more often this season. In both cases, this can be read as a strong clue as to which player opponents fear the most.
Better yet, though, is simply to apply the eye test. Zaccagni is not extravagant, yet his combination of close control, acceleration and eye for an opening make him a menace in possession.
It is enough to glance at the opening moments of Verona’s draw with Milan, when he scythed through an imperceptible gap between two defenders to set up Nikola Kalinic, or the disappearing act he pulled with the ball against Sasssuolo in December, nutmegging one defender before beating the next with a Zidane-esque roulette, to recognise that this is a player of superior means.
The inevitable question hanging over Verona is how long they can keep him around. Zaccagni’s contract expires in 2022, and he has shown no inclination to extend. The expectation is that his club will seek a sale this January that allows him to stay on loan until the end of the campaign. Whether his suitors will agree to such terms remains to be seen.
Juric, for his part, is philosophical. “I don’t sell anyone and I don’t buy anyone,” he said when the question was raised on Sunday, stressing his role as a coach. “If a player arrives at a big club I am very happy for them, as happened with [Matteo] Pessina [who played on loan at Verona last season before returning to Atalanta, where he has been starting regularly this season]. I hear from my former players, and it’s a great pleasure when they take steps forward in their career.”
Sunday felt like another important moment in that of Zaccagni. He might never score another goal like the one he did on Sunday, but the opportunity beckons of greater stages on which to show us what a true ‘Zaccagnata’ looks like.
• Nicky will post her talking points in the comments section below