A little over eighteen months ago, whilst on loan to Serie B side Crotone, Federico Bernardeschi received his maiden call up to the Italy squad from then-Coach Cesare Prandelli. The Fiorentina-owned winger had only just turned 20, but most of Europe was already fully aware of his talent, with Azzurri Captain Gigi Buffon proving to be no exception.
“He’s from Carrara like me,” Bernardeschi told the Gazzetta dello Sport. “He hugged me two or three times and it was great. I had goose-bumps.” Making sure he felt welcome with the national team, the current form of the young forward might see the 2006 World Cup winner feel very differently about him when their sides go head-to-head next weekend.
Indeed, after Bernardeschi scored twelve times for Crotone last term, he was recalled by the Viola, the club he originally signed for back in 2003, progressing through the youth sector and attracting attention from many of the continent’s biggest clubs. Netting twice in a pre-season victory over Barcelona ensured more people took notice, yet the way he – and indeed Fiorentina – have begun the 2015/16 campaign continues to surprise.
Having lost Coach Vincenzo Montella, last season’s standout player Mohamed Salah and striker Mario Gomez, most expected the Tuscan side to endure a year of transition. Yet new boss Paulo Sousa has them playing some fantastic football, currently sitting in third place and just two points behind leaders Inter.
The midfield play of Borja Valero and Josip Iličić has been vital, while the likes of Gonzalo Rodríguez and goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu have regularly neutralised opposition attacks, but it is perhaps in their own frontline where this team has been most impressive. Former Blackburn misfit Nikola Kalinić has weighed in with ten goals and two assists in just 16 appearances, providing a constant threat in the central role.
Bernardeschi’s natural role would be out wide on the right, cutting in on his favoured left foot to great effect and running at the heart of defences. However, he has been deployed as an orthodox winger just three times this season, including last week as he grabbed two goals against Basel in the Europa League. He has also played as a wing-back and even an out-and-out left-back on occasion, dutifully filling in wherever Sousa has asked him to, including a role behind Kalinić that he has previous admitted he enjoys.
Tactically aware and defensively diligent when called upon, statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com show he has averaged 1.3 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per game so far this season, yet he is equally comfortable on the ball as he is trying to win it back. His dribbling skills continue to improve, with Squawka.com showing he has completed 20 of the 32 take-ons he has attempted, while his three European goals have come from just five shots.
His play has vindicated the club’s decision to allow him to wear the number ten shirt once regularly seen filled by the likes of Roberto Baggio, Manuel Rui Costa and Giancarlo Antognoni. While clearly a very different type of player, his promising talent and obvious love of the club led to that decision, and Bernardeschi revealed last month that it his pushing him to improve.
“It was a bit of a special choice,” he told local newspaper La Nazione. “I feel many eyes on me and that’s a feeling that gives me great incentives. For a young player like me, being appreciated is very important.” He has always been held in high regard however, with Manchester United attempting to steal him away from the Stadio Artemio Franchi four years ago, agreeing with his father that moving would have been the wrong move.
“He's always been treated very well here and it wouldn't have been right to leave,” Alberto Bernardeschi explained at the time. “If he is good enough to have a great career, he will be certainly able to do so by staying at Fiorentina.” That resolve may well be tested again soon however, with none other than Barcelona admitting to monitoring his progress after being impressed by him in that summer meeting.
Ariedo Braida was spotted in the crowd during the game with Basel, and the Spanish press have reported that they have previously sent scouts to watch the 21-year-old on a number of occasions. “Are we interested in Bernardeschi? Let’s say yes,” the Catalan club’s sporting director admitted to Radio Blu. “Bernardeschi is a fantastic player, he’s great but I can’t say any more.”
While the winger has insisted he hopes “to become a symbol for Fiorentina,” the prospect of playing at Camp Nou may yet prove too great.
He clearly still has much room to improve, particularly in terms of consistency, but the future of Federico Bernardeschi seems increasingly bright no matter where he is playing.
Read more from Adam Digby