As I’ve covered numerous times on this website by now, Italian football are filled with talented midfielders. One of the most exciting midfielders at the moment is Cagliari’s 20-year-old playmaker Nicolo Barella who at the end of this article might be your new favourite midfielder. Barella was born in Cagliari and has risen through the ranks at the Sardinian club with Cagliari being the only club he’s represented bar a productive loan spell at Serie B side Como. He made his debut in Serie A in 2015 and established himself last year, making 28 appearances in the league.
Cagliari always play a 4-3-1-2 which sees Barella usually lining up as the left-sided central midfielder, the role Italians call mezzala. From that position Barella is expected to provide cover defensively and quality offensively while doing a lot of running up and down the pitch. On occasions Barella has been used as the deep-lying playmaker, the regista, or as the number 10 behind the two strikers, highlighting his versatility. As we’ll see below, Barella has the attributes to play in all three positions regularly but seems most suited for now to the box-to-box role he currently holds.
Defensively, Barella is a hard-worker and very good tackler. He presses with energy and intensity and is very aggressive. Despite his very slight physical frame he’s remarkably strong and his quickness over the first few metres is key to his play. In the video below I’ve highlighted some outstanding bits of defensive play from Barella who is an important member of Cagliari’s defensive unit with his ability to break up play.
Cagliari coach Massimo Rastelli wants his side to be proactive in possession and the side fulfil his demands with beautiful passing combinations and flowing attacking moves. Barella is a key component in this style with his outstanding passing ability. His combination play is superb and he is very vertical in his use of the ball. By vertical I simply mean he’s always looking to progress the play forward and scans the pitch for teammates in threatening positions.
As you’ve now seen, this is a player with excellent passing ability. This is further emphasized when looking at another feature of Barella’s passing, his impressive passing range. Barella is not only a neat and tidy combination player with the creativity and confidence to play forward, he can also use sweeping cross-field passes to switch the point of attack. The video below illustrates this with some examples of brilliant cross-field passes. What is also notable is he doesn’t just play these passes to look good himself, he finds a teammate in space who can continue the attack which highlights his intelligence in possession.
Given Barella’s creativity and passing ability it comes as no surprise that he’s very influential in the final third. The only surprise to his 1.3 key passes per game this season is he normally plays quite deep. If played further forward that number would surely at least double. Still, the weight on his passes and his understanding of when to play them is well beyond his age.
Not only Barella’s passing technique is fantastic though. His technical ability and skill is somewhat jaw-dropping at times and he possess that classic Italian elegance when receiving passes and turning out of pressure. He brings and element of class to the game and his first-touch is usually impeccable. He can also use his quickness to dribble out of trouble and attack space ahead of him, qualities that come to great use in his current position where he can choose to dribble both towards the wing or attack central areas. Barella averages 2.3 successful dribbles per game so far this season and it will be interesting to see whether that number grows during the season. Anyway, enjoy the quality below.
To sum up, Nicolo Barella is perhaps the outstanding midfield talent of Italian football. He’s a complete midfield player who excels defensively as well as offensively. His passing is superb, he’s creative and has the confidence to play forward at every opportunity. Add in the fact he’s tactically intelligent, excellent at breaking up play and a great dribbler and you end up with an extremely promising player. Then there is the fact his technical ability is something out of the ordinary and his elegance on the ball gives the impression that this is a potential great emerging at Cagliari. If he fulfills his potential Barella will surely be at a bigger club soon, if not already next season, but for now Massimo Rastelli is the right coach for him and his beloved Cagliari is the right club. Never mind his club colors though, every football fan should tune in to watch Cagliari’s matches this season. Because of their entertaining football, sure, but mainly for the wonderful talent of Nicolo Barella.