In July 2014, an Italian striker signed for Southampton. However, despite being technically gifted and possessing a good scoring record, doubts surrounded his ability to fit in within the physical, high tempo environs of the Premier League. The player’s name was Graziano Pelle, and he would prove doubters wrong over two positive seasons, hitting double figures in both campaigns and establishing himself as a starter for his country.
Last month, another Italian striker signed for Southampton. Like Pelle, he is left-footed, technical and has shown the capability to find the net when given the chance. And, like Pelle, there were uncertainties over whether he would suit the Premier League. The player’s name is Manolo Gabbiadini, and after just two appearances for the south coast club, he already looks the part.
Southampton needed the goals. Since the departure of Pelle for the riches of Chinese football last year, Claude Puel’s side have struggled to break teams down. Despite generally dominating possession of the ball – the Saints have averaged 53.5 per cent of possession, a tally bettered by only by the Premier League’s top six – and attempting 15.1 shots per game, a number only Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have beaten, they have the sixth-worst scoring record in the division, with a mere 28 goals in 25 fixtures meaning they have hit just over one per game.
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Striking duties have generally been shared by the hard-running Shane Long, mercurial Jay Rodriguez and poacher Charlie Austin, though none of the aforementioned three has made the number nine role their own this term. Consequently, much of the burden for the scoring of goals has fallen elsewhere in the team, with winger Nathan Redmond utilised occasionally as a striker, and others such as Sofiane Boufal and Dusan Tadic being heavily leaned upon for their creativity.
Gabbiadini’s fast start suggests Puel’s problem is solved, though the 25-year-old’s signature wasn’t an obvious one to seal.
Like so many before him, Gabbiadini graduated from the famed Atalanta youth academy before finding himself at Sampdoria via a short spell with Juventus and loans at Cittadella and Bologna. It was in Genoa that the player came of age, with his intricate footwork, incisive dribbling from the right wing onto his favoured left foot and finishing making him a key member of the team. During his one-and-a-half seasons with Samp, he scored around one goal every three league games and became a regular in the Italian national team’s squad. However, a move to Napoli saw his career stall.
With stiff competition for places coming from the likes of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, among others, Gabbiadini was forced to fight Gonzalo Higuain for the centre forward berth atop Napoli’s system. But the two players couldn’t be less similar — Higuain is forceful, strong and aggressive, Gabbiadini lithe, subtle and quiet. Gradually, Gabbiadini went from hot prospect to squad filler, appearing more this season only because of Higuain’s departure and an injury to the Argentine’s replacement, Arkadiusz Milik.
Eventually, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri opted to use Mertens as a false nine rather than play Gabbiadini, a strong statement that was backed up by statistics. Over 13 Serie A outings this term, seven of which were starts, the 25-year-old had averaged 0.1 dribbles and 0.2 key passes per game. Furthermore, he didn’t set up one single goal and scored only three times. Thus, it is not unthinkable that the Italian side were rubbing their hands with glee when Southampton came calling to lodge a £14million offer for the out of form striker.
But, while the deal suited Napoli, it also looks increasingly possible that it will suit Southampton just as well. The Premier League side have made a habit of getting things right in the transfer market, something that has a lot to do with their forensic approach to analysis of potential recruits and the planning of sporting director Les Reed. Players and managers have come and gone in recent years, but results have, if not improved, been steady. The club has a good idea of who they should and shouldn’t bring in, and thus far Gabbiadini has justified his transfer fee.
His latest display evidenced exactly the qualities Southampton were in need of prior to his arrival. Away to lowly Sunderland, he opened the scoring after half an hour with a perfectly timed run into the penalty area to meet a Ryan Bertrand cross. Granted, the ball went in off his arm, but the goal stood and acted as a reminder of the runs Gabbiadini can make. Then, 15 minutes later, the Italian doubled his side’s advantage after finding a pocket of space between Sunderland’s centre-backs and turning artfully between them to finish. This second strike not only required first class close control under pressure, but an awareness and cunning that only the most intelligent strikers have.
Scoring against Sunderland is something many attackers have done this season, but before that game Gabbiadini had sent out a message to Premier League defences by finding the back of the net just 12 minutes into his league debut against West Ham. Once again showing good spatial awareness to break the offside trap, he controlled the ball calmly before blasting the ball into the roof of the net. As Gabbiadini finishes go, this one was atypically forceful; perhaps it was the result of pent-up frustration at failing to play and score regularly for Napoli.
After just two games, it is far too soon to state that Gabbiadini will be the correct man for Southampton in the long term, but as far as immediate indicators go, three goals are positive. And, aside from those goals, he looks likely to suit Puel’s style of play.
The manager explained what the player gives to his 4-3-3 system in an interview with the official club website, saying: “I think step by step he learns different possibilities with the tactics, to defend together, and also in attack he gives good solutions in the play, between the lines. He is always available, and also he gives solutions behind the line, with good runs. He's a good technical player … We saw this in the first game. I think he lost just six balls of 33 that went to him during this game, and for a striker that is very good.”
Southampton lost their Italian star striker last summer. But, six months on, they look to have found another.