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Primavera Deep-Dive Pt. IV: Comparing Impact of Top Clubs’ Academy Grads

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We’ve explored Roma’s academy production over the last two decades, but how do the Giallorossi stack up against Italy’s best clubs?

AS Roma v Bologna - Italian Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With the league hiatus dragging on for two months now, I decided to take my Primavera deep-dive just a bit deeper. First, we discussed the talents that Roma has produced over the last two decades and compared the 2000s with the 2010s. Then, I looked to see where the most recent graduates could theoretically fit into the current Roma. Now, I’ll broaden the scope of this exercise and compare Roma’s graduates playing top tier Italian football to those of their biggest competitors.

Just three seasons ago, in October 2016, Roma was rated as the best youth system in Italy by a CIES Football Observatory study. The Giallorossi were even in the top 7 in Europe with 24 Primavera graduates playing across Europe. At the time, Roma had three youth products in the first team ranks: Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi, and Alessandro Florenzi.

In just three seasons, all three of those homegrown players have left the club. This goes to show that, even though three years feels like a short time, it can be an eternity in sports. So, with that in mind, I decided to look at the players who spent time in the youth systems of Roma’s six closest competitors in recent seasons and see how their graduates compare to the Giallorossi, and ask who is producing the most Serie A caliber players?

In this piece I’ll compare Roma with Inter, Milan, Juve, Lazio, Atalanta, and Napoli by looking at active Serie A players who have graduated from those teams’ youth systems. In looking at only players currently playing in Italy’s top flight, Roma’s numbers will be brought down slightly by losing players like Florenzi and Daniele Verde from the ranks. However, with most of these teams’ graduates playing in Serie A, I thought it would keep things a bit more focused.

So let’s start by reviewing the Roma graduates plying their trade in Italy’s top league before moving on to the other six teams.

Roma

Roma v A.C. Milan - SerieA TIM
Top tier talent nurtured at Trigoria is limited and highlighted by players like Romagnoli and Pellegrini.
Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Giallorossi currently have 11 Primavera graduates playing in the Italian top flight, but only one is a part of Paulo Fonseca’s side. With Alessandro Florenzi now in Spain, Lorenzo Pellegrini is the only homegrown talent on Roma’s roster. That’s a big difference from recent seasons when Roma generally had a handful of homegrown players with De Rossi and Totti, usually joined by the likes of Alberto Aquilani, Florenzi, and others at various time throughout their careers.

Outside of Pellegrini, only Alessio Romagnoli at Milan and Matteo Politano at Napoli are currently playing for big clubs, while Luca Pellegrini is owned by Juventus but on loan at Cagliari. Aside from that quartet, the rest of the Roma alumni playing in Serie A are with mid and lower table clubs at the moment. Emanuele Ndoj and Stefano Sabelli are with Brescia, Valerio Verre’s with Verona, Stefano Okaka is with Udinese, Marco D’Alessandro’s at SPAL, Gianluca Caprari’s with Parma, and Andrea Bertolacci is with Sampdoria.

Lazio

Thomas Strakosha of SS Lazio reacts during the Serie A...
Thomas Strakosha is the most important Primavera product in Simone Inzaghi’s side.
Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images

There’s no doubt that, when it comes to attracting young talent, Roma’s biggest competitor is Lazio. Due to the fact that both clubs co-exist within the confines of the peninsula’s most populous city, they often vie for the top young Roman starlets. Other large clubs may try and swoop into the capital, but the majority of the local Roman talent tends to develop under the tutelage of one of these two clubs.

Throughout it’s history, Roma has seemingly gotten the better of their Olimpico rivals. Totti, De Rossi, Giannini, Aquilani, Florenzi, and Pellegrini among others have all donned giallorosso rather than biancoceleste. And despite Lazio getting the best of Roma in the Primavera playoffs twice in the middle of the last decade, it doesn’t seem like that has done much for Lazio's senior side.

Lazio currently have seven alumni in Serie A with Thomas Strakosha, Danilo Cataldi, and third-choice keeper Guido Guerreri currently playing for the biancoceleste. Strakosha has become an integral part of Simone Inzaghi’s side in goal, while Cataldi is a reserve midfielder. Other players to come out of the Lazio system include Alessandro Murgia of SPAL, Lorenzo DeSilvestri of Torino, Federico Peluso of Sassuolo, and Davide Faraoni of Verona, who actually left for Inter for his last season of youth team football.

Even with Roma able to draw in the greater talents of the city, it’s a bit astonishing that Lazio hasn’t really produced a Roman star since Alessandro Nesta. In a city of almost three million with a seemingly successful youth side, you’d think Lazio would have a better track record. I discussed Lazio’s youth success with S.K. Moore, founder of The Laziali and asked why hasn’t translated into Serie A players.

Playing in Group C of the Campionato Nazionale Primavera - which was organized by geographical criteria - Lazio Primavera continuously finished in a top position in the regular season and even won the league on two occasions (2013/14, 2014/15). Even when the format of the league was changed for the 2016/17 season (by which the 14 teams in each of Group A, Group B, and Group C were not organized by geographical criteria), Lazio still managed to secure a first-place finish in the regular season. However, it was not until the Campionato Nazionale Primavera (Group A, Group B, Group C) was replaced and split into Campionato Primavera 1 (first division) and Campionato Primavera 2 (second division which is divided in two geographical leagues) ahead of the 2017/18 season, when the truth finally came out…

Lazio were assigned to the topflight (Primavera 1) for the season and were blown out of the water; they were not able to compete at all, finishing in last place with a record of 4W-7D-19L. After taking some time to process this information, I have realized that Lazio’s Primavera success (as of late) has been entirely due to one of two things - either a terrific spell of youth players and managers that performed well as a group, or the possibility of being extremely lucky (playing in as easy group and defeating the stronger sides when it mattered the most in the stretch for the title).

While results and table positions are in the past, as you have mentioned, Lazio have only had a handful of youth/homegrown talent that have come through their ranks over the past decade. This brings us to present time and also proves theory number one which was mentioned above: Lazio’s Primavera never had ‘star’ players by any means; they were underdogs and surprised their opponents by being trained to play together, for each other, to secure three points.

Additionally, Moore pointed out something that we’ve seen over and over with Roma’s youth teams: Primavera success doesn’t always translate into top flight talent.

Yet, in Italy’s most populous city you’d think Lazio would produce more top flight quality. I presented Moore with the following as possible reasons why Lazio is trailing the Giallorossi in this department.

  • Could Roma be that much better at attracting talent?
  • Could it be that Lazio has been so good at scouting young, foreign players like Sereij Milinkovic-Savic, bargain veterans like Francesco Acerbi, and big club cast-offs like Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto that they’ve neglected their own youth products?

Moore agreed to an extent.

Furthermore, since Igli Tare’s retirement as a footballer - and consequent appointment as Lazio Sporting Director in 2008 - the club have focused primarily on signing youth talent abroad. Taking risks with low cost players that have the ability to turn into something spectacular, this method has been very successful at both the junior and senior level. However, when this is being done, it leaves less room in their squad to attract top young talent in the region of Lazio, or country of Italy as a whole; as it stands this 2019/20 season, out of the 30 players in the Lazio Primavera squad, just four are local players (Nicolò Armini, Alessandro Cerbara, Emiliano Shoti, Massimo Zilli) and 12 are foreigners.

Last but not least, I feel as if it is important to note that most of the club’s resources have gone towards improving the first team instead of their youth teams. Claudio Lotito and co. have done a magnificent job of putting smiles back on the faces of Laziali Worldwide; this is another possible reason for their lack of success in raising top youth prospects.

Napoli

SSC Napoli v FC Torino - Serie A
Lorenzo Insigne and Armando Izzo are the best of a small group of Napoli academy alumni.
Photo by Franco Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Napoli was the biggest surprise that I uncovered during my research in Primavera graduates across the top clubs. Despite being one of the best teams on the peninsula over the last few seasons, Napoli has produced very little of its own talent. A side that has produced the likes the Cannavaro brothers and Ciro Ferrara through the years has produced very little Serie A talent in recent years.

Of course, local boy Lorenzo Insigne has been a key contributor for the Partenpoei, but outside of Insigne, Napoli has produced only three current Serie A players: Armado Izzo had a breakout season last campaign for Torino, Luigi Sepe is the starting keeper for Parma and Sebastiano Luperto is a part of center back rotation for Napoli.

How could it be that a city as big as Naples (slightly less than 1 million) is producing so little talent?

Well, the city itself is actually producing quite a bit of talent. Just look at this potential Naples XI from a couple seasons ago.

Obviously, Paolo Cannavaro has retired since then, but it goes to show you that the city is producing plenty of talent. At the time that Chloe put that graphic and an accompanying piece together, Naples had 22 active Serie A players, second only to Rome’s 28. However, unlike Roma (and to a lesser extent Lazio), who have kept a lot of Roman talent within the city confines, most of Naples’ talent has left for other clubs’ youth teams.

It appears that, much like the mass migrations of the Italian workforce from the poorer South to the industrial North after World War II, there is still a similar trend in calcio terms. Despite Napoli’s recent league success, over the last decade or so most top Neapolitan prospects sign with the richer clubs of the north; something that Napoli’s fairly recent return to Serie A (2007) probably has contributed to. Now that the Partenopei have been a consistent Champions League qualifier, it will be interesting to see if they begin to produce more homegrown talent like Insigne.

Atalanta

Benevento Calcio v Atalanta BC - Serie A
Alessandro Bastoni is one of many Atalanta products that have made the jump to bigger clubs in recent seasons.
Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Atalanta may be a newcomer to the upper reaches of the Serie A table and the Champions League, but La Dea has been turning out promising players for some time. Earlier this year, I discussed some of the players that Atalanta has groomed before selling them off to larger clubs, and despite those sales, Atalanta's youth system has become one of the best in Italy.

In fact, the Bergamo-based side has nearly 20 players currently playing in Italy’s top flight, which puts it nearly on par with Juve and Inter. The group includes young, budding stars like Dejan Kuluseveski and Alessandro Bastoni, established players like Franck Kessie and Daniele Baselli, as well as veterans like Giacomo Bonaventura and Giampaolo Pazzini just to name a few. Dan Pezzotta, AtalantaPod host and founder of the Las Vegas Atalanta Supporters Group, has a three P (Place, People, Philosophy) theory to explain the club’s success developing youth.

Place: First of all, in order to groom talent, you first must be able to recruit it. Bergamo’s location in Lombardy, near Milan, has served Atalanta really well. It’s a comparatively wealthy area of Italy, that has historically made it easier for people to invest money and time into sport. This has allowed Bergamo and surrounding provinces such as Brescia and Cremona, to be great production lines for good young footballers. Being so close to the big Milan teams, there’s a huge draw for young players to come to the region as well. They have, in the past, known that even if they make it into the Inter or Milan systems, they probably will not get any first team football. This is particularly true in the post Bosman, European Union era where foreign player restrictions have been eased. Atalanta’s relatively successful history (not necessarily winning anything) in Serie A and Serie B have made it an attractive destination for young players because they know that they have the possibility of getting first team football and be close enough to Milan to be on the radar.

People & Philosophy: Things really began to change in 1991 when Club President Antonio Percassi hired Stefano Bonaccorso to run Zingonia (Atalanta’s Academy). Bonaccorso brought with him a very modern philosophy of football and player development. Many have compared it to Ajax’s very precise, almost obsessive focus on technical quality and game IQ. During this time, Bonaccorso was also fortunate to work with great scouts, such as the late great Mino Favini.

However, interestingly enough, as Atalanta has found more success on the pitch La Dea has utilized less and less of it’s own youth. In fact, only reserve keeper Marco Sportiello and defender Mattia Caldara, who returned in January after an unsuccessful Milan experience, are the only former academy players on the roster. Pezzotta has noticed a correlation with a decrease in important former academy players in the first team and the squad’s success.

As a devoted fan, I have noticed this as well. Atalanta has also actually fielded the fewest Italian players in Serie A this year. I guess as an Italian and a Bergamasco, this could be a bit alarming, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the quality of the youth system as much as the quality of the first team.

What people see with Atalanta, particularly this season, is a high scoring, all out attacking team, and Gasperini gets plaudits for this. What casual fans don’t necessarily see is that Gasp’s system is also about defending from the front and an all out press. This system is highly physically and mentally taxing. Papu Gomez was lately quoted saying that game day is a day off. Gasperini trains them to death.

Young players, especially Primavera age, won’t necessarily be prepared for this tempo and pressure. We’ve recently seen great young players like Dejan Kulusevski and Musa Barrow succeed at Parma and Bologna, but couldn’t get a spot on the first team squad at Atalanta. Atalanta’s youth system is still top notch (they are current Primavera champions), but right now gulf in quality between them and the first team is too much. In current state, the youth system will serve as a revenue generator to build the first team and modernize club facilities. This is part of the “growing pains” that Atalanta is going through right now. Hopefully their first team success will continue, as well as the tradition of seeing youth brought through to the first team.

With this in mind, it seems as if Atalanta is beginning to conduct itself more like a big team in this regard. Young players who may not necessarily provide in an improvement to the squad are being sold off to the highest bidder for the financial benefit of the club. Regardless of how the club utilizes them, Atalanta continues to produce top tier quality talents.

AC Milan

AC Milan v US Sassuolo - Serie A
Donnarumma, Locatelli, and De Sciglio are some of Milan’s more notable Primavera grads.
Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

The glory years of the Rossoneri are firmly in the past these days. With well documented Financial Fair Play issues working against it, Milan is no longer the European power of yesteryear.

Despite this, Milan still boasts a dozen ex-Primavera players in Serie A. Three of those players are part of Milan’s first team: Gigi Donnarumma, Davide Calabria and Matteo Gabbia. Additionally, Bryan Cristante (Roma) and Mattia De Sciglio (Juve) play for large clubs, as well as Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo), Patrick Cutrone (Fiorentina), and Andrea Petagna (SPAL) playing important roles for their sides.

Milan may not be producing the number of top-flight players of some other large clubs, but it is still producing solid talent. After all, Donnarumma looks set to be Buffon’s Azzurri heir for a long time to come.

I asked Milan Club Philadelphia founder David Fante if he thought the FFP issues were the reason for Milan producing less talent.

Aside from the players mentioned above, I think the problem was that Milan were depending more on quick, low budget, free transfer players coming in on the cheap than relying on their in-house system. Milan didn’t take chances on their youth players, and I don’t know if that was because the talent wasn’t there in the system or the cultural aspect of not putting too much pressure on the youth players. This may or may not have had on the quality of recruits- I really can’t say. More concerning for me is that if the talent is there, it’s underutilized.

As Milan works through its rebuild, Fante hopes to see more youth players incorporated into the first team like Gabbia and Donnarumma, rather than being sold off like Patrick Cutrone this season. However, he does expect to see others sold to satisfy FFP.

I hope we do see more opportunities for our youth players. Gabbia has looked promising, and [Daniel] Maldini has had some opportunities as well. At the very least it helps with consistency and continuity- two things that Milan have been sorely lacking the past few years. At the same time, missing out on European football and FFP issues force us to take any offer we can get and youth prospects are the low-hanging fruit. Unfortunately I don’t see financial stability any time soon, impacting every aspect of the organization.

This financial instability seems to have affected the Primavera side. Milan still has some notable alumni scattered throughout the league, but its Primavera side was relegated at the end of the 18/19 campaign. That’s something that would’ve been unthinkable from a side that produced the likes of Paolo Maldini, Andrea Costacurta, Franco Baresi, and Francesco Toldo through the years. However, it seems to be Milan’s new reality, even though it is poised to return to the top Primavera flight next season. I asked David if he thought that would affect the kind of players the team could recruit.

Possibly. I’d imagine prospects would want to play at the highest level possible and a relegated Primavera isn’t promising. But, while this isn’t the Milan of the glory years past, it’s still up there in terms of prestige and influence. In my opinion, that still counts for something.

Only time will tell if the once great Rossoneri will begin to develop more in house talent as they strive to return to their former glory.

Inter Milan

AC Siena v FC Internazionale Milano - Serie A
Balotelli and Santon were once two highly regarded Inter Primavera products.
Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The Nerazzurri have been turning out some of the peninsula’s most highly regarded talent for years, as evidenced by their 19 academy graduates currently playing in Serie A. I asked Nima Tavallaey, founder of Sempre Inter, about this success, something he credits to a system put in place almost two decades ago.

Inter have been great at producing great talent for well over 16 years thanks to the strategy set in motion and supervised by Ernesto Paolillo & Giacinto Facchetti, which the club has managed to build and improve on. But the building blocks were put in place by Paolillo & Facchetti.

A decade ago, Inter's academy produced talents like Mario Balotelli, Davide Santon and even Leonardo Bonucci, each of whom were among the hottest prospects in Italy.

While Balotelli and Santon may not have lived up to the high expectations that were thrown on them, Bonucci has been a key member of the Azzurri and Juve for years. Additionally, the talent of players like Nicolò Zaniolo and Sebastiano Esposito is undeniable, but only time will tell if they ultimately develop into the stars Balotelli and Santon were expected to be. Throw in some successful mid-table players like Marco Benassi and Alfred Duncan of Fiorentina, Mattia Destro (Genoa), and Ibrahima Mbaye (Bologna), and the Nerazzurri can make a case as the best producer of talent in Italy.

However, like most teams on this list, very few are actually on Inter’s roster. Currently, Cristiano Biraghi and Sebastiano Esposito are the only Primavera grads on the roster. This is something that is all part of Inter’s strategy set forth by Paolillo and Facchetti, according to Tavallaey.

The strategy was to produce top quality talent who if they were super-talents and good enough (like Balotelli was at the time), be played and used in the first team. Or if they were good, but not top class level at the time, to be used in bringing the cash part down in signing players that are at the highest level. This is what Inter did when sending Bonucci & Destro as part payment to sign Thiago Motta & Diego Milito in the summer of 2009.

Esposito is one of the most highly regarded teenagers on the peninsula, and falls into the category of super-talent. But the 17-year-old isn’t the only potential star to come out of Appaino Gentile recently, there's also Roma’s Zaniolo, Genoa’s Andrea Pinamonti and Parma’s Ionuț Radu.

Zaniolo would fit into the second half of the strategy described above. The budding Roma star was used as a makeweight to land Radja Nainggolan two years go; amove that many Interisti likely regret after Nainggolan fizzled out in Milano. However, Tavallaey doesn’t see that changing Inter’s overall strategy, but thinks it may make the Nerazzurri more cautious when they include youth players to offset the cost of a transfer.

No, it won’t change the strategy. But, it will make Inter much more careful in sending talented players away for established stars. They will do their best to not suffer another Zaniolo - Nainggolan situation, especially when dealing with clubs like Roma, Fiorentina, Milan, Juventus etc.

Juventus

Juventus FC v Club America
It’s been nearly a decade since Ciro Immobile donned the bianconero of Juve, but he’s the best active player to come through the club’s youth system.
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Not all that long ago, when Juve was in the earlier stages of its dominance of the Italian peninsula, it had the most Italian representation of any of the big clubs. Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli made up a formidable rearguard. Meanwhile, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo dictated play from the midfield. Then there were less influential players like Simone Pepe (how did he ever play for Juve and Italy?), Simone Padoin, Angelo Ogbonna, Fedrico Peluso, Emanuele Giaccherini, Paolo De Ceglie, Sebastian Giovinco, Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella, and Pablo Osvaldo.

There were a lot of Italians and even some Primavera products in the mix. Marchisio was the jewel of the system, but fellow academy graduates Ogbonna, De Ceglie, and Giovinco all played roles under Conte. However, as the dynasty has lengthened to encompass nearly a decade, the roster make-up has evolved. Juve now carries less Italians and more foreign imports, while looking less to the youth system. The only player currently on the roster to come through the ranks is the out of favor Daniele Rugani.

Juve can still boast an impressive 17 academy alumni throughout the league, including notable players such as Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola, Genoa’s Domenico Criscito and current capocannoniere Ciro Immobile of Lazio. However, just because the Bianconeri don’t have much homegrown talent in the squad doesn’t mean they’ve given up altogether on young Italians.

Instead, Juve has focused on using their youth players and youngsters purchased from other clubs to make plusvalenzas that can then be used to target top transfer market targets. Daniel Lucci of World Football Index explained what he sees as Juve’s current youth strategy.

For starters, its young talent never usually sticks around because Juve try to sell them for a profit to put towards bigger and more world renowned players. Prime examples are Kean and Audero—shipped out for profits. But in most cases they retain a first option buy back or some kind of deal with many of these young guys.

They had an option on Audero but Samp paid them 20 million to sign him outright—I believe. They have a buy back on the likes of Orsolini and Mandragora (youngsters purchased from other clubs) and the right to match any Kean offer Everton gets.

They try to do these sneaky deals to keep money moving and coming in. They free up money for bigger moves and salaries (de ligt, Rabiot, etc).

While Juve haven’t produced many stars in recent seasons, Lucci believes that some players like Immobile could’ve helped the squad if youth players were given more of a chance.

Immobile is a prime example. If they gave their youth a chance in the team, they could be a solid addition. He was never really given an opportunity though.

We’ll see if Juve exercises any of those buy-backs moving forward or if it continues to offload youth and ultimately leave them at other clubs on a permanent basis like Audero. However, just because Juve boasts one of the highest numbers of youth system alumni in the league doesn’t mean it has produced many stars of late. When looking at active players that have come through Juve’s youth ranks, Immobile is the only player starring for a big club. Additionally, some of the better players that they retain a buyback option on like Orsolini and Mandragora actually came through other teams’ youth set ups.

Conclusions

After looking at the youth products of other Primavera systems, Roma is lacking behind some clubs like Atalanta, Juve, and Inter in terms of sheer number of Serie A players produced. However, the Giallorossi are on par with Milan and outpacing rivals like Napoli and Lazio. Yet, despite the discrepancies in overall number of top tier players produced, Roma stacks up quite well in terms of players that are featuring for top level Serie A sides. Additionally, a common theme among these top sides is the fact that all of them have used youth products to finance other moves.

So, all in all, should Romanisti be concerned about the youth system? It doesn’t seem like it there’s much to be concerned about when comparing Roma’s youth output to that of other big sides. However, it would be nice to see some of Roma’s more recent graduates like Edoardo Soleri, Riccardo Marchizza, Marco Tumminello, and Davide Frattesi make the jump to Serie A to bring up Roma’s overall numbers. That being said, Roma has some promising like Alessio Riccardi and Devid Bouah, who also project as Serie A talents coming through the ranks.

Overall, Roma is competitive in terms of youth production, even without a megastar like Totti or De Rossi in the current crop. After all, players like that don’t walk through many training complex doors on a regular basis.