One of my favorite things to do when preparing for Roma matches is to pick the brain of a fan of the Giallorossi’s upcoming opponent. It allows me to see the fixture with a little more perspective by taking off my giallo and rosso tinted glasses. This is especially true when you find a fan of a smaller club; one that isn't covered as much in the English media and has fewer accounts on social media.
Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to find English-speaking accounts that follow some of the peninsula’s smaller clubs in the top flight, especially ones that are recently promoted. However, this season we were fortunate enough to have Marco Rinaldi fill us in on Venezia and now we’ve got a great interview to prepare us for this weekend’s match in Tuscany against Empoli.
Joining me today is Jake Mills, who is a big Empoli supporter and writes for Gentleman Ultra. I think you’ll enjoy the interview and be sure to give Jake a follow on Twitter (@CalcioSupporter) to keep up with his work and all things Azzurri.
To begin, I have to ask how does an Englishman from Manchester become an Empoli supporter?
Jake Mills: I was always interested in Serie A in the 90’s when it was at its height, but never really had any affiliation to a particular team. I met my girlfriend 8 years ago, who is of Italian descent and so we now visit Italy often, and specifically Tuscany. I went to a few Empoli matches whilst I was there out of curiosity, and I loved everything about it. That has since turned me into a die hard fan. Being the underdog, the community spirit of the fans, the style of play of the team, and the development of youth team players made me become an Empolese.
Empoli had a strong campaign to win Serie B and secured promotion last season but lost manager Alessio Dionisi to Sassuolo in the off-season. What made that side so strong and how much did losing Dionisi worry you?
JM: Dionisi really did a great job with Empoli in Serie B last season. They finished midtable the year before after trying to regroup following Serie A relegation and selling players such as Caputo, Traore and Krunic. With not much investment, he turned a disappointing team into a dynamic, free flowing and expressive squad that only lost 3 all season (one in the extreme fog in Venezia, and two more once the league title was all but wrapped up). I was worried when he departed during pre-season to go to Sassuolo, but I had faith in Corsi (club chairman/owner) to get the replacement right.
How much has Empoli’s style of play changed under Aurelio Andreazzoli this season?
JM: I am a big fan of Mister Andreazzoli and he plays a similar style to Dionisi, so his return to Empoli for the third spell made sense. They play a fluid formation can switch form a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-2-2 rapidly, allowing fast counter attacks and quick transitions. A big strength of Andreazzoli over Dionisi is the utilisation of the whole squad, including youth team players, which has really seemed to benefit us so far. For example, young CB Mattia Viti (19 years old) has played 10 times this season in Serie A, compared to only 2 last season in Serie B.
Empoli has been a surprisingly successful side this season (currently 11th on the table), what made the transition from Serie B to A relatively smooth for a side that was pegged by many to be in a relegation battle?
JM: I was always confident Empoli would survive this season, but still, to see them have such as great start, and beating teams such as Juventus and Napoli away has been a surprise to even me. The summer mercato was a great one for the club, with signings such as Pinamonti, Vicario, Henderson, Luperto and Di Francesco combining with the quality young players we already have to give a perfect balance of youth and experience to compete in Serie A.
Empoli is known for having one of the best youth systems in Italy. Are there any youngsters either in the Primavera or senior side that we should keep an eye on?
JM: Empoli has a number of great young players, which I expect big things from in the future. Currently, Samuele Ricci (20) is one of the best young midfielders in the country, and won player of the season last year in Serie B. I sadly expect him to move onto bigger things next season. The previously mentioned Mattia Viti (19) has been excellent this season in defence and has been linked to AC Milan, and I expect big things from Fabiano Parisi (21) at left back, as his recovery from injury continues. Empoli Primavera won the Primavera Serie A last season, and have made it to the last 16 of the UEFA Youth Champions League this year. Centre midfielder Kristjan Asllani (19) is the leader of that team, and has made a few first team appearances already. The most exciting player to look out for however is attacking midfielder Tommaso Baldanzi (18), who really looks a player for the future.
Do you see the club making any moves in the winter mercato to solidify its position on the table?
JM: I think Empoli are overall very happy with the current squad, but could look to sign another defender on loan as we can be lightweight in that area. Another striker to back up Pinamonti and Di Francesco could also be helpful, but I think the manager has faith in Cutrone who has played well and worked hard, despite the lack of goals. The main issue is trying to keep all our players. Nedim Bajrami has been one of the best wingers in Serie A this season, and it is rumoured Sassuolo are close to bidding €10m for him. It would be a real blow to lose him midseason, so I hope we at least keep him until the summer.
What would you like to see done by the club to ensure that it can remain in Serie A for the foreseeable future?
JM: If we stay up this year, next season is a crucial one. It is inevitable that we will sell some of our best young players (e.g. Ricci and Bajrami) as that is how the club operates to keep finances afloat. If that is to happen, I would like us to not sell them all at once, and try to convince some to stay another season or two. It would be crucial then to use these funds to re-invest well and potentially make loan deals such as Vicario, Pinamonti, Luperto etc. permanent. We have good young players coming through, so with the right recruitment, I don’t see why we couldn’t stay in A for many years to come.
Looking ahead to Sunday, what do you see as the key to Empoli getting a result against Roma?
JM: Ultimately Empoli will need a good defensive display, and a bit of luck, like against Napoli. The keeper Vicario has been immense this year, and if he can continue with his form, Empoli have a chance. I think the wingers have enough to worry Roma’s defence, so I am hoping Di Francesco and Bajrami have good games. Finally, my close friend is the Vice-President of the AS Roma North UK fan group (@ASRomaNorthUK on twitter) and he is a big Tammy Abraham fan, so I hope Empoli’s defence can contain him. I worry his pace may be too much. If I had to predict a result, I would go 1-2 Roma, but I am hoping Empoli can sneak a win!
Any individual matchups that you’re looking forward to?
JM: I watched Roma vs Cagliari at the weekend and Sérgio Oliveira looked very good, so his battle against Ricci in the centre midfield will be one to look out for. I also think the wing back battles will be fascinating – Fiamozzi will probably play for Empoli as a 3rd choice left back due to injuries, and so Maitland-Niles may get some joy. However, I expect Stojanovic to win his battles against Vina, so we could see teams attacking mainly down the opposite end of the pitch.