The 22-year-old has made just 15 appearances in Italy’s top flight yet he is already being compared with some of the biggest names in football
When Inter sporting director Piero Ausilio faced the cameras to discuss new signing Roberto Gagliardini, he was understandably asked why the club had the club agreed to pay Atalanta up to €28 million for a 22-year-old who had played just 14 times in Serie A.
Given the Nerazzurri’s questionable recent record in the transfer market, Ausilio knew the question was coming – and he had a perfect riposte.
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“We believe in Gagliardini and don’t count the number of Serie A games he has played, but how he played them,” the official countered. “We are fully aware with a young player we must have the patience to let him make mistakes, grow and improve. You can’t start to doubt Gagliardini’s quality because Inter signed him rather than someone else.”
Certainly, Gagliardini’s potential is beyond dispute. Whether San Siro is the right environment for him to realise that potential is open to debate – fellow young guns Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gabriel Barbosa have certainly struggled to justify similarly lofty fees – but even the skeptics have been impressed with the way in which the Bergamascan has handled his first 10 days as an Inter player.
Even the speed at which the transfer went through could have left Gagliardini in a daze. He had already taken his seat on the Atalanta team bus for the trip to face reigning champions Juventus in the Coppa Italia when he received a text from his agent. He wasn’t going to Turin – but to Milan.
Gagliardini signed for Inter a matter of hours later. The following day he trained with his new colleagues for the first time. Former club Atalanta have a squad packed with talented youngsters but the difference in quality was immediately obvious.
“There are so many champions here,” he admitted, almost awe-struck. “I’ve only had one training session but you can already see the quality.”
Inter coach Stefano Pioli felt the same way about Gagliardini, though, and threw him straight into the starting line-up for the Serie A meeting with Chievo last Saturday. A couple of hours before kick-off, Gagliardini took to the field to take it all in. So many players pay lip-service to the history of their new club but Gagliardini actually felt it.
“I got to enjoy San Siro while it was still empty,” he explained. “This is a dream come true and an important opportunity. “After these months at Atalanta, it’s important to prove myself at Inter. I chose them because, in addition to having an amazing history, they’re the team which wanted me most.”
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That is true, with Ausilio admitting that Gagliardini was their one and only January transfer target. The Italy Under-21 international wasted little time demonstrating why. Ivan Perisic, Mauro Icardi and Eder may have got the goals but Gagliardini played just as pivotal a role in a come-from-behind win, impressing everyone with his physicality and range of passing.
On Wednesday, he again played every minute as Inter recorded an extra-time win over Bologna in the last 16 of the Coppa Italia. Gagliardini caught the eye once more, prompting comparisons with Marco Tardelli and Steven Gerrard. This, after Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini labelled him “the white Pogba” earlier in the season.
Gagliardini remains unperturbed, though. “These compliments don’t scare me,” he insisted after the 3-2 defeat of Bologna. “I’m someone who reads and listens, so yes, these compliments are pleasing. I don’t attach too much importance to them, though. I need to be calm, comfortable and think about my game.”
Indeed, the encouraging thing is that Gagliardi is unlikely to allow all of the hype go to his head. He does see some of himself in Pogba but says he has much to improve upon if he is to be considered in the same class as the Frenchman, whom he describes as the best player in the world in his position.
“I need to improve so much in front of goal, to be more determined and accurate,” he confessed after his Inter debut.
However, Pioli is convinced that the Nerazzurri have signed a player around whom he can build a team.
“He’s a complete midfielder,” the coach stated. “He has positional sense, he knows how to move. I’ve asked him to get forward and he’s doing well in both phases of the game.He could be like Tardelli, though Marco was more agile and quicker. Roberto, on the other hand, is taller and more physical.
“He’s still completing his journey, he’s still young but he’s showing that he’ll be useful for the present and definitely for the future.”
Who knows, maybe some day soon Ausilio will be happily fielding questions on how he managed to sign a player like Gagliardini for just €28m?