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A good preseason doesn’t mean a teenager’s ready for Serie A

Every summer, fans salivate over young players impressing against semi-professional opponents. Let’s pump the brakes.

Italy Portraits - UEFA European Under-17 Championship Finals 2023 Photo by Ben McShane - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images

As Fiorentina eases into preseason training at the Viola Park, it’s easy to let the blistering temperatures (approaching 40°C/104°F) combine with the nebulous mystery of a season yet to be played warp our expectations. Nicolás González is going to score 15 goals! Luca Ranieri is going to mature into prime Gonzálo Rodríguez! Dodô will be the club’s first great rightback in decades!

The most pernicious of these fever dreams are the ones based around young players. Whether it’s guys who impressed with the Primavera or on loan, we go through the same song and dance every preseason: we see a teenager ball out against a bunch of semi-professional or lower-tier players and assume that those performances can and will carry over to Serie A.

When those performances inevitably don’t carry over, we start splashing blame around, with coaches, management, and players themselves squarely in the spatter zone. It’s ridiculous that the mister would rather rely on a known commodity, a veteran with limited upside; it’s ridiculous that management keeps loaning youngsters out instead of bringing them into the first team; it’s ridiculous that these players can’t make the jump to the highest level.

In his limited appearances last year, Alessandro Bianco didn’t look quite ready for the speed of the professional game despite being miles ahead of his peers at youth level in 2021-2022. That’s fine. That’s normal. He’s 20. Very few 20-year-olds play prominent roles for Serie A teams competing in Europe. That he was even capable of featuring in cameos speaks very positively of his attitude. Given regular minutes on the pitch to develop, he should be ready for the first team in a year or two.

That ought to be the template, rather than expecting a Federico Chiesa-style explosion into the XI. Chiesa has established himself as a star, one of Italy’s best attackers. Very few players can do what he does; a club is lucky to get that sort of quality out of the academy every 3 years, much less multiple times a year. Expecting the current crop of youngsters to follow a similar trajectory is deeply illogical.

The current crop certainly has plenty of guys to fall in love with. Niccolò Pierozzi is probably the closest to breaking into the squad; he started 36 games for Reggina, scoring 4 goals and assisting 2 en route to helping the Amaranti into the Serie B playoff. He could get a crack at replacing Lorenzo Venuti as Dodô’s backup, although he’ll need to prove himself capable of holding up at the back.

Michael Kayode is another rightback who’s impressed with the Primavera immensely over the past couple seasons and could be in line for a loan move away despite being just 17. Dimo Krastev, a long-time heartthrob around these parts, is still learning his trade as a defender after starting his career in midfield and probably needs a year away in Serie B before really challenging for a Fiorentina role. Goalkeeper Tommaso Martinelli is just 16 and already christened as the Viola’s long-term starter between the sticks, but c’mon. He’s 16.

Christian Dalle Mura, Vittorio Agostinelli, Filippo Distefano, Fallou Sene, Costantino Favasuli, Lorenzo Amatucci: they’re all very young and very talented. On Football Manager, you’d keep them around, work them into the first team slowly. In real life, they need to stick with the Primavera or go out on loan to get the playing time they need to develop, because they’re human beings rather than digital bits.

So when several of these guys pop off the screen this summer, don’t clamor for them to take over a starting job for Fiorentina. Don’t clamor for them to even be in the squad. Keep a little bit of distance from the situation. Get excited about the flashes of excellence but remember that flashes aren’t enough to sustain a career in Serie A, which requires consistent, rather than spasmodic, brilliance. Let them build up to that level in peace.

We’ve seen plenty of guys excel in preseason over the years. Andy Bangu is one of my all-time favorite Primavera players, one I was certain would become a star. He’s currently playing for Ardor Lazzate in the Eccellenza, calcio’s semi-professional 5th tier. Tofòl Montiel, Gabriele Gori, Simone Minelli, and Saverio Madrigali have had similar trajectories: some tidy work over the summer, truckloads of hype, and then radio silence.

Inflated expectations hurt both players and fans. As a teenager, it’s really not helpful to hear a discourse about your being a failure before your career has even really begun. For fans, it’s setting ourselves up to be disappointed and angry over things that really don’t require those emotional responses. I’m convinced that half the reason clubs loan talented youngsters away is to distance them from the ravenous eyes of supporters, giving them the emotional space necessary to make the mistakes that are necessary for growth.

And growth does require mistakes. Look back at your own youth. At 19, I’d dropped out of college in a haze. At 22, I was working odd jobs, smoking cigarettes end-to-end, and pretending I was immortal. Every one of the young players on this team is already on a path much better than mine. Their obvious skill is built on the sort of discipline one expects to find in settled adults rather than teenagers. They’re going to be okay.

Fortunately for all of us, I doubt that any Fiorentina players read this site, so there’s minimal risk of contamination (after all, Kokorin keeps trying to return to Florence). Still, it’d be nice to watch these young guys get their opportunities and run with them in preseason without saddling them with labels that don’t help them or us. Instead of assuming that some 15-year-old is the next Chiesa or Messi, let’s put an icepack on our fevered brains and just enjoy a good performance for what it is without attaching a millstone of expectation to it.