For the second year in a row, a Fiorentina manager has watched Riccardo Saponara through the preseason and decided that he doesn’t fit what the team is doing. And for the second year in a row, he’s heading to Liguria on loan. Instead of Sampdoria this time, though, he’ll get a run with city rivals Genoa and hope to impress enough to trigger a purchase by the Grifoni.
It’s no great surprise, as the Cheese, for all his talent, hasn’t ever fit into Vincenzo Montella’s 4-3-3. He doesn’t fit any system, really, that doesn’t feature him dropping behind two strikers, which is why (along with a penchant for poorly-timed injuries) his career has been one of stops and starts rather than following the trajectory one might have expected the “new Kaká” back at AC Milan all those years ago.
Saponara, still just 27, should find playing time under new mister Aurelio Andreazzoli, who generally uses a 4-3-1-2; with no other real trequartista on the roster, you’d have to think this is his spot to lose. According to Football Italia, Genoa can trigger a purchase for just €3.8 million at season’s end. Keep in mind he’s a player on whom Fiorentina spent €10.5 in transfer and loan fees as recently as last year, so it represents quite a fall from grace.
And grace is the state that the Cheese operates in. As I wrote upon his departure for Samp last year, he’s one of the last true 10s in the game. The rigors of modern football, with its requirements of fitness and pressing and directness, are completely opposed to what makes Ricky such a delight. Where most players sprint, he strolls. Where most players lower a shoulder to beat a man, he rolls the ball under his foot and waits for a teammate to break into space to meet a perfectly-weighted pass.
If this were a more romantic, pre-1970s era of soccer before training regimens and optimized diets had become de rigueur, back when players would smoke on the sidelines and occasionally carried a gut along with their swagger, Saponara would have been transcendent. Perhaps with shaggy hair and a pair of sideburns or an elegant mustache, he would have epitomized a slower but perhaps more beautiful version of the sport for masses of fans who, even decades later, would still speak his name in tones of awe.
But it’s 2019, and if you play with a number 10 (which fewer and fewer teams do), he has to have pace and goals and stamina and a willingness to press from the front. There’s no longer room for a player who’s a passenger, idling in the center circle until the ball finds him and he’s suddenly the most important and talented man on the pitch, tasked with finding a way to spring the forwards through the defense.
Saponara doesn’t just carry the burden of kick-starting the attack with a perfect pass through the lines; he also carries the burden of being born 50 years too late. But for his delicacy, his luxury, and his occasional loucheness, we’ll always cherish him. Maybe this time he’ll find a team built around him that desperately needs his vision in the middle; Genoa surely needs some sort of kick in the pants going forward. You never want to lose a classy player, but a cheese like Ricky needs to spread his wings and fly, and the sky in Florence isn’t big enough for him. We wish him nothing but the best.