Not everybody was caught off guard by Cesare Prandelli’s decision to include an uncapped 20-year-old Serie B midfielder in his provisional Italy squad for Euro 2012. “I’m not surprised: [Marco] Verratti knows how to play football,” declared Zdenek Zeman, the player’s club manager at Pescara. “He has natural talents and significant room for improvement. He must watch and learn from the greats, but he is on the right path.”
If that much is true, then Verratti has Zeman to thank. Although the player’s progress had been sufficient to draw the attention of Italy’s leading clubs long before his manager’s arrival in the summer of 2011, this season has nevertheless represented a turning point. At this time last year Prandelli would not even have considered Verratti as an option in midfield, because up to that point he had typically played in the hole behind the attack.
That changed during Zeman’s very first training session with the club. “Zeman’s 4-3-3 is as tolerant of trequartistas as Mormons are of pre-marital sex,” noted Gazzetta dello Sport’s Jacopo Gerna as he reflected on the immediate decision to convert the player into a deep-lying regista. The manager is famous for his commitment to open, attacking football but he recognised in Verratti a vision which could be best exploited by giving him the space to dictate play.
The move was a resounding success. From his new position just in front of the defence, Verratti has pulled the strings for a Pescara side which has dazzled Serie B. Top after 39 games, they have already scored 86 goals, 24 more than anybody else in the division. If that is in great part a tribute to the prolific form of Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, then their achievements would not have been possible without Verratti creating the openings from which they have profited.
Comparisons have been made with Andrea Pirlo, and not only because Juventus have been attempting to line Verratti up as the former’s long-term successor. Pirlo too had started out as a trequartista, showing significant promise at the position before being moved into a deeper role, first as a temporary measure at Brescia under Carlo Mazzone and then more permanently by Carlo Ancelotti following his 2001 switch to Milan.
Like Pirlo, Verratti is blessed with a rare vision, capable of not only seeing but delivering passes which the vast majority of top-flight footballers would never dare attempt. Such precision has long been a hallmark of his game, as has the superlative close control which prompted another Gazzetta writer, Giulio Di Feo, to declare in 2009 that “it is as though the ball is a part of his body”.
Those qualities had been observed in the player by Milan’s scouts as early as 2008, during the player’s first year on the books of Pescara’s youth team. After a one-day trial, the Rossoneri offered Verratti a contract, only for it to be turned down by the then 15-year-old, who did not yet feel ready to leave his hometown club.
Milan never abandoned their interest, while others such as Inter, Roma and Udinese have since joined the chase, but Verratti’s preference this summer is for Juventus, the team he supported as a boy. The Bianconeri were reported to have agreed personal terms with the player as long ago as March, but have thus far failed to reach agreement with Pescara, who are said to be value the player as high as €8m and would prefer a co-ownership arrangement to any immediate sale.
Pescara’s sporting director Daniele Delli Carri confirmed today that negotiations are ongoing, though Juventus may be quietly cursing a call-up which strengthens the selling club’s bargaining position, even though it is highly unlikely that Veratti will make Prandelli’s final 23-man squad for the tournament itself. With the Serie B season still ongoing, the player will only be able to join up with the national team immediately after Pescara’s last game on 26 May—three days before Prandelli must name his final 23-man squad for the tournament.
With players as established as Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo to choose from in central midfield it is hard to envisage Verratti finding space, but that is not to say his is a token call-up. He was many observers’ Man of the Match when he made his Italy Under-21 debut in a 1-1 draw with France this February.
Verratti remains physically unimposing—he stands just 5ft 5ins—but in every other sense he has grown up a great deal over the past 12 months. Under Zeman he has added range to his game, covering far more ground than he ever did as a trequartista, as well as becoming more tactically astute when not in possession. Despite his size he has become a capable ball-winner for his team, as well as learning to handle opponents’ attempts to harry him in possession.
The one dark moment of his season was not a footballing one. Verratti was part of the Pescara team facing Livorno on 14 April when Piermario Morosini collapsed to the ground and subsequently passed away. It was Verratti who first ran to grab the stretcher from medics after seeing that their ambulance was unable to reach the pitch as a result of an illegally parked car.
If Morosini’s passing provided a stark and painful reminder that there are more important things in life than football then it might also have been a reminder to enjoy whatever time we do have. And Verratti’s is an undeniably joyful brand of football to watch, a brilliant collage of energy, technique and arcing long passes that brings you out of your seat.
“If this a dream then I only hope that I don’t wake up,” Verratti told Pescara’s website following the announcement of Prandelli’s squad. The rest of a nation is right there with him.