Two years ago, not long after winning his first cap for Italy, Fabio Borini sat down for an interview with Sportweek magazine. Still a few days shy of his 21st birthday, the forward already seemed well on his way to great things. Since joining Roma from Parma the previous summer, he had established himself as a fixture of Luis Enrique’s starting XI and now had also captured the attention of national team manager Cesare Prandelli.
And yet there was nothing presumptuous about this softly-spoken kid, who chewed nervously on the laces that hung from the neck of his hoodie. Asked by his interviewer when he might feel as though he had truly arrived as a top-level footballer, Borini replied: “When I win something, playing the role of a protagonist [for my team]. And I will not want to stop after that.”
On Sunday, Borini got as close as he has ever been. Named as Sunderland’s lone striker for their Capital One Cup final against Manchester City, the Italian opened the scoring after just 10 minutes with a wonderfully-taken goal, holding off Vincent Kompany before drilling an outside-of-the boot finish across Costel Pantilimon and into the far corner of the net.
The Black Cats’ lead would hold until the 55th minute, when Yaya Touré equalised with a spectacular long-range effort. Moments later, City were ahead, Samir Nasri converting Aleksandar Kolarov’s cross from the left. Sunderland could not recover. Instead they gave up a third goal to Jesus Navas as time was about to expire. City, 3-1 winners, walked off with the cup.
Borini was left to lament missed opportunities, and especially the one that he had shortly before half-time. With his team still leading 1-0, the striker had once again slipped in behind the City defence, only for Kompany to make a fine recovering challenge.
“I could have scored the second one,” lamented Borini. “I was waiting for the keeper and defender to make a decision, but they worked well together and he made a good tackle to get me before I got to the ball.”
Few Sunderland fans would begrudge him the effort. Borini had interpreted his role in Gus Poyet’s side perfectly, dropping deep to deny City’s defenders their usual points of reference before utilising his speed to race in behind them down the channels. He was tireless in his off-the-ball running, and took one of the only two real chances to that fell to him.
In fact, this was precisely the sort of performance that had earned Borini his Italy cap back in 2012. And also the sort that we have not seen very often from him since. If the striker had been able to show such qualities on any consistent basis over the last two years, then perhaps we would not still be waiting to see him make his second appearance for the national team.
Which is not to say that Borini has necessarily let himself down. The last 24 months have been challenging at times for reasons beyond his control. A wild-card inclusion in Italy’s Euro 2012 squad, Borini never got a game in the tournament but nevertheless landed a €13.3m move to Liverpool. It looked like the perfect fit: his manager would be Brendan Rodgers, whose Swansea side he had helped fire to promotion from the Championship in 2011.
But Borini’s first season at Anfield would be derailed by injuries. He fractured a bone in his foot in October, then dislocated his shoulder upon his return. In total, he would undergo three operations over the course of the 2012-13 campaign and make just 13 league appearances.
The player’s loan move to Sunderland this season was supposed to be a chance to start afresh. “At Liverpool when I was sitting on the bench every game, my aim was to come here and prove what I can do and (have an) impact on games,” explained Borini in an interview with north-east newspaper The Journal last month.
But life at the Stadium of Light got off to a slow start. The season began with much excited talk of an Italian revolution under Paolo Di Canio, but Borini had made just two appearances by the time that the manager was sacked in late September. He did not make any under the interim coach Kevin Ball.
It was only after the appointment of Gus Poyet in October that things began to change. “He is a direct man, a candid man, I admire him,” Borini told Corriere dello Sport. “At the beginning he called me into his office and said ‘you are talented, you train well, but you are not playing. I don’t know why. That’s how it is. You just keep working.’ I paid heed to those words and I won my place in the team, taking great satisfaction along the way.”
But while Borini had indeed won a place in the side, he was almost never being used in his preferred position. Poyet’s 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 formations only left room for a single central striker, and that role most often went to Jozy Altidore or Steven Fletcher. Borini was obliged to play out on the left as a wide forward or winger.
It was a position he had played many times before in his career, with both Parma and Roma. But it is not the role in which he feels most comfortable. Borini has always believed himself to be a natural ‘prima punta’ – a central striker who leads the line. He has never demanded that any manager put him in that position, stating often that he is adaptable and his first aim is to help his team, but when asked where he feels most comfortable, it has always been closest to goal.
In England, that idea has been met with a great deal of skepticism. How could a skinny lad like that possibly survive the physicality and aggression of Premier League centre-backs? Perhaps Borini went some way to answering that question on Sunday. The ease with which he held off Kompany on his goal was something to behold.
The coaches who fostered Borini’s development as a kid in Bologna’s youth team cannot have been all that surprised. Back then the player was so far ahead of the curve that he would train with boys four years his senior. “They pulled strange faces,” he says of his opponents’ reactions to seeing him line up against them. “Especially during games, when I slipped through their legs with the ball.”
If those years toughened Borini up, then they also taught him that you do not need to match fire with fire. That bruising centre-back cannot hurt you if he cannot catch you. As a teenager, the forward’s pace and work-rate earned him the nickname ‘Nascar’ among his Italian colleagues. More than once on Sunday, Martin Demichelis was made to look more like an articulated vehicle trailing in his wake.
Borini might not be the conventional lone striker who will hold up the ball and draw others into play, but for a coach who is prepared to open up his thinking, the Italian offers fascinating alternative possibilities. In England it is too often assumed that there is only one way for teams – and especially those struggling in the bottom half of the table – to approach a game. Elsewhere in Europe, a far wider range of tactical approaches is applied.
Poyet took a gamble by starting Borini Sunday and, even in defeat, was vindicated in his choice. It will be fascinating to see what the manager does next. Borini had previously scored just five goals for Sunderland in all competitions – although he has saved his best for the big occasions, with strikes against both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, plus Newcastle (twice!) included in that mix.
His finish against City reminded us of quite how ruthless a finisher he can be. In Italy Borini was never thought of as an especially technically gifted player, but drew comparisons with Pippo Inzaghi for his efficiency in front of goal. It is in Sunderland’s interests to put him in position to do what he does best. And quite possibly in those of Italy and Liverpool as well.