The problem of Luca Cigarini

The problem of Luca Cigarini

A year ago, Milan’s sale of Andrea Pirlo to Juventus would have been unthinkable. Having been injured in the run-up to the World Cup, the Italian press flailed about distraughtly, Pirlo’s absence meaning the Azzurri had no chance. Turns out they were right: Riccardo Montolivo failed to step up, and Italy finished bottom of their group – Pirlo making only a brief appearance as a late substitute in the last game against Slovakia. The man nicknamed “The Metronome” was exactly that, the heart of Milan and the national team, keeping things ticking along.

Now, however, Milan are happy to part with l’architetto. Pirlo’s injury problems persisted, managing just 17 league games last season, although the decision to accept Juve’s offer was partly tactical. Massimiliano Allegri wanted a more defensive battler in front of his backline, and saw the issue in having a team dependent on a player past his peak – Pirlo doesn’t have the athletic ability for a more advanced role, so a switch to Turin suited him. He is still involved in the national set-up, of course, but at 32 it can only be so long before he is moved on from Cesare Prandelli’s youth-orientated squad.

With the sun beginning to set on Pirlo’s career, a replacement must be found for his regista role. Unfortunately, there isn’t too many of his types roaming Serie A’s midfields at the moment, although just a few years ago many were touting young Luca Cigarini as his successor. Things haven’t quite worked out as they should for Cigarini though.

He emerged as one of a series of good youth team players at Parma in the 2005-06 season, where they finished tenth, although the Calciopoli scandal meant they moved up to seventh and a UEFA cup spot. The financial meltdown of Parmalat had thrown Parma into disarray however, and they plummeted down the table the next season, narrowly avoiding relegation on the final day of the season after Claudio Ranieri jumped in to save them in February. Ranieri resigned straight after, and nothing could save them from dropping into Serie B the following season. Cigarini found some more stable employers in Atalanta, where he was able to showcase his talent in a relatively unpressurised midtable environment.

The most obvious reason for his comparisons to Pirlo were his playmaking abilities. Cigarini had the long passing range, but also the understanding to dictate the tempo of a match, knowing when to hit it long or play simpler, short passes. He had something that Pirlo did not though: he was mobile. While Pirlo’s lack of athleticism forced him to sit in front of the back four, Cigarini could advance, interchange passes, slip a short through ball between defenders or shoot. This also gave him an edge defensively, as he could get across and put in a tackle when Pirlo’s only defensive ability was his positioning.

Cigarini showed enough at Atalanta to earn himself a €10.5 million move to Napoli, who, despite finishing below Atalanta the year before, were a team on the up. Without Cigarini dictating the play, Atalanta were relegated at the end of the 2009-10 season, but he hadn’t fared much better at Napoli. He made 28 league appearances in his first season, starting in 11, but the replacement of Roberto Donadoni with Walter Mazzarri in October had left question marks over Cigarini’s head.

Mazzarri preferred the more combatitive Michele Pazienza in Napoli’s midfield. Truthfully, Pazienza isn’t that much better defensively than Cigarini, certainly not going forward, but he’s more defensive-minded – at least outwardly, willing to run around all over the place. Cigarini hinted at the problem, saying “I always put myself at Mazzarri’s service. I have not lost my characteristics, but the Coach asks for greater dynamism in the interception phase and I am doing it.” Mazzarri didn’t think he was good enough defensively, and so was unwilling to hand him a first team place.

Cigarini found an escape route in the form of La Liga side Sevilla, scrambling away on loan. Napoli didn’t miss him, storming to the top of Serie A, yet Cigarini didn’t find much joy in Spain either. It started well with an assist in the winning first leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona, but he featured even less than he did for Napoli. The signing of Gary Medel in January suggested Sevilla wouldn’t be coughing up the €7 million to make the Italian’s move permanent – unsurprisingly, Cigarini didn’t feature at all for the rest of the season, returning to Naples having made just 6 league appearances.

It was a poor choice on his part; the qualities which made him stand out in Serie A, notably the mobility to compliment his tempo-setting passing, aren’t all that uncommon in Spanish midfields, ensuring he didn’t quite stand out as he should have, while his tackling had a little too much bite for Spanish referees.

With Mazzarri still at the helm of Napoli however, it’s hard to see where he will go next. His agent switches his stance on continuing at the Stadio San Paolo every couple of days, and, at 25, Cigarini can’t really afford to hang around for another season on the bench. He has the talent to dictate the midfield at many of the top sides, but whether anyone is willing to take the chance on him is another matter. We can only hope he won’t be ending his career with a place in our “What Could Have Been” series.

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