Tottenham Hotspur’s purchase of 33-year-old Ivan Perisic is particularly interesting in terms of the familiar debate about youth versus experience. Tottenham generally invest in emerging talent, while Antonio Conte demands players who can succeed immediately. It seems that Conte succeeded.
But more interesting than Tottenham signing a 33-year-old is Tottenham signing a 33-year-old who they will use at the back.
Why? Because the trade-off between youth and experience seems to vary depending on position on the pitch. Typically, you think of youngsters who thrive in dynamic positions, especially outdoors where explosive movement, pace and stamina seem more important. You can actually cover more ground in central midfield, but it’s a different type of run, and positional sense – which tends to come with experience – counts more. This is also true in the center of defence.
And more interesting than Tottenham signing a 33-year-old winger, Tottenham are signing a 33-year-old winger from Serie A.
Why? Because the list of wingers (or full-backs) who have gone from Serie A to the Premier League in the past decade is daunting reading. In recent years many club analysts have been tasked with determining the ‘conversion rate’ of players moving from one league to another, and at least one long-serving Premier League manager has become convinced that signing Serie A players was too risky because the pace of English football was so much higher and Italian imports were struggling to cope. And, again, that seems particularly relevant for wingers.
Here is the list of full-backs or full-backs who have moved from Serie A to the Premier League in the last 10 years: Marcos Alonso, Pablo Armero, Joao Cancelo, Timothy Castagne, Juan Cuadrado, Matteo Darmian, Andrea Dossena, Emerson Palmieri, Jose Holebas, Mauricio Isla, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Adam Masina, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ashley Young, Davide Zappacosta, Juan Zuniga.
All have been capped by their countries, but what stands out is how many of these players looked truly exceptional in Serie A, usually in winger positions for dynamic teams – particularly Udinese, Napoli and Atalanta – but seemed completely out of their depth in the Premier League. Try telling Watford or West Ham fans that Armero and Isla once formed Serie A’s most exciting winger partnership at Udinese and they’ll think you’re crazy (or need to research the details of their performances in the Premier League to remember them). Cuadrado looked like one of the most exciting players in Serie A at Fiorentina – sometimes winger, sometimes wing-back – but failed at Chelsea and then looked better for Juventus.
Darmian, Dossena, Emerson and Zappacosta have all played well enough in Serie A to earn international call-ups for Italy – they have 75 caps between them – but often looked completely overwhelmed when playing for top-class sides in the Premier League . Dossena, who failed to establish himself at Liverpool and Sunderland, explained why.
“In Serie A you have more time on the ball, there is more time to play and the game is more tactical, but in the Premier League as soon as you get the ball a player tries to take it away from you,” he said. “The pace of the game takes some getting used to.”
In fairness, Dossena’s inclusion on the above list refers to his move to Sunderland in 2013, rather than his move to Liverpool in 2008 – which is rather old now. But, to refresh your memory of his second spell in England: he played seven Premier League games for Sunderland before moving on a free transfer to League One side Leyton Orient, with whom he was relegated to the fourth tier.
Lichtsteiner was another long-serving, stable and reliable Serie A player who seemed almost hopeless during a brief stint with Arsenal. Castagne was decent enough for Leicester, but nowhere near as good as he looked at Atalanta, and the same was true for Zuniga at Napoli and then Watford.
It’s not all bad news – although, crucially, the success stories haven’t generally played as dynamic wingers.
Cancelo has been absolutely exceptional for Manchester City, but more as a deep playmaker than an up and down sprinter. Tomiyasu enjoyed a positive debut season with Arsenal, generally retreating inside and being part of a compact defence.
Alonso proved an extremely effective goalscorer, although Chelsea fans still complain about his general lack of defensive ability in open play, as he is very easily bypassed. Holebas was, in a way, a similar case – an excellent set-piece taker, an absolutely terrible defender.
There is not much to say about the others. Masina is pretty decent, Young was used to English football anyway.
Can Perisic reverse the trend? Well, if anyone can, it’s probably him. Perisic has, in a sense, already bucked the earlier trend regarding aging, as he enjoyed his peak years in his thirties. For a long time, he appeared as a somewhat undefined all-round striker, who usually excelled in international tournaments rather than for his club, perhaps because he likes slower games when his dynamism was more noticeable.
In that sense, a move to Serie A has probably worked out well for him, and he – above all – has become particularly consistent under Conte, proving very effective at timing his away runs to arrive in a goalscoring position, something that Sergio Reguilon and Ryan Sessegnon have done well on occasion since Conte’s appointment. Perisic can also play on both flanks.
Even without Conte’s history of working with Perisic, he has shown his ability to get the most out of experienced wingers in upset situations. Young’s career at top clubs seemed over as he was set to leave Manchester United, but he did well for Conte’s Inter. Victor Moses’ career at Chelsea seemed over, and he had never played as a wing-back before, but Conte made it work – and then signed him for Inter as well. In Perisic, who has been Inter’s best player at times in recent months and was man of the match in their Coppa Italia final victory, Conte has a much higher level starter.
Considering he’s moved between Italy and England as a manager three times in the last six years, and has used wingers almost exclusively during that time, few managers are better placed than Conte. to judge the suitability of a winger to adapt between Serie A and the Premier League. And Conte knows there are differences between the leagues.
“There are a lot of tactics in Italy. Every coach is highly prepared, that’s why the intensity tends to drop a bit,” Conte said last year. “In the Premier League there is intensity, but the tactical attention is not as high. Here in England it is easier to see one-on-one situations and moments of transition after 60 minutes – anything can happen when teams are stretched.
History suggests Perisic could struggle to maintain his Serie A level – where he was one of the best players in the league – in the Premier League, particularly on 90 minutes. But again, next season is the first full campaign where managers can make five substitutions per game, replacing half of their outfielders when they get tired. In that sense, signing an aging Serie A winger has become less risky.
(Top photo: Mattia Ozbot – Inter/Inter via Getty Images)