The 19-year-old midfielder became a starter at the beginning of the season and has been a consistent performer for Paolo Zanetti’s side ever since.

The addition of Tommaso Baldanzi to Empoli’s starting XI was quite a surprise, even for a young and ambitious club such as Gli Azzurri. The young player wearing number 35 already debuted last season, in the last game against Atalanta, and performed very well during pre-season. Still, it was all but predicted that he could become a regular starter as soon as the third game of the season (against Lecce), also scoring his first Serie A goal one week later (against Verona). Today, the amusement is still there. Maybe because, despite Baldanzi being a regular starter, Paolo Zanetti still benches him every now and then. But Empoli’s coach recently defined him as a “pillar” of his team.

Actually, Baldanzi played less than his familiarity with this level of football may suggest, having played less than 900 minutes between Serie A and Coppa Italia. Still, in this limited time, he was able to give us memories that we won’t forget. Like his game-winning goal against Dionisi’s Sassuolo and, more importantly, the game-winning goal at San Siro against Inter, which gave Empoli their most prestigious win of the season. A shot from the edge of the box which surprised Onana with its speed. With these feats, Baldanzi became the third youngest player to score four goals this season in Europe’s top five leagues after Jude Bellingham and Youssoufa Moukoko.

It's no surprise then that the young Italian trequartista was immediately involved in the transfer market rumors, being linked to several big clubs, one of them being Napoli. After all, as bitterly stated by his agent: “It’s only normal that there’s huge interest around him, not many 2003s play in Serie A”. Baldanzi, though, it’s not your normal 20-year old and the interest around him it’s not only related to his young age. Giancarlo Antognoni, Fiorentina’s historical trequartista, compared him to Dybala. About this comparison, Baldanzi said that “On a scale of one to ten, he’s a ten and I’m not even on the scale”.

To be fair, besides having the same position on the pitch, Baldanzi has not much in common with the romantic idea of the Argentinian number 10 being capable of dancing with the ball. Even if ball control with his left foot is top-notch, Baldanzi is an extremely ‘contemporary’ player, in all its possible meanings. His vision, as his electric ability to carry the ball, has its best expression in short spaces, as he associates with his teammates to move the team up the pitch. It’s not a case if – according to Wyscout data – he’s among the best players in Serie A for progressive passes (5.08 p/90 minutes, same as Dybala himself). Baldanzi knows how to beat the opposing pressure with a pass, or how to circumnavigate it by carrying the ball with his magnetic left foot. Zanetti says that he has “top-notch technique and game vision”.

Baldanzi is rather a contemporary player without the ball too. Not only the legs, but his whole body is constantly moving, almost as if the pitch was burning under his feet. Baldanzi drives every opponent that has to mark him crazy, same for those that try to pin him to prevent him from receiving the ball in the opposing third. This is the reason why his youth coach at Empoli – whom he won two championships with – used to call him Big Little Buddha. Baldanzi is not an old-style number 10, a trequartista in love with the ball, but rather a midfielder forged in the era in which pressure systems are so sophisticated that they became a critical tactic. Not randomly, he ranks among the best in Serie A for recoveries in the final third (1.53 p/90) and counter-pressing recoveries (2.51 p/90).

The goal that Empoli scored against Fiorentina in one of the last games of the season it’s quite illustrative of the kind of player that Baldanzi is today. Fiorentina is building up from the back and the ball gets to Amrabat who got deep between the two center-backs. Baldanzi is the leader of Empoli’s pressure and runs toward him, urging his teammates to press as well. Amrabat stops, he doesn’t have any easy passing line and decides to get back. But he's distracted or frightened by Baldanzi’s presence in front and the possibility of his pressure from one moment to the next, and he loses the ball. Number 35 gets the ball, carrying it with the side foot and then, with impeccable timing, serves a through pass between Martinez Quarta and Amrabat himself to Caputo. Caputo passes again to Cambiaghi, who is able to shoot and score.

From this goal, it’s clear why Zanetti would call Baldanzi a “pillar” of the team. Not only is he a refined trequartista for his technique but he’s also mature and multifaceted in many aspects of the game, and he can still evolve both as an advanced and as a central midfielder.

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