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Black Cats Analects: Giaccherini vs. Your Expectations

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With Emanuele Giaccherini probably out for the rest of the season, Simon Fenton reminds us how good he probably is. Cheers Si...

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"… [He] was valued, they offered him an important contract … I’m not happy with the sale of Giaccherini but in times of crisis, when you buy, you must also make sacrifices …"

Juventus FC SpA manager, Antonio Conte, cut that crestfallen quote back in July 2013.  He had just lost his whimsically-talented Italian game-changer, Emanuele Giaccherini, to Sunderland for a cool €8.92m.  The Black Cats now had his right-rated international – a dead cert team starter.

Or not, as it’s transpired.  In hindsight, reports in 2013 may have set expectations of Giaccherini that overreached his hype.  The Italian’s contribution for the ‘White-Blacks’ was somewhat assumed and, perhaps, inadvertently misrepresented him to those unfamiliar with his record.

Granted, Giaccherini has had natural flair and technique ever since his youth career with AC Cesena SpA.  However, Cesena also tested his mettle with loans to the riff-raff of the now-defunct Serie C2; at Forlì FC, AC Bellaria Igea Marina and AC Pavia, between 2004 and 2008.

The Italian was also part of the industrious 2008-2010 Cesena squad; who grafted the club through two promotions into Serie A.  Giaccherini was, by then, 25 years old; fairly unknown, but respected for his toiling work rate.  He had earned the chance to challenge Italy’s elite clubs.

With the ‘Seahorses’ tipped for unpreventable relegation, Cesena’s star winger was handed a carefree license to go feral in Serie A 2010/11.  And he did.  He wrecked AC Milan’s net from long range, got the match-winning assist over SS Lazio and gouged a brace into UC Sampdoria.

In 36 Serie A fixtures, Giaccherini had scored 7, assisted 4; and was now proven across all tiers of Italian football.  Antonio Conte’s Juventus FC – then floundering in match-fixing relegation rehab – valued his worth and, in August 2011, purchased an €8.62m co-ownership stake in the winger.

Giaccherini was re-jigged as an attacking midfielder yet, despite his peak form, became notable as Juventus’ withheld, versatile substitute.  He started just 19 Serie A matches from 2011–2013, and had a dull reserve role in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League knock-out rounds.

The midfielder was unshackled to influence the clubs’ Coppa Italia fixtures, and did so across his 7 starts in the cup tournament.  However the Italian’s 2-year restricted role with the ‘Old Lady’ reflected his record: 26 starts, 26 off the bench, 36 as an unused sub; with 6 goals and 7 assists.

Nonetheless, Giaccherini was good value come July 2013.  His popularity at Juventus and indispensable form during Italy’s 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup run promoted the midfielder as a late-blooming star, domestically and internationally.  And Juventus, regrettably, capitalised.

To subsidise club spending, Conte sanctioned the unexpected sale of Giaccherini to Sunderland for £6.60m that summer.  However trivial his contribution to Juventus was, Giaccherini’s mint Confederations Cup form had perhaps overvalued him, and subsequently most expectations.

Luckily, the Italian was still a special player for the Black Cats’ haywire 2013/14 season.  He netted a neat header at Southampton; a fast-reacted rebound against Liverpool; a tension-easing assist at Cardiff City, and a long distance, half-volley thunder-b****** at Arsenal.

Then there was Sunderland’s 21-day season-ending ‘great escape’.  A late sub in all 5 matches (playing just 97 minutes throughout), Giaccherini provided two 15-minute assists for Connor Wickham at Manchester City; then another assist and goal within 13 minutes against Cardiff City.

The Italian played at least 800 minutes less than most of Sunderland’s squad that season.  Still, from 23 starts and 9 substitutions, he produced 5 goals and 4 assists in all competitions.  He was the clubs’ 3rd highest chance creator, 2nd highest assists creator, and 4th highest goal scorer.

Yet despite contributing to 20% of Sunderland’s goals in the 2013/14 season, some perceived Giaccherini to be an underwhelming signing.  His brief mid-season form dip and peculiar 2-month squad absence was the logical reason.  Even Gus Poyet weighed in on the debate.

Speaking in September 2014, Poyet indicated his withdrawal of Giaccherini from the squad – and the player’s sudden international snub – had adversely affected his interchangeable winger.  He also referred to the common ‘foreigner struggling to adapt’ cliché.

However, Sunderland’s head coach also noted Giaccherini’s adrenaline during the 2014/15 pre-season, stating, "… I have changed my mind completely about him … he’s going to be great for us … [he’s] a totally new player …", also implying an impending pivotal role for the Italian.

Unfortunately that did not materialise.  Giaccherini’s stop-start 2014/15 season has been thrashed with injury.  He has played 7 Premier League fixtures, starting 2; appeared in the FA Cup 3rd and 4th Rounds; and provided a late assist against Birmingham City in the Capital One Cup.

Injuries aside though; conflicting expectations on Giaccherini continue, as his role at Sunderland remains constantly unresolved.  The Italian has started less than half of the 58 fixtures he has been fit and available to play, and has been an unused substitute more than being subbed in.

The player himself, in August 2013, shared his desire to play regularly in a league he called "… quicker [and] more aggressive, also less technical … a different mentality …" He knew his decade in Italy went against him, but has he really been an anti-climax to expectations of him?

His record suggests he’s adapted just fine.  Giaccherini’s Sunderland stats are similar to his figures at Juventus in comparison.  For the Serie A champions, the compact winger averaged a goal per 479 minutes – the exact stat he holds currently on Wearside.  That’s consistency – literally.

His playing style is tailor-suited to Gus Poyet’s tactical model also.  Giaccherini’s competent distribution in 2013/14 led to 25 chances created from 401 passes – a better chance-per-pass ratio than the league’s assist leader, Steven Gerrard and highest chance creator, Eden Hazard.

This season, Giaccherini – as a winger – has played only 41% of passes forwards.  While that sounds out the anti-Poyet ‘negative football’ viewpoint, there is a purpose to it.  It’s allowed the 29-year old to maintain 89% pass accuracy and the 2nd best possession retention at the club.

Furthermore, this approach benefits the often-visionary distribution Giaccherini offers to Sunderland.  The Italian prefers to patiently create chances, to avoid recklessly losing possession.  This is precisely his head coach’s vision – to go forwards slowly, but never backwards.

Of course, Giaccherini’s added flair and instinct on the counter is a bonus.  Few players at Sunderland can clock his speed and, on his day, he is untouchable in attack.  And yet, for a player with such effective traits, he has started only 46% of available games for Sunderland.

Whether it’s due to tactical requirements or episodic injuries, the Italian’s infrequent starts are supporting some unwanted concerns.  For £6.60m, even an in-form, medically-cleared Giaccherini has been a mere stand-in for the bosman-signed Jordi Gómez this season.

And so these circumstances have highlighted those original expectations of the player.  There are two fundamental views: either Sunderland has devalued an excellent, international-calibre midfielder; or he was only ever the toiling grafter who, every so often, has a brief purple patch.

There is nonetheless the legitimate call to reintroduce Giaccherini into the starting XI again.  His attack ratio – with 67% shooting accuracy and 1.14 shots per game average – betters Gómez, Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher; and is surely required for Poyet’s new attacking blueprint.

If he returns to immediate first team action, there is the chance of him succeeding in a formation he has played in for Italy since 2012.  If however he is resigned to the bench, it must be with the hope that Sunderland can continue to use him in much the same way Juventus did.

So, a dead cert team starter, Giaccherini is not.  Nor has he been an unnecessary luxury, given his critical playmaking in Sunderland’s darkest hour of the 2013/14 season.  To that extent, maybe Antonio Conte was right to be so downhearted at sacrificing his small-scale super-sub.

As for expectations, it is simply a matter of judging Giaccherini on his Sunderland journey as it unravels.  He may have been recruited under more fanfare than he deserved, but realistically – given his prior track record and contribution – the Italian is as good now as he’s ever been.

Whether underrated or overrated; a half-decent starter or excellently versatile substitute; Emanuele Giaccherini has had a stuttering yet positive influence at Sunderland in his first 19 months.  With another two-and-a-half years remaining on his contract, the club and player still have time to set the expectations higher.  Because, whatever Giaccherini is – he’s a good one.