A week ago the headlines in La Stampa read “The table speaks black and white [bianconero]” and you may have been forgiven for thinking it referred to Juventus alone. While the Turin giants have had a magnificent start to the season, they have thus far been matched by Udinese – the provincial club in the hearts of many neutrals. Their 2-0 win against Bologna on Sunday – Benatia and Di Natale with the goals – unexpectedly keeps them at the top of the table.
The remarkably good start has come as something of a surprise. Keen Serie A viewers will be aware that the club from Friuli sold three of their most important players over the summer, and many feared that their replacements wouldn’t be able to carry the team in the same manner. The owner’s son and sporting director, Gino Pozzo, was himself surprised saying “We’re happy because we didn’t expect a start to the season like this.”
Their balance sheet was looking particularly rosy after the transfer window slammed shut, the club had brought in a staggering amount, approximately €80 million. The bulk of which was provided by the sale of Chilean star Alexis Sanchez (£23m rising to £33m) to Barcelona, but the sale of Gokhan Inler (undisclosed but believed to be £13m) and Cristian Zapata (£7m) bumped revenues up significantly. Not to mention an instalment of payments from Juventus for Pepe and Motta.
This course of action was by no means out of character for a club who have sustained themselves in Serie A for over 15 years by using the transfer market as their life support machine. Indeed, they were right to cash in on players before their stock fell.
And my how high their stock was last season. Owner, Giampaolo Pozzo, was quick to praise them saying “we were an advertisement for football” declaring, without a hint of irony, that they “play the best football in Italy”. The club owner could certainly be accused of bias and over-excitement, but while Italian teams crumbled and meekly fell out of Europe Gazzetta dello Sport cried “What a shame it is we cannot have this Udinese represent us in the Champions League; and say to Europe: ‘Look how beautiful Italian football is,’”
So far this season the replacements have looked very able, but whether they can maintain their exhilarating sty;e of play remains to be seen. Centre back Danilo has moved from Brazil at the age of 27, later than usual and quite a veteran signing for Udinese.
In the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against Arsenal he was part of a four man back line, three quarters of which were new to the club – the other two were Neuton and Joel Ekstrand. They have blended well with the existing defenders, and after conceding a solitary goal against the champions, AC Milan, have the best defence in the league to show for it.
The advertised replacement for midfield hard man was Ivorian Thierry Doubai, but the responsibilities have been taken up very well by Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. Young Italian U21 starlet Diego Fabbrini has begun to show Europe what he can do as he glides across the pitch evading challenges.
While Udinese were better known for being one of the three Serie A sides deploying a three-man back line, but we have seen a great deal of tactical flexibility from Francesco Guidolin this season. Unlike his former counterpart Gianpiero Gasperini, the Udinese coach has played a combination of 3-5-1-1 or 4-1-4-1 depending on the situation set out before him.
Earlier on this season the missing link appeared to be between the midfield and Di Natale. But on the final day of the window they signed Gabriel Torje. Nicknamed ‘The Romanian Messi’ – among other things – when asked to describe his role Torje said “I’m a trequartista who can go left, right or through the middle.”
The player certainly appears to think of himself as the type of player that Sanchez was for Udinese, and he has shown flashes of brilliance so far. Torje is relatively short, lightweight, incredibly quick, and his touch is very good but his decision making leaves much room for improvement at the moment. The early signs are promising though that the alleged €4-5m spent on the player wasn’t money down the drain.
One point of great concern for the side is the over dependency on the talismanic Antonio Di Natale. The man who has been Serie A top scorer in the past two consecutive seasons has continued to score for the side, netting 4 goals so far this season. His movement is a wonder to behold. A striker who plays on the shoulder and drops deep, leaving centre back partnerships constantly guessing.
Gino Pozzo has admitted that Di Natale “is our insurance policy”, but as he approaches 34 years of age (October 13) the search for his deputy is reaching heightened status. No one has emerged as a true contender to his title so far, and the coach will be worried that without Di Natale there is no Udinese.
Despite this huge caveat, there is clearly a remarkable project in full flow in action in north-east Italy. Udinese are a side that will bring joy to many on numerous Sunday afternoons, and it is time they weren’t thought of as surprise packages. Writing for La Repubblica Fabrizio Bocca eloquently puts it:
“If the phenomenon repeats itself – even when players like Sanchez, Inler and Zapata are sold – then there is no miracle behind it at all, but there is a method and a school of thought.”
Follow Rocco Cammisola on twitter (@rcammisola).