If you were to ask any Inter fan at the start of the season who would be the only Italian player in the team’s starting line up, the majority of fans would have either chosen Mario Balotelli or Marco Materazzi. Inter do have their critics for regularly and exclusively selecting non Italians in the first XI, however in recent weeks this has begun to change with the emergence of Davide Santon in the Nerazzurri defence.
Santon is a teenage fullback from Ferrara, who was given his debut this season by Jose Mourinho in the Coppa Italia quarter-final match against Roma. Since then, Santon has been an ever-present in the Inter line up playing the last 5 games in the relatively unfamiliar position of left back. Santon’s position in the youth team has always been as a right back but he has been keeping regular starters in the left back berth out of the senior side with his performances.
Santon has been at Inter since the age of 10 and from an earlier age he made a big impression on those around him, his youth team Coach at Inter, Roberto Samaden, said he always knew that Santon had a big future ahead of him. It is also interesting to note that the left back position is no longer a problem position for the club. Brazilian international Maxwell had been a fine purchase for the club, signed from Ajax in 2006 and in many peoples eyes, mine included, he was regarded as probably the best left back plying his trade in Serie A . There is also Cristian Chivu, Javier Zanetti and Nicola Burdisso who have all played left back for the side.
For when you consider the amount of left backs Inter went through during the 1990’s and early 2000’s since Roy Hodgson sold Roberto Carlos to Real Madrid in 1996 (probably one of Hodgson’s worst managerial decisions). It became somewhat of a laughing matter with the amount of left backs arriving and departing at the end of each season. Alessandro Pistone, Vratislav Gresko, Pierre Wome, Grigoris Georgatos, Giuseppe Favalli, Francesco Coco and Fabio Grosso to name but a few are all players to have been tried out in the role but without much success. In fact the list goes beyond those seven players to have played in the position the last 10 years or so.
Santon turned 18 at the start of the year. In the UK when you turn 18 you are considered a man. However in Italy you turn 18, you are still considered and treated as a boy. Established players such as Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini are still referred to as youngsters even though they are well into their twenties and established internationals. In Italy you have to be a little bit special to be playing regularly at the age of 18 in a team’s starting line up, players such as Paolo Maldini and Antonio Cassano immediately spring to mind. This appears to be the case with Santon.
Generally when young players get their chance to play, they tend to be protected or perhaps looked after somewhat. So immediately one would have thought, it would have been Douglas Maicon playing at left back, and Santon playing in a more familiar right back role. But no, Santon has been thrown in at the deep end and has been an ever present in the line up since the turn of the year.
It is well known that Mourinho likes functional, almost machine-like players, with him it’s almost ‘my way or the highway.’ Players such as Ricardo Quaresma, Adriano, Amantino Mancini and Balotelli have found this out to their cost having regularly been left out of Inter’s match day squad this season. Mourinho has even used Santon as an example to Balotelli in order to keep the striker’s head down, work hard in training and think about the rest of the squad. It is clear that Mourinho thinks highly of the young defender.
So how far can Santon progress? I have watched him play in three of Inter’s matches and bearing in mind that his age and that he is playing for Italy’s top team and one of the best team’s in Europe, he has been very impressive. His ability on the ball is excellent, defensively he has looked very good demonstrating an impressive positional sense. He also appears physically older than 18. Former Inter legend and Italian international Sandro Mazzola, now a respected TV pundit, has likened him to Beppe Bergomi.
When we look at the lack of Italian fullbacks at the moment it is refreshing to see one as talented and as impressive as Santon and credit must also go to Mourinho for giving him a run in the side, a less courageous manager such as Roberto Mancini, may have taken the easy option instead by slotting Zanetti or Maxwell at let back. You only have to look at Marcello Lippi’s squad for the friendly against Brazil this week to see the lack of quality Italian fullbacks. Gianluca Zambrotta is not the player he once was, Andrea Dossena is an average left wing back being shown up at Liverpool, and then there is the 30-something Grosso along with centre back Daniele Bonera providing cover for Zambrotta.
It is fair to say that Italy is not flush with fullbacks at this current moment, whilst looking at the Under-21 side suggests only Fabiano Santacroce is really good enough to make an impact for the national team, but his temperament has always been a problem. Santon has the ability to make the step up to the national team, and it was surprising to see him left out of Pierluigi Casiraghi’s Under-21 squad for the game against Sweden this week.
So as one fullback across Milan is saying goodbye to his illustrious playing career, one is just beginning, could we be seeing the start of something special? It is very early to say at this stage, but if Santon goes on to have half the success as Maldini has, then he is going to be a pretty decent player.