By Anthony Onifade

11th Sep, 2023 | 8:10pm

'Naive' Italy performance shows Nicolo Zaniolo still has some way to go before he becomes Aston Villa XI regular

Nicolo Zaniolo certainly arrived at Aston Villa this summer to much fanfare and optimism but his latest performance during the international break shows he still has some way to go before he regularly shines at Villa Park.

The Italian international became Villa’s fourth signing of the summer, on an initial season-long loan deal after Unai Emery was keen to get in a replacement for the injury-stricken Emi Buendia who faces months on the sidelines.

Zaniolo was identified quickly as a target with Villa’s transfer chief Monchi knowing him well after signing him for Roma in 2018.

The 24-year-old has endured a difficult past couple of seasons with severe knee injuries but actually enjoyed a brief renaissance last term in Turkey, registering five goals from 10 Super Lig games.

Zaniolo, during his time with Roma, was named the Serie A Young Player of the Year for the 2018-19 campaign and earned his first call-up to the national team in 2018 and was earmarked as one of Europe’s most exciting attacking prospects.

After Philippe Coutinho’s recent exit, Zaniolo is certainly in line to make an immediate impression at Villa Park and rejig his career in no time at all and he certainly showed his class before the international break against Liverpool on 3 September.

In just his second appearance for the club following his loan move from Galatasaray, the 24-year-old did more than his attacking teammates impressed in a brief cameo against at Anfield, despite being handed just 25 minutes from the bench.

During that time, the Italian demonstrated his potential at both ends of the pitch, which would have delighted his manager on an otherwise miserable day at the office.

As per SofaScore, the Massa-born forward completed six out of his eight passes, won three out of his five duels, was successful with his one dribble attempt, and made one key pass.

Moreover, the attacker made two tackles, one interception and one clearance, faring much better than his fellow Aston Villa substitutes Youri Tielemans and Jhon Duran in this regard.

The Italian international is an innovative and imaginative attacking outlet when on form. Over the past 365 days, Zaniolo ranks well amongst attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe’s top five leagues for some of his goals and shot-creating action metrics, ranking in the 95th percentile for successful take-ons that lead to a goal, 99th percentile for fouls drawn leading to a goal and in the 73rd percentile for goal-creating actions [FBRef].

Just like his new teammates, Emery will have wanted his players to get some much-needed match fitness for their countries before returning for some crucial weeks ahead but things haven’t quite gone to plan on that front, with Zaniolo proving a self-destructive presence in Italy’s 1-1 draw with North Macedonia.

Italy failed to beat minnows North Macedonia in a 1-1 draw and after striker Ciro Immobile put Azzurri ahead, Zaniolo came on at half-time and was at fault for Macedonia’s surprise equaliser, giving away a needless free-kick.

After the game, Italian media outlet Tuttosport gave a damning assessment of Zaniolo’s performance. They tweeted on 10 September: “Cristante anonymous, Zaniolo poorly performed, Barella not enough.”

And their ratings piece, were more severe, giving him a rating of 5 out of 10: “Enter the game with the wrong attitude (or without an attitude…) and out of context. Charming and inattentive just like you shouldn’t be in certain situations of certain matches, he naively ends up causing the punishment that is worth 1-1 and that changes the game.”

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga did not hold back in his criticism of the former AS Roma man, speaking to Football Italia, he said: “We are talking about Donnarumma’s error, but how about Zaniolo? He was naive to commit a foul leading to their equaliser. Do we want to talk about it? Then, of course, the easiest thing is to say that the goalkeeper could have saved it.”

In Zaniolo’s 45 minutes on the pitch, he did pull up some impressive contributions winning eight duels, successfully completing 100% of his dribbles, one key pass and winning two fouls but it was that naivety that cost not only him but his Italian teammates.

Aston Villa face some crucial fixtures in the coming weeks but at domestic level and on the European stage and Emery will be hesitant to throw Zaniolo into the spotlight after what he did against North Macedonia.

He still has a long way to go before he’s writing his name in the West Midlands headlines as he once did in Rome.

In other Aston Villa news, one player Unai Emery loves faces arguably the biggest test of his career at Villa Park following a dreadful new development.