Riccardo Calafiori
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Riccardo Calafiori: An In-Depth Dive into the Italian Defender’s “Aura”

Riccardo Calafiori stood out for Bologna last season under Thiago Motta’s leadership. At just 22, he played a pivotal role in a historic campaign for “I Rossoblu,” helping the team secure their first qualification for a European elite club competition since their Serie A title win in 1964.

With heavyweights like Juventus, Liverpool, and Manchester City reportedly eyeing the player up, one has to ask: Beyond his good looks and luscious hair, what’s the secret behind Calafiori’s “aura”?

Riccardo Calafiori: A Giant on the Flanks?!

Calafiori is a 22-year-old, 6’2″ (1.87m) tall, left-footed centre-back who can also play as a left-back. In fact, he began his career in the left-back position and continued to do so during his loan spell at Genoa and his season in Switzerland with FC Basel.

After moving to Thiago Motta’s Bologna, Calafiori was primarily used as the left-sided centre-back in Motta’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formations, though he occasionally featured as a left-back as well.

Riccardo Calafiori heatmap

At 6’2″, some might think Calafiori is too tall for a fullback, assuming a player of his height lacks the necessary pace for the position. However, the versatile defender crushes this stereotype!

Surprisingly, Riccardo is incredibly agile for his figure. He can surge forward with pace, whether he has the ball or not, taking long strides and leaving opponents behind.

This allows him to bomb forward when playing as a full-back, providing penetrating, overlapping, and underlapping runs.

Riccardo Calafiori defending
Riccardo Calafiori defending

Seeing the Game in Slow Motion!

As mentioned earlier, Calafiori was mainly deployed as a left-sided centre-back last season for Bologna, with a special tactical touch from Thiago Motta, which we will dive deeper into later. For now, we need to have a look at the 22 year old’s defensive numbers to understand his quality.

Calafiori ranks highly compared to other centre-backs in the top five European leagues when it comes to tackles on all different thirds of the pitch.

Riccardo Calafiori stats

In Serie A, Calafiori has averaged 6.69 defensive duels per 90 minutes, winning 67.72% of them. These impressive stats show how reliable he is at dispossessing his opponents. His height and strength enable him to unbalance players as he uses his long limbs to steal the ball away. However, his duelling success isn’t the most impressive attribute of his defensive skillset.

Riccardo Calafiori stats
Credit: DataMB

Calafiori ranks at the top percentiles in passes blocked and interceptions, with 0.96 and 1.92 per 90 minutes in each metric, respectively. This highlights his ability to read the game, enabling him to make perfectly timed jumps to cut off passes or intercept the ball, whether it was inside the box or higher up the pitch.

Riccardo Calafiori stats
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This attribute was key to Bologna last season!

Thiago Motta implemented a possession-based approach that is much slower and more intricate than the majority of Serie A. His side likes to keep possession, passing the ball around with short and quick interchanges, ending the season with the second-highest ball possession rate at 58.1%, just behind Napoli.

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Normally, when playing for a side that keeps possession for the majority of the game, defenders will not rank highly when it comes to possession-adjusted defensive metrics, as they will not be consistently involved in defensive actions. However, for Calafiori, it’s completely the opposite.

He ranks as the 11th Serie A defender for Possession-Adjusted Tackles with 0.52 per 90, but what’s even more impressive is the fact that he’s the top Serie A centre-back when it comes to Possession-Adjusted Interceptions, averaging 8.56 every 90 minutes.

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This again proves how aware the 22-year-old is of his surroundings on the pitch and also highlights his impeccable positioning and timing when it comes to intercepting the ball, which undoubtedly helped Bologna not only maintain control over games but also finish the season with the third-best defensive line in the league with just 33 goals conceded.

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His awareness, positioning, and athleticism all allow him to be a perfect fit for clubs that play in a high defensive line. As mentioned earlier, Calafiori has the pace that allows him to win most of his races against the opposition. The young defender’s average of 7.43 loose ball recoveries per 90 minutes places him in the 98th percentile.

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What we discussed about Calafiori’s defence on the ground also applies to his aerial presence. It’s safe to say the player is dominant in the air, having won 66.35% of his aerial duels in Serie A, placing him eighth among other league centre-backs.

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Calafiori knows exactly where to position himself, and he uses his athleticism to make well-timed jumps, gaining an advantage over his opponents in the air.

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A Tactical Revelation!

Tall, fast, smart, and athletic—what more could you want from a centre-back?

Well, believe it or not, we still haven’t talked about Calafiori’s best attribute yet: his ball-playing ability!

To be considered a modern centre-back, making tackles and covering spaces are no longer enough. You also need top technical skills and ball manipulation. After all, every attack starts from the backline nowadays, with every top side focusing on improving their ability to play out from the back.

It’s safe to say that Calafiori easily fits the bill! We need to look at how Thiago Motta used the player at Bologna in order to better understand how good he is on the ball.

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In addition to maintaining high ball possession, Motta also emphasises building up patiently from the back. Bologna ranks second in Serie A for sequences with over 10 passes, totaling 601, and they have the fifth most build-up attacks with 100.

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Now, whether using the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 formation, the deep build-up phase at Bologna has remained consistent throughout the season. The team patiently builds from the back, often playing short passes through the thirds, with the goalkeeper and back four being key parts of the process.

With such an emphasis on patiently playing out from the back and keeping the ball for the majority of the game, Motta needed highly technical players in his backline to implement this approach, and Calafiori was a key pillar within this whole system.

Of course, everyone knows what xG or ‘expected goals’ means. It’s the metric that measures the quality of chances created. But what about xGBuildup? This one is a bit different! It focuses on the role of players in the buildup to goal-scoring opportunities, excluding the final shot.

When building an attack, xGBuildup looks at all the actions that lead up to a shot, but it specifically excludes the final pass or the shot itself. This way, it highlights the contributions of players who help move the ball forward and create dangerous situations, even if they don’t make the assist or take the shot.

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Now, when it comes to this metric, Calafiori ranks second in the Bologna squad with an xGBuildup of 8.62, just behind midfielder Remo Freuler. This demonstrates how integral the young defender was to Bologna’s build-up phase, aiding Motta in implementing his philosophy on the field.

Two Roles in One!

Left Sided Centre-Back:

Calafiori has been crucial to Bologna’s overall style of play in two ways.

First, he played his usual left-sided centre-back role, similar to how we saw him perform with Italy during the Euros.

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With the two defenders splitting wide and the goalkeeper stepping up between them, Calafiori occupied the left-hand side.

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Playing in this position, Calafiori receives the ball while facing the play, becoming the main ball progressor with his top-quality passing accuracy and range. In fact, Calafiori was one of the best passers in the world last season compared to other centre-backs, boasting an 89.6% pass completion rate.

Sure, some might think he’s making safe square passes to the sidelines or to his keeper, which would explain the high pass completion rate, but that is not the case at all!

Whether through short or medium passes, Calafiori has the ability to progress the ball, breaking opponents’ lines with his passes and even using his weaker foot to do so.

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His long pass attempts might not be as frequent compared to other centre-backs, but his 71.5% completion rate shows just how accurate his long-range passing is.

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The defender also averaged 0.61 switches per 90 minutes, highlighting his ability to switch play to evade pressure or create dangerous situations for his teammates.

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Italian John Stones:

We all know how managers have started to invert fullbacks in recent years. And recently, we’ve seen Pep Guardiola invert his centre-backs and push them high into midfield, just like he did with Stones and Akanji at times.

With Motta emphasising constant rotations during the build-up phase, Riccardo Calafiori was the one who inverted and pushed up to midfield to form a double pivot. He was given this role due to his technical security, press resistance, and ability to progress the ball.

With his constant movement in the double pivot, Calafiori always provided a passing option for his teammates, which is why he ranked as the 25th Serie A player for most passes received, with 1,408.

Whether he’s free or being pressed, Calafriori simply does not shy away from the ball, always arriving into space and peeling himself off of his markers.

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And just as he is capable of progressing the ball when facing the play, Calafiori can also receive with his back to goal and on the half-turn, then burst forward with pace when he inverts into midfield.

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In fact, Calafiori ranks as the 14th-highest player in Serie A for progressive carrying distance, with 4,024 yards! We’re talking about all players in different positions, not just center-backs!

Upon receiving the ball and facing the play, the young defender likes to make penetrating runs to progress the ball, not shying away from taking-on his opponents.

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Not only is he the third highest among Serie A center-backs for dribbles, but he also ranks in the 92nd percentile for take-ons attempted and successful take-ons.

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And if that wasn’t enough, Calafiori engaged in 3.82 offensive duels per 90 minutes with a success rate of 45.37%, demonstrating his eagerness and ability to take on players.

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Credit: DataMB

To top it all off, Calafiori uses that same creativity and vision from deeper areas in the final third too! Last season, he scored two goals and provided five assists for Bologna in the league, but his underlying numbers are even more impressive. With 0.65 key passes per 90 minutes, Calafiori ranks in the 97th percentile among center-backs. He also ranks high in terms of passes and crosses into the penalty area.

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In summary, Calafiori is a young, athletic, and intelligent defender who not only excels in defending his area and disrupting the opposition’s play but is also versatile and can influence his team’s offensive game with his vision and technical skill

Calafiori has all these qualities, and that’s why he’s considered a unicorn of a player in today’s market!

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