Throughout its history, Italy have been known to produce some of the best midfielders in the world, whether a more destructively-oriented defensive midfielders whose main job was to win the ball back, or an attack-minded central midfielders who could drop deep to receive the ball and then also push up further up the pitch.
Marco Tardelli, Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti, Gennaro Gattuso, and Daniele De Rossi are some of the names who used to operate in these positions. However, none of them belonged to a category of players called regista or a deep-lying playmaker. Apart from Gianni Rivera, who used to occupy this role during his playing days and is still considered one of the finest pure passers of the ball the Azzurri have ever produced, Italy never had much luck in nurturing this mold of players until Andrea Pirlo burst onto the scene.
The Italian midfield maestro was the one who revolutionized the deep-lying playmaker role, which has somewhat become extinct in recent years, as more and more teams promote a quick, counter-attacking style of play. Nonetheless, there are teams that tend to play slower, possession-based football, and rely less on pace and athleticism, including the Italian national team.
Marco Verratti, Jorginho, and Sandro Tonali have been the Azzurri’s most notable registas over the last couple of years, but the list has expanded with the addition of Matteo Ricci from Spezia. The 26-year-old deep-lying playmaker is the first Spezia player to be called up to the national team in 85 years since Luigi Scarabello’s appearance against the United States in 1936.
This scouting report, produced in collaboration with The Scouting App, takes a closer look at Ricci’s player profile, highlighting his strengths and weaknesses, as well as analyzing his performances so far in the 2020-21 Serie A season.
Ricci started his football career as a youth player at Roma but never got the chance to play for the senior team, although he was officially their player for seven years. During the two years he spent at Roma’s youth side, Ricci made 47 appearances and scored 7 goals before being loaned out to Serie C side Grosseto.
In his first season with the senior team, Ricci made 29 appearances and scored 4 goals for Grosseto, but his stay did not last long as the midfielder was transferred to Pistoiese for the following season, where he only made 11 appearances.
Ricci continued his journey from one Serie C team to the next the following year when he joined Pisa for the 2015-16 season. The then 21-year-old immediately earned his place in the starting line-up and contributed to the team’s performances with 2 goals and 7 assists in 37 appearances in all competitions for the club.
Ricci’s improved performances on the pitch were immediately noticed by scouts from the upper tier clubs, with the midfielder earning a transfer to a Serie B side Perugia for the 2016-17 season. At Perugia, the deep-lying playmaker made 26 appearances in all competitions, scoring 2 goals before he was loaned out again to another Serie B club Salernitana.
After spending a season with Salernitana, Ricci completed his final loan move to date as the midfielder joined his current club Spezia. In the 2019-20 season, Ricci helped Spezia earn promotion to Serie A through play-offs. That season, he scored 4 goals and provided 5 assists in 25 Serie B matches.
Ricci is the 26-year-old midfielder who primarily acts as a deep-lying playmaker for Serie A club Spezia. The intelligent passer of the ball is currently playing his first season in Italy’s top flight, after many years wearing the colors of teams from lower divisions. The Italian has made 21 appearances in his Serie A career so far, with 2 assists and over 1600 minutes under his belt.
One of the characteristics that is essential in the skillset of a deep playmaker is his range of passing. Being a good ball distributor allows a deep playmaker to dictate the tempo of the game, which is crucial for teams that intend to play expansive possession-based football. Ricci is arguably the best passer of the ball in Spezia’s squad, possessing excellent passing range with both feet. Be it neat and tidy distribution through short passes, floated balls over the top or cross-field passes to switch the play to the other side, Ricci has it all in his locker.
Ricci’s top-class passing ability is complemented by his astute technique, which allows the 26-year-old to feel comfortable on the ball. He can receive the ball with either foot and is rarely dispossessed due to his excellent close ball control, making it incredibly difficult for the opponents to take the ball from him. The fact that Spezia have the sixth highest possession percentage in Serie A (avg. 53.1%) proves that Ricci plays a central role in dictating Spezia’s possession play as a deep-lying playmaker.
For all his qualities in possession, Ricci’s defensive side of the game is also worth mentioning. Deep-lying playmakers are often overlooked in this area, but it remains an essential part of their game, being the first player in front of the back line. The Italian is a more athletic type of deep playmaker who is often pushed forward by his manager to engage in pressing further up the pitch. Consequently, possessing good levels of stamina allows him to sprint back to the base of midfield, Ricci’s original position.
Finally, a deep-lying playmaker must have good positional awareness in order to make himself available to receive passes from teammates, as well as know how to create space for the ball carrier by opening up the passing lanes with the positioning of his body. Indeed, Ricci possesses these attributes that allow Spezia to be fluid and flexible with their possession game.
Serie A 2020-21 Season
Ricci’s top-notch playmaking ability from deep is perfectly supported by some of the key statistical performance indicators. As can be seen from the data, the Italian midfielder outperforms the Serie A average in every passing metric.
To start with, Ricci performs on average 18 more passes per game than the rest of the Serie A midfielders and boasts an 85.2% passing accuracy, which is 3.3% higher than the Serie A average passing success. In addition, Spezia’s deep playmaker shows good stats on more complex passing metrics, including progressive passes, passes into the final third, and key passes. What impresses the most about Ricci is his ability to progress the play in a vertical manner, with the Italian performing 7.24 progressive passes and 7.02 passes into the final third per game.
The only criticism of Ricci’s playmaking abilities relates to his chance creation. The Italian shows poorer numbers for both shot and goal-creating actions compared to the Serie A average, and provides fewer expected assists (xA). This, however, can be a result of his playing role, which rarely sees Ricci getting past the midfield third area when Spezia have the ball.
Overall, Ricci is an exciting Italian midfield talent who has the potential to secure a move to a bigger Serie A club. Being considered one of the best passers of the ball in the league, the deep-lying playmaker would be a solid addition to most teams in the top half of Serie A.