At the beginning of the 2019/20 season, Radja Nainggolan made the decision to switch from Inter to his ex-club Cagliari due to family reasons. It was considered as a huge mistake and the football fans around the world were wondering if his career on the top level is over, since he joined the 15th in the Serie A table?
He, though, arrived in Cagliari at the right moment. In his second year on charge, the coach Rolando Maran said goodbye to some of his regular players but made sure to find the perfect replacements.
They brought in many players and Nainggolan was the most exciting amongst them all. He had already shown his abilities during his spells at Roma and Inter and it was time for the Belgian international to prove that he could carry a smaller team to some achievements.
Luckily, his transfer wasn’t the only successful move by Cagliari. With new tactics and the new additions to the squad, Maran managed to create a team, capable of playing exciting and dreaming about European football.
Style of play
The Belgian is a skilful attacking midfielder who tends to create good opportunities for his teams, sending smart passes in key areas and using lots of through balls in order to deliver the ball to his teammates. His ball control and decision-making are impressive, especially when a team need to deliver the ball to the final third, despite the press applied by their opponents.
He is a player that would also try to shoot on his own and create many long-distance shots, being very helpful against teams implementing low block. He is always looking for a solution and his creativity and explosiveness boosts the whole team’s performance.
When it comes to Cagliari’s style of play this season, he seems to fit pretty well. His teammates are constantly looking for him all over the opposition’s half and he is often part of the top passing links in the team’s games.
Cagliari tend to counter-attack a lot and play attacking football, which is hard for their opponents to defend. They create many chances and keep a high pace, trying to break defences steadily. Maran’s favoured formations are 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-2-1 which seem to fit Nainggolan’s strengths perfectly. They usually play with width and use the wings to attack, but use him to retain possession midway and distribute the ball further.
Passing and build-up
Caligari doesn’t focus on playing possession football. They prefer using speed and circulate the ball all over their own half and the midfield line. They are pretty inconsistent when it comes to retaining possession though. They lose the ball quite frequently and they manage to create 3.29 passes per possession on average.
Nainggolan wanders from box to box and tries to create more options for a pass with his movement. The Belgian helps during the build-up and is always looking for a speedy off the ball run in order to receive the ball and deliver it further. His passing activity is concentrated mostly in finding the tiniest spaces to exploit in order to finish an attack. Even though Cagliari most frequently use the wings for creating their attacks, they tend to use Nainggolan as support and create short pass combinations with him on the sides. That’s how they manage to distribute the ball to the final third.
He is the extremely important link between the midfield and the attack. His most common positioning is between the mid-line and the box. Out there he tends to do rotations with his teammates, trying to open the passing lanes by dragging the opposition players out of position.
Impact on their attacking approach and defensive contribution
As mentioned, the team’s 4-3-1-2 formation perfectly fits Nainggolan’s abilities. He is quite versatile when it comes to contribution to the final third.
He could be used as an additional force upfront due to his runs to the box and his strong off the ball movement. He uses his pace to outrun the defenders and sneak behind their backs and could be pretty dangerous in front of the goal.
He seems to have a greater impact as a support behind the forward line, though. His vision and attacking flair would exploit the uncovered spaces perfectly and complement his teammates’ movement. His ball control and strong decision-making under pressure are extremely important, especially when performing counter-attacks. Cagliari form 4.08 counters on average per 90 minutes and having someone to be the link to the pacey forward players is priceless for two reasons.
Firstly, he helps the ball reach the final third faster and offers more options once reaching the box. Secondly, Nainggolan is a great thread when shooting from distance (46% of the team’s shots are sent from outside the box) So whenever their opponents are on their way to cope with a counter, his volley could break their plans in the blink of an eye.
Nicolò Barella was the one playing on this position last season and there are some noticeable differences between him and the Belgian.
Barella’s contribution to the team’s defensive actions was more noticeable than Nainggolan’s. But it has expectedly affected his attacking performance. The Italian would be less effective in the final third, which was actually a needed extra push for Cagliari. Due to the lack of experience, Barella’s decision-making would often result in inaccurate actions in key areas.
He would perform more defensive duels on average (8) than the Belgian (5,23). He is also better in the aerial duels, which is one of Nainggolan’s weaknesses. He goes for only 1,78 aerials per 90 minutes and wins only 28% of them. Barella would also make more recoveries, although the Belgian compensates with interceptions, which he manages to do due to his movement and positional awareness.
When it comes to the attacking actions though, things look different. Of course, the forward players need to be praised too, since the whole connection is better this term. But if we look into the midfielder’s individual performance, we’ll see that thanks to Nainggolan the team not only creates more shots but more of them are on target. He offers many options in and outside the box, which has increased their productivity. He tends to send more crosses too, which is proof of his importance as an assist provider too.
Barella has made more dribble attempts (4,33) compared to Nainggolan (3,06) but with a much lower success rate. This ability to take on his markers in key areas has allowed Cagliari to create more opportunities.
Nainggolan became a key figure for this reborn Cagliari team. He is one of the teams’ main sources of creativity and fulfils his role as a support to the attackers perfectly. With a player like him, who brings the balance in the build-up phase and complements his teammates’ actions, Cagliari might manage to sit comfortably in one of the European football spots.
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