Saints welcome Italian prima donna Graziano Pellè

by Symen Boersma

Pelle SouthamptonOn 20 March 2014, a YouTube video of a revving, brand new, white Ferrari FF on the parking lot of the Rotterdam stadium De Kuip caused a stir on Dutch football websites. The owner of this ride was Graziano Pellè, Feyenoord’s top goal scorer, who just two weeks earlier had been given a four match suspension for elbowing, conduct that had cost him his captaincy as well. In an attempt to relieve the pressure on their star, Feyenoord had sent him on a short vacation to his home nation, where he bought himself his own transport back to Rotterdam for 360,000 euros.

While suspended, he chose this vehicle early morning for a midweek training session with Feyenoord, a club in a desperate race for the second place in the Eredivisie and a club with a multimillion sponsor deal with Opel. Earlier this month, this Graziano Pellè followed Ronald Koeman to Southampton for a fee of about £8 million. What can be expected of him in England?

First steps in football

The San Cesario di Lecce-born striker was expected to have a bright future in football, having spearheaded the Italian attack during the 2005 Under 20 World Cup and finishing the tournament on four goals, outscored only by Lionel Messi and Fernando Llorente. After this tournament his then employer Lecce pulled the plug last-minute on a move to Real Madrid, loaning him out for the next two seasons to other, less reputable, Italian clubs. Having scored ten goals in 38 Serie B matches for Cesena in the 2006/2007 season, he left for AZ Alkmaar. His new club, at the time rising slowly to the top of Dutch football, thanks to their billionaire owner Dirk Scheringa, paid a record fee of six million euros for the then 22-year-old striker. Under the guidance of Louis van Gaal, Graziano Pellè hoped to finally fulfill his promise.

Graziano Pelle ItalyUnknown to the Dutch public, Pellè appeared to be a run-of-the-mill Italian striker. Big, slow, strong in the air and always looking for the shortest route to goal, the comparison with the likes of Gilardino, Toni, Borriello and Pazzini was easily made. What followed was a difficult season, with Pellè struggling to break into the first team, usually just a back-up behind the Brazilian Ari and Moroccan Mounir El Hamdaoui, with Moussa Dembélé also proving to be a more than decent competitor for a starting spot up front. He spent a total of four seasons with the North Holland based club, being crowned champions in 2009, but never really enjoying his real breakthrough. He did stand out however, but for cumulating  a total of ten matches suspension, most notable for a reckless challenge and for kicking an opponent.

In his final season, Pellè gained attention for successfully coming off the bench and scoring a goal in three consecutive matches, helping his team win important points near the end of the season. A glimpse of what he once promised to be could be seen. Nearly following the example set by their resigned sugar daddy, AZ Alkmaar was on the edge of bankruptcy in 2011. In need of cash and looking to get rid of his excessive salary, Pellè moved back to the Serie A, joining mid-table Parma FC for one and a half million euros, costing AZ €281,000 per goal. Disappointed after not being able to leave the mark he had hoped for, he waived his final two salary slips, saving AZ about €150,000.

Fulfilling the promise

Remembering the young striker that made a name for himself in the blue shirt of their country, Parma FC were hoping to have finally found a successor for Hernan Crespo. Scoring just a single goal in 11 matches in the first half of his debut season, Pellè was once again sent out on loan to familiar ground, joining promotion contenders Sampdoria in the Serie B. He scored four in 12 second-tier matches, failing to really impress here as well and totaling just five goals in his return to Italian football. On 31 August 2012, Feyenoord signed Pellè on a one-season loan deal, with the immense task of replacing John Guidetti, the Swede who gained the status of club legend in just one season, having helped the sleeping giants forget the horrible results preceding his arrival with 20 league goals. In Rotterdam, Graziano Pellè was reunited with manager Ronald Koeman, under who he served half a season in 2009.

The signing of Pellè as Feyenoord’s new number nine was met with a lot of skepticism. Still waiting for the club’s first league title since 1999, the majority of Feyenoord’s supporters was far from convinced that a player who failed to break into the first team of just a high mid-table side like AZ, was going to make a real difference for them. It looked like a carbon copy of the summer of 2006, when Angelos Charisteas was signed from archrivals Ajax to replace the legendary Dirk Kuyt, failing miserably and leaving the through the backdoor after just one season.Graziano Pelle and Ronald Koeman

Nevertheless, Graziano Pellè has been nothing shy of a phenomenon in Dutch football for the past two seasons, both on and off the pitch. In these two seasons he played 66 matches for Feyenoord, totaling an astonishing 55 goals and 13 assists. Furthermore he got his name in the ref´s book for accumulating ten yellow cards and a red one. He managed to miss a total of eight matches through suspension this time round. Yet there
were boys all over the Rotterdam area who, sitting in a chair, just needed one word to tell their barber how to cut their hair: “Pellè”.

Receiving Koeman’s full backing, Pellè scored 14 goals in his first half season with Feyenoord, rushing them to sign him on a permanent basis for about three and a half million euros. He prov
ed to be a dangerous goal scorer, but also was a vital part in Feyenoord’s attacks, being able to figure as a target man both through the air as well as when played to feet. And in a team with mainly youngsters, the bad boy with the looks of a model soon was a leading figure in the dressing room, taking the arm band early in his second season.

What now?

After his multimillion transfer to England there remains just one question unanswered. Will Graziano Pellè be able to prove that his long-awaited stardom was more than an incident? To answer this question three decisive factors for his unexpected success need to be taken into consideration: his manager, the team in which he performed and the opposition he faced on the pitch. What are the omens for these factors after his move to a new club in a new league?

The manager

First off, the manager, a factor which doesn’t seem to differ much after his recent move to Southampton. From the moment Koeman announced he would be leaving Feyenoord at the end of the season, he made it pretty clear that he would love to take Pellè to any future club he would manage. The signals that Pellè could very well follow Koeman out of Feyenoord grew stronger as his popularity with the fans started plummeting after the mentioned misconduct on the pitch, an outburst of frustration in the tunnel after an away draw with FC Twente and the Ferrari-incident. Pellè has shown to benefit from playing series of matches in a row, receiving his manager’s full backing and a manager who has the courage to build his squad around Pellè. Also for the new season, Koeman will have full faith in his big signing, who will presumably be the new attacking leader, especially after the departure of Adam Lallana and Ricky Lambert.

A big thing that differs from the manager and striker’s time at Feyenoord together though, is Koeman’s position. When Pellè came to Feyenoord in 2012, Koeman had just managed to finish second in the league, giving him an untouchable status with the fans and board. New to the Premier League and Southampton, Koeman will have to prove himself once again, especially now the fans will be expectant after Southampton’s eighth place last season. Will Koeman be able to keep the trust in Pellè and maintain the announced Dutch style after a possible string of bad results and growing pressure on his position and approach? In the three matches Koeman played 5-3-2 instead of 4-3-3 last season, Pellè failed to score a single goal. The big question will be for how long Koeman will trust Pellè with securing his seat at St. Mary’s.

The team

Graziano Pelle FeyenoordAnother thing that dramatically boosted Pellè goal scoring record with Feyenoord was the team that surrounded him. A squad that was built around him, with Lex Immers as a hard-working number ten, supported on the wings by Dutch internationals Jean-Paul Boëtius and Ruben Schaken and when they couldn’t play their way to the goal, Feyenoord had two centre backs with the ability to effortlessly put the ball over 60 yards on Pellè’s head. At Southampton the first outlines of such a team are beginning to take shape, with the recent signing of Dusan Tadic, a winger known to be an outstanding crosser.

Also the non-footballing characteristics of Feyenoord’s squad suited Pellè very well. It was a team without strong personalities, youngsters who were taking their first strides in professional football or still had everything yet to prove at a club of Feyenoord’s stature. For two years Pellè was at the very top of his club’s hierarchy, with team mates that wouldn’t dare to oppose Pellè’s behavior and didn’t complain about their role as just a minor part of the Pellè Show. This too will be different at his new club, where the likes of Kelvin Davis will not be amused by the quirks of a player who still has everything to prove on a higher level himself this time. It’s the paradox of superstars like the Italian, who won’t function without a team, but aren’t real team players themselves. Also the fan’s expectancy will differ from that at Feyenoord, with a big price tag around his neck and the immense task of replacing crowd favourites Lambert and Lallana.

The opposition

Lastly, the opposition Pellè will face on the pitch will be of a totally different level than in Holland. Besides the fact that the level and speed of the game will be much higher in the Premier League, he will face defenders that are not only seasoned on international level, but are also a different type of defender. In the Dutch Eredivisie, defenses usually consist of two high playing centre backs, who are usually better at forward thinking then defending, completed by two attacking full backs. This is ideal when playing with touchline hugging wingers who look to run into gaps behind the defense and are able to cross to a big, strong striker like Pellè.

When you take a look at the goals the Italian scored in his two years in Rotterdam, you often see an opposing defender near him, who looks powerless to resist Pellè’s physical superiority or just doesn’t stand a chance to his strength in aerial challenges. It can hardly be a surprise that Pellè had a lot of difficulty scoring in his home country, where clubs often field four or five players whose sole task is defending, usually close to their own box. In Holland he showed that he doesn’t regularly score his goals out of a poacher’s cleverness, but in particular out of physical and technical superiority against physically weak or substandard defending players, giving him the opportunity to score an astonishing number of goals.

In the end, Graziano Pellè is a 29-year-old, who has only lived up to his expectations for two seasons out of the last ten, scoring just 90 goals in 261 career matches, of which he scored 55 in his two seasons with Feyenoord. I for one have no doubt that if Pellè gets the time to gel with his new team mates and to get used to his new opposition, Pellè can be a very good striker for a club like Southampton, and the fans will learn to forgive his extravagances on and off the pitch with a smile. This will all depend on whether Ronald Koeman will get the time to implement his intended style of play with Pellè as a key figure and how long he will put his money on his Italian star for his success as a manager abroad.

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