“No one wants to be a full-back as a kid, no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville.”
It’s been over seven years since Jamie Carragher’s derisive comment of his former England teammate and current colleague at Sky Sports, but there is still an element of truth to his statement. Whilst millions of children grow up dreaming of becoming professional full-backs, few players aspire to be the next Gary Neville, a player famed for his tenacity, aggressive style and work ethic, but not particularly technical ability and close control. Instead, many aspiring full-backs look to base their game on attack-minded defenders such as Dani Alves, Marcelo, and Ashley Cole.
As more teams switch to three-at-the-back systems, as full-backs in back-four defences are given more and more attacking responsibility, as rule changes and VAR help to protect wingers and forwards from contentious fouls, the combative, tough-tackling full-back of Neville’s ilk is fading away. Neville himself admitted last year: “If I played now as a full-back against the types of players we’ve now got in the game, I would find it a lot more difficult. The speed of them is absolutely incredible now.”
Indeed, as teams across Europe continue to place a premium on attack-minded full-backs, defensive full-backs have waned in importance and prominence. César Azpilicueta, a player renowned more for his versatility and anticipation than his pace and panache, has been gradually phased out at Chelsea this season, with Frank Lampard ushering in 20-year-old Reece James into the side. Nélson Semedo was offloaded to Wolverhampton Wanderers this summer, with Barcelona bringing in the younger, technically gifted Sergiño Dest from Ajax. And despite boasting some of the best tackling statistics in Europe, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s lack of offensive production has led many to question whether Manchester United have gotten their money’s worth since splurging £50 million to sign him from Crystal Palace.
One of the members of this dying breed of old-fashioned full-backs is Elseid Hysaj. Despite being better at defending his own box than attacking the opposition’s box, Hysaj has amassed 157 appearances for Napoli and become the youngest ever player to captain Albania’s national team. As he approaches his 27th birthday, he could very well find himself on the radar for several European clubs in 2021.
Humble Beginnings in Albania and Empoli
Two months after Hysaj’s birth in Reç, Malësi e Madhe, Albania, his father Gëzim left for Italy, where he would perform odd jobs and brave the perilous trip across the Adriatic Sea in order to send money back home to his family. As his father struggled to make ends meet as an undocumented worker in Italy, Hysaj began his footballing career at the age of seven at local side Klubi I Futbollit Vllaznia Shkodër, whilst living with his mother and grandparents.
In the summer of 2004, Gëzim found himself working as a bricklayer in the house of prominent agent Marco Piccioli. He asked the Italian intermediary if he could find a club for his 10-year-old son; Piccioli gave a tongue-in-cheek response, telling him to come back in four or five years.
Four years later, Gëzim returned and approached Piccioli about his previous promise. True to his word, Piccioli arranged a trial with Fiorentina, but due to bureaucratic rules regarding the children of immigrants in Italy, the move fell through. Nevertheless, Hysaj fell on his feet, joining Empoli’s academy, where he quickly progressed through the youth ranks before making his debut in a Coppa Italia match against Fiorentina on November 24, 2011. Having played the full 90 minutes in a 2-1 loss, Hysaj would spend the rest of the season with the reserve side, but his fortunes would soon change.
After narrowly defeating Vicenza in the relegation play-off to stay afloat in Serie B, Empoli sacked manager Alfredo Aglietti and brought in a little-known manager by the name of Maurizio Sarri. Sarri gave the 18-year-old Hysaj his Serie B debut in a 3-0 victory against Virtus Lanciano, and Hysaj soon became one of the first names on his team sheet, impressing at both right-back and left-back as Gli Azzurri finished 4th in the league, advancing to the promotion play-offs where they would lose to Livorno.
Hysaj went from strength to strength under Sarri, scoring his first professional goal in a 2-1 loss to Virtus Lanciano and becoming a regular squad member under Albania manager Gianni De Biasi. He later revealed that he was approached by the Italian Football Federation but rejected them to play for the country of his birth. After the bitter disappointment against Livorno, Empoli finished second in the league and earned promotion to the top flight, ending a six-year spell in Serie B.
Widely tipped for relegation, Empoli finished 15th in Serie A in the 2014/15 season, and they did so in style, boasting a dynamic, free-flowing style of football and an impressive crop of youngsters ranging from Matías Vecino, Simone Verdi, Mário Rui and Hysaj. It wasn’t long before Italy’s big fish came knocking at the door; Sarri left Tuscany and headed for his birth city of Napoli, and he brought Hysaj with him.
Coming-of-Age in Napoli
After arriving on a five-year contract for a reported fee of €5 million, Hysaj quickly displaced veteran right-back, Christian Maggio, in the team. Sarri ditched the 4-3-1-2 that had paid dividends at Empoli and switched to a 4-3-3. This system placed a strong emphasis on building through the left flank, with left-back Faouzi Ghoulam bombing forward and combining with his attacking teammates, Dries Mertens and Marek Hamšík exchanging positions in the final third, and José Callejón pinning back the opposing left-back and waiting to exploit switches of play. In turn, Hysaj adopted a conservative position in possession, almost acting like a right-sided centre-back.
In sharp contrast to Ghoulam, who registered 2 goals and 17 assists until suffering a season-ending knee injury in November 2017, Hysaj cut a far more reserved figure on the opposite flank, recording three assists in three seasons under Sarri at Napoli. Indeed, during the 2017/18 Serie A campaign, 46% of Napoli’s attacks came down the left flank as opposed to 29% on the right. Nevertheless, Hysaj rose to prominence at the San Paolo on account of his disciplined defending, positional intelligence, and brilliant anticipation.
It worked like magic. Having placed fifth in their final season under Rafael Benítez, Napoli finished second in Serie A on the back of a 36-goal season from Gonzalo Higuaín. Hysaj joined up with the Albania national team at the end of the campaign, becoming the youngest player to wear the armband for Shqiponjat in a 3-1 victory against Qatar, before playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland — the first European Championship match in Albania’s history.
The following match saw Albania take on France at the Stade Vélodrome. Not only was Hysaj composed and assured in defence, he was just as good in attack; in fact, he nearly created a goal with a lovely whipped in cross, but Ledian Memushaj’s effort bounced off the bar. France would go on to eliminate Albania from the group stage via two late goals from Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet, but Di Biasi’s side secured a win in their final match against Romania. Alongside Joshua Kimmich, Arkadiusz Milik and Ondřej Duda, Hysaj was included in the short-list for Best Young Player of the tournament, although Renato Sanches would go on to claim the award after winning the Euros with Portugal.
Hysaj continued to establish himself as one of the best young right-backs in Europe, playing a leading role in two title challenges that ultimately fell short against Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus. Despite never winning a trophy, Sarri’s Napoli were the talk of the town, and soon enough, Europe’s biggest clubs came knocking. After coming to blows with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, Sarri left Italy for the first time in his career and headed for London, where he would replace his compatriot Antonio Conte as Chelsea manager.
Chelsea successfully completed a £57 million deal for Jorginho, who had served as the midfield metronome at the base of Napoli’s 4-3-3, but when they lodged a £43 million (€50 million) bid for Hysaj, De Laurentiis refused to even pick up the phone and negotiate. Sarri was forced to settle for Azpilicueta at right-back, whilst Hysaj was forced to adapt to a new manager’s style of play for the first time in six years.
Struggles under Ancelotti, Rebirth under Gattuso
With Sarri and De Laurentiis nearing an ugly divorce at the San Paolo, Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Napoli manager on May 23, 2018. Whilst Hysaj began the season as the undisputed first-choice right-back, he found himself gradually displaced from the line-up by Nikola Maksimović, a center back by trade, and Kévin Malcuit, an attack-minded full-back who had arrived in the summer from Saint-Ètienne.
His fortunes worsened when Napoli announced the signing of Giovanni Di Lorenzo for €8 million. Di Lorenzo had joined on a five-year contract from Empoli — Hysaj’s former club — and he quickly cemented a starting spot under Ancelotti. Through the first half of the 2019/10 season, Hysaj played more minutes for Edoardo Reja’s Albania team (290) than Ancelotti’s Napoli (228). Despite the bleak situation, Albania Football Association President Armand Duka argued that Hysaj should stay put in Napoli.
“Hysaj deserves to play but for me he should not leave in January, because it will be Ancelotti who will depart,” said Duka in November.
As it turns out, Duka’s prognostication would soon come to fruition. With the Partenopei sitting 7th in the table and trailing Sarri’s Juventus by 17 points, Ancelotti was given his marching orders on December 11. He was replaced by his former player Gennaro Gattuso, who had previously spent 18 months in charge of Milan before departing the club by mutual consent. Under Gattuso’s reign, Hysaj has gone from fringe player to a key first-team performer, impressing at both the right-back and left-back position and gradually regaining confidence and form. However, despite bouncing back from his arduous spell under Ancelotti, Hysaj faces a crossroads in his career as he approaches his 27th birthday.
Hysaj’s contract expires on June 30, but up until now, the two parties have not come close to agreeing an extension. His agent, Mario Giuffredi, said on October 26: “I’ve been running after Napoli for two years to have a renewal and now I am tired. If Napoli make the right proposal, Hysaj will stay, otherwise, he will sign with whoever he wants in three months. He shouldn’t only stay for Gattuso, Napoli must believe in him.”
Whilst there have been rumors of a two-year extension at Napoli, it is equally probable that Hysaj runs down his contract in order to secure the last big paycheck of his prime. The Albania captain is free to negotiate a pre-contract in just four weeks, and although De Laurentiis recently turned down a bid of €7 million from Spartak Moscow, with the Napoli owner holding out for a fee in the region of €15 million, he may be forced to sell Hysaj for pennies on the dollar in January.
Two and a half years after rejecting a bid of €50 million from Chelsea, De Laurentiis runs the risk of losing him for free. Hysaj is looking for a hefty pay raise from his current annual wages of €1.6 million, and his reported wage demands of €3 million exceed Napoli’s reported offer of €2.5 million. Milan are rumored to be a potential landing spot for him, with Diogo Dalot’s loan spell set to expire next summer, Andrea Conti continuing to struggle with injuries, and Davide Calabria failing to convince at right-back. He has also been linked to a summer move to Roma, who have made ample use of free transfers in recent years with the signings of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pedro Rodríguez and Iván Marcano. With Bruno Peres’ contract set to expire and Davide Santon becoming increasingly injury-prone, Hysaj could find himself competing with Rick Karsdorp for the right wing-back position, although he could also adopt a similar position to Azpilicueta under Conte and play as a right-sided center back in the 3-4-2-1, which Roma manager Paulo Fonseca has adopted this season after ditching his trademark 4-2-3-1 formation.
There is, however, another option up his sleeve. Maurizio Sarri has been out of a job since being relieved of his duties by Juventus on August 8, but there is reason to believe that he will find a new project by next summer. Hysaj could wait until the end of the season to make a decision on his future, before reuniting with the man who launched his career and made him into the player he is today.
It remains to be seen if he will negotiate a contract extension or seek greener pastures, but one thing’s for certain; whilst attack-minded full-backs have gone from being in vogue to being outright necessities for most clubs at the top level, Hysaj is evidence that traditional, no-nonsense full-backs still have a place in today’s game.