Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 5

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyze a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Amadou Diawara

Age: 22

Club: Roma

On February 15, 2017, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli paid a visit to the defending European champions: Real Madrid. Going up against a star-studded Galáctico side, Amadou Diawara, the only teenager on the pitch, conducted a masterclass at the base of midfield. The Guinean player passed with precision and aggression, evaded pressure with silky-smooth hip swivels, and consistently wrestled back possession from opposition players. He broke the lines with the waywardness and bravado of a Jackson Pollock painting, weaving the masterpiece together at a frighteningly powerful pace. The secret was finally out: Diawara, who had arrived for €15 million from Bologna just six months prior, was ready for the big leagues.

Since they began working together in the summer of 2016, Jorginho has always been one of Maurizio Sarri’s favorite players, so much so that when Sarri left Napoli for Chelsea in 2018, he followed in quick submission. But when it came to big matches like Lazio, Inter and Real Madrid in 2016/17, Sarri always went with Diawara in the starting line-up at Jorginho’s expense.

Today, he is a key figure in Paulo Fonseca’s Roma midfield, and if he continues his progression at this rate, there’ll be no shortage of suitors for him come next summer. It hasn’t been the easiest start for Diawara’s career, but he now finds himself among the most promising defensive midfielders in Europe.

Humble Beginnings

Growing up in Conakry, Guinea, Diawara wasn’t just tasked with impressing the European scouts who came to watch youth matches; he also had to learn the game whilst hiding it from his family. His father, a mathematics teacher, and his mother wanted him to pursue a different life avenue. Their condemnation of football was so strong that after matches, Diawara showered at his friends’ houses to avoid his parents taking notice of his new hobby. He didn’t even join a football academy until he was 10 years old, and his eldest sister Sira had to purchase him his first set of cleats. When he was 14, he decided to reveal his secret passion to his father, and in response, got a beating. But even the faintest of efforts could not prevent his father from getting in the way of his dream.

With neither the support of his father or the comfort of his mother, who tragically passed away one year before he moved to Italy, Diawara chased his dream. Eventually, he caught the eye of scout Numeku Tounkara, who convinced agent Robert Visan to bring him to the Corvino Soccer Academy, managed by the illustrious scout Pantaleo Corvino. He impressed during his seven-day trial, and at the end of the week, Corvino promised to bring him to a club as soon as possible. The deal was done, and Diawara finally got the boost his career had been waiting on. When he left Guinea for the first time in his life, he brought nothing with him besides a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. The first paycheck he ever received in Europe, he used it to buy a pair of new cleats.

Diawara started off polishing his skills at amateur club Virtus Enella, but Visan soon moved him to San Marino, playing in Italy’s third tier, in order for him to begin his senior career. He racked up 15 appearances for San Marino, and four months after making his debut for the club, joined Bologna for €600,000. Corvino, who had assumed the position of the club’s sporting director in January, remained true to his word, and delivered him to the top level.

He made his debut on Bologna’s season opener against Lazio, coming on as a late substitute, but it didn’t take long for him to became a fixed part of the XI. Three matches later, he wrestled Lorenzo Crisetig’s starting spot away, becoming the first-choice holding midfielder under Delio Rossi and Roberto Donadoni shortly after. He was a fundamental pillar behind Bologna’s survival in the 2015/16 season, and he demanded to be paid like it. Having earned €75,000 in the first season of his professional career, Diawara demanded a substantial increase to €1,000,000; club president Joey Saputo was only willing to offer €600,000.

In order to fulfill his desire to leave, Diawara rebelled against the club. He didn’t show up to the pre-season retreat in Castelrotto, Sardinia, instead deciding to stay put in his home country. Despite attracting interest from the likes of Valencia, Chelsea and Nice, it was Napoli who secured his services. In a summer that saw Piotr Zieliński, Arkadiusz Milik and Marko Rog, among others, join the club, Diawara was the icing on the cake, arriving on the final week of the window.

Evolution (and Devolution) at Napoli

It would take Diawara nearly two months to make his complete debut, with Sarri being reluctant to play him over Marek Hamšík, Allan, Jorginho and Zieliński. Bit by bit though, he began to gain the Italian manager’s trust, gaining the nod over Jorginho in important clashes such as Dynamo Kyiv, Inter, and Benfica. He passed the eye test with flying colors, impressing with his lethal mix of upper-body strength and anticipation, his bravery on the ball, and his laser-guided passing. It was that essence of taking necessary risks and keeping the flow of possession ticking that defined Sarri’s Partenopei side, even if Jorginho kept his starting spot during most of the matches. Diawara presented an upgrade defensively, offering a more physical, positionally secure option off the ball. 

Such was the level of his performances under Sarri that Italy manager Giampiero Ventura tried to recruit him to switch allegiances. Diawara secured Italian citizenship in March 2018, and previously gave the impression of being open to a switch, rejecting several call-ups to Guinea’s senior team. But he changed his tune 7 months later following a conversation with Liverpool’s Naby Keïta, and decided to play for Guinea.

Diawara’s performances took a turn for the worse in the 2017/18 season, as he simply didn’t have the right characteristics to fill in for the irreplaceable Jorginho. Sarri’s stubbornness in refusing to rotate his first-choice starting XI was what precipitated his downfall at Napoli, but in his defense, the performances of Diawara and co. did not give him much of a choice. Napoli constantly struggled in Jorginho’s absence, and by the time the home stretch of the title race began, the Azzurri midfielder was mentally and physically worn out.

As club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis mulled over how to replace Jorginho, a key asset behind Napoli’s success over the past three years, he considered multiple names: Lucas Torreira, Milan Badelj, and Leandro Paredes, but ended up not signing a single player for this position. Instead, he brought in attacking midfielder Fabián Ruiz from Real Betis, who would become a key part in Carlo Ancelotti’s team. Diawara, on the other hand, would not see his fortunes improve under the new manager.

Napoli sounded out offers for him, initially demanding a fee of €50 million. But nobody ventured to pay such a monumental fee for a player going through a year of bad form, and he remained at the club until the summer. It would be then that the club decided to cash in on Diawara, swapping him plus €16 million for Roma’s Kostas Manolas.

Reinvention in Roma

It seemed like an ideal trade; Napoli were finally getting a proven defensive partner for Kalidou Koulibaly, whilst Roma were getting a Daniele De Rossi replacement. Here was a player that could fill a similar role to that of Fred under Paulo Fonseca during their time together at Shakhtar.

Diawara’s time at Roma didn’t get off to an ideal start, the player finding himself below Lorenzo Pellegrini, Bryan Cristante and Jordan Veretout in Fonseca’s pecking order. When he did finally start to gain minutes on a consistent basis at the start of October, he ended up injuring his meniscus, and spent seven weeks on the sidelines. However, since returning from injury in a 3-0 victory against Brescia, he has started six out of six matches for Roma. He’s chipped in a monumental performance against Inter and has been a vital part of their turnaround in form; Roma have won 14 out of a possible 18 points since his return.

Next Big Move?

Despite being criminally underutilized by both Sarri and Ancelotti, Diawara has found an ideal haven for his development, and at 22, looks ready to take the next big step up in his career. Barcelona need to sign a long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets, and Diawara might just be the medicine that the doctor ordered.

Bayern Munich, who, compounded by Thiago’s weak performances this season and Javi Martínez being on the wrong end of 30, are in desperate need of a holding midfielder, could do a lot worse than to consider him as an option. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United would do well to make inquiries into the Guinean’s availability, as both clubs attempt to recraft their midfields in 2020.

Whatever the case, Diawara is reaping the rewards of a dream that he refused to give up chasing, and he won’t slow down until he’s finally reached the top.

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