Tommaso Baldanzi: Serie A's Next Top Fantasista
For a country that mastered defending and coaching, Italy has produced an array of fantasisti (no.10s), from Mazzola to Totti, all of whom have weaved their own patch on calcio’s tapestry. Modern football tends to overlook the traditional no.10, driven insane by stats and hooked on money to the point that it’s often seen as a luxury in a game where everyone both defends and attacks.
Where dribbling has given way to progressive passing, the artist has given way to the industrialist. Still, as you might expect, Serie A has raged against the dying of the light with players like Paolo Dybala and Papu Gomez, in the last few years but now there’s a new kid on the block.
Tommaso Baldanzi is the prototypical ‘10’. Short, low centre of gravity, elastic control and enough arrogance to make things happen. At Empoli, he has matured very quickly, going from Primavera to Serie A almost overnight, or so it seemed.
In fact, Baldanzi’s rise has surprised only those who hadn’t already heard of him. Empoli signed at the age of eight, when he was turning out for Castelfiorentino, beating Fiorentina to the punch.
Empoli were just waiting for the right moment to unleash him.
He rose through academy teams with ease, helping Empoli win the U16 national title in 2019 and Primavera (U19) in 2021, where he was named MVP and scored in the final. By that point, he had already spent a decade at Empoli and made his first team debut as a sub in a Coppa Italia game in October 2020. Everyone at Carlo Castellani knew what they had on their hands; they were just waiting for the right moment to unleash him.
Paolo Zanetti, Empoli’s new and exciting young coach, gave Baldanzi his full Serie A debut against Lecce in August 2022 and told the press: “I must have the courage to throw him in.”
A week later, he made his home debut, one that had been eleven years in the making. A chance to line out at Carlo Castellani as a Serie A player. Before long, he lashed one in from 20 yards and pulled off his best Marco Tardelli impression, celebrating wildly. Although he went off injured before half-time, Baldanzi had arrived and nothing could drag him down from cloud nine.
He was back fit before long and ended up playing 27 times, scoring four goals. No assists for the no.10 wearing the 35 shirt, but that leaves him with something to work on as he gets older. Plus, get the goals while you’re young and fit, the assists will flow when you become old and wise.
The current Baldanzi is an intensely quick and direct player. His idol is Paulo Dybala, which makes sense given the physical similarities between the two. Baldanzi’s low centre of gravity and ability to take the ball on the move allows him to draw defenders in before passing to a teammate, or just simply dribble past them like they’re not there.
As fans become ‘consumers’ and the game of football becomes a ‘product’, a player like Baldanzi is why you continue to pay the ever-increasing ticket price. Fans want to be entertained, not by some second rate ‘pop star’, but on the pitch.
Baldanzi is a proper footballer, not merely a physical manifestation of an Excel spreadsheet.
He is the player that kids dream of being when they’re kicking a ball about the street with their mates, attacking with purpose and throwing feints like they’re going out of fashion. Slaloming around players in a shirt that looks like it would fit his father, Tommaso Baldanzi is a proper footballer, not merely a physical manifestation of an Excel spreadsheet.
Don’t be mistaken, his first season of senior football was a baptism of fire, thrown into the colosseum of Serie A and asked to be a key figure in a team that has a credible threat of relegation lingering over it. The season was not without its challenges, and he is far from the finished article, but he thrived more than anyone could have reasonably expected.
His maturity shone through in the summer when playing for Italy U20 at the World Cup. In a team that was tailored to his qualities, Baldanzi came to life as Italy reached the final, only to lose to Uruguay.
While Cesare Casadei ended up with the tournament’s Golden Ball, Baldanzi was the puppet master, pulling the strings as Italy came close to gold. In the quarter-final, he set up two goals either side of an instinctive goal he scored himself, as they beat Colombia 3-1.
At times, he looked a class above, like a player who had just spent a year playing in one of the world’s toughest leagues.. He wasn’t as reserved when passing and rarely seemed to drift, often comfortably able to exceed the pace of the game. Back in Serie A, those levels are surely attainable with more game time and experience.
As much of a football romantic as I might be, it’s hard to see Baldanzi at Empoli beyond the end of this season, certainly if they don’t stay up. In fact, a less level-headed young footballer might have left for a big club this summer. Undoubtedly, he is destined for great things and seems to have the mentality to achieve it. Who knows, maybe he’ll even grow into his jersey as time passes.