Stefano Sensi’s Azzurri debut may have been a surprise to some as he was absent from Italy U21s, made only three appearances for Italy’s U19 side and only one appearance at U17 level. The pint-sized midfield maestro began his career in Rimini on the Adriatic Coast before joining Cesena and spending a short stint on loan in San Marino. His performances at Cesena earned interest from Sassuolo as the former fought to keep him while the two sides agreed a loan deal before Sassuolo would pay a meagre 5 million euros for his services. The midfielder is suited the European vortex of football as a balletic, playmaking and defensively aware bundle of energy in Sassuolo and Italy’s midfield.
The Italian midfield maestro’s ability to create combinations to work the ball out of pressure allows him to be one of the most press resistant midfielders in European football. The lithe midfield distributor possesses a low centre of gravity to receive the ball to twist and turn out of pressure as it is difficult for opposition midfielders to tackle him. In a match away to Fiorentina in the 2016/17 season, the home side used him as the pressing trigger but Sassuolo still exerted control on the game. He worked combinations with fellow midfielder, Antonino Ragusa to play the ball out of pressure and create opportunities.
Sensi has played as a defensive midfield pivote at the base of the Sassuolo midfield while he is also adept in a creative box to box role. At the base of midfield, with every touch of the ball, Sassuolo seem a more incisive team as Sensi is gifted at threading through balls into the final third while also pinging diagonal passes to the flank. In a box to box role, he positions himself in between the lines to receive passes and adroitly turn to work combinations and create goalscoring opportunities. In the box to box role, he will also lead the pressure and counter-pressure phase, pushing ahead of the striker to press the centre-backs while shielding his zone in midfield.
Against Sassuolo in late December last year, Sensi played chips into Alessandro Matri as his side should have shown more patience to funnel possession through the midfielder. He played through the Italian striker to miss as Sassuolo were 2-0 down at half-time. In the second-half, every time that the pint-sized Italian midfielder received possession, his side looked like having a critical opportunity on goal as they were eventually thrashed 6-2 by Atalanta in a tremendous Papu Gomez performance. He played at the base of midfield against Inter Milan as he thrived at working balls through the lines. He once took on a pass from the left flank, to set his body like he was going to play a diagonal to the right flank, so Joao Mario could move a few yards out of position before rolling a disguised pass into Alfred Duncan in the central pockets to spread a pass out wide.
He then played a pass to Pol Lirola out wide before the Spanish fullback worked a pass back to him for Sensi to control the pass with his left foot and thread a ball through to the central channels with his right. Sensi and the right-back worked fluid interchanges to evade pressure on multiple occasions as the Spaniard once worked a pass into the Italian midfield orchestrator to trigger pressure from Joao Mario and Ivan Perisic before the Italian flicked the ball back to his fullback without turning around for Lirola to burst forward.
The Italian mostly operates with his right foot but is comfortable receiving the ball with left foot which is a great benefit to his playing style. Against Inter, he was deputising at right-back to cover for Lirola as he trapped a high ball with his left foot to play a pass to Lirola with Joao Mario pressing him, he then took on a pass from Lirola to work a ball to Filip Djuricic in between the lines.
When he rolls passes through the lines, the weighting is precise for teammates to open their body to receive them and utilise the space in the final third. Sensi has a multi-faceted mastery in press resistance as he manages to constantly find space under pressure while his calm and efficiency in working the ball, allows Sassuolo to construct play through the centre. He had a situation where he charged forward to intercept a Joao Mario through ball as his Portuguese opponent moved to pressure him for Sensi to play a quick pass through the lines to Duncan as the Ghanaian played the ball back to Sensi who threaded a pass for Locatelli on the break.
In an away match against Fiorentina, Sensi played in a box to box role with Francesco Magnanelli at the base of midfield. The 23-year-old constantly showed for the ball in between the lines and managed to work creative link-up play in the final third to create opportunities. Towards the end of the first-half, Sensi received the ball in between the lines to play a one-two with Domenico Berardi in order to have a shot saved by the keeper. As Sassuolo were counter-pressing in another situation, he was positioned perfectly to regain possession, cleverly spin and employ a turn of pace in order to beat his fullback as he was face to face with his marker on the left-flank to play a pass to Rogerio through the legs of his marker.
Early in the first half, Sensi had a moment where he took on a Lirola cross in the box to drive to the wide right edge of the box to turn past a defender who could not lunge on him in fear of conceding a penalty before he cut-back to leave another defender sliding into the advertising hoarding as his lob into the box was cleared by another defender. Sensi managed to turn his technical mastery in the final third into an assist as he flicked a throw-in to Khouma Babacar to swivel past his marker and take on a pass from the Senegalese forward before he played a pass to Berardi and continued his run into the box for the Italian striker to sweep a shot into the goal. Roberto De Zerbi once exclaimed that with the ball at his feet, Sensi can do ‘whatever he wants’.
“In the middle of midfield, I feel at ease, it is a tactically particular area because we must first understand the movements of the opponents and I must be careful to not lose the ball. This was a fundamental year for me and I was lucky enough to discover Mr. De Zerbi, thanks to him and his way of thinking, I managed to make it as much as possible,” said Sensi to the Gazzetta di Modena in February.
Sensi is a master of evading pressure and creating incisive movements in the final third as these facets of play are integral to high-pressing and rigid medium to low block structures of modern-day football. To be risk averse as a midfielder who can play a variety of roles is important especially as Italy begin to assimilate to a more proactive style of play at international level. A diminutive midfield maestro passing and wriggling his way out of the grasp of opponents twice his size is entertaining to watch as Sensi plays with poise and a proficiency of the fundamentals of modern - day midfield play. Sassuolo have become a mainstay in Serie A due to cost-effective recruitment and shrewd managerial appointments as acquiring Sensi for a steal and pairing him with De Zerbi is another example of their intelligent business model.