As a commentator I’m always conscious of not over-using certain adjectives, and saving them for when most truly appropriate, so as not to lessen their impact.
When describing an in-form centre-forward there can always be the temptation to refer to them as ‘deadly’ – yet it’s a word that, in my view should only be used to describe the most clinical and consistent of centre-forwards – a bracket which Mauro Icardi fits very nearly in to. In fact, I’d go far as to say he is one of European football’s most-underrated players, and the best out-and-out centre-forward in world football right now.
Now, my latter assertion is admittedly a big claim, and one that will have many of you shouting out names like Kane, Aguero, Lewandowski, Suarez, Higauin, Aubameyang, Griezmann and Cavani. All of them are fine players, but having watched Icardi closely for several years, I can honestly say that, excluding Messi and Ronaldo, I haven’t seen a better finisher in that time.
Arguably Icardi’s greatest strength is how few chances he needs to score a goal – something so well evidenced by his hat-trick in the Milan derby back in October. Serie A’s 2nd highest scorer, Icardi has a shot accuracy of 71% (source Squawka) in Italy’s top-flight this season – compare that with some of his fellow top-forwards – Kane’s is 54%, Lewandowski’s is 55%, Aubameyang’s is 56% – also a way off that percentage are Messi (57%) and Ronaldo (44%). Even under Roberto Mancini the season before last, when Inter had a reputation as being more conservative and pragmatic, when chances for Icardi were less frequent, he still managed a goal/game ratio of just under 1 in 2.
The next thing I’d point out is his consistency. Be it in an Inter side hovering around the Europa League places, or one challenging for the Scudetto as they are right now, Icardi has been a reliable source of goals for several seasons. One goal short of 100 in Serie A now, he’s managed 89 in 145 league appearances for Inter. In his last 54 league appearances, Icardi has scored 42 goals – and he’s never gone more than two league games without a goal this season.
These are very impressive numbers – and you don’t need to watch Icardi play for long to begin to admire his movement, positioning, alertness to an opportunity and his finishing – four key attributes for any top centre-forward, and he’s world-class in all of them. Mentality may be an unseen quality, but that’s also very important to appreciate with Icardi – a player very confident in his own ability, unfazed by captaining one of Italy’s biggest clubs, not overly distracted by off-field dramas (there have been a few) and increasingly fond of the big occasion. He is also no flat-track-bully – last season he scored against Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Milan and Fiorentina, amongst others.
So why then is a player this good underrated? Well, I think there are several reasons – some of them valid, including the first one I’ll reference – his lack of Champions League exposure. He’s yet to make his debut in that competition, and so prestigious has it become that it’s difficult to be judged as a world-class talent without playing in it.
Icardi chose to leave Barcelona for Italy in 2011, but I think it also goes against him that he doesn’t play right now in Spain or England. Serie A is a brilliant league, and very much on the up, but rightly or wrongly it doesn’t currently have the same world-wide profile of the Spanish and English top-flights.
The Argentina national side certainly does attract plenty of attention, and will do even more so with a World Cup coming up on the horizon. The problem is that Icardi is far from certain of a place in the squad that will travel to Russia. Competition is clearly intense with players like Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Dybala also available to Jorge Sampaoli, but it is still something of a sporting travesty that Icardi has reached the age of 24 and only been capped four-times by his country – three of those appearances coming in the last twelve months.
There is a theory that his face just doesn’t fit when it comes to Argentina, and that’s partly explained away by the baggage that Icardi’s carried around for many years relating to his former teammate Maxi Lopez, the ex-husband of Icardi’s wife Wanda Nara. Whether that theory holds water or not is open to speculation, as is how damaging to Icardi’s chances of being judged a top player that episode has been – not to mention a controversial autobiography and disagreements with his own supporters.
It’s almost undeniable that potential suitors would see him as an off-the-field risk – and that may have put off club’s currently in Europe’s very top-bracket – but I think it’s also important to note that Icardi really doesn’t seem to want to leave Inter, and it may well be that he finally earns the credit I believe he deserves when the club that he’s remained loyal to returns to the top table of European football, something that could be just around the corner.