Stereotypes get a bad rep. Lazy they may be on occasion, but they can occasionally be useful as a sort of social shorthand.
Italians defend. Serie A is just as entertaining as any of the other major leagues, as the numbers will bear out, but it will take a lot more than statistics to break down that time-worn truth. Especially when the sight of a snarling, bloodied Giorgio Chiellini is ubiquitous on Champions League nights.
So when William Troost-Ekong sealed a move to Italy last summer, it was considered a 'win'. Unable to make the grade at Tottenham Hotspur, the 25-year-old has had to beat a rather more circuitous path to the top, learning on his feet as he went: through Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Turkey.
Per the received wisdom, Italy would be the finishing school, almost as though the exhalations of the great Italian defenders hangs thick in the air like a mist, or like dew to soak in. Udinese had stability, both in terms of ownership and league status, and had in the recent past developed Medhi Benatia into one of the most sought-after centre-backs in the world. It was perfect.
The reality, however, has been less idyllic.
Ekong has been an ever-present so far this season for Le Zebrette, starting all 23 league games so far. In that span, he has worked with two different managers – Julio Velazquez and now, Davide Di Nicola – and has almost undeniably improved as a defender.
His positional sense, for one thing, is much better than it was when he arrived. Having previously struggled with the movements of strikers into wide areas or when dropping into midfield, he now judges the situation much better, knowing when to pass his man on and communicating accordingly.
Much better positional awareness from Troost-Ekong so far than earlier in the season, when the likes of Roberto Inglese were dragging him all over the shop with clever movement.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) March 17, 2019
His performance on Sunday against Napoli saw him largely stifle the in-form Arkadiusz Milik, forcing the striker into midfield to get on the ball. The Pole is the top scorer for Carlo Ancelotti's men, and is enjoying a tremendous season as the lynchpin of their attack; it was no easy task neutralizing him.
And yet, he scored, as did three other players. Napoli ran out 4-2 winners on the night, the first and fourth goals so hauntingly similar, albeit from opposite flanks: Amin Younes curling in from the left side of the penalty area, Dries Mertens mirroring the finish on the right.
Very good half, slightly overshadowed by the Ospina head injury.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) March 17, 2019
Ekong has done alright, even though I feel like this isn't his best role. Has picked his moments to jump in and engage quite well, and Milik is getting very little joy playing up against him.
It served to encapsulate the circumstances under which Ekong has come on in Italy.
Udinese have kept just seven clean sheets in the league all season, and are currently a point clear of the relegation zone.
The blame can be levied at a poor transfer policy: there is a real dearth of quality in defence for Di Nicola's side. He was forced to play Rolando Mandragora (a midfielder) and Jens Stryger Larsen (a full-back) alongside Ekong against Napoli, but even with the full complement at the back, Bram Nuytinck is hardly reliable and Ghana's Nicholas Opoku has had a poor season since joining last summer.
The upshot of this is that Ekong has been thrown in at the deep end and asked to swim. As a didactic method, it is a brutal one, and carries an apparent risk: it could very well break the player who proves weak-minded.
Instead, in his very first season in a new league and a new club, he has frequently been one of the few defenders to emerge with any credit, keeping his head while all around him lose theirs.
This makes the development of the Nigeria international all the more impressive. Modern footballers increasingly demand the perfect conditions in order to enact their absolute best, and so he feels like a bit of a throw-back. He defends like one too—heart on his sleeve, full on.
By no means is he the perfect specimen, but the process of refinement has been interesting to observe. More measured, more considered, and now a better communicator, he is starting to look the part of a leader at the back.
While his maiden season in Italy has been tough, Troost's experiences should serve him well when he returns to the international sphere with Nigeria this weekend.
The Super Eagles will face stern challenges - and the continent's best strikers - in Egypt this summer, and Ekong's growing influence should be a key cornerstone of Gernot Rohr's young Nigeria collective.