COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Ola Aina’s decision to swap the hustle and bustle of London for Turin in the summer signified his ambition and desire to take his game to another level.
Having impressed on his loan spell in Yorkshire with Hull City, the natural step was either to fight for his place in the Chelsea squad under Maurizio Sarri or seek another temporary spell on the road, and away from his parent club.
Following a frustrating summer that saw him get only 17 minutes of game time in pre-season – in the Blues’ 1-0 victory over Perth Glory – under Sarri, the youngster probably took the best step, electing to further his development under Walter Mazzarri at Torino.
It was a smart move, when you consider the full-back would have had Cesar Azpilicueta and Davide Zappacosta to contend with in his preferred role on the right, while Marcos Alonso and Emerson Palmieri would’ve been roadblocks for a left berth.
Considering how events have panned out since August, and considering how impressive he’s been for The Bull so far this season, his decision has been justified. His adeptness in both full-back roles has proved helpful for Il Toro as well, and the Chelsea loanee has been deployed at right and left wing-back in Mazzarri’s favoured 3-5-2 formation.
The 22-year-old’s versatility means he has no qualms occupying both wide positions, electing to focus on his overall improvement as a player, especially in the tactical aspects.
"I have played both left and right whenever I am called upon," Aina told Goal. "I don't think it is a problem and I enjoy it as well.
"Chelsea agreed it would be good for my development to focus on the tactical side.”
When examined more closely, Aina's better performances for Torino have been in his less-favored role on the left flank, as opposed to the right.
In his 10 appearances (seven starts and three substitute appearances), four have been at right wing-back, and he’s played poorly in every one. When you also consider his poor performances at right-back for Nigeria in the double-header against Libya in October, it only fuels the narrative that he plays better on the left side.
It was a similar story on Sunday when, playing on the left side, he contributed an assist as Torino thumped Sampdoria 4-1 away from home.
If he does continue in the same vein till next summer, you wonder how much of a chance he will have at breaking into Sarri’s side. Getting a look in at left-back with the incumbent Marcos Alonso, the defender with most chances created in the Premier League this season, playing as well as he is at the moment might be a tough ask, while it’s also not in the current head coach’s nature to utilize inverted full-backs in his system.
In all honesty, a role on the right does look a bit more feasible given the struggles of Azpilicueta and Zappacosta this term.
The Spaniard has looked shaky defensively, while not offering much going forward. Zappacosta, on the other hand, offers more in the attacking third but isn’t the best in defensive situations. You also sense the Italian has never really settled in London and his days at the Bridge may be numbered.
Aina might be a beneficiary of the Italian’s departure, as well as Sarri’s keenness for player development, as opposed to dipping into the transfer market to plug holes in his teams. The defender does seem to have a medium-to-high ceiling and could yet make the grade at the West London club provided he keeps improving, especially without the ball.
His lapses in defensive situations were apparent for the Super Eagles in the Libya games in that he seemed sluggish returning to position and was caught out time and again against the Mediterranean Knights. However, he's fast emerging as a solution to the problematic left-back spot that's continually been an issue under Gernot Rohr.
Elderson Echiejile was unconvincing in the role for years, and Brian Idowu never really pushed on from his impressive debut against Argentina in November 2017 – a game the West Africans won 4-2. Paderborn’s Jamilu Collins has, very recently, been entrusted with filling in at left-back, but it’s still too early to appraise him in the role.
Taking advantage of the in-form Aina on the left may prove to be masterstroke by the German tactician, and it won’t be illogical on his part. It’s also not going to be uncharted for the tactician given he gave the full-back his debut, in a World Cup qualifier against Zambia, on the left and the untried defender showed a few promising signs, especially in the attacking third.
Granted, there’s a certain level of balance with having players play on the wing that favours their stronger foot, but the fact that Nigeria currently lack the required quality in that position might eventually force Rohr into a decision.
And who knows, the ever improving Aina may just prove to be the left-back the Super Eagles have craved for years.