The Blues' loan system is well documented, but sending the young Nigeria international to the modest midtable Serie A side was unexpected: Italy is not typically a destination the club has favoured, and neither is a destination that Nigerian footballers have frequented down the years.
Taribo West made the upper echelon of the league his oyster in the late 90s, playing for both Milan clubs, and Obafemi Martins famously shot to prominence with Internazionale. For a time, Joel Obi was at Torino, although his spell there was punctuated regularly by injury. Still, as a choice, it is far off the beaten path.
It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to see young Aina not only crack the starting 11 consistently, but impress. Some of that was to do with the system: under Walter Mazarri, I Granata play an expansive 3-4-1-2, and the 22-year-old’s ability to play as a wing-back on either flank has seen him rack up 32 Serie A appearances (22 of those starts), scoring once and assisting thrice.
This was enough to convince Torino to exercise the purchase option in his loan contract, with a view to taking the next step in Serie A: snagging a place in Europe.
Interestingly, no team outside the top two lost fewer matches overall but, especially on the road, Mazarri’s side struggled to turn draws into victories, tying a staggering 15 times – 39 percent of their league fixtures. Still, they finished only three points short of a Europa League spot, their 4-1 humbling in the penultimate game of the season against Empoli proving terminal.
For all that, there is a remarkable consistency to their game, and Aina is central to that.
Torino are a physical side based around hard running, aerial duels (they won 22.5 aerial duels per game last season, second in volume only to Cagliari) and direct attacking (14th in average pass completion, ninth in average possession); Aina, coming in marginally under six feet in height and burly, fits the club’s ethos perfectly.
His speed also aids their in-your-face style: Torino were third in the league for interceptions, and committed the most fouls in Serie A.
If Torino are to make the jump into the European places, they will need to up their attacking output while maintaining defensive solidity. Aina, eminently capable going forward, will be important to that.
It certainly makes a change from Chelsea, where talent has come to be treated almost with a complacent shrug, and where, even with a looming transfer ban, there is still no clarity as to what the composition of the squad will be come August.
Whereas it seemed like it might open a window of opportunity, Aina opting to not wait around anymore is almost a pointed message, and an embracing of the wisdom in taking the bird in the hand.
With his future squared away, this bird is now expected to take to the sky, starting in Egypt next week. Nigeria’s hopes at the Africa Cup of Nations rest entirely on a young, exciting crop, and while his versatility on either flank means he is the first deputy for left-back Jamilu Collins, recent reports suggest Aina has earned the starting berth at right-back.
It has not always been apparent that he should have that spot, however. In fact, Aina has yet to have a truly great game with the Super Eagles: his most recent outings, the two legs against Libya in the qualifiers, were objectively underwhelming, and his tentative play was culpable in the laxity that saw Nigeria squander a two-goal lead in the away leg.
Hopefully, the new theme of stability in his club career will percolate into his international career. If it does, it could open up new avenues in attack, and launch Aina as a proper weapon in the green and white.