There exists an Atlético Madrid player who - at different points of his career - has earned comparisons to Thierry Henry and Arjen Robben. As a boy, he was the jewel of the academy at one of the most respected and most valuable clubs in the world. Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur once competed for his signature. He is the subject any number of “Goals/Skills/Assists” YouTube montages, all of which are unfailingly set to terrible EDM music. One such montage is titled “Super Star,” with two lightning bolt emojis surrounding his name.
I’m not referring to Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres, Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, Yannick Carrasco, or even Kevin Gameiro or Nicolás Gaitán. Despite how it may sound, I’m also not trying to write a football-related Dos Equis commercial.
The man I’m talking about is Alessio Cerci.
When news broke that Atlético had terminated his contract, many of us poured one out for the Italian, who is best remembered for somehow managing to accomplish this in training:
It’s easy to forget that, in 2014, Cerci was on top of the world. He had just finished a season in which he led Serie A in assists (11). He finished third in chances created, second in crosses and scored 13 goals. He flourished as a winger and later a second striker in Torino’s 4-2-4, cutting in on his sweet left foot to deliver pinpoint, on-a-plate crosses. He single-handedly made future Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla flop Ciro Immobile into a big name transfer target. He also earned 14 caps with Italy’s national team and a coveted spot in the 2014 World Cup squad.
Bleacher Report tapped him as “worth every penny” for a potential Arsenal move and referred to him as “the ultimate Swiss Army Knife” as an attacker. A different author predicted a breakout performance for Cerci at the 2014 World Cup. Sheridan Bird of the Daily Mirror was even more to the point, claiming that “Alessio Cerci has the talent to be a Premier League star.”
Many hailed the signing as good business for Atlético. Supporters drooled, concocting a pipe dream in which Griezmann, Cerci and Mario Mandžukić formed one of the most formidable attacking tridents in LaLiga.
We know what happened next.
Signed on deadline day in September 2014, he showed up to Madrid overweight, which made him DOA in Diego Simeone’s rigorous system. Throughout a bitter fall and winter, Cerci appeared only nine times for Atlético. He played 80 minutes over those nine appearances. He created one chance, scored no goals, provided no assists and managed one red card during a 3-1 loss at Valencia, a humiliation which may have been the last straw for Cholo.
In January 2015, he was loaned to AC Milan, with Fernando Torres coming the other way in part-exchange. Although he was “delighted” about the loan at the time, it was clear that he wasn’t the same man who had arrived at Barajas International Airport with so much hope and expectation.
Some saw the deal as a potential fresh start and believed he had something left to give. Most analysts actually saw the deal as a win for Milan - an absolute coup, even - believing Torres to be washed and trumpeting Cerci as a year removed from tearing up Serie A.
After an initial defiant period, Cerci fell on his sword, accepting the blame for his Atlético failure and refusing to blame Simeone.
“When things go wrong, it’s never the coach’s fault,” he told reporters. “I blame myself.”
Cerci would perform unremarkably during his spell at Milan. He failed to recover his previous mojo, as he went from exciting, up-and-coming attacker to...well, this:
Eventually, Milan had seen enough and Atlético shipped him off to Genoa, where he was actually half-decent, scoring, creating chances and playing regularly for a respectable, mid-table side.
It was in 2016 when Cerci became Alessio Cerci!, truly earning his role as an ironic novelty. After he attempted to secure a loan move back to Italy and failed a medical that would have seen him spend the season at Bologna, Cerci found himself left out of Simeone’s plans. With Cholo uninterested in focusing on niceties or anything that would distract him from the ultimate goal, Cerci essentially sat back and cashed his checks. Jalen Rose would have been proud.
Cerci really leaned into his persona in late February, when he posted this now-legendary photo on Instagram.
This photo is remarkable for so many reasons:
- Cerci’s tiger-neck shirt is spectacular.
- He’s nonchalantly carrying a pissed-off furball of a pet in his hand.
- And, most of all, his timing was impeccable — this photo was uploaded while Atleti were playing Barcelona at the Calderón mere miles away. This was an absolute middle finger to the club, a true indication that Cerci just didn’t care anymore.
Fortunately, this story has a relatively pleasant ending. Cerci saw brief playing time against Guijuelo in the Copa del Rey, and even saw time in a league match at the Calderón against Osasuna. In the 76th minute, the crowd roared — there was Cerci, patting his hair, ready to trot onto the field in place of Gaitán. Twitter was predictably merciless. Atlético earned two penalties on the day, and Cerci was actually interested in taking the second (and the crowd wanted the same), but Thomas Partey overruled him (and promptly missed — classic Atleti).
After the game, Simeone defended his management of Cerci: “Nobody is in my doghouse and I always want to give opportunities to everybody. He has gone through a rough time and he will get a chance.”
Simeone followed that quote up with this patronizing gem: “I may give him some minutes so that he feels like a footballer again.”
There is a bit of 20/20 hindsight in Cerci’s case. Yet another Bleacher Report author - in a bit of revisionist history - called Cerci a “predictable disappointment” at Atlético. And Cerci did take the blame for being a disappointment. However, frankly, it’s not all his fault.
There’s a bit of a cyclical nature that characterizes Atlético’s recent signings of attacking players. A lot of that began with Cerci, a talented but unproven commodity against the best competition. Much as some fans salivated over a potential attacking trio of Cerci, Griezmann and Mandžukić, some rojiblancos became enamored with the idea of a trident of Griezmann, Gaitán and Gameiro during the last transfer window, immediately dismissing Carrasco, who had just scored in the Champions League Final. The year before, Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto were expected to convert Atleti into an attacking force. While Griezmann has been undeniably superb, this paragraph currently reads as a litany of players who have failed to take Fernando Torres’ job, despite being afforded every opportunity to do so.
Ultimately, Atleti must shoulder some of the blame for these failures. As that Bleacher Report article pointed out, a player of Cerci’s profile didn’t really make sense in Atlético’s squad. He doesn’t work particularly hard off the ball, and - although he had his moments on the break in Torino - his strengths lie more in his vision in picking out a final ball than on the counter.
Read that description of Cerci’s game back one more time. Who does that sound like on Atlético’s current squad? Although Atlético acknowledged its mistake with Cerci, it still went out and signed Gaitán, a player who fits Cerci’s profile — single-footed, incisive, without much of a defensive work rate. I’m rooting for Gaitán this coming season, but could Atleti brass really have expected a different result?
It’s notoriously difficult to function as an attacking player in Simeone’s system. And Cerci was one of the first to experience those difficulties firsthand. With the club unable to register players this window, hopefully Vietto and Gaitán will work out better in their second acts.
As for Cerci, he is now back home. Now 29, he has signed with Verona, a newly-promoted Serie A side who finished as Serie B runners-up this past year. In the past, Cerci has produced for sides predicted relegation fodder, leading them twice to mid-table finishes (Torino and Genoa). Though his time in Madrid was a debacle, we wish him the best going forward, and will always respect his impeccable taste in animal-themed shirts.