The wideman’s performances haven’t dipped despite the Bull’s slump, but what does the future hold for the Nigerian after Walter Mazzarri’s departure?
Torino’s 4-0 defeat by Lecce on February 2 was the final straw for the club’s board; they’d seen enough of the poor performances and results in which their side had conceded 13 goals in three games, 17 in four if their 4-2 Coppa Italia defeat by AC Milan is thrown into the mix.
Patience with Walter Mazzarri had worn thin, and the Italian manager paid for the Maroons’ decline with his job, ending his two-year stay in Turin despite guiding them to a seventh-place finish last season.
Before February 2’s embarrassing loss at the relegation-threatened Apulia outfit, there was a 7-0 mauling by free-scoring Atalanta at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, the first time in the club’s 113-year history they’d conceded that many in the Serie A.
Ola Aina played no part in the team’s disgrace on home turf, missing out through suspension, but returned for the following week’s loss at the Stadio Ettore Giardiniero – Via del Mare, which turned out to be Mazzarri’s final game in charge.
For the Nigeria international, the 58-year-old’s departure has put him in something of a concerning position, given how managerial changes can see a player go from trusted, consistent member of the side to the periphery.
Over the last 18 months in Turin, it was Mazzarri who pushed for a year-long loan deal for the wing-back before encouraging the club to exercise their option to make the deal permanent in the summer.
The 23-year-old thrived in his first year outside England to help the Turin side to seventh-place, and the upshot of that was a return to Europe after a five-year absence. Admittedly, they suffered elimination at the hands of Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Europa League playoffs, but it doesn’t take anything away from what the now-sacked trainer achieved in the previous year.
Given the departure of the man who brought him to Italy, the fear that his replacement Moreno Longo – brought in till the end of the season – may not fancy Aina were quickly dispelled before last week’s game against Sampdoria, which the beleaguered Toro lost 3-1 on home turf.
“It’s a team built with a three-man defence, to move to four at the back would take time,” Longo said before the defeat by La Samp. “We will see today and tomorrow how the rest of the team will take shape. Lorenzo De Silvestri and Ola Aina are the only wing-backs available.”
As it turned out, the Bull lined-up in a 3-4-3, with Longo opting to not make several tweaks so soon to his predecessor’s idea of football.
It was another defeat for the Turin outfit, but Aina’s performance was commendable and didn’t pass as a player playing in a team that’d been struggling for confidence in the last few weeks.
The left wing-back won three of his four aerial duels as well as four of seven ground duels against Claudio Ranieri’s troops. His efficiency in the tackle was equally admirable as he won three tackles, which was more than all the defenders in the side combined.
Undeniably, Aina offered little going forward against the struggling Genoa-based club and that’s a part of his game he can improve on going forward.
Contrarily, the cautiousness in the final third may be put down to the mere fact that the team were playing under new instructions, regardless of the similar formation on show.
By contrast, the Nigerian played in Mazzarri’s last game at Lecce in early February; the former Chelsea player completed five of his six dribbles, created two chances and completed all his crosses. Furthermore, his passing was largely accurate and he was successful with three of his four long-range passes.
Defensively, he won seven of nine duels, cleared the ball away from harm’s way when necessary and read the game well to make several interceptions. It was one of the more complete showings by the Nigeria international on a day where his low-on-confidence teammates collapsed.
Many will keep a keen eye on Monday night’s trip to AC Milan trying to see if there’s any sort of response from the Turin outfit and how well Longo has been able to get through to a group of players totally shot on confidence.
Both sides clashed in the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia in late-January, a game the Milan giants won 4-2. In the encounter at the San Siro, Aina seemed to have reaped rewards of his effort and industry when he assisted what seemed to be the winner in the 71st-minute, but Gleison Bremer’s strike was cancelled out in second-half stoppage time by Hakan Calhanoglu.
Torino never recovered from the late equalizer and conceded two extra-time goals against Stefano Pioli’s men.
They face off again on Monday, with the Rossoneri nurturing a sense of injustice over their last two results against Internazionale (4-2 defeat) and Juventus (1-1). In the former, Pioli’s charges led 2-0 at half-time, hit the woodwork through Zlatan Ibrahimovic at 3-2 down, before conceding a late fourth, while they felt hard done by a penalty call against the Old Lady in Thursday’s Cup meeting.
Against a side low on confidence, Ibrahimovic and co. will smell blood and will try to inflict a sixth successive defeat on the Maroons.
For Aina, performances have largely been good despite the team’s losses, but needs of the collective trumps those of any individual, and Torino need to start picking up results if they are to put themselves back in contention to end in the European slots.
They may sit in 14th-place on 27 points, but with 15 games to play, an upturn in form in the coming weeks gives them a chance of catching Hellas Verona in sixth, whom they trail by seven points.
Many of the sides above them aren’t exactly pulling up trees, so qualification for the Europa League may not be out of reach.
18 months ago, Aina left London for Turin, but Mazzarri’s departure has cast doubts over his long-term future at the club. With Torino not making a permanent managerial decision until the summer, only through even more commendable outings will the quick wideman retain his mainstay status in the side… so far, he’s doing all the right things.