Gianluca Scamacca: ‘Eric Cantona was imposing. I am working on that’

The dust has barely settled on West Ham’s last-minute defeat by Crystal Palace last Sunday when Gianluca Scamacca sits down to talk about his love of football, leaving home at a young age and the challenge of adjusting to the Premier League. The Italy striker does not want to hide. Scamacca was substituted at half-time against Palace but, as he holds court on a rainy Monday afternoon at West Ham’s training ground, what comes across is his determination to make this transfer work.

“Difficult,” is the 23-year-old’s assessment of his first few months in England. There have been flashes of class from Scamacca, hints of the clever touch, classy link play and finishing ability that made West Ham buy the 6ft 5in forward from Sassuolo for £35.5m, but he knows that he needs to improve. “It is very different,” he continues. “It’s another country, another league. In Italy it is tactical. Here it is fast and physical. But it will get better.”

Scamacca, who has a decent grasp of English, is not fazed by his eight-match goalless run. He recalls speaking to Italy’s manager, Roberto Mancini, when it became clear West Ham wanted to sign him. “He said it’s a big opportunity to grow up,” Scamacca says. “He said when it’s difficult you can grow up. You have to adapt to a different way of playing. It just takes time. He said: ‘Work hard and you will see the results.’”

The problem for West Ham, who were knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Blackburn on Wednesday, is that the competitiveness of the Premier League makes it hard to stay patient. They spent heavily on signings in the summer but find themselves two points above the bottom three before hosting Leicester on Saturday.

David Moyes has found it difficult to bed in the new players. Scamacca has looked isolated at times – he admits he has been surprised by the speed and size of opposition centre-backs – and West Ham have lacked consistency. Alarmingly for Moyes, his side have been sloppy; they have given away cheap goals and not taken enough chances.

Yet Scamacca, who has scored six goals, is convinced West Ham’s luck will turn. “Over the last few games we’ve been unfortunate,” he says. “I’m very happy to be here. It’s been a little difficult but I’m very excited to be in this team.”

Paris Saint-Germain were also interested in Scamacca and he is seen as key to Mancini’s rebuild after Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, but the fame has not gone to his head. This tall, imposing figure has a sense of humour. We talk about his upbringing in Rome, his support of Roma and how he fell in love with football. “Everybody was a football supporter,” he says. “In the street we play, we play, we play.” Was he the best? Scamacca laughs. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

Fair point. Scamacca’s talent took him to Lazio’s academy. It was on to Roma from there and then, in a surprising development, he joined PSV Eindhoven’s youth set-up in 2015.

Scamacca scoffs at the notion that it must have been scary for a 16-year-old to move to a strange new country. “Fear about what?” he says. “Because I was alone? No. Holland is not a dangerous country.

“I went to Holland because I wanted to improve myself. I felt that I could not do it in Italy. Holland was the best place to learn about football. In Italy it is different. In the academy, the under-18s, under-19s, they don’t work on the individual. They work on the team, on the tactics, how to win games. But in other countries they work individually on the players. I also wanted to have an experience. I wanted to learn English and see another culture.”

It is a refreshing attitude from Scamacca, who found good teachers at PSV. He had guidance from the former Netherlands midfielder Mark van Bommel, who could speak to him in Italian, and advice on how to improve as a striker from Ruud van Nistelrooy. “He told me you have to stay in the box and have good movement,” Scamacca says.

Those two years at PSV are remembered fondly. In 2017, though, it was time to return to Italy. Scamacca joined Sassuolo, gained first-team experience during several loans and gradually established himself as a regular starter for the Serie A side. He scored 16 goals last season and broke into the Italy squad.

But life has not always been easy for Scamacca. He was brought up by his mother and his sister and has distanced himself from his father’s side of the family.

Now he thinks about his mother. “She supported me when it was a little difficult,” he says. “She was really important for me. I found confidence on my journey. I had a lot of difficulties in the past. I had to work on myself. On my mind. This made me more confident.”

Scamacca is striving for belief. He talks about watching old Premier League games and becoming fascinated with Eric Cantona, which is a surprising revelation. Cantona retired in 1997, two years before Scamacca was born. I put to him that he is a football nerd; someone who spends his free time scouring old games on YouTube. “Nerd,” Scamacca says with a laugh. “If it wasn’t for the fact I’m so passionate about football I wouldn’t be here now.”

What did he like about Cantona? “He was very imposing. A little bit arrogant in his approach. I am still trying to work towards that for myself, trying to be a little more imposing in my physique and more confident in games.

“I’m at 70% of my potential. In a couple of months, I’ll get there, or be on my way there. I know I can do better. That’s why I want to work on my confidence, intensity and presence on the pitch – use my physique more. In the Premier League, you need to be more imposing. I need to get used to it quickly.”

There have been promising moments. At his best, Scamacca has produced skilful touches and shown an impressive range of finishing. He can shoot early and powerfully. Two of his goals have been created by smart passes from Lucas Paquetá; intriguingly Scamacca’s output dried up when the Brazilian playmaker was injured last month. “I’ve got a great feeling with Paquetá,” Scamacca says.

Scamacca goes on to say he enjoys playing with Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals. He wants to prove himself at West Ham. “It is not difficult for me,” Scamacca says as he ponders whether it was a sacrifice to leave Italy. “This is my work. This is my passion. It is a dream for me. I don’t worry about pressure. I don’t worry because I’m far from home. No: I just live for football.”

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