The Antonio Di Natale Debate

antoniodinatale_ad_e.jpgAs hard as I try to hide under a rock, I'm not all that oblivious. I've skirted around the Toto Di Natale issue for a few weeks now. This is why. Vin is the creator/blogger/moderator/everyman over at serieAmerica.com, a site with his blog and a forum which I'm a fan of and read frequently, and I honestly don't have enough time on my hands to read much of anything not Roma-related. So I'd definitely recommend you check it out (and I don't do that often).

Vin's also a fan of Toto Di Natale. In fact, I'd go as far as to say he has a Spalletti-esque mancrush on him. I know I've had some outspoken words against purchasing Toto (mainly, @#$% NO), but I'm also moderately intelligent enough (rarely) to realize that if Mancini goes - looking likely - either now or in the summer, one of the first names on that shopping list is going to be Toto. And knowing Spalletti and his manlove for anyone and everyone who played for him at Udinese, Toto will be gone after with a vigor and passion you don't want to see TGIP go for any man with. Toto is a very possible, if not probable, replacement. (And even though Toto's agent said that nothing will happen until the summer, please forgive me for not taking any agent at their word.)

So I decided to ask Vin his thoughts on the situation as we head towards the January window, and I gave my side as well. Your thoughts are always welcome as well.

Vin.: Pro-Toto

There’s no place like Rome, Totò!

Lately, when the words “Di Natale” and “Roma” have been mentioned in the same sentence, it’s sounded like a conversation overheard at a middle school dance. (Did u hear that DiNatale likes Roma?!?! OMG! I heard his agent say that he thinks Roma likes Di Natale back!!!)

Despite such ridiculousness, which is typical of the calciomercato rumor mill, any indication of a link between Udinese’s Antionio Di Natale and A.S. Roma is music to my ears. Here’s why:

Um… hello? Di Natale (a.k.a. Mr. Christmas) is the friggin’ man. To be specific, the Napoli native is hitting his stride *now,* and damn, what a stride it is! With the vision of a true 10-shirt, and the instinct of a top 9-shirt, he has played a major role in elevating Udinese beyond mediocrity and into a position where a Champions League spot is a real possibility. A monster on the ball who’s equally indespensible asset to both club and country.

Of course, some Roma followers may argue that Di Natale’s age (30) would make him an acquisition of debatable value.

While it’s true that he’s not a young’n, I’d like to pose a question in response to those critical of Di Natale because of his years. Specifically, do you want to see Roma win a Scudetto before Francesco Totti retires?

If you answered “yes,” you might want to continue reading. See… Il Capitano isn’t getting any younger, kids, and footballers don’t play forever. (His wife has already said that her pupone will hang ‘em up at 35, which puts us at t-minus 4 years and counting.) That said, I’m probably not unlike other tifosi in saying that I’d love to see our beloved Giallorossi win a Scudetto while Il Capitano is still playing at his current level.

Can’t that happen with Roma’s current roster? Anything’s possible, and at present, Roma are Scudetto contenders… but let’s be honest here: ArgentInter are tough bastards, and the magic of The Great Zaltan is powerful. Even if the trickery of the Swede and his Argentine minions allows Inter to escape Roma’s clutches by only the slimmest of margins, the badguys still run off with the Scudetto in the end. Damn. To finally overtake the Nerazzurri convincingly, I believe that Roma need an edge, and my amici, Antonio Di Natale could very well provide not just an edge… but a razor F’n sharp edge. As I said, Totò’s in-form now, and now (i.e. while Il Capitano is still around) happens to be Roma’s best chance at a Scudetto. Seriously. Totti. Totò. Totti + Totò. Totti + Totò = Scudetto. Get it? As Mr. Miyagi once said, “if do right, no can defense!”

Undoubtedly, some tifosi are saying “OK, Mr. Christmas is good, but he’s going to be pretty damn expensive,” and I won’t disagree. Di Natale will be expensive. (Players at the top of their game usually are.) The people who point out his cost, however, are also likely to contend that money spent on Di Natale would be better spent on younger talent, in an effort to prepare for the post-Totti era… and that, I must disagree with. It’s no secret that the younger the player, the less proven their abilities, which obviously makes up-and-coming talent a risky venture. Still, even if Roma got lucky and discover an upcoming star, what could stop him from cutting his teeth under the banner of the she-wolf and then immediately running off to some squad *cough*MilanJuveInter*cough* that has striped shirts and deep pockets?

Roma can still make some wise investments in value-priced younger talent while setting aside their bigger bucks for players that are sure to provide a return on investment – especially with Mancini – and his salary – on the way out. Enter Mr. Christmas!

At this point, some readers may be thinking “So why Di Natale, then? Why not someone else who’s proven that they’re the real deal?” Admittedly, there are other players who are also hitting their stride at the moment, but what distinguishes Di Natale from the rest of the pack (from Roma’s standpoint, anyway) is the fact that he’s already familiar with – and enjoys working under Coach Luciano Spalletti. As a result, it is quite likely that Totò would have a relatively easy time adjusting to the Roma’s current “Here comes the team picture” attacking style, and would be able to contribute from the start. Place him right in front of Totti… or right in back of Totti… or alternating with Totti… or paired up top with Vucinic… or behind Totti and Vucinic. Di Natale is versatile enough to play in any attacking position, as he demonstrated with Udine’s Totò / Di Michele / Iaquinata triumvirate under Spalletti. He could do the same – and then some – with the Giallorossi.

Seriously though, who’s going to stop this guy once he’s formed an alliance with Totti and Vucinic?

Not only is Di Natale a force on the pitch that could put Roma past the competition at exactly the right time, but he’s also a natural fit for the Giallorossi’s current system and coach. With Di Natale, Roma will know what they’re getting… and in my opinion, that makes Mr. Christmas money well spent.

(Ed/Chris note: I'm not going to lie, when I saw that "if right, no can defense!" Mr. Miyagi quote I almost said "fuck it, I'm writing an ode to Di Natale".)

Me.: Anti-Toto

Would I like to see Roma win a Scudetto before Francesco Totti retires? No. No I would not. I'd like to see them win eleven, at the very least.

Here's why Di Natale is not the answer: Would you like to roll the dice (yeah, I said roll the dice) with a guy who is just now hitting his stride at 30, 31 next year, who has never played for a big team? How often does that happen? More over, how often does that stride turn into a consistently brilliant streak of glorious finishing for a contender? The one thing Roma could use if/when Mancini is eventually dumped...again (sorry, Amantino); along with a certain degree of flair, as not to lose much from Mancini Toto has some, he's no Amantino, however). And while Toto can play a few places, he is going to spend 99% of his time on the wing.

(Has anyone stopped to think that maybe Udinese is A LOT better than people thought they were?)

So Roma needs someone who can finish finish finish ad nauseam. Can Antonio Di Natale that, in this system, better than Mancini or the alternatives? Probably not. And while the finishing would preferably come from Simone Perrotta's spot, I don't think anyone is harboring delusions he's going to turn into a mid-20's Ronaldo any time soon. So it has to come from somewhere else, and it has to come from either the wings or deep. Yes, they could depend on Old Man River to break hearts on late game headers, but he'll be in the nursing home before we see him bag a dozen goals in a season. Taddei isn't the answer, and we know what he provides from the team. DDR can help every now and again, and the return of Alberto Aquilani should help, but not nearly enough. The team needs a lot more out of the LW position - the place Toto would be parking his beach chair the most.

Toto's goal totals the last 5 years: 5, 8, 9, 11, 7. Guess how many games he played in that stretch. 147 out of 169 (missing on average 4.5 a season). So it's not like his efficiency has ever been over the top. He maxed out his games and thus maxed out his production. So what happens when age starts creeping up and those game totals start dwindling? How much will the production suffer? Or what happens if Spalletti hits his head and starts a Rafa-type rotation system? Will he provide as much in terms of offense? Yeah, he can create, but it has become clear they can create. They need to finish.

With Mirko looking to be at least a passable option on the left (emphasis on "at least"), it's doubtful that he'll be any more productive in the one thing Roma needs most at the moment. You know who has more of that thing Roma needs at the moment? Mauro Esposito. He was a machine at one point. Di Natale has never been, and he's been more of a striker than Mauro was with Cagliari. What happens if Roma spends all that money for another Esposito? Because before the injuries he averaged 11 a season in two years. What's to say Toto won't turn out to be another Esposito, or Francesco Tavano? Just waaaaaay more expensive and financially burdensome.

* - I understand that someone who can stay healthy is that much more attractive at this point, but let's ignore that for the moment because you know as soon as he gets here he'll contract some sort of terminal illness.

And before the "he played under Spalletti and he turns him into a scoring machine" crap, Di Natale has only played under Spalletti for one season really, because he was a kiddie at Empoli when TGIP was making sweet hand puppets on the sidelines. That one year was nothing special, 7 goals in 33 games (understandably the offense consisted of more than just he, but run with it). For comparison purposes Taddei had 5 goals in 2 last year and 8 in 35 the year before. And while we're at it, Toto has 43 goals in the last 4 years, while Mancini has 41. And Toto plays as the prima punta some of the time. Isn't the goal to improve on the finishing, not get more of the same, maybe less? Especially when he's 4 years older?

Along with the Spalletti subject comes his "man crush" issues. Toto appears to be one of those guys, and Spalletti has shown himself to play favorites and those he trusts almost to a fault. What happens when it's clear Toto is out of form and there's a better option out there? Chances are he sticks with Toto. We've seen that numerous times this year. He'll go with trust before form and impact. That can be detrimental just as well as positive.

How about Udinese? How much is he going to cost? A bucket of Sour Patch kids and a nice steak dinner? I think not. Pietro Leonardi is going to bend Roma over at every chance he gets, and Di Natale's agent has already made that abundantly clear with his used car salesman-esque siren of "get 'em in early before these prices go sky high". Last year he was pegged at, what, €10m? What's it now, €15m for a 31 year old striker who has averaged just over 8 goals in the last 4 years?

If there was to be one main deterrent for me it would be the age plus money plus talent factor (yes, that's three, I know). For how many years is he going to be at Roma-level form? Three? Maybe? At €15m, is it really worth paying €5m, plus probably €2m in salary, for a guy who brings you no closer to a scudetto than Mancini - or numerous other options - does? Sure, you'd pay anything for a scudetto, but only when it assuredly brings you closer. Di Natale doesn't bring this team any closer.

And what's to say his partnership with Totti will flourish? It takes time and practice to form a partnership, especially when they have little (if any - can't recall) experience together with the Azzurri. Mancini and Totti at least know each other's ins and outs. Again, see Esposito and Tavano.

The Oompa Loompa factor. I don't think much more needs to be said. And no, the wing is not an ideal place to find size, but if they're going to spend €15m on someone who is going to creep into the box on occasion, how about upping the size of the team, or at least keeping it at status quo? There is no need for another midget. (Scuse me, "vertically challenged person".) How about a little bit of physical stature? An added dimension? Would he have been the difference against Livorno? Torino? I don't see it.

If you're going to try and win Totti a title, get him some more/better talent than Antonio Di Natale - whether it's Italian, Brazilian, Russian or Martian. If you're not, build for the future and get a younger player, at a better value than Di Natale, someone who can be molded and shaped into this team. (And if so, how about getting a left-footer? Yeah?)

Were this to be a case of, say, €5m instead of what it's going to cost, then I'd be in favor of seeing how it works out. But for his cost, it's way too much money for what will essentially be a roll of the dice on a 30 year old who has never known pressure like the type of pressure he'll see with Roma, week in, week out. Who has never played in the Champions League. Who has never proven himself to be exactly what this team needs.

The cons and questions outweigh the pros here. Not a good idea when Roma has this much on the line with this little time left for Francesco. He deserves better. If you're going to make a run at getting Francesco a scudetto, or eleven, before his time is up, then spend the money on someone who can make a difference. Di Natale is just more of the same. If we're lucky.

(Not that either of our opinions matter.)

* - I'll be out until the weekend, transit and such, and I could damn well use a mini-break at the moment. Be back before the open of the window or if anything major, like Rosella caves and names me president, happens. I'm putting you all in charge of updating the comment thread as you do so well.

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