If you've read anything I've written over the past year or so, you probably noticed I delight in, and like to wax poetically about, idioms, turns of phrases, conventional wisdom and a host of other well-worn platitudes, so I won't waste your time on this one, because it's clear as day: You only get one chance to make a first impression.
For Walter Sabatini, it's been a first impression in a different role, and you have to say, he's hit it out of the park (idiom alert). This week alone he brokered nearly €50m in deals, wresting Kevin Strootman away from the clutches of Manchester United for nearly €17m, while flipping Marquinhos for a tidy 600% profit (at least), shipping Roma's man-child off to The City of Lights.
So, as far as Walter's first impression as Roma's true Capo goes, it's been all aces. But we're not here to talk about Big Walt, today's exploration focuses on a different first impression, one which, while not dreadful, wasn't as splendiferous as we'd all hoped, that of Federico Balzaretti. While his first turn in Roma was solid, he wasn't the final piece of the puzzle many envisioned when he signed last summer.
But here we are again, a month out from the new season and the pieces of Roma's puzzle look even more enticing than last year. Take a look at this tantalizing work of graphic artistry from the folks at our favorite statistical storehouse to see what I mean:
It's hard not to get excited by that. Again, full marks to Sabatini; his swoops for Strootman and Mehdi Benatia, as well as his calculated gamble on Maicon, have changed the face of this team in an instant. There's no need for me to expound upon it, as the graphic tells the story, but Maicon's level of service from the right side is miles ahead of anything Roma's had in ages, while Benatia is himself among the league's best central defenders, but it's that other defensive flank that might keep you up at night and ruin the rest of your summer (depending on your hemispheric location at present).
So if we had to put the collective crosshairs of Roma on one player, it'd Federico Balzaretti. For Roma, the choice is simple: there is no choice. Unless Dodo makes a stratospheric leap over the next few weeks, its Balzaretti at leftback and little else. Whatever cohesion the left side of Garcia's formation may ultimately have starts with Balzaretti, so his rise to prominence would go a long way to helping Roma reach Europe once again.
The problem for Balzaretti this past season wasn't so much a complete devolution in skill, but rather a lack of consistency. So let's have a quick look at the highs and lows of Roma's favorite ballet husband and how they impacted Roma's spot in the table.
At his best, Federico Balzaretti is an igniter of offense, blessed with an innate understanding of attacking football and a deft touch, both of which enable him to create chances for his teammates at a high clip. Somewhat apart from the traditional fullback mold, Balzaretti achieves this feat in tight spaces, using quick forward and diagonal passes to maintain attacking momentum, rather than hugging the touchline and serving up crosses. Balzaretti's vision, quick feet, and anticipation enable him to work efficiently and effectively in an up-tempo passing game, one in which he can work give-and-goes with his teammates, moving together in concert to open up attacking lanes. If you're relying on Balzaretti to create chances for his teammates via the long ball or a cross, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Suffice it to say, the long game isn't Balzaretti's strong suit, he's at his best when the passes are less than 20 meters, and when he does deem it necessary to cross, the results aren't pretty. The reasons for which may be numerous, and ultimately hard to decipher: Is it a tactical choice? Does he simply have more faith in the pass-and-move approach than bombing it into the six? Is he not quick enough to create the separation necessary to place an accurate cross? Does his luxurious hair limit his peripheral vision?
Whatever the case may be, his passing numbers on the whole are quite strong, crosses and long balls notwithstanding. Balzaretti completed 89% of his passes last season, fifth on the team and first among fullbacks. League wide this ranked 16th overall and first among fullbacks (depending on how one views Javier Zanetti--who plays, like, everywhere). While this is a relatively simple statistic, given the compact space in which most of his passes occurred, it is testament to his ability to read the game, to anticipate his teammates moves, to predict passing lanes, and to generally maintain his composure--to say nothing of his ranking among outside defenders in this category, say what you will about passing percentage, he's the best at his position in this respect.
While crossing is almost entirely dependent upon managerial preferences, you want to at least have the option, to keep the opposition aware of a lateral threat. But with Roma and their lack of a true target man, which is a broader trend, really, this isn't so much of an issue, but the more threats an opposing defense has to deal with, the better. Simply put, this is not an area in which Balzaretti excels. His long passing numbers, both in total and precision, were both outside of Roma's top 10 last season.
But, what the hey? You're here, I'm here, let's take a closer look.
Balzaretti attempted 99 crosses last season, while completing approximately 16% of those. To put those in context, the total number attempted was way off the league lead, by several orders of magnitude (well, maybe not that extreme, but it sounded good). To keep things in perspective, we could look at his percentage, but, even through that veil, it's not good. Last year's league leaders in crossing percentage ranged from the mid-20s to low-30s (percentages, of course). Once again, even though he doesn't attempt many, you'd like to see a greater degree of efficiency. But, much like a lot of what we discuss in these type of pieces, it's a chicken and egg scenario: Is Balzaretti not asked to cross because of his poor numbers, or are his numbers lacking purely because he doesn't cross enough?
Look, at the end of the day, Federico is a solid player, beyond his reticence to cross the ball and his disdain for long passing, his game doesn't have any egregious flaws. After all, that's why we were so excited with this move last summer, right?
But there is a reason I'm writing this, Balzaretti was neither the strongest nor the weakest player last season, but his performance had huge implications for the teams broader success, making his lack of consistency and relatively limited skill set maddening.
But perhaps it was his usage last summer that led to that inconsistency. Consider this, since the summer of 2010, Balzaretti has logged over 1,200 minutes for the Azzurri, which is slightly less than half a season of domestic matches. The trouble for Roma was that half of those minutes came in Euro 2012 alone, which was, of course, succeeded by several weeks of Zdenek Zeman's Spartan training methods.
But beyond that singular summer, there is a more noticeable trend. Balzaretti's minutes have dropped every season since 2008-2009; his first as a full time player with Palermo. Worse still, his offensive contributions, at least in terms of the obvious measures, has witnessed a concomitant drop.
- '08-'09: zero goals, four assists, 2,925 minutes played
- '09-'10: one goal, six assists, 2,919 minutes played
- '10-'11: two goals, seven assists, 2,890 minutes played
- '11-'12: zero goals, three assists, 2,227 minutes played
- '12-'13: zero goals, three assists, 2,009 minutes played.
Now, this isn't nearly as dramatic as I may have played it up to be, and these are just surface statistics, but his time on the pitch and his readily apparent contributions to the offense have both decreased over the past several years. But take a minute and imagine the 2010 version of Balzaretti joining up with Francesco Totti and Kevin Strootman on that left flank, then take another minute to wipe the drool off your face.
So while you tune up your DeLorean to make that wish a reality, let's live in the now. What Roma are presented with is a talented yet inconsistent presence at left back, one whose performance week-in-week-out had a dramatic effect on the club's place in the table, which is really the salient point here. Balzaretti was never brought to Roma to be a world beater, but there was a strong correlation between Balzaretti's performance and that of the team as whole.
Witness Balzaretti's best stretch of the season: between October and the winter break, a span of twelve league matches. Over those three months, Balzaretti made 10 appearances, going the full 90 in all ten, garnering a 7+ match rating in eight of those matches, while tallying two of his three assists on the year. Balza completed 89% of his passes during this span and averaged 1.5 key passes per match, better than his 1.1 average on the balance of the season.
Most importantly, Roma won eight of those twelve matches, losing only two in which Balzaretti played, by a total of two goals.
Now, take Roma's next twelve league matches, running from just after New Year's Day through the end of March. Over these dozen matches, Balzaretti made nine appearances, however, in this instance he only went the full 90 four times and registered three DNPs (did not play). While his passing percentage was in line with his overall numbers this season (88% to 89%), his key passes per match were nearly cut in half, while he managed only one 7+ match rating over that roughly three month span.
Roma's record, you ask? Four wins, three draws, five losses.
Ask anyone who's gone through graduate school and they'll tell you, there's a world of difference between causality and correlation. Although there were obviously other factors that aided and abetted Roma's performance during these two periods, and we're only talking about one season's worth of data, a trend did emerge between Balzaretti's performance indicators, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and Roma's win-loss record. Was Balzaretti the sole reason for the success and failures of Roma over those 24 matches? No, of course not, but the correlation is interesting nonetheless and suggests that Balzaretti's importance to the success of the squad might be more than we initially anticipated, and with no heir apparent, just as crucial this coming season.
Balzaretti in 2013-2014
Rudi Garcia's Roman m.o. is still a mystery, but with his early experiments featuring a four man backline, odds are that Balzaretti will be leaned upon heavily, teaming with Maicon to create offense from the flanks. And with yet another regime change in Roma, replete with new tactics, new philosophies, new squad rotations and substitution patterns, consistency matters even more. Furthermore, with an uncertain, albeit talented, link between him and Francesco Totti, Balzaretti's steadiness and ability to create chances will be paramount while Kevin Strootman adjusts to life in Italy. Throw another year of Serie A miles on the legs of Totti, and Balzaretti's importance to the Roman attack grows greater still.
While he was fairly solid last year, though not blessed with consistency, he wasn't as dynamic as we'd all hoped, particularly given his performance at Euro 2012. On paper, Roma's prospective starting XI is hellaciously talented, blessed with pace, technique and grit, which makes the ambiguity of Balzaretti all the more troublesome. While his hard and fast figures will never pace the club in any respect, his efficiency, effectiveness, effort, and, most importantly, consistency (or lack thereof) may ultimately lead to Roma's undoing.
Walter Sabatini has transformed the shape of this team in the blink of an eye, heaping gobs of pressure upon everyone involved with the club, given his tacit importance to Roma's success, much of that heat will fall upon the shoulders of Balzaretti. For Federico, the equation is just as simple and no less important--if he wants to keep his job, to be a part of what appears to be a re-re-juvinated Roman project, not to mention securing a place in Prandelli's squad next summer, he needs to do what he does well (quick, precise passing, creating chances in tight spaces) and do it often.
It's definitely not a causal relationship, and the correlation might be tenuous at best, but anyway you slice it, the consistency of Federico Balzaretti is crucial to Roma's chances of success this season.