It's been a banner week for Miralem Pjanic, helping guide Bosnia-Herzegovina to World Cup Qualification and single handedly steering Roma to victory over Napoli. Given the political, cultural, and historic implications of his first achievement, the second feat may seem a tad underwhelming, but it does speak volumes about his sometimes tumultuous tenure with Roma, and highlights just how much he's grown this season.
That growth, however, has always come with a certain level of scrutiny; not about his abilities, but rather the suitability of Roma as an incubator for his gifts. The talent was never a question, it was more about the consequences and pressures of the environment in which he was supposed to develop.
To understand how those factors have influenced, and, in many cases, stunted his growth, we need to understand the contexts in which Pjanic was nurtured as a professional footballer. He's only 23 years old, but he's been at the heart of many a project in his brief career; often times an indispensable component, but sometimes an afterthought.
So, let's take a trip back...
Pjanic came to Roma so late in the transfer window--the last day, as a matter of fact--and so unexpectedly, I think many of us still don't realize what a coup it was, particularly for only €11m. After all, Pjanic was only 21 at the time and was the object of desire for the usual European suspects. So that Roma were able to snare such a highly regarded player on deadline day, with little more to sell him on than "Oh, you know how Barcelona is the best team in the world? Well, we've got their youth coach now" was a minor miracle.
You'd be hard pressed to find an arrival more tinged with hype than that of Luis Enrique in the summer of 2011. His appointment to Roma's managerial throne brought with it a rush of optimism, and an expectation that he would somehow transform the very identity of Italian football. His was the Barcelona way, the way of champions, the way of the future. His was the fresh blood Roma had so desperately desired.
The hysteria and hopefulness was so great, that one tends to forget how sheepishly his tenure ended. Enrique was great with youth and a fine trainer, but he just didn't seem to have the temerity to make it as a manager in Serie A. There was one area in which Enrique excelled, however; one which eased Pjanic's transition to life in Italian football.
Whether it was due to his familiarity with the mind of a young midfielder, or simply because of Pjanic's own ability to excel in a possession game, Miralem made 30 appearances under Enrique, and seemed like a natural fit for the Spaniards hybrid attack; the marriage between Pjanic and Roma was off to a great start.
The ensuing years, however, have not been so kind to this pairing. The shifting tactical mores and managerial whims to which he's been exposed seem to have blunted Pjanic's once pre-ordained path to stardom. Sure, Roma would reap a reward from Pjanic, but it seemed that return would be measured in cash not cups.
So, if you've found yourself waking up from a Rumplestiltskin-esque slumber, beyond rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and shaking your head in disbelief, you've probably got a few questions.
Yes, you read that right, 8-0. Yes, they really did sign Gervinho, and he's doing quite well. No, they don't play in an indoor stadium with a malfunctioning furnace; the shirts really do bleed that much sweat.
And, yes, Miralem Pjanic is really one of Italy's best players.
But how...how did he reach this point?
When we talk about the sudden maturation of Miralem Pjanic, there are a host of factors we must incorporate. Some fall down to the mere fact that he's growing up, mentally and physically, while others are attributable to the men surrounding him. In that sense, a footballer's career is really no different from anyone else's; it's equal parts luck, timing, and professional growth.
Of course, from an analytical standpoint, the most interesting of those contributory factors are the predilections of the man calling the shots. Again, this is just like you or me. We've all had bosses we liked, bosses we hated. Annoying ones, helpful ones, useless ones. No matter your feelings, there is nothing more annoying, more stressful, and potentially more damaging to one's career than enduring a constant parade of managers. New bosses bring new goals, new paradigms, new "best practices", new buzzwords and the always mystifying mass desk migration.
It's a hassle. It makes no sense. It's unavoidable.
With that in mind, let's examine the manner in which Miralem was (mis)used under the cast of characters to hawk Roma's sidelines the past three years. Each of whom made their mark on Miralem, for better or worse.
Life Under Luis
As we mentioned, cracking the lineup under Luis Enrique was no problem for Pjanic. In his first sojourn into Serie A, Pjanic worked his way into the starting eleven 29 times, appearing in 71% of Roma's minutes that season, scoring three goals and tallying eight assists.
In Enrique's somewhat modified version of tiki-taka, Pjanic was utilized in a variety of positions, taking on left, central and right sided roles, even being deployed as a forward on several occasions. But, it must be said, Miralem made his mark as a central midfielder; exactly what sort of central midfielder varied with Enrique's chosen tactics of the day.
In the base 4-3-3, Pjanic usually featured alongside Fernando Gago and Daniele De Rossi, serving as the first step in Enrique's pass-pass-pass-pass-check your neck tattoo-pass-pass offense. There wasn't anything terribly exciting or terribly troubling going on. Miralem was neither the creator nor the destroyer; he simply existed, the C+ student of Roma's midfield, not falling behind, not standing out.
However, on the occasions when Enrique pushed him forward, into the whole of the 4-3-1-2, for instance, Pjanic's playmaking skills shone. Witness the 2-0 victory over Novara in November of 2011, or even the derby loss in October; sitting behind everyone from Erik Lamela, to PDO, and even Bojan, Pjanic's poise, creativity and vision were finally utilized in a more attacking role, rather than remaining withdrawn and inert. Not only did this accentuate Miralem's best assets, it lightened the physical load a more defensive role placed on Pjanic.
And this was perhaps Enrique's greatest gift to Pjanic, minutes, minutes and more minutes, and the chance to show that he can be an attacking antecedent. Much has been made of the supposed inability of Miralem Pjanic to play alongside Francesco Totti, and while 2013 has largely dispelled that notion, Pjanic's performance as the playmaker in Enrique's system (when utilized as such) should calm your post-Totti fears....somewhat.
For those of you unfamiliar with comic strip thought bubbles, ‘Zzzz...' symbolizes sleep, snoring, dozing off, and general malaise.
So, while we can dissect how Pjanic floundered under Zeman, the story is really this simple; his playing time decreased by 20% under the Bohemian. For reasons only known to him, Zeman just didn't seem to deem Pjanic's skill set necessary for his designs.
But, if you look at the top of this page, you'll notice this piece falls under the analysis section, so let's at least give the Pjanic-Zeman tandem a cursory glance. While ZZ moved Pjanic around a bit, even replicating Enrique's experiment of deploying him as a forward, it was largely a matter of moving him a few dozen yards in either direction of the center strip.
Let's take a look at an example from last season against Torino, perhaps his best performance under ZZ.
Although you can see a few outliers, the majority of Pjanic's touches came between midfield and the 18-yard box, though he did have one hot area in what we'll call the neutral zone/no man's land. No matter how advanced or withdrawn he was, notice how narrowly confined his touches were.
He had one job and one job alone, stay central and move the ball forward to PDO and Lamela; in fact, nearly 68% of his passes on this evening were headed in that direction. Everything Pjanic achieved on this evening, whether it was his four key passes or even his goal, came within the narrow confines to which Zeman kept him. At least on this night, it looked as if Pjanic had found a place within Zeman's machinations.
While Pjanic was confined to the central portion of the pitch through much of the Zeman regime, there were instances in which he was pushed out wide, in a more advanced role. Even in these cases (around November/December), his movement was still restricted; this time being pinned to the touchline, seldom taking touches more than 25-30 yards from the edge of the pitch. Indeed, this stretch of four-to-five weeks was among his worst of the season, as he was just too removed from the offense. For Pjanic to do what he does best, he needs to be free from restrictions, given the trust of his manager to seek the ball out, the get into the thick of the action and create for others.
Zeman loves offense, Miralem can bring that, so there were moments of joy and elation, but he simply didn't have the freedom he needed to flourish. The Pjanic-Zeman relationship really defies definition. It wasn't entirely negative, nor was it overwhelmingly positive, there just wasn't enough evidence.
Hey! Speaking of hearsay....
Aurelio Andreazzoli was only at the helm for 15 matches. That's a mere 1,350 minutes; of which Pjanic only appeared in approximately 58%, so there isn't a whole lot we can glean from this briefest of relationships. AA never really managed to differentiate himself from ZZ, at least in terms of their positioning of Pjanic; although, you could share a confined space with AA and your clothes probably wouldn't smell like grim death, so there's that.
Naturally, given the dearth of minutes, the results were less than stellar, as Miralem's numbers were down virtually across the board. The Pjanic-Andreazzoli experience was really emblematic of Pjanic's entire 2012-2013; it was essentially a wash. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Given the cavalcade of managers and the club's seeming ambivalence towards him, it was understandable that Pjanic was questioning his own future in Roma. Remember, it very well could have been Pjanic getting the boot rather than Lamela.
But something in the air has changed. Pjanic is playing out of his mind, quickly climbing the ranks of Europe's midfielders, leading his club to the top of the table and his tiny nation to the World Cup.
But what exactly has changed? Why has Pjanic suddenly flourished under Rudi Garcia?
First, we'll dispense with the hard numbers (team rankings): 3 goals (3rd), 3 assists (4th) 2.4 shots per game (1st), 2.1 key pass per game (2nd), 2 dribbles per match (3rd), 0.5 turnovers per game (3rd least), 62.6 passes per game (2nd), 88.8% passing (2nd). He's also top five in crosses, long balls and through balls per game, and even checks in at fourth in tackling.
What this cluster of numeric characters is really indicative of is this; Pjanic is becoming a complete player before our very eyes, perhaps the club's most complete player. And, as we'll see momentarily, this is a function of multiple factors, each attributable to Rudi Garcia.
First and foremost, HE PLAYS! Not only has Pjanic featured in all eight matches--excuse me, victories--this season, he's started each and every one, appearing in 91% of Roma's minutes this season. And it's not just the minutes; it's the degree to which he's become an indispensable part of Garcia's offense.
Try this on for size, Pjanic has accounted for 12% of all the passes Roma has attempted thus far, exceed only by DDR, who is obviously more of a defensive midfielder compared to Pjanic. So, in terms of the flow of Garcia's offense, there is no player more involved than Miralem Pjanic. For reference, Kevin Strootman was the only other player within sniffing distance of those two, accounting for 9% of Roma's passing load.
So, how and where is Pjanic getting all these touches?
While this is really only one sample in a brief season--last week against Napoli-- it does illustrate the range of movement afforded to Pjanic this season. Outside of that one red hot area, oddly enough in the defensive third--perhaps evidence of his developing defensive game--there is no monolithic cluster of touches, as there was under ZZ. Pjanic has the freedom to move along both axes.
So, even though he is ostensibly still a right sided midfielder, Pjanic has veritable carte blanche to pass and move when and where he sees fit. He isn't forced to live up to a label; he doesn't have to be a regista, he doesn't have to be a trequartista. He can just be.
Speaking of room to roam, let's take a quick, somewhat tangential, look at how Pjanic and Totti share space on the pitch.
As you can see here, the proposition of Pjanic and Totti occupying the same space isn't necessarily a zero-sum game. Look at the concentration of their touches (Pjanic on the left, Totti on the right), it's almost as if they're tracking one another, pushing and pulling each other up the pitch. Once they approached the eighteen, Totti went wide while Pjanic remained central. Indeed, when one looks at their passing from this match, this notion is reinforced. Pjanic's passes were largely forward, while Totti's lateral and backwards passes, to Pjanic and others, served to hold up play. Their movements, touches, and passes each had purpose; each enabling the other to move forward and find space to create.
It's just a wonderful example of the subtle synchronicity these two have developed this season. Garcia's attack flourishes by affording its two best talents the freedom to operate; he gives them a general parameter, allowing them to find a way to succeed, rather than jamming them into a confine in which they must succeed.
Sometimes the best leaders just get out of the way.
Maturation of Miralem
While we've spent the bulk of our time here detailing how the various idiosyncrasies of managerial tactics have impacted the growth and development of Miralem Pjanic as a player, we might just be witnessing a confluence of opportunity and talent. When we talk about talent, we speak not only of Pjanic, but of the ten men surrounding him.
There was a time when Pjanic was flanked by the likes of Fernando Gago, Bojan, Jose Angel, Simplicio and Panagiotis Tachtsidis. It's amazing how playing with world class players like Kevin Strootman and the rejuvenated Daniele De Rossi can bring the best out of a Bosnian, isn't it?
Then there is the matter of simply playing. As we mentioned, Pjanic saw a sharp decline in his playing time once Enrique left Roma, fighting for playing time with any of the luminaries mentioned above. And this wasn't really a phenomenon unique to his time in Roma, either
Starting with his last season in Metz in 2007-2008, where he appeared in 71% of the possible Ligue 1 minutes, Pjanic, due to injury and squad rotations, has struggled to find a consistent place in any lineup prior to this season. Moving from Metz to Lyon was perhaps the starkest example of this, as he minutes fell by 50% off the previous year's levels. During his four seasons at Lyon, his league minutes fluctuated wildly. Consider this year-to-year range: 694, 2444, 1452 and 160...to say Pjanic never found a home in Lyon would be an understatement.
So, while we can credit the subtle differences between Rudi Garcia and his predecessors, the simple fact might be that this convergence of squad, system, and opportunity has finally created an environment in which Pjanic can flourish.
Since turning pro in 2007, Pjanic has played for eight different managers, four alone in his three years at Roma. Finally capturing the confidence of a manager, one who believes in him, one who trusts him, and one who has carved out a position specifically for him, has surely done wonders for Pjanic's confidence. After all, it is far easier to succeed, to take risks, and to prosper when you're not constantly worried about your spot in the lineup. And when that lineup features some of the best talent the league has to offer, it's not hard to see why Pjanic is succeeding.
Last season we proclaimed Erik Lamela as the heir to Totti's throne; a successor to Franecso as Roma's greatest goal scorer. What Roma has in Pjanic, however, is an heir of a different sort; a more direct sort.
Granted, Pjanic probably won't end up scoring 200+ goals, but if ever there were a player who can fill the playmaking wake Totti has created, it's Pjanic. What once lay dormant, waylaid by the whims of the men charged with his development, is suddenly stirring, leaving dour faced defenders in its wake.
Rudi Garcia has found the key to maximizing Miralem. All it took was a little patience.
*heat maps via squawka.com*