Part of what makes Roma's youth corps so impressive is the depth and breadth with which Walter Sabatini scours the globe to unearth the next big thing. The next two young men in our countdown are neither Roman nor Italian, and, quite frankly, they've barely featured for the senior team, if at all. However, as we mentioned in our initial installment, much of this countdown is based on what these players might become, and when it comes to the prospective careers of Tin Jedvaj and Tonny Sanabria, the sky may be the limit.
Before we continue, here's a quick reminder about the parameters of this exercise. For the sake of time and continuity, all players in this countdown are 23-years-old and younger and our assessments weigh what they've already achieved (either at the youth or senior level) and what they might become in the near and distant future.
So, without further ado, we present you with Roma's eighth rated prospect.
Number Eight: Tin Jedvaj
6'2" (188 cm), 18-years-old, two Serie A appearances
Given his age and inexperience, one could argue that simply being picked up by Roma was his greatest accomplishment; after all, Jedvaj had little more than 1,000 professional minutes under his belt with Dinamo Zagreb before making the leap to Serie A. In 13 appearances for Zagreb in the 2012-2013 season, Jedvaj scored one goal and contributed one assist. Not mind blowing numbers in any regard, but he was just 17-years-old and did help the club capture two cups.
After making the leap to the peninsula, Jedvaj made seven appearances for the Primavera squad, grabbing one goal in roughly 500 minutes. But, whether it was due to his impressive form with Zagreb or simply his boyish good looks, Jedvaj got the call from Rudi Garcia last season, earning two senior team call-ups.
To date, Jedvaj's Roma career consists of roughly 100 minutes of action, spread out over four months, including going the full 90 in the season's final match, a 1-0 loss to Genoa. Though the sample size was incredibly small, it was promising nonetheless, as Jedvaj completed 96% of his passes, managed 10 clearances and two interceptions, won 50% of his tackles and 67% of his aerial duels. It was but a glimpse of what he might become: an agile, intuitive and efficient defender.
Jedvaj has also featured for Croatia at the youth level since he was 16-years-old, including three matches at the U-21 level. Jedvaj is currently on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, where he will remain until the end of the 2015-2016 season; he is under contract with Roma through 2018.
Obviously, given that he is still very much a rookie, much of our faith and optimism in Jedvaj is rooted in potential. But, man, oh, man, the kid is loaded with it.
Before we deal with the what ifs and maybes, let's discuss some simple physics. Jedvaj is already a physical specimen, standing 6'2" and clocking in at a svelte 175ish lbs. Given what we've already seen from him, the extremely early evidence suggests he's already quite adept at using his size to his advantage.
Furthermore, at only 18-years-old and barely 18 months into his professional career, imagine what he might become with a few more years of professional training and maturation. Even if he never grows another inch, add another 10 pounds of muscle onto that frame, and Roma has a beast on their hands, a versatile one at that.
Throughout his admittedly brief youth career, Jedvaj, a right footer, has not only featured as both a left and right center back, but has branched out to full back and even defensive midfielder. While this isn't too uncommon for a player like Jedvaj, what puts him a slight step above Alessio Romagnoli is his sheer athleticism, his first touch, his strength on the ball, and his understanding of the game, which is particularly advanced for a kid still a few months shy from his 19th birthday.
As you can see, not only does he have a keen sense of timing, but he's remarkably strong going into tackles and effective in the air. However, what is perhaps most impressive (relative to other defenders his age) is his pace, ability on the ball, and distribution from the back. At this point, at least in terms of building blocks, Jedvaj is lacking very little.
Room for Improvement
This will undoubtedly be a reoccurring theme in this series, but there's no way around it; when dealing with players this young, experience is the key; Jedvaj needs to play and play often. So we can only hope that his two year stint at Leverkusen, beyond being only two years, is a productive one.
The book on Jedvaj is so incredibly short, it's tough to pick out one particular area in need of improvement, but his base skillset and understanding of football is so advanced for a player his age (not Marquinhos level, mind you), that he simply needs match minutes to bring them all together. He needs to suffer the rigors of being a week-in-week-out starter, to learn what it takes on and off the pitch to be a professional, and how to maintain focus and determination over the course of a 2,500-3,000 minute season.
However, if we must pick out a few points of trouble, Jedvaj could stand to improve his off the ball focus and hope that his 96% passing from last season wasn't an aberration; not that he'll ever maintain that, but the closer he is to 90%, the better he'll be. Beyond that, in order to fulfill his vast potential, Jedvaj simply needs exposure to football at the highest levels. So, provided he actually plays for Leverkusen, the Bundesliga should fill this need in spades.
So much of Roma's defensive future depends on the Mehdi Benatia situation. If Benatia stays for the length of his contract (2018), Jedvaj would return to Roma as a 21-year-old at the start of the 2016-2017 season, when Benatia and Castan would both be approaching age 30, putting Jedvaj in prime position to compete with Romagnoli for the third centerback spot, assuming Davide Astori is no longer in the picture. However, should Benatia head for greener pastures in the next two weeks, when Jedvaj returns to the club, he could be in the thick of the battle for starters minutes, going toe-to-toe with Romagnoli, Astori (if his option is picked up) and whomever Roma grabs as Benatia's immediate replacement.
While his short term future in Roma is cloudy, his deeper understanding of the game and greater physical tools should keep him a step ahead of Romagnoli on the developmental ladder, provided he gets the necessary minutes abroad. As for what he may ultimately become, the world may very well be his oyster. He does, in many ways, remind one of Mehdi Benatia, both in terms of stature and playing style, so we'll consider that the high water mark, keeping in mind that Benatia was sort of a late bloomer himself.
Time will tell of course, but Jedvaj has all the physical capabilities and intangibles one desires in a defender, so you should feel completely justified in your excitement; he's legit.
The next kid in our countdown is just as unproven, but every bit as laden with potential as Jedvaj, though in an extremely different mold.
Number Seven: Antonio "Tonny" Sanabria
18-years-old, 5'11" (1.8m), zero Serie A appearances
Anyone who follows football would (or should) readily admit that, given the extremely long odds of being a top flight professional, simply making it to Barcelona's famed academy, La Masia, is an achievement in and of itself, one Sanabria accomplished as a 13-year-old. Although Sanabria never joined Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou, he scored three goals in ten appearances for Barca's B squad prior to making the move to Italy.
In a strange twist, Sanabria actually turned down a contract extension from Barca in order to test himself on the transfer market, making the Blaugrana's loss Roma's potential gain. In a quintessentially Italian deal, Sanabria was "transferred" to Sassuolo for €4.5m last season, with an understanding that he would join Roma full-time in July, with the fee potentially rising to €12m. We mention this simply because Sanabria has, to date, not featured for Roma at any level, having only made two appearances for Sassuolo last season. So while his club accomplishments are effectively nil, his reputation has not suffered because of it; you don't go for twelve million if you're a scrub.
Despite his lack of club statistics, Sanabria has already shown enough promise to earn three senior caps for Paraguay.
Sanabria is a right-footed center forward and, based on the limited evidence available, seems as dangerous on the ball as he is off it, and you'll even notice he bangs home the occasional goal with his weaker left foot.
Given that set of circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Sanabria is a threat virtually everywhere on the pitch, and while he may not be able to dance around defenders at the senior level like he did for Barca's B squad, he is more than capable of creating his own shot, and as we saw it that video, the kid certainly knows how to move effectively without the ball. He is very much a center forward for the 21st century, possessing size, agility and technique for days.
Room for Improvement
We'll pick up right where we left off, stature. While he's certainly tall enough to survive life in the Italian trenches, in order to stave off Serie A defenders, Sanabria needs to add some bulk to his somewhat slender frame. Now, don't get me wrong, he's not El Flaco, but some additional strength certainly wouldn't hurt his game.
Beyond bulking up, Sanabria simply needs match time. As is often the case with offensive prodigies making the leap to bigger clubs, Sanabria needs to learn how to operate within a broader tactical setup, to learn how to be a smaller fish in a much bigger pond. This isn't Barcelona B, Roma's attack won't revolve around Sanabria's skills and desires, at least not in the foreseeable future, so he needs to develop a deeper understanding of attacking football, how and where to link up with his teammates, and to understand how his movements impact his teammates ability to operate efficiently and effective, and vice versa.
When dealing with a kid as talented as Sanabria, these are seemingly minor and generic details, but they can often spell the difference between being an impact guy or simply a role player. He has the necessary gifts and composure to succeed at the highest level; he just needs to be patient, to be mindful, and to soak up all the knowledge and collective insight from his more experienced teammates. Under the tutelage of Rudi Garcia, and simply by watching Francesco Totti, Miralem Pjanic and even Mattia Destro, Roma might be best petri dish for Sanabria's developing career.
Sanabria is only 18-years-old and is under contract through 2019, so time is very much on his side. Given how much attacking talent Roma has, and their clamoring for an experienced player to back up Mattia Destro, don't be surprised if Sanabria endures a short-term loan somewhere in the near future. However, as it currently stands, Sanabria stands only behind Destro and Borriello on the center forward depth chart, and given Borriello's hit or miss history with Roma, Sanabria may very well be the prime reserve this season.
You may notice in that video a split screen comparing Sanabria's movement to none other than Diego Maradona. While I wouldn't go that far, as far as contemporary comparisons go, take your pick. Sanabria has size and agility, his left foot is weaker in name only, he can move in space and he can create his own shot, so the options are pretty vast. Just like any other player in the game, what he may become depends on the team around him and his manager's tactical preferences, but he's nearly as talented as any teenager in the sport today.
So what do we think? Can Sanabria make an impact this season? Will we ever see Jedvaj in Roma again?