Over the past week-and-a-half, we've run through six of Roma's top ten under-23 prospects, many of whom have barely featured for the senior squad, yet their talent, their commitment and, let's face it, a little bit of luck, will determine the extent to which they're able to cash in on their enormous potential. This isn't a trivial concern, either. James Pallotta's much publicized and oft repeated mission statement is to make Roma a top sporting brand. Not just football, all of sports. Pallotta wants Roma mentioned in the same breath as the Yankees, Barcelona, the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Knicks and even Ferrari's F1 team. Without a massive investment in the transfer market each and every summer, his ability to reach such lofty heights will ultimately depend on the development of kids like Salih Uçan, Alessio Romagnoli and Leandro Paredes, among others.
Roma is taking a calculated gamble by investing so heavily in their youth movement, perhaps more than at any other point in the club's history, so you can expect these kids to picked apart many more times before all is said and done.
Now that we've come to the top four prospects in Roma's system, potential somewhat cedes to production, as some of these young men have already earned their Serie A stripes. However, that doesn't mean these players are finished products (far from it), nor does it mean that they're clear-cut future superstars. All players have issues, particularly young'uns, but the final four were a clear cut above the rest, though ranking the top four in and of itself was pretty tough.
While I'm sure we can debate the precise order of these four gentlemen, we'll start off with a homegrown kid who has already won the hearts and minds of Rome.
Number Four: Alessandro Florenzi
23-years-old, 5'7" (1.73m), 74 Serie A appearances, nine goals, 12 assists
Florenzi, a born and bred Roman, shot through the youth ranks, banking 14 goals in 26 appearances for the Primavera all before the age of 20. Given that meteoric rise, it was no surprise to see Florenzi receive a call up at the conclusion of the 2011 season, making his Serie A debut on May 22, 2011 against Sampdoria, coming on as a substitute for none other than Francesco Totti; an auspicious debut for a local boy if there ever was one.
From there, Florenzi would spend one season on loan at Crotone, where he would grab 11 goals and dish out two assists in 35 appearances during the 2011-2012 Serie B season, before becoming a Roma regular under the guidance of Zdenek Zemen, for whom he would make 24 appearances during ZZ's ill-fated return to Rome in 2012.
Last fall, we discussed Florenzi's rise in greater detail, particularly the respective roles he played under Zeman, Aurelio Andreazzoli and Rudi Garcia. But, as we're all aware, last season was his true coming out party. In 37 appearances in Roma's record campaign, Florenzi scored six goals and contributed seven assists, making him one of only six players league wide to reach that combination, placing him alongside such stars as Totti, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Luca Toni.
Unfortunately, this performance wasn't good enough to merit inclusion in Italy's World Cup squad, but young Ale has four senior caps for the Azzurri and figures to be a key component going forward.
Being what they are, it's only natural that Florenzi's goals and assists garner the most attention, but describing Florenzi's playing style is nearly a fool's errand; he can just do so many things, and do them well. Initially, we all thought of Ale as the new Simone Perrotta, a glue guy who does all the small things that enable his more famous teammates to succeed, known more for his movements and mechanics rather than offensive contributions. However, that all changed the moment Garcia came to town.
Utilized on the right flank of Garcia's 4-3-3, Florenzi formed an instant connection with his teammates, holding up play and allowing the likes of Miralem Pjanic and Maicon to advance up field, while also making himself a target for Totti in the final third. Take a look at our goals of the year collection and you'll notice that Florenzi was involved in quite a few of them, not simply because of ridiculous finishes like this, but because Florenzi knows where to be and just seems to have that ability to make plays when the club needs them most.
At this stage in his development, Florenzi is best known for his work-rate, positioning and steadily improving finishing, traits which should keep him employed for as long as his Roman heart desires.
Room for Improvement
While it's great to have players as versatile as Alessandro Florenzi in your squad, that versatility can sometimes come at a cost, namely, a failure to hone in any one skill in particular. Florenzi has featured as a midfielder, a winger and even a fullback; three different positions requiring drastically different skill sets and mental approaches. We don't doubt his ability to fill any of these roles, it's just the constant shuffling between these positions comes at the cost of a refinement in any one of them.
Having said that, despite his brief cameos at right back this summer, given what he achieved last season, Florenzi's movement and ability to make the "big play" seem best suited for an advanced role. If his future does indeed rest up front, Florenzi will need to improve his overall passing precision, particularly on crosses, where he lagged behind Roma's other attacking players.
Furthermore, although he contributed seven assists last season, he only created 14 chances, which means he's either an incredibly, incredibly efficient playmaker or the recipient of a little bit of luck. Time will ultimately tell, of course, but his 0.33 chances created per 90 minutes was dead last on the club, so you'd like to see him become more prolific and efficient in creating chances for his teammates.
And while Florenzi gives a good effort on defense, his tackling could use some work, as he was successful in only 37% of attempts last season, which would obviously be a larger concern should he play any significant minutes as a fullback.
Florenzi has such a vast skillset and an unquestioned loved for the game and club, so at this point, it's simply a matter of Garcia giving him a defined role so he can smooth out the edges and form an identity as a footballer.
Much as it was last season, Florenzi's production will only be limited by Garcia's ability to work him into a crowded forward rotation that includes Totti, Mattia Destro, Gervinho, Adem Ljajic and now Juan Iturbe. However, with European play throw into the mix, Florenzi seems a safe bet for at least 2,000 minutes, if not more. For Florenzi lovers, your only concern should be the extent to which Ale can distinguish himself from his more flashy teammates; if the season is on the line, who would Garcia turn to on the right flank, Florenzi or Iturbe?
At some point during this season, Florenzi will eclipse 100 Serie A appearances, an incredible feat for a player not yet 24-years-old, and, as we've seen thus far, he can do a little bit of everything, qualities which initially provoked the Perrotta comparisons. While those are still valid, if Florenzi can become just a bit more efficient in his playmaking and goal scoring, he can become much, much more.
At the end of the day, Florenzi's heart, desire and considerable skills will keep him draped in Roman colors for many, many years to come. He is, in mind, body and spirit, primed to assume the mantle of city icon from fellow Romans Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi.
Next up in our countdown is a man as renowned for his skill on the ball as he is for his love of a certain chocolate and hazelnut spread.
Number Three: Adem Ljajic
22-years-old, 5'11" (1.82m), 106 Serie A appearances
Where to begin? Ljajic signed with Partizan Belgrade in 2005 as a 14-year-old prodigy, making his debut three years later in a Champions League qualification match no less. Ljajic would go on to score five goals in 24 appearances during the 2008-2009 season, drawing the attention of Manchester United, back when, you know, that meant something. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of European work permits, Ljajic's move to United never came to fruition and the Mancs gave up their right to sign the young Serbian.
Ljajic would remain with Partizan through the end of 2009, scoring four goals in 14 appearances before signing a five-year deal with Fiorentina in January of 2010. If you've followed Serie A for even a short time, you probably know what happened next. Ljajic went through his ups and downs in his early Viola days, punctuated by his kerfuffle with Delio Rossi in the spring of 2012, when the former Fiorentina manager attempted to wring his neck after Ljajic reportedly mocked him following his removal from a match against Novara.
Ljajic was able to put that incident behind him and really began to flourish once Vincenzo Montella took the reins in Firenze. Adem's finest season in purple came in 2012-2013, when at age 21 he bagged 11 goals, eight assists and completed 88% of his passes. The advanced statistics were particularly kind to Ljajic that season, as he was in the league's top ten in goals and assists per 90 minutes. He did all that while averaging 1.6 key passes and 1.7 dribbles per match, being dispossessed on average only twice per match. These were just absurdly good numbers for a 21-year-old kid; Ljajic was strong on the ball, he could blow past defenders, set up his teammates and he put 50% of his shots on target. The future looked bright indeed.
His first season at Roma, while still strong, wasn't quite as prolific as his final year with Fiorentina, but Ljajic still managed six goals, five assists and completed 91% of his passes.
Ljajic has eight caps for Serbia at the senior level.
As we just mentioned, Ljajic, even at such a young age, is already famous for his poise on the ball, creativity, passing, through balls, key passes, long shots, free kicks, dribbling...you see where this is going, he's limited only by his imagination and engagement. If he's into it, he's damn near the perfect attacking footballer. And, what's more, tactically speaking, he's pretty diverse. Throughout his career, Ljajic has featured a straight-up attacking midfielder, a wide midfielder, a winger and a secondary striker.
We've talked a lot this summer about players that might fill the tactical void when Francesco Totti retires and Ljajic deserves to be front and center in that discussion. The amount of things this kid can do on the ball, for himself and others, is breathtaking. If he can get his head in the game, he's precisely the type of player who could thrive in Totti's role. Give him the freedom to roam and watch his vast skill set unfold as he orchestrates Roma's attack, picking out teammates left and right, and threatening the keeper from virtually anywhere on the pitch. Even if he remains a wide player, the possibilities are endless; he has the close control, composure and vision to be effective in a variety of offensive roles.
Quite simply, Adem Ljajic has it all.
Room for Improvement
Despite his reservoir of skills, there's a reason he's moved around a bit in his young career. Although we haven't seen it during his first 12 months with Roma, Ljajic carries with him a hint of prima donna. But is this an innate trait or simply a product of environment? Several of his teammates threw their support his way in the wake of the Delio Rossi incident, who was summarily dismissed anyway. His first season in Rome, despite the inconsistent minutes, didn't produce an ounce of drama.
Prima donna or not, the main plague to Ljajic's career has simply been effort and desire. If he had Florenzi's motor, he very well may have been out of Roma's price range to begin with. So, at this point we simply don't know if he has the drive to be a superstar, or if he's merely playing and collecting a check because football just happens to be something at which he excels.
In terms of his actual skills on the pitch, apart from some more efficient finishing and improved defensive contributions (see again, effort), there isn't much Ljajic is lacking, so his minute-to-minute focus and match-to-match/season-to-season desire to improve will be the determining factors in whatever measure of success Ljajic achieves, be it in Roma or elsewhere.
Ljajic has featured pretty regularly through this summer and should be right in the mix for some heavy minutes at forward, featuring on either flank and, on the rare occasions Garcia deviates from the 4-3-3, as a secondary striker. In each of the past two seasons, Ljajic notched roughly 1,600 league minutes, a figure which could increase dramatically if he shows a consistency of effort and begins to assert himself on the field.
Long term, the world is at his feet. If he can improve upon his 2012-2013 form, Ljajic may very well prove to be one of the best forwards in the game, one with pace, creativity, technique and vision. If, on the other hand, he can't manage to pull it together, his always tantalizing potential will see him bounce from port-to-port, with each fan base hoping that theirs will be the change of scenery he so desperately needs.
Honestly, we can even count ourselves among that horde. The mere mention of Ljajic leaving has thrown the best of us into hysterics; he's simply too young and too prodigiously talented to let go to waste. The thought of him of pulling it all together anywhere but Roma is enough to break the strongest of spirits.
Well, there's only two prospects left in our Under 23 countdown, and I'm sure you can deduce who's left, but in which order? Who will come out on top, the bearded flag grinder or diminutive dynamo?