We began our countdown of Roma's top ten under 23 prospects nearly three weeks ago, and since then we've covered local boys, Balkan prodigies, a Paraguayan sensation and the Turkish Lionel Richie, among others. Regardless of where you rank them, one thing is for certain, Roma is adept as any club at finding and securing young talent, and we haven't even mentioned their latest coup, 23-year-old Greek star Kostas Manolas, who would surely fall within the top five, were we to re-rank them.
So, what about the top two? Who takes the cake? Does Juan Iturbe's mega million dollar/euro price tag vault him over Mattia Destro's already impressive record?
To be honest, even as I'm writing this....literally this sentence right here....I'm vacillating. Iturbe has such phenomenal athleticism and can do so, so many things with the ball at his feet, that you tend to buy into the New Messi tag, and he's even got the necessary stature, or lack thereof. On the other hand, Destro, while not a flashy player, is just so *%& damn good at scoring the ball, while his movements and technique, though subtle, are incredibly effective and so, so important in a broader tactical sense.
Point being, reasons abound for either player to grab the top spot, some understated, some obvious.
It is somewhat ironic, or perhaps even poetic, that Destro and Iturbe have landed on top of this heap. So much of what they do and what they need to be successful depends on what the other man brings to the table. Iturbe's pace and service from the flanks will no doubt provide Destro with many clear cut scoring chances, while Destro's positioning and movement will give Iturbe room to operate in the first place. Due to this same combination of speed and spacing, Destro and Gervinho proved to be one of the most dangerous scoring combos in Serie A last season; throw in Iturbe's vastly superior crossing and, well, Destrinho might have some competition for the league's top scoring combo.
It's no stretch of the truth to call Destro and Iturbe two of the most exciting prospects in the league. So, when debating between the two of them, we're really splitting hairs; this is really more of a 1 and 1a scenario...but here it is.
Number Two: Juan Iturbe
21-years-old, 5'7" (1.72m), 33 Serie A appearances, eight goals, four assists
While going for the tidy sum of €22m a few weeks after your 21st birthday is a feat in and of itself, the man Rudi Garcia calls Manu (which, as a Manu Ginobili fan, I love and will use) does have a few actual accomplishments to his name already.
Manu (see, told you) started his career in his native Paraguay, making his professional debut at age 16 for Cerro Porteño, a club about which I know nothing. Due to his age at the time, Iturbe was not allowed to sign a professional contract with the Paraguayan side, instead training in neighboring Argentina with Quilmes. The lack of match time and a discernable employer did not dim Iturbe's star, however, as his status as the New Messi was known to the folks in Porto, who wasted little time in bringing Iturbe across the Atlantic.
Iturbe's time in Porto was incredibly brief, spanning only seven appearances before being loaned to River Plate, for whom he made 17 appearances, scoring three goals and contributing two assists during the tail end of the 2012-2013 season.
South American sensations bouncing back and forth between Europe and their native lands, living off of reputation and their always untapped potential, is a story as old as time itself. Fortunately for Iturbe and Roma, once he found a suitable home in Serie A, that potential quickly became a reality.
Iturbe's transition to life in Europe was practically seamless, as he soon found a spot in Verona's XI and formed an instant connection with Luca Toni. Altogether, Iturbe amassed eight goals and four assists in league play, good for second and third on Verona, respectively. But where Iturbe truly shined was with the ball at his feet, where his 99 dribbles were second to only Juan Cuadrado in Serie A and among the best marks in all of Europe.
Unless you were a diehard Verona fan last season or you were like many of us, simply caught in Luca Toni's vortex and unable to avert your gaze from their matches, you probably only had an inkling of what Iturbe could do on the pitch. Suffice it to say, the glimpses we've caught this summer have been scintillating. Iturbe with the ball at his feet is already one of the league's deadliest weapons, one which will grow more dangerous as he adjusts to his new, more talented surroundings.
Although he makes his money on the flanks, the bulk of Iturbes key passes last season came directly in front of the goal, a testament to his ability to cut in and create in the middle of the park; a highly desirable skill in an offense as intricate and as fluid as Rudi Garcia's. Ditto for his dribbles, as one would imagine, when you beat defenders off the ball 99 times in your rookie season, there really are no constraints to where your damage is wrought.
Lest you think Iturbe is a one trick pony, or worse, a selfish player, consider his crosses, which were ample and accurate. Manu averaged 0.8 crosses per match last season, completing an impressive 23%, figures which would have both ranked third on Roma last season, and were leaps and bounds ahead of Roma's wide forwards, Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi. In fact, Iturbe more than doubled their combined crossing output, 26 to 10. While this could have be a factor of Roma and Verona's respective approaches last season, it now gives Garcia's attack an added threat.
And then there's the simple matter of his scoring ability, which isn't even close to being fully developed. In a somewhat strange twist, despite his ability to beat virtually any defender on the planet anywhere on the pitch at any moment, Iturbe settled for a fair share of shots from distance last season. But here's the thing, 75% of his goals last season came from beyond 18-yards--yes, some free kicks may have been involved. Point being, in addition to dodging defenders at will, Iturbe proved to be effective from deeper, lower percentage scoring areas last season.
I think by now you're getting the point, Iturbe is as multifaceted as they come. He can take you off the dribble, he can shoot from distance, he's dangerous in set pieces and he's an accurate and prolific crosser of the ball, and he can even draw his share of fouls.
Oh, and there's that speed. Mercy, mercy me, this kid can run. While he may not have the flat out, end-to-end speed of Gervinho, his acceleration is jaw dropping. If Gervinho is an F-16, Iturbe is a UFO; his ability to go from stand still to full tilt is otherworldly.
Come to think of it, why isn't he number one!?
Room For Improvement
Well, as with any player his age, there are some finer points in need of refinement. Despite his ability to cross the ball more accurately than some of his more experienced peers, his overall passing ain't so fancy. Last season, Iturbe completed only 73% of his passes, a level of inaccuracy only "bested" by Luca Toni among Verona outfield players who saw any significant time last season, and well behind Gervinho and Florenzi's rates last year.
Perhaps he was too jumpy, too focused on beating defenders, or simply lacking in tactical understanding to know when and where to find teammates, but this was the lone black mark on an otherwise flawless rookie season.
Beyond an uptick in passing, Iturbe was somewhat careless with the ball and/or easily dispossessed last season. On average, Manu was dispossessed two times per match and turned the ball over an additional two times per match. These four TO/DPs per match was Verona's second highest mark behind, you guessed it, Luca Toni.
Granted, Iturbe's flaws were, to an extent, functions of his role in Verona's offense last season, which was quite large. Given how often the ball was at his feet, his high dispossession and turnover numbers were somewhat understandable. After all, Totti is at or near the top of these same categories for Roma nearly every season, but a small measure of patience and a better tactical understanding should ease these somewhat, as Iturbe should develop a better sense of when to wait and when to risk it, and let's face it, his supporting cast is infinitely better at Roma, so his passing numbers should naturally improve.
Once again, these are two fold. There is no doubt Iturbe will play quite often this season, the only real question is at which point Garcia will jump in with both feet and make Iturbe the de facto starter. Given the Florenzi-at-fullback experiment we saw this summer, Iturbe's starting slot is blocked only by Adem Ljajic, our third-rated prospect. Iturbe's pace, acceleration and ability on the ball make him a threat all over the pitch, so it will be exciting to see how his leash grows as the season wears on; how much room to roam will Garcia grant him and how soon?
In the long run, the New Messi tags should fall by the wayside because...well, because he's Messi, that's why. However, given his stature, his ability to blow past defenders, to create all over the pitch, to threaten from set pieces and provide service from the flanks, perhaps Luca Toni was onto something when he compared Iturbe to Franck Ribery. In fact, one could argue that Iturbe is further along in his development than Ribery was at 21-years-old, playing a larger role on more reputable clubs.
Ribery may not sell the sodas quite like Messi, but I think we'd all settle for that version of second best, right?
The Dividing Line
So what exactly separates Iturbe from our number one prospect Mattia Destro, you ask?
Simple: equal parts production, projection and author favoritism.
It wasn't easy, and as I mentioned, the difference is miniscule. Destro has the longer and more productive track record, particularly in Serie A, while his career is more projectable than Iturbes. Could Manu end up the superior player? Of course, but Mattia Destro already has what it takes to be one of the best at his position. His tactical movements, shot accuracy and scoring efficiency have been among the league's best over the course of his young career. These traits, coupled with a bit of luck and longevity, should lift Destro to enormous heights. These aren't slights against Iturbe, mind you, and he may very well be one of Serie A's best wingers in a matter of years, but at this stage in the game, Destro is Roma's best prospect.
Listen, I'll level with you. I love me some Mattia Destro. I love the corner flag grinding, the deal with it gif, the beard, the number 22 and, yes, the insanely and objectively beautiful fiancée.
Destro isn't as destructive as Zlatan, he's not as flashy as Ronaldinho, nor is he a physical specimen like Mario Balotelli, but do you know what he is? He's clinically efficient, extremely effective and he understands how his movement and positioning effect not only his ability to score, but his team's chances for success. These are all qualities that tend to age well; Destro's success is not, and probably never will be, predicated on sheer athleticism.
Number One: Mattia Destro
23-years-old 5'11" (1.81m), 87 Serie A appearances, 33 goals, nine assists
Considering how much love he gets from the tifosi already, you'd think Destro was one of their own, but Mr. Right was actually born in the commune of Ascoli Piceno in the Marche region, a stone's throw from the Adriatic coast. Nor was he a product of the Roman youth system, instead coming up through Inter's youth academy, for whom he would shine at all levels, winning club and individual honors at the U-15 and U-16 levels.
Destro capped off his youth career by scoring 18 goals in the 2009-2010 Primavera season. Technically speaking, Destro also won the Champions League that season by virtue of being Inter's token homegrown player.
Given his ascendance in Inter's youth set up, it came as somewhat of a surprise that he, or part of his contractual rights to be more accurate, were sent to Genoa in exchange for Andrea Ranocchia. As it turned out, this was the final fruit borne from the Destro-Inter relationship.
Destro made his Serie A debut for Genoa in September 2010, scoring the lone goal in Genoa's 3-1 loss to Chievo. Destro would make 16 appearances for the Grifone, grabbing a pair of goals along the way, before transferring to Siena in 2011 in yet another co-ownership deal.
Destro's move to Siena proved to be fortuitous, as he bagged a club-leading dozen goals during the 2011-2012 season, good for 10th in the league, while his per 90 rate was eighth in the league. Anyway you sliced it that year, Destro ranked among the league's best and brightest goals scorers...at 20-years-old.
This, quite naturally, drew Roma's attention, who successfully navigated a three way negotiation with Genoa and Siena during the summer of 2012, technically taking Destro on loan from Genoa for €11.5m with an option to buy for an additional €4.5m, pushing Destro's total tag to €16m.
His five Coppa Italia goals notwithstanding, Destro's first season in Rome was essentially washed out by injuries, which lingered through the end of 2013. However, when Destro did return to the pitch in 2014, he put on a master class of finishing. In only 20 appearances last season, Destro notched 13 goals, good for a league leading 0.95 goals per 90 minutes, which was fifth in all of Europe. Destro also converted an eye-popping 37% of his shots into goals last spring.
Across all competitions in his Roma career, Destro has scored 24 goals in 49 appearances, and has scored one goal in five Azzurri call ups.
You don't need a PhD to dissect Destro's game; he's as true a striker as you'll find in the game today, making his home right at the goal mouth. But it's what he does once he's there that is so impressive. Destro was incredibly accurate and efficient inside the area last season, particularly when you consider how little of the ball he actually saw.
Destro ranked 44th in total shot attempts, some 120 attempts behind Mario Balotelli, who grabbed only one more goal than Destro, yet he put a club leading 63% of his shots on target last season and converted an absurd 37% of those shots into goals. In that light, Destro begins to look like a Miroslav Klose type striker, one who remains extremely efficient and accurate despite his low usage rate. In other words, his effectiveness isn't tied to a lot of touches.
While these traits aren't as sexy as a flurry of step overs or other forms of self-aggrandizement, they are characteristics required of any top striker and ones which, as Klose proves, age quite well. Destro won't grab headlines with his athleticism or creativity, but his efficiency, his technique and his movements make him a star.
And it's precisely because of those movements many have labeled him as a poacher, which is selling his abilities and intellect short. Whatever label we assign him, Destro just seems to be able to read the game from 10,000 feet, to see the forest for the trees, not only knowing when and where to be to grab a goal, but knowing and understanding how to manipulate space, and how his movements impact his chances and those of his teammates. These aren't easily quantifiable traits, granted, but they go miles in determining the efficiency, effectiveness and success of Garcia's offense.
This isn't to say that Destro is some sort of lumbering beast capable of only scoring within a six yard radius in front of the goal. Although not his strong suit, Destro is skilled with ball at his feet and has enough speed and agility to threaten from wider positions, where he featured several times under Zdenek Zeman watchful eye.
Listen, Mattia Destro isn't attempting to re-invent the wheel here, but he has everything one craves in a striker; he knows how to move in space, how to get on the end of a cross, and how to finish. And what's more, he does it all with exceptional efficiency and accuracy.
Plus, you know...this
Room For Improvement
The recurring theme throughout this section of our countdown has been simple on the job training, and even for our top prospect, the song remains the same. Despite his superior ability to operate in space and to anticipate the movements of teammates and defenders alike, Destro was caught offsides quite a bit last season. Destro's 0.8 offsides calls per match led the club while his 15 total were second only to Gervinho's 20, who had 13 more appearances to his name. Offsides calls can crush momentum, and even worse, decide matches, so Destro must master the minutiae of timing his runs towards the box. Football history is laden with talented strikers done under by this subtle skill.
Beyond jumping the gun too often, Destro needs to become more ingrained in the attack; take more touches, take on more defenders and create more chances for his teammates. Granted, the extent to which he is required to do these things is wholly dependent on Garcia's formations and tactics, but no player ever suffered from improved playmaking skills.
If it sounds as though I'm being soft on Destro, I'm not. Roma's offense, as currently constituted, doesn't require Destro to facilitate the attack, particularly not in any sort of false nine way, so his relatively weak passing and playmaking capabilities don't limit Roma's offensive options.
The fact of the matter is, once Francesco Totti retires, the whole game changes...for everyone. We simply have no idea how Roma will play football once Totti exits stage left. As Totti's nominal replacement in the middle of a 4-3-3 attack, Destro might see a greater playmaking onus fall on his shoulders when that dark day comes, so any gains he can make in the passing game will benefit Roma in the long run.
And, as strange as it might sound, Destro needs to be a bit more selfish. He's simply too talented and too clinical in the final third to settle for so few attempts. But, once again, things will change once #10 cedes his throne and the ball finds a new planet around which to orbit.
Bottom line, what Destro does--moving off the ball, shooting and finishing--he does exceedingly well, league-leading well, and where he falters is a concern dependent upon managerial tactics and the post-Totti landscape.
Welp, first off, let's hope he's playing for Roma this season (insert worried emoji), otherwise...sorry, Manu, you're number one!
In all seriousness, barring injury or a temporary moment of insanity from Walter Sabatini, Destro should be firmly in Roma's plans this season, providing Garcia with a direct threat up front and eclipsing 2,000 minutes for the first time in his Roma career.
With the addition of Juan Iturbe, Roma now has legitimate speed and playmaking on either flank, which should make for plenty of clear cut scoring chances for Destro. Mattia's movement and spacing are ideal complements to the speed and passing of Roma's wingers, so if he can stay healthy, 20 goals isn't an unreasonable expectation.
In the long run, the world may very well be in the palm of his hands. If he can cut down on the offsides, improve his passing, and become just a bit more selfish and show more initiative on the ball, he can fit into virtually any offensive setup and be an annual threat for 15-20 goals. He could be an Inzaghi, a Klose or even a Christian Vieri.
Whatever the future holds, Destro already has all the makings of a classic striker, one whose efficiency and effectiveness will age well, portending a long and successful career.