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Can Alessandro Florenzi Make it as a Fullback?

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Paolo Bruno

As we witnessed this summer, despite their ability to spend big in small doses, budgetary concerns remain an issue for Roma. Although we don't know the extent to which balancing the books will control Roma's market aims each season, we can safely assume that, like any other business, finding in-house solutions affords more financial flexibility in the long run. If Roma can find inefficiencies or overlooked assets within their own setup to exploit for footballing and financial gains, they'll come out a step ahead in the long run.

This rambling moneyball-esque opening paragraph skirted around a major issue for Roma, their never-ending quest for a serviceable full back. We've discussed this quite a bit over the years, but full backs are a scarce and increasingly expensive commodity; you either pay top dollar for one and hang onto them for dear life, or you roll the dice on an unproven but athletic specimen and hope they can learn on the fly. Either way, recruiting a top full back can be an expensive endeavor, both in capital and time.

Given this set of circumstances, there is an idea currently bouncing between the Seven Hills of Rome, one that could prove to be remarkably cost efficient and football effective, freeing up funds to be splurged elsewhere and transforming a man seemingly without a position into a valuable commodity. We're talking, of course, about the underground movement to make Alessandro Florenzi a permanent fixture at right back.

But why? Why has this movement gained steam? What is it about Florenzi that suggests he can make such a monumental shift?

Through his first two seasons in Roma, he has already experienced success at multiple positions, while his team-first mentality and malleable skillset make him an ideal candidate for an early career position switch. Besides which, Florenzi does have some experience as a fullback, making approximately 10 starts as a right back during his developmental days at Crotone, and, of course, the few spot appearances during this summer's tour, so it's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.

But can he do it, or are there other, better alternatives?

To answer this question, we must first discuss what is required from fullbacks in the modern game.

While today's fullback doesn't need the strength of Hulk Hogan or the flair of the Ultimate Warrior to be successful, there are some key components they must possess to keep their jobs.

Defensive Capabilities
  • One v One: Pretty simple, really. The fullback must have the speed, acceleration and agility to keep up with the opponents wingers, often the most athletic players on the pitch.
  • Playing the man: Full backs must be able to body up opponents, decrease attacking space and denying them the ball to begin with, as well as being strong enough to physically move them into disadvantageous positions.
  • Playing in space: The ability cut off passing lanes and, by occupying and denying attacking space, force opponents into poor shot angles/positions
  • Playing the ball: Again, pretty simple. As we saw with Ashley Cole in week one, snuffing out counter attacks, often as the last line of defense, is critical, so they need to be proficient tacklers
  • Intelligence: Communicating with center backs to avoid offsides calls, being able to read an attack and predict passing sequences, knowing when to press and when to relent to avoid leaving gaps in the defense, and not allowing opposing wingers to dictate their positioning.
  • Calm under pressure: Beyond handling the opponent's paciest player, they must be comfortable clearing the ball in dangerous situations, often times with either foot.
Offensive Capabilities
  • Passing: Beyond simple, accurate passing, the ability to make quick lateral passes to escape pressure and build up an attack from the flanks.
  • Movement: Making themselves a viable target for their teammates in tight spaces, setting up and being a part of triangles, playing one-twos, overlapping, and running into empty space.
  • Dribbling: Not at a wingers level, but sharper on-the-ball skills gives the attack more options
  • Crossing: Self explanatory

This isn't an all-encompassing list, of course, and in terms of basic physical attributes, today's fullback needs pace, stamina and commitment.

So, how does Florenzi fit this bill?

Well, first and foremost, in terms of physical attributes, Florenzi is lacking little. Beyond a couple more inches (resist it ), Florenzi is fast enough, fit enough, and strong enough to be a full time fullback, while possessing an almost Gumpian love of running, so no worries there.

So, with that in mind, we'll center this discussion on Florenzi's tactical suitability for a switch to fullback.

Florenzi as an Attacking Fullback

We'll start with where he could theoretically excel in this role, offensively. As we saw last season, Florenzi's runs into space are indicative of his understanding of space and movement. Call it intuition or just good timing, Florenzi simply knows when to make a break for it and how and where to get on the end of a through ball. Part and parcel of being a strong off the ball player is an understanding and the ability to visualize how one's choices and movements dictate not only what your teammates can do, but how the opposition will react and/or capitalize on your spacing and movement.

As a winger, Florenzi appears to have this understanding; his runs are generally well timed and he seldom leaves his teammates hanging. But as a fullback, we'd have to question if these traits will translate when he's attacking from a more withdrawn position. And not only that, will the extra defensive load and increased energy expenditures take their toll on these runs; simply put, with added responsibilities and more ground to cover, will he have enough gas to make that incisive move when it's needed?

These are relatively minute concerns, because in terms of actual physical tools--size, pace, stamina--he's got what it takes, but what about the actual skills of an attacking full back, how does he stack up in that regard?

Well, not so hot.

Florenzi's crossing last season was woeful. In 37 appearances last season, Florenzi completed only seven crosses at a 15% clip, both of which were at or near the bottom on the club. Granted, this is somewhat reflective of Garcia's offensive tactics, as wingers/wide forwards don't actually do a ton of crossing (Gervinho only attempted 22 crosses). However, when we look at his 2012-2013 numbers, Florenzi was a far better crosser, both in terms of volume and precision. Under Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli, Florenzi managed 19 crosses, completing nearly 21% of them. The caveat here, of course, is that he played different roles under each man, which required varying amounts of service from the flanks.

So, what conclusions, if any, can we draw from that? Well, not a ton, unfortunately. It's a chicken-egg scenario-is he a poor crosser because he simply doesn't do it that often, or is he not allowed to because he's so bad at it?

His current function in Garcia's offense doesn't require a lot of crossing, so we can't really extrapolate much or make any inferences in how he'll perform in a larger, more crossing-dependent role. But, when we look at Roma's current right back, Maicon, we see that Garcia's fullbacks do indeed provide quite a bit of service from the flanks.

Big Doug's 0.7 crosses per match were second on the squad last season and he completed roughly 18% of his 113 attempts, while Federico Balzaretti and even Michel Bastos weren't far behind at 0.6 and 0.5 crosses per match, respectively, with each man completing over 20% of their attempts.

Crossing isn't the be all end all of a fullback, but it's a crucial component, and in this hypothetical scenario, Florenzi the fullback wouldn't be a threat in that regard. The same goes for Florenzi's one-v-one capabilities, where his 0.2 dribbles per match were dead last among Roma players last season, on par with offensive dynamo Leandro Castan. Not only that, he was successful in only 38% of his take-on attempts.

So, aside from his intuition and understanding of attacking football, Florenzi doesn't appear to cut the mustard as an attacking fullback, as he possesses neither the crossing nor dribbling capabilities required from a modern fullback.

Could he develop these if he was fully devoted to this position? It's certainly possible, but a club with Roma's ambitions doesn't have time for on-the-fly experimentation.

Defensive Duties

While the 21st century fullback isn't quite the stonewall his ancestors were, he still needs to understand the push and pull of the battle for space on the pitch, he should be an efficient and effective tackler, and should remain calm under pressure.

Again, I think we all have confidence in Florenzi's mental faculties, so in this instance, it would simply be a matter of viewing the equation from the other side--knowing when he can exploit the space vacated by the opposition and how gambling for an interception or a risky tackle can leave his center backs on an island.

Florenzi being a tactically intelligent and coachable player is nothing new, that's part of what makes him so special and so beloved; he seemingly has no ego and is willing to do what is asked of him, but what about the actual defensive skills required from a fullback? Does he even have them?

Now, this is the tricky part--we can't really rely on gross statistics because, quite simply, he's an attacking player, so we shouldn't expect his defensive numbers to be on par with Maicon, Castan or even Dodo, to say nothing of the league's best fullbacks.

However, if we want to weigh the effectiveness with which he tackles, we can look at his success rate, which, let me warn you, wasn't pretty. Florenzi was successful in only 37% of his tackle attempts last season, well behind the 50% and 51% thrown up by Roma's nominal starting fullback tandem last season, Maicon and Dodo. Hell, even when we compare him with his attacking brethren, he looks quite poor. Gervinho, Adem Ljajic, Mattia Destro and even Francesco Totti all bested Florenzi's 37% success rate last season.

Florenzi has the pace and stamina to stick with nearly any player on the pitch, so I have no doubt he could be a headache for any opposing winger, and while we can't really discern how his tackling numbers would change were he to make this transformation, the data we do have on hand isn't kind to Florenzi; whether it's down to technique, physique or poor timing, he wasn't an effective tackler last season.

In terms of the remaining standard metrics--blocks, interceptions, clearances--we'll spare you the gory details. Just know this, whether we're dealing with totals or averages, Florenzi ranked at or near the bottom of the club, averaging just 2.32 defensive actions per match.

Okay, Then Why Are We Here?

It's pretty clear that this debate--this hypothesis, this fairytale, whatever you want to call it--has taken root for two pretty simple reasons: no viable long term solution at right back and Florenzi's moldable skills and commitment to the club.

Barring a winter move for either Davide Santon or Matteo Darmian, Roma's future at rightback looks bleak, especially in light of Maicon's recent travails in Brazil. Our worst fears, that Maicon would be devoid of motivation following the World Cup, seem to be coming to fruition. Maicon was always meant to be a stopgap solution, but his already dithering commitment to his craft might render him useless sooner than we had anticipated.

This, then, leaves the club in an unenviable position: the in house option is already starting to show negative returns while simultaneously pining for a new deal, while the market options may prove to be cost prohibitive.

So, what we're left to ask is this: would the club ever afford Florenzi the time to actually grow and develop as a fullback? He has the physical traits to make the transition, but as we just discussed, the actual skills he would need to flourish as a fullback are in need of substantial fine tuning.

Would the investment in time, not to mention the opportunity cost of removing Florenzi from the forward rotation, be worth it? Would this be a more shrewd move than, say, plopping down €15m for Darmian?

Florenzi's understanding of the game, his stamina, and commitment to the club make him a prime candidate to make this switch, and even with his reported wage increase, if he could make this switch, he'd provide the club with tremendous value at a scarce position.

However, given the time and opportunity cost required to make this transformation, it doesn't seem in the best interests of the club or the player. Florenzi learning on the job as a right back would leave the club vulnerable in defense and would be a waste of his considerable skills, robbing Roma of a gifted forward.

But, there's just something about this kid that makes you think he can do it, which makes this whole fantasy even worth discussing in the first place.

So what should Roma do? Invest time in Florenzi or millions in Darmian or Santon?