In a season as frustrating and decidedly disappointing as this one, it can be tough to pick out the bright spots. Francesco Totti hasn't been quite as prolific as the past few seasons, but at 38-years-old he remains, albeit in shorter doses, one of the league's most dangerous attacking players, and Roma's fiercest threat by a mile. Alessandro Florenzi has done a serviceable job as a right back, while Daniele Verde and Leandro Paredes have given Roma fans a reason to be optimistic as we lurch towards the spring. While these are all interesting stories in their own right, today we put Kostas Manolas, Greece Lightning himself, front and center.
There will be some numbers in this piece, sure, but my esteem for Manolas is every bit irrational as it is reasoned. While Roma certainly isn't lacking in leadership (Totti and Morgan De Sanctis spring to mind), since the days of Luis Enrique, this team has suffered from a decided lack of balls/hutzpah/grinta; someone who doesn't shrink from confrontation, a man equally adept at taking a punch as he is at giving one, someone who simply doesn't give a fuck, red cards be damned. If you've ever laced up a pair of hockey skates, you know the value of such a man--how these acts of aggression can sometimes rally the whole squad, or how this simple injection of energy can turn around a match, if not an entire season. You can't really explain it, simply because it defies logic, but nearly every championship team, no matter the sport, has at least one of these guys: Dennis Rodman, Rob Gronkowski, Roy Keane, Claude Lemieux; the talented thug is far from an anomaly, appearing on title teams across the globe.
Consider this scrap with Alvaro Morata, and eventually all of Juve, as Exhibit A--the first piece of evidence in Manolas' case as Roma's talented thug-in-residence, aka the new Philippe Mexes. As far as I'm concerned, even if he never steps foot on the Olimpico again, he earned his Roma stripes by giving Morata a taste of his backhand so to speak. Out and out aggression is one thing, but look what happens when you splash that belligerence with some plain old fashion grinta:
When all is said and done this season, that might be my favorite passage of play; when's the last time you saw a center back close down an attacker like that? I have no doubt that Luis Cavanda can run faster than that, but that's precisely the point; he assumed he had Manolas beat, that no centerback in the league could (or would care to) close that gap, but he did...in the blink of an eye. And we're not talking about some sprite of a center half here, either; Manolas is nearly 6'2" and nearly 185 bills--that's a lot of man to move that fast.
Beyond his hustle and his huevos, Manolas has a bit of bravado. Seldom one to utilize the canned, PR-sanctioned responses, Greece Lighting has a bit of a silver tongue. Look no further than his introductory press conference. Brought in as an ostensible replacement for Mehdi Benatia, Manolas didn't mince words when first introduced to the Roman public, boldly proclaiming that Benatia was the past and he the present--big words, particularly from a 23-year-old making the leap from the Greek Superleague
But that's precisely what Manolas was and remains; a replacement for Benatia. So let's take a quick look at how they stack up.
Using their per 90 minute statistics with Roma as a basis for comparison, Manolas begins to look like a more than an adequate replacement for the Moroccan, staying within fractions of a point of Benatia in a host of statistical categories. Seeing as how I'm leading the Manolas charge here, let me offer a bit of context to further aid his case. Manolas is a full four years younger than Benatia and had zero Serie A experience coming into this season. Benatia, you may recall, spent three seasons at Udinese and was properly acclimatized to the league prior to moving to Roma. We simply cannot say enough about how quickly he's acclimated and excelled during his first season in Serie A.
Then there is the simple matter of their respective supporting casts. Benatia had the fortune of playing alongside a healthy Leandro Castan, a steady Federico Balzaretti and a fully rejuvenated Maicon. Manolas, meanwhile, is mired with the likes of Ashley Cole and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, while Maicon and Vasilis Torosidis have one good leg between them this season. In the wake of Castan's season ending brain surgery, Roma was in need of a rock, someone upon whom the rest of the defense can rely; Manolas has been that rock, seldom yielding to the pressure.
Back in August, we heralded this signing as one ripe with potential:
Although he's already a hell of a player and one with a bright future, in the immediate sense, Manolas must improve his positioning and distribution from the back, which are key elements for success in Garcia's system, but both are easily remedied in a player as young as Manolas...Is a 23-year-old Kostas Manolas better than a 27-year-old Mehdi Benatia? Of course not, but he profiles as a player capable of making tremendous strides over the next few years.
While passing percentage isn't a sole indicator of his ability to spring an attack from the backline, at 93%, Manolas is Roma's most accurate passer, so that's certainly a positive indicator. Furthermore, if we use offsides conceded, tackling success and dribbled past per game as yardsticks for his positioning, we see further signs of encouragement. While Manolas concedes 0.9 offsides per match (third most on the squad), he is only beaten off the dribble 0.5 times per match (second fewest among defenders) and wins 52% of his tackles. Depending on how you want to spin those figures we can say that, while his cohesive positioning still needs improving (see the offsides), in one-v-one scenarios, his lines of attack, angles, and judgments are all spot on; he knows when to pick his battles and does so quite efficiently for a player his age.
We've still got a ways to go, of course, but the early returns on Kostas Manolas are extremely promising. Manolas has the swagger and assertiveness of Mexes while flashing the intelligence and efficiency of Benatia.
Roma might want to hang onto this one.