This is the time of year for reviews--of players, of teams, of tactical decisions, of every nuance you can possibly imagine--and if you venture over to the usual Serie A statistical storehouses, you'll see that Davide Astori is, without exception, listed among Roma's most effective players, but should we be surprised by this? After all, Astori came to Roma with a certain reputation; he was, for better or worse, a known commodity, one whose predilection for picking off passes was countered by his, shall we say, penchant for bookings.
Point being, Astori was a solid, and dare I say, above average defender prior to making the switch this summer. As the season wore on and Astori continued to climb Roma's ratings leader board, I kept wondering how much of this was actual fact and how much was due to statistical chicanery. Sure, he was good, but was he really a top five player? Was he really deserving of a higher rating than Francesco Totti?
Answering this question will be difficult, particularly as much of it will ironically depend on statistics, but it seemed worthwhile to check out peaks and valleys of Astori's debut season in Roma.
With that in mind, let's start off with the positives.
First things first, a quick look back at our initial take on this move should remind you why we (okay, me) were so excited by this signing last summer, not to mention the fact they screwed over Lazio in the process
Astori, 27-years-old, made 34 starts for Cagliari last season, during which he averaged 1.8 tackles, 2.9 interceptions and 8.4 clearances per match, the latter of which was second in the league. Offensively speaking, Astori averaged over 50 passes per match, completing 84% of his passes, averaging 6.1 long balls per match and tallying two assists. Any way you slice it, Astori is a solid defender, one comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Having been pressed into service to a greater extent than anyone imagined after Leandro Castan was shelved, Astori made 28 appearances across all competitions this season. In terms of league play, Astori scored one goal, completed nearly 87% of his passes and averaged 1.5 tackles, 3.2 interceptions, 3.0 aerials won and 7.1 clearances per match. While his numbers slipped a tad this season, nothing in his league numbers suggests a precipitous decline is in order.
In terms of his standing among his teammates, Astori led the club in interceptions and headers won, both in gross number and success rate, while finishing third in total tackles, second in clearances and third in blocked shots (all of these are among defenders only). In short, he was Roma's most active defender, doing what he's always done; picking off passes, using his height to his advantage, and clearing the ball out of danger.
Offensively speaking, Astori, tipped with filling Mehdi Benatia's role of distributing from the back, fared pretty well. Overall, Astori averaged 52 passes per league match, completing nearly 87% of those, hitting on five long balls per match and creating chances on the year. While Benatia's 2013-2014 numbers exceeded each of these (he held huge advantages in total forward passes and goals), Astori was far from an offensive liability.
And yes, statistics of any sort, particularly defensive football statistics, are opened to a host of interpretations, the data we do have on hand supports the claim that Davide Astori was perhaps Roma's best defender this season. And yes, that might be akin to being the best looking guy at your family reunion, but he was the best among an underwhelming lot.
But, surely Astori's season wasn't as rosy as those numbers suggest, right?
The Downside of Davide Astori
Before we precede, a quick caveat. Just as defensive statistics--when making the case for someone--are dependent upon a host of factors (possession, defensive tactics, poor passing from the opposition, etc), quantifying the things a poor defender does (positioning, decision making, tactical intelligence, etc) are equally difficult to prove, so please keep that in mind.
Having said that, Astori's Achilles heel, as it's always been, was his poor disciplinary record. Through those 28 appearances, Astori amassed 11 bookings, including 10 in Serie A, one behind Daniele De Rossi for the club "lead" and tied for fifth league wide. This was a somewhat troubling development, particularly as it appeared that he curtailed his cards during his last two seasons in Cagliari, when he was booked a total of 11 times. Beyond the cards, Astori was also quite foul prone, committing 38 fouls during league play, the most among Roma defenders.
Going back to our original point, the difficulty of making holistic assessments using defensive statistics, the easiest way to combat this is to flip his positives on their head. While Astori wasn't Roma's most prolific tackler, that honor goes to Radja Nainggolan, he was still third among Roma defenders in tackles per match. However, dig a bit deeper on that and you'll see that he completed only 46% of his tackle attempts, which was out of Roma's top five.
While it's not a causal relationship, there is certainly a correlation between a players tackling efficiency/success and their fouling rate; if you misjudge, have poor timing or are, quite frankly, just a shitty tackler, you're more bound to get booked, which I think is the case with Astori. Oddly enough, he was only beaten off the dribble 0.4 times per match, which can really be taken both ways; he's either a venus fly trap of a defender or simply gives too much space...I...I'm getting a headache; defensive numbers are maddening. He also averaged nearly one offsides call per match, which could be further indication of his poor judgement, timing and tactical understanding.
Once again, it's incredibly hard to make any definitive declarations about defenders simply because what they do, both in terms of strengths and weaknesses, is so dependent upon what the other team does with the ball (how much they hold, how often they pass, how they pass, how many chances they take, their width, their tactics etc.) and their managers own defensive philosophy, but the numbers do show a definite downside to Astori's gambling ways.
If you read all of this, you're probably going to hate what I'm about to say; Roma's Davide Astori is the same Davide Astori the league has always known. What Astori does well—passing, winning the aerial battle, and picking off passes—he does exceedingly well. Where he's always faltered—discipline and tackling efficiency—he still struggles. Simply put, he's solid defender. He won't win many awards, but he'll seldom be the reason you lose a match.
The trap we've seemingly fallen into is forgetting what he was supposed to be for Roma; a second-and-a-half choice centerback, one should been teaming up with Leandro Castan as often as he was mentoring Kostas Manolas—he was never meant to be a week-in-week-out starter. As anything but a starting centerback, Astori is among the league's best; can you really think of many men you'd rather have as a third choice? And, in all honestly, as a starter he's still quite solid.
So, what as the point of this dissection, what did we learn? Simply this, Astori was as advertised and is precisely the type of depth a team with serious ambition needs in order to traverse three competitions at once.
Davide Astori isn't Mehdi Benatia, but he's not exactly Simone Loria either. Roma needs Astori back next season, not only for what he's done and what he can do, but simply because they need his experience to weather the storm.