In keeping with this morning's ratings-based theme, we move our post-season review to the core of Roma's defense, the centerbacks. While Roma hasn't had too many world class central pairings recently, Philippe Mexes and Juan provided years of stability and stellar play, protecting Roma's smorgasbord of keepers from utter ruin, while Marquinhos and Mehdi Benatia will forever haunt our dreams, teasing us with what might have been.
This past season was another banner year for Roma's backline, as the Giallorossi conceded only 31 goals, trailing only Juventus for the league lead. Despite those shiny statistics, did it really feel like Roma was that solid at the backline at any point last season? Whether it was down to the simple inexperience of Kostas Manolas, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa's acclimation to the Italian game, or Davide Astori's untimely errors, often times it felt like Roma's defense was on the brink of chaos.
Fortunately, they did just enough to keep Roma in many matches they would have otherwise lost, so let's take a look back at the highs and lows of Roma's centerbacks. As always, players are ranked from 1.0 (Think Simone Loria) to 10.0 (Juan at his best) and the stats are inclusive of all competitions, except where noted.
For the sake of this particular section, we'll omit Michele Somma and Leandro Castan, who totaled only 87 minutes this season. And while we're at it, we'll pass on Nicolas Spolli, who played only 90 minutes this season.
Stats: 37 appearances, one goal, one assist, 1.9 tackles/match, 2.2 interceptions/match, 90% passing
Taken on loan on September 1 from Newcastle, Mbiwa was supposed to be nothing more than a depth move. However, thanks to Castan's season-ending brain surgery and Roma's general lack of depth at the position, Mbiwa ended up making over 30 starts in all competitions.
MB, as he came to be known around these parts, was second among Roma defenders in tackles per 90 minutes (1.76) and tackling success (52%), though he was dead last in aerials, both in terms of number per 90 minutes and success rate. Mbiwa fared no better in terms of defensive actions (interceptions, blocks, and clearances) either, ranking last among centerbacks with 8.39 defensive actions per 90 minutes.
Mbiwa was actually pretty astute offensively this past season, however. Among central defenders, MB was first in passes, assists and key passes per 90 minutes, while trailing only Astori in the accuracy department.
Without a doubt the highlight of Mbiwa's season was his derby winning header from this past spring.
Stats: 30 appearances, one goal, 1.4 tackles/match, 3.1 interceptions/match, 7.1 clearances/match
We pretty much wrapped up Astori's season a month ago, so if you'll permit me to plagiarize myself, here was my summative assessment of what has become Astori's lone season in the Capital:
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.
Tangentially, I feel like I've used that last line around here quite a bit, which might help explain Roma's in ability to advance past second place; too many middle of the road players. Any discussion of Astori inevitably exposes my bias towards him--I was pretty excited when Roma stole Astori from Lazio last summer, and I think he fit the bill as a third choice centerback. The unfortunate part, and the part that heaped all the criticism on his svelte shoulders, was that he became a de facto starter from day one, making his errors more egregious and more frequent than they otherwise would have been. However, as I mentioned in that piece, he wasn't that bad as a starter either, so I'll give him the slight nod over Mbiwa.
Stats: 40 appearances, 1.8 tackles/match, 2.4 interceptions/match, 6.0 clearances/match, 90% passing
Finally, we get to the real standout, the best of Roma's Hellenic Heroes, Kostas Manolas. While I may have shot the moon suggesting he made us collectively forget about Benatia, he looks and plays an awful lot like Mexes (which was my real thesis in that piece), and if his Roma career panned out the same, I dare say we'd all be pretty stoked, right?
Manolas was second among Roma centerbacks in tackles and aerials won per 90 minutes, while also falling second in defensive actions per 90 minutes, though he led in blocked shots by a pretty substantial margin. He also committed the fewest errors per 90 minutes among Roma's defenders, as defined by Squawka.
Offensively speaking, Manolas didn't compile a ton of impressive stats, though he did complete 91% of his passes in league play, which is really about all one can ask from a central defender, at least in terms of open play.
Ultimately, this was about as good a debut season as we could have expected from Manolas. He tackled efficiently and was solid in the air, while his poise and understanding of the game, at least as evidenced by the statistics, was way better than we could have hoped for a defender his age.
Simply put, Manolas, along with Alessandro Florenzi and hopefully Adem Ljajic, are the building blocks of this team.
Areas of Need for Next Season
Now that Davide Astori has shuffled off to Napoli, Roma will need a body of some sort to slot behind Manolas, Yanga-Mbiwa and hopefully Castan. The name pursed on everyone's lips is the thirty million dollar man...err, kid...Alessio Romagnoli. If he remains in Rome, which, dear lord, he better, he is at least the third choice centerback behind Manolas and Castan. More likely, he fills the Astori role next season, serving as a sort of second-and-a-half choice. Remember, Castan is coming off BRAIN SURGERY...once more, BRAIN SURGERY...we cannot assume anything with Castan, not in terms of minutes or performance; consider him an undefined variable, which should pave the way for plenty of playing time for Romagnoli.
With or without Castan at 100%, Roma's backline is in solid shape. Manolas and Romagnoli are each a year older and a year wiser, and at this point, look like future superstars, with Alessio playing the good cop to Manolas' bad cop. Mbiwa, on the other hand, was actually a pleasant surprise last season, perhaps due to the low expectations with which he entered the season, but he's capable, athletic and versatile enough to help Roma anywhere along the backline.
It's a pretty sturdy group, one that can only grow stronger if Roma resists Milan's mega offer(s) for Romagnoli.