A common refrain among the transfer market optimists among us, amidst the underwhelming purchases, disappointing sales, and constant flow of names connected with Roma, is that the club will benefit from the two key de facto transfers, the healthy returns of Kevin Strootman and Leandro Castan, each of whom were effectively shelved all last season. While I won't argue with that assertion, though their returns to full fitness are far from guaranteed, I'm here to tell you of another addition-by-default, the return of the real Juan Iturbe, the one who lit up the league with Verona in 2013-2014, the one over whom we rejoiced when Sabatini stole him from Juventus last summer.
In case you had forgotten, Iturbe was one of Serie A's best players in 2013-2014, seemingly coming out of nowhere to help Verona reach previously unforeseen heights. In 33 appearances that season, Iturbe scored eight goals, contributed four assists and averaged 1.2 key passes per match and an astounding three successful dribbles per match, second in league behind Juan Cuadrado.
Beyond his ability on the ball, the most impressive part of his debut season was the relationship he forged with Verona's handsome hitman. Iturbe and Luca Toni developed an instant rapport, finishing the season as Serie A's second most prolific scoring combo, helping lead Verona to a surprising 10th place finish. Iturbe's dribbling, crossing and general commanding of the wings led Toni to compare the young Argentine to none other than Franck Ribery.
Immediately we had visions of Iturbe recreating and even improving on those numbers. Surely lining up alongside Francesco Totti, Miralem Pjanic and even Gervinho would've made his life easier, while the connection with Mattia Destro should've been obvious; the crosses, synchronous movement, and goals should have flowed freely, the duo were legends in the making. It seemed Roma had finally landed the smart, athletic and multifaceted winger they'd so desperately craved, one who would flourish in Rudi Garcia's system.
But they didn't. Something happened to Manu this past season. Not only did he fail to live up to expectations, he may have even taken a step backwards.
Iturbe's numbers were down across the board. Goals, assists, dribbles, shots, chances created, and even fouls drawn, all down, and in some cases pretty significantly. So what the hell happened? How did a player so talented and so seemingly well suited to Garcia's system struggle so mightily this past season?
Last summer, we discussed what makes Iturbe tick, and conversely, what causes him to struggle. The synopsis; touches and aggression. When Iturbe is passive, merely observing the match from the periphery, he's lost--after all, Iturbe's greatest strength is his ability to take on defenders. Whether he's skirting around them to deliver a cross, dribbling past them to get to the goal, or cutting inside to get off a shot, apex Iturbe is an assertive and aggressive player.
The problem with this sort of player, as we've seen many times, is that when the ball isn't coming his way, he's effectively rendered useless, and the few touches that he will get often go for naught because he's not in the flow of the game. In a sense, he's sort of like a shooting guard in basketball; if he's not getting consistent shots/touches, he goes cold. You can't just drop him in the middle of a match and expect miracles. Iturbe is, for all intents and purposes, like a diesel truck in the winter; it takes a while to warm him up.
The anecdotal data we have on hand echoes what we mentioned in last year's piece; when his touches are down or when he's simply hemmed into one area of the pitch, he has virtually no impact on the match. This wasn't really a problem in 2013-2014 when the Verona offense traveled on the Iturbe-Toni turnpike, but having to contend for touches and space on the pitch with Miralem Pjanic, Francesco Totti and the teacher's pet, Gervinho, Iturbe wasn't able to assert himself in the manner to which he was accustomed.
The transition from big fish in a small pond to simply being one of many talented players was always bound to produce frustrating moments for Iturbe and Roma. That's not to say we didn't see flashes of what Iturbe was and could still be las year. There was his masterful performance against CSKA Moscow, his near match winner against Juventus in the fall and, of course, his goal in the derby. At the end of the day, whether it was down to injuries, lack of touches, or a simple reticence to assert himself, Iturbe wasn't the aggressive and incisive player we saw in Verona.
Those are the tangible reasons for Iturbe's struggles this past season. However, what we can't really quantify is the extent to which he succumbed to pressure. Not only the burden of living up to a €22m move, but surviving life in the fishbowl (that's two disconnected fish analogies for the record) that is Rome, where every move is scrutinized unlike any other place in the country, and perhaps the sport itself.
The ironic part is, given the first half of our discussion, the pressure and scrutiny he'll face next season will be even worse; the real Juan Iturbe has to show up. So, how can they avoid this fate in 2015-2016? How will Roma begin to see a return on this substantial investment? Will the real Juan Iturbe ever stand up?
It's not an easy puzzle to solve, as Iturbe will never command as many touches as Pjanic or Totti, but Iturbe can be the alpha male on the wing, an arrangement made more feasible with Roma's new, under-the-radar signing of Iago Falque. Falque, unlike Gervinho or even Iturbe himself, doesn't need an inordinate amount of touches to be effective. Rather than demanding the ball and taking on defenders, Falque's mark is made through passing: quick, incisive, and forward passing.
Simply put, he is the ideal counterpart to someone like Iturbe because their games are so opposite and so complementary. That's not so say Iturbe isn't an effective playmaker or passer, but his efficiency is so tied up with aggression that, as we discussed, when the match doesn't come his way, he becomes a neutral threat at best, whereas Falque makes quick, forward passes when he receives the ball, preferring to passively beat defenders via the passing game rather than deceiving them with body feints or step overs. Plus, he's not as athletic as Iturbe or Gervinho, so he's compensated by becoming more judicious and efficient in his touches and shots. Either way, the combination of Falque and Iturbe should benefit both players and Garcia's offense as a whole, as they will each serve a separate and defined function, rather than being carbon copies of one another.
The only problem now is how do we get rid of Gervinho? He simply sucks up too much attention and is too narrow minded to allow Iturbe, or any other of Roma's wingers, really make a mark on the match.
Investing in Iturbe
Were it not for Antonio Conte's resignation from Juventus, we might not be having this discussion. Roma's capture of Iturbe was so sudden and so unexpected, one can't help but wonder if they really, and I mean really, thought about how he fit into the current squad. It's simple to assume that his talent and age will win out in the long run, but as we saw this past season, the conditions for his success in Roma were far from ideal. Offensively speaking, he's simply too similar to Gervinho to succeed with Gervinho, but he's so much more of a complete player than the Ivorian, not mention more expensive, that he must be given every chance to succeed.
The Juan Iturbe the league saw in 2013-2014, the Juan Iturbe that Roma snapped up in a moment's notice last summer, is precisely the sort of player who can excel and become a star in Rudi Garcia's system. Iturbe at his best is a dynamic player who uses his athleticism and agility to create for himself and others, breezing past defenders, delivering crosses, and cutting inside, while he tracks back and tackles with more efficiency than most wingers. With Totti and Pjanic feeding him, Falque's complementary skillset and someone like Edin Dzeko to link up with, Iturbe could take a major step forward this season.
Undoubtedly there are areas in which he can improve (passing precision and more care with the ball, for starters), but his breakthrough campaign for Verona and the flashes of brilliance we saw last year are indicative of what he might become. Simply put, the Juan Iturbe the league saw at Verona is precisely the player Roma needs to succeed. Too often last season Garcia's offense floundered on the wings, drifting too wide, running too deep and flailing crosses at no one; Juan Iturbe can cure these ills, but only if he's given the chance to succeed.
Furthermore, and this is really the salient point of this diatribe, when you invest €22m in a 22-year-old kid it is imperative that you provide him an environment in which he can succeed. Anything else would be imprudent, and for a financially strapped club like Roma, it could be devastating.
The real Juan Iturbe must show up this season, for the club's balance books, for their title ambitions and for the sake of his own career.
Note: This piece was written before Mohamed Salah was even connected to Roma, let alone set to actually join the squad. Needless to say, the addition of another €20M + winger throws a wrinkle into Garcia's plans.