Admittedly, we rolled out our season review/player ratings a bit late, but thus far we've discussed Morgan De Sanctis' continued professionalism and the eternal struggles of Roma's fullbacks, but today we arrive to an area of relative strength, the midfield. Although there were periods of intermittent stagnation (see all of 2015), led by Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan, Rudi Garcia's midfield was once again the heart of the matter; determining all that Roma was able to accomplish this past season.
With a few exceptions here and there, Roma's midfield has always been pretty stacked, featuring some of the game's most creative and combative players, serving up goals to everyone from Antonio Cassano to Mirko Vucinic and, of course, Francesco Totti, but how did this season's version stack up?
As always, players are rated from 1 to 10, those with fewer than ten appearances were given ratings of not applicable. So let's start with a trio of men who, for a variety of reasons, barely featured this season.
Stats: 11 appearances, one goal, 1.1 tackles per match, 87% passing
If the entry on last season's sixth rated prospect seems a bit light, there's a good reason for that; he barely left the bench. After making a few token appearances as an 80th + minute sub early in the season, Paredes fell off Rudi's radar until January when he became a semi-regular member of the rotation, getting steady(ish) minutes throughout the winter.
Due to that paucity of playing time, there wasn't much to write home about, beyond his match winning goal against Cagliari in February, which was actually quite lovely.
Still just 21-years-old, Paredes remains very much a developmental prospect, but did he do enough this season to earn Garcia's trust, or is he due for another loan spell? Time will tell, but the kid is undeniably talented.
Stats: Four appearances, one assist, 78% passing
Take everything I said about Paredes and apply it to Uçan, minus the actual sample size. Uçan, also 21-years-old, is just beginning his professional career, and much like Paredes, this coming season will be crucial for his development. If his boyish afro is left to wilt on Roma's bench for one more season, the returns on this investment will already diminish. If, on the other hand, Uçan gets steady minutes anywhere on the peninsula, we may start to unravel this enigma; is he an attacking midfielder, a winger, some sort of hybrid?
We simply have no idea at this point, but he needs to play, simple as that.
Stats: Seven appearances, two assists, 86% passing
The reasons for the dearth of data on Strootman are obvious. After succumbing to another knee injury in January, Strootman was shelved for the remainder of the 2014-2015 season, the second straight year he had to be shut down early due to knee issues. Despite all that, the 300 or so minutes we saw of Strootman this past season was sublime. You really can't even ascribe an adjective to how important he is to everything this club can do offensively and defensively.
Needless to say, a healthy Strootman makes this an entirely different club.
Stats: 35 appearances, three goals, one assist, 90% passing, 1.2 interceptions per match
Seydou Keita isn't going to overwhelm anyone with an array of stepovers, blaze past anyone on the wing, or even make you cringe when he tackles someone. Due to this ambiguity, it's hard to affix any one label or definitive playing style to Keita, but in a word, he's professional. Keita came to Rome with the reputation of being a glue guy—the kind who does a bit of everything and does it quite well; he won't win you many matches, but he'll never be the one to lose them either.
Really, aside from being complicit in Roma's midfield malaise in the winter, Keita was as expected and should remain a versatile asset in Garcia's midfield, filling in for either Daniele De Rossi or Radja Nainggolan when needed.
Daniele De Rossi
Stats: 33 appearances, three goals, 2.5 interceptions per match, 2.4 clearances per match, 87% passing
It's hard to believe, and almost hard for me to even say, but Daniele De Rossi is starting to become a bit of a divisive figure in Roma circles, with a certain contingent of fans clamoring for his benching in the wake of declining performances, while the rest remain enthralled with the player De Rossi was in his youth. While DDR isn't quite the man he was a few years ago, but really who among us is, the truth is, he's still Roma's best option as a defensive midfielder.
Part of the problem is simply that we're not seeing as much De Rossi as we once did. DDR turned in only 2,154 league minutes this season, down from 2,724 minutes in 2013-2014, and yes some of this has to do with Roma participating in the Champions League for the first time in several years, but trace it back a bit further and you'll notice a trend.
From De Rossi's heyday (around the World Cup victory through Ranieri's stint earlier this decade), he averaged nearly 3,000 league minutes a season, or roughly 34 appearances. Couple those with Italy's deep run in World Cup 2006 and Euro 2012, not to mention all the qualifying matches therein, and we're talking about an additional 7,000 minutes on De Rossi's legs, which is roughly the equivalent of an additional 75 league matches, give or take a few. And this is Daniele Mother Flippin De Rossi we're talking about here, not some poseur merely trotting around the field; those were some hard-ass minutes added on his soon-to-be-32-year-old legs.
Despite all that wear and tear, DDR was pretty efficient this past season. De Rossi led Roma's midfielders in interceptions, blocks and clearances per 90 minutes, for a total of 6.49 defensive actions per 90 minutes. DDR was also heavily involved in the passing game, averaging 67 passes per 90, third among midfielders, completing nearly 88% of those, all while averaging 22 meters per pass, most among his position and further evidence of his ability to effectively distribute from the back.
You're getting the picture, right?
While some of the edge has worn off (his tackling was particularly troublesome this season, both in volume and success rate), De Rossi is still remarkably strong on the ball, particularly in front of the defense, and remains an incredible thorn in the side of opposing attackers, as his timing, understanding, and instincts remain incredibly sharp.
Stats: 46 appearances, six goals, four assists, 2.4 tackles per match, 87% passing
A simple search on CDT indicates a whopping 141 results for Radja Nainggolan, which should give you an indication of how ingrained he's become in Roma culture, both in terms of actual production on the pitch and that ineffable quality that keeps us entranced by this club. Whether you call it grinta, balls, machismo or simple charisma, he's got "it", and though it cost Roma a pretty penny to retain it, they'd be worse off without him.
As we mentioned many times this season, Nainggolan added a level of offensive refinement previously unseen in his career. No longer was he simply a box-to-box runner, Nainggolan became a legitimate offensive weapon, ranking among Roma's five most efficient playmakers and goal scorers this past season, while leading the club in shots per match, including an astounding and aggravating 1.94 shots outside the area per match. Defensively speaking, Nainggolan was superb as well, as he lead the club in tackles (total, per match and per 90), while ranking in the top ten in blocks, clearances and interceptions.
He accomplished all of this while leading Roma's outfield players in minutes and appearances, and one would imagine in meters covered as well. Look for his role to increase in the coming seasons, particularly as there is precious little behind him other than wet behind the ear prospects.
Stats: 44 appearances, five goals, 10 assists, two key passes per match, 90% passing
Pjanic followed his impressive World Cup performance with arguably his best year as a Giallorosso yet, as he set or tied career bests in assists, passing percentage, long balls and even dispossessions. Pjanic's five goals tied him for third on the club, while his 10 assists nearly doubled Francesco Totti for the club lead and placed him in a five-way tie for the league lead.
Simply put, from a creative stand point, Pjanic is Roma's midfield, leading the club in total passes, key passes and assists, while only marginally trailing in passing percentage. Shoot, he was even top ten, and in some cases top five, in shots per match, shot accuracy and, of course, goals scored. He's no slouch in the defensive phase of the game either. Among midfielders, Pjanic was second in total tackles, third in aerials won, second in interceptions, third in blocked shots and fourth in clearances. He really is becoming the complete package, and he's only 25-years-old.
This past season was just the latest step in the ascendency of Miralem Pjanic, one that should eventually see him deemed among the world's best creative midfielders, if he isn't already. In four seasons in Rome, Pjanic has already amassed 18 goals and 33 assists, and that's even accounting for his lost season under Zeman.
As far as this current crop of Roma players are concerned, there may be no one quite as irreplaceable as Pjanic.
Areas of Need for Next Season
A healthy Kevin Strootman.
Honestly, beyond a viable backup for Pjanic, there isn't much missing from this midfield. De Rossi does the heavy lifting at the back, bailing out the defense and pushing play along to Pjanic, while Nainggolan and Strootman are the ties that bind, allowing Pjanic and De Rossi to excel in their respective roles, while also wreaking havoc in their own third and threating the opposing keeper from all angles. The only other storylines worth watching are what becomes of Paredes and Uçan; one would assume there are only enough developmental minutes for one of them, but who has earned Garcia's trust the most?
Whatever the case may be, midfield remains a source of strength for Roma, one in subtle need of refining, but a strength nonetheless.