Adem Ljajic is, in some ways, a case study for the modern athlete. Blessed with outrageous skill and an innate understanding for his chosen sport, Ljajic's path towards stardom was beset by poor tactical fits and bouts of immaturity. For a while it seemed as if his ego and lack of commitment would derail his career, however, once Ljajic got his feet underneath him in Fiorentina, the true level of his talents was revealed.
During his breakout campaign in 2012-2013, Ljajic put up stats almost unheard of for a 21-year-old kid, a performance that led many to label him as one of the top young talents in the game. StatsBomb are probably the masters of publicly accessible soccer/football metrics, and two summers they said just as much:
Look, I only work with the numbers. Those numbers are jaw-droppers across the board. Only 2 turnovers a game and an 88.1% passing rate (27ppg - he's involved) for a forward. Non-penalty goals per 90 of .55 and 1.6 key passes per game. HE'S 21!!!
He's cultured and nearly impossible to dispossess, despite the fact that he gets the ball in the most contested area of the pitch. He almost never misses a pass, and is amazing at setting up teammates. Watch video and you also see a good free kick taker who is well-balanced and incredibly strong against defenders. He's still 21!
My opinion is that Ljajic, along with Roma's Erik Lamela, is probably the top U23 forward in Europe. I look forward to seeing where Ljajic is at age 25. If he channels his desire, he will be one of the best players in Europe, period
Granted that piece is now two years old, and while he hasn't quite replicated that magical season, Ljajic has been one of the league's most efficient playmakers during his two years in Rome, while their biggest criticism of Ljajic, his supposed immaturity, has been a non-issue for Roma; he's been a model citizen.
The problem with Ljajic at Roma has always been one of his proper role. As with most young prodigies, Ljajic struggles when played out of position or asked to focus on the less glamorous aspects of his profession. Much like the young point guard asked to rein in his playground tendencies or the flashy wide receiver moved to the less glamorous slot position, Ljajic's true colors have been muted when he's miscast or his talents restrained.
Now, you can argue that this is part of the maturing process of any athlete, and we've certainly seen many players get past these growing pains and flourish, but the counterpoint to that is simply this: Ljajic proved, at all of 21-years-old, that he can, when properly utilized, become one of the game best forwards, almost a mini-Totti.
And therein lies the problem. While he's ostensibly a left winger, Ljajic's average position during that magical 2012-2013 season was far more central, where he was a defacto trequartista, serving as the final link between David Pizzaro/Borjan Valero and Stevan Jovetic. It was here that his touch, vision and creativity were deployed with peak efficiency. Vincenzo Montella didn't fight it, he didn't try to force fundamentals upon Ljajic, he didn't try to teach him any lessons or subjugate him to anyone, he simply recognized what Ljajic did well and turned him loose.
The trouble with replicating that role in Roma is two-fold. Firstly, Totti generally serves the role as the free-roaming playmaker, one he still does nearly better than anyone else, so there isn't much we can do about that in the short range. Secondly, and perhaps more broadly, Rudi Garcia's tactical intransigence has hampered Ljajic's development.
Garcia's extreme reliance on the 4-3-3 permanently miscasts Ljajic, arguably Roma's most talented player outside of Totti, as a pure winger, which simply places him too far away from the action to be effective, exposes him to harassment from opposing fullbacks, and leaves him subject to Gervinho's whims.
But, imagine for a second if Garcia went to a 4-2-3-1 with Ljajic playing behind centrally behind Edin Dzeko or even Totti, supported by Mohamed Salah, Juan Iturbe or even Alessandro Florenzi. The speed of the wide forwards, and their ability to draw double teams, would carve out a sphere of influence for Ljajic, some 20-30 yards away from the goal, in which he can feed the strikers or spray it out wide to the wings, stretching and contracting the defense as he deems fit. Simply put, this sort of tactical setup puts Ljajic's playmaking front and center, rather than keeping him on the periphery away from the ball, where he is reliant upon other players for his touches and easier confined by opponents.
The tale of Adem Ljajic and Roma is one of patience. We've said it several times since he arrived, but in terms of skill set and intangibles, there is no other player on this squad who can come close to replicating the Totti role once #10 finally hangs them up. That's not to say he's Totti's equal, far from it of course, but he, more than anyone else, should enable a smooth post-Totti transition plan, if properly utilized.
So, when we read rumors that Ljajic might be sacrificed for a fourth or fifth centerback, the Ljajic lovers among us should worry. Ljajic has been nothing but professional during his two years in Rome, seldom if ever complaining as his role waxed and waned, so it's almost as if he senses his time is coming, biding his time as Totti's minutes decrease, waiting for the opportunity to truly make his mark on this club.
However, in the face of rumors like this, and with Roma continually adding wing players, we have to wonder if the club's long-term thinking includes Ljajic, which would be a shame. He may no longer be on the fast track to super stardom, but at 23 (soon to be 24) Ljajic still has what it takes to be one of Serie A's best forwards.