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Could Juan Iturbe Make it as a Fullback?

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With his Roma career hanging by a thread, would a change of position save Juan Iturbe?

Torino FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Juan Iturbe. Where to begin? No doubt we all remember the excitement with which he was ushered into Roma, the €22 million prize stolen from underneath the nose of the Old Lady. What was once considered Juventus’ loss and Roma’s gain has since become...become...a burden? a sunken cost? a flatout joke? It’s hard to say, but no matter what adjectives you ascribe to it, it’s safe to say that Iturbe’s Roma career hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

Despite the lack of plaudits on his resume, you feel a pang of remorse when you slag him off, simply because, through all the demotions, the stopping and starting, his effort, professionalism and commitment and desire to remain with the club has never waned. After being relegated to the bench, being shipped off to England and connected with every minor club in Italy, Iturbe’s career in Roma, if not Europe itself, is on the brink of collapse, yet this has yet to break his spirits or wipe the smile from his face.

So, it is in that light that we seek salvation for our dear Manu. With Diego Perotti, Stephan El Shaarawy, Mohamed Salah and perhaps even Memphis Depay ahead of him on the depth chart, might a change in position offer Iturbe a chance for redemption?

We’re talking, of course, about the intermittent rumors and suggestions that Roma might convert Juan Iturbe into a left back, where his athleticism and aggression might provide the club with an unexpected windfall. After all, this is a road they’ve traveled before with Alessandro Florenzi.

So, much as we did with Ale a few years ago, let’s examine the likelihood of this move, both in terms of club need and, more importantly, Iturbe’s suitability for the role. For the sake of time, I’m not going to rehash all the attacking and defending qualities a fullback needs to succeed in the modern game—they’re outlined in that piece linked above—but in sum, it’s simple: crossing, tackling, aggression and an understanding of how to defend in space and in man-v-man coverage.

We’ll divide and conquer here, discussing Iturbe’s attacking and defending traits separately, but before we delve into that, we must take a look at the inventory. As it currently stands, Roma have been relying on an out of position Bruno Peres and an out of his depth Juan Jesus at left back, so the need, even when Mario Rui returns, is pretty glaring. So that’s settled.

Iturbe The Attacking Fullback

We might as well start where Iturbe shines, right? Given his dearth of playing time, we’ll have to rely on his time with Verona and his Europa League performances this season for most of our data. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty much all we’ve got. Got it? Good, let’s go!

Well, part of the reason many of us were so excited when Roma snared Iturbe in the summer of 2014 was quite simple; the kid could ball. Iturbe’s three dribbles per match in 2013-2014 was top three in the league, while his 26 successful crosses, and 21% success rate, were more than any of Roma’s wingers managed that season, and on top of all that he scored eight goals and chipped in four assists. He was compact, powerful and dynamic and, surrounded by talented and elite players in Roma, seemed primed for great things.

Of course, what we’ve come to realize (quite painfully) is that most of those numbers were thrown up against defenses that were sitting back, giving him ample time and opportunity to carve them up. But, and again sample size is a factor, Juan Iturbe the Europa League assassin has looked quite good, and remarkably similar to the Verona edition, so there may be hope just yet.

To wit, through five appearances in the Europa League this season (310 minutes), Iturbe has averaged one shot, 1.2 dribbles, and one cross per match, the latter of which slightly exceeds his Verona output; he’s also completed 83% of all passes and drawn 2.4 fouls per match in that competition.

Granted, these aren’t mirror images of his halcyon days (he averaged nearly twice as many shots and dribbles with Verona), but, in terms of what he’d need to bring to the table as an attacking fullback (crossing and dribbling), they’re pretty solid and representative of what he could achieve in a smaller, more defined role. That is to say, he would never be a top option at Roma regardless of position, but these numbers give one hope that he could shine in a different, more restrictive, role, one with defined objectives and measurements of success. Not having the burden of being the sole creator—or at least thinking that he needs to be—might be the key to his success.

My, how far we’ve come, eh? Even as I’ve been writing this, I find myself vacillating—it's hard to convince others of something you’re not quite convinced of yourself—but the kid is athletic as the day is long, he’s built like a bulldog, he can cross the ball and he doesn’t back down from a challenge. And unlike Florenzi, he wouldn’t be jerked in and out of the role simply because they don’t need Iturbe in attack, so he would have ample time to grow into the role.

Iturbe is still (remarkably) only 23-years-old, and given his physical attributes, this might be more plausible than even I first imagined.

Now, onto the hard part, behind the ball.

Iturbe in Defense

First things first, the kid isn’t exactly Yao Ming, but he’s as least as tall as Roma’s other nominal left back, Mario Rui (for the sake of this argument, we’re considering Iturbe as left back), and is damn sure more athletic. Hell, he’s even won 50% of his Europa League headers, so despite his Lilliputian stature, he can get up when he needs to, Cialis joke not intended.

Beyond that, the waters are a bit murkier and definitely not potable. While the 50% success rate in the air is quite surprising, in terms of his able to get into a tackle, well, let’s just say it isn’t pretty. With only a 38% success rate in his 16 tackle attempts, Iturbe is neither efficient or prolific when it comes to dispossessing an opponent.

Similarly, and as equally disconcerting, is the rate at which he commits fouls. During his breakout season with Verona, Iturbe only committed 0.9 fouls per match (while drawing 2.3 of his own), yet through five Europa League appearances, Iturbe has nearly doubled that, committing 1.6 fouls per match, while drawing 2.4 of his own. So whether we draw it up to poor timing, poor form or lack of patience, Iturbe’s tackling has the potential to leave the club high and dry. There is, of course, hope that this could be mitigated with more specific training and simple experience.

As far as the more nebulous matter of defending in space/as part of a defensive line, that’s a bit tougher to qualify, particularly since Iturbe has never (to my knowledge) played defense in a professional match, but we can safely presume it would be a trial by fire. One thing is for certain, though, there aren’t many people on the pitch more athletic than Iturbe, so it would simply be a matter of increasing his understanding of the game and preaching a little patience.

Conclusion

We’ve done several of these speculative pieces over the years, but this one probably takes the cake. On the surface, this would seem like a relatively easy transition—Iturbe is, as we’ve mentioned, ridiculously athletic, he’s relentless and has the requisite skills to be an attacking fullback—yet nothing in his brief Roma career suggests that he’s anything other than a reserve, a deep reserve at that.

Yet despite all that, this might not be the craziest idea we’ve ever entertained. Besides, look at it this way, with little to nothing to show from the past two seasons, Iturbe’s transfer value is effectively nil, at least to the point where Roma could recoup even a fraction of that €22 million, so Roma may be saddled with him for a few more seasons. Furthermore, with prospects like Federico Ricci and Matteo Politano working their way towards Rome, the wing positions are about to get a whole lot more crowded, and even with the advantage in age, it’s hard to imagine Iturbe out playing either of those impressive youngsters, especially Politano.

And so it’s come to this: In order to salvage any value from Juan Iturbe, their €22 million savior and one of the most expensive transfers in club history, Roma may have no choice but to entertain this absurd notion.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and given their dire circumstances and Iturbe’s innate talent, there may be something worth nurturing here after all.