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Emerson Shines in More Advanced Role Against Lazio

Hey, look at that, he’s a wingback!

SS Lazio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

Lost amid all the jubilation in yesterday’s 2-0 victory in the Derby della Capitale was a potentially seismic shift for one of Roma’s most overlooked and least known players, Emerson Palmieri. Relegated to the bench for most of his brief Serie A career thus far, Emerson was seen as not strong enough, nor sufficient technically, to hack it as a full time defender, but might yesterday’s performance be a glimpse into the kid’s future?

We mentioned as much over the summer when we made him our ninth rated U-23 prospect:

Palmieri looks like the ultimate utility player, one who can fill in at left back, wing back, midfield and even as an out and out winger. While that’s not the sexiest CV in the game, players like that are indispensable in the modern, increasingly positionless game, especially when you’re competing in multiple competitions.

Through 12 appearances in all competitions this season, Emerson has been just that, a jack of all trades, having featured at left back, right back and, most recently, wingback. Considering Mario Rui’s return and Roma’s constant connection to any and all cheap fullbacks on the transfer market, Emerson may find his footballing future in this role.

So, considering that, let’s take a look at what was a rather impressive return against Lazio. First off, let’s take a quick look at the space he occupied on the pitch.

Emerson’s heat map vs. Lazio

As you can see, Emerson leaned so left, you might as well call him Bernie Sanders, but the measure of his performance goes so far beyond the mere space he occupied. With 94 touches, Emerson was the busiest player on either side, at least in terms of on the ball actions.

You’ll have to click on the actual Tweet (sorry, couldn’t isolate the image), but it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see the true hub in Roma’s passing attack yesterday. Emerson took nearly 30 more touches than any other player on the pitch, and was involved in 47 pass attempts. These passing webs are fantastic because they not only show who had the lion’s share of touches, but in which direction and with whom they connected most often, and as we can see, Emerson was the pivotal link in the chain, serving as a back-to-front outlet for Federico Fazio, while teaming with Radja Nainggolan to spread play out wide, before finally pushing it ahead to Diego Perotti. Emerson also attempted five crosses of his own, creating two scoring chances along the way.

Overall, this was just a superb performance from Emerson. Aside from those 94 touches, 47 passes and two chances created, Emerson did a masterful job of negating Felipe Anderson, who, aside from two chances created of his own, was a virtual non-factor yesterday. Anderson, who averages two shots and three dribbles per match, was relegated to one shot and one successful dribble yesterday, and much of that was do to Emerson’s defensive work, who made two successful tackles of Emerson deep in Roma territory.

While this was his first start as a nominal wingback--depending on how you actually viewed the formation Sunday—it was nevertheless reflective of his other highwater marks for Roma, namely in their 3-1 victory over Sassuolo and the 4-1 thrashing of Palermo, his former club. In each of these matches, Emerson was slotted in as a left back, but, much like yesterday, did most of his damage working the extremes of the left flank (though he did switch sides quite a bit against Palermo), serving as a link and/or outlet for the defense and midfield, just as it should be.

The problem in this analysis, and really for Emerson when you think about it, is simply that, in order for him to excel, he needs to play a more advanced role. When Mohamed Salah returns from injury and his AFCON duties, there is every reason to suspect that Luciano Spalletti will revert back to the 4-2-3-1 that has brought him so much success, leaving Emerson out of the picture.

However, as we’ve mentioned several times throughout the season, this club seems tailor made for a three man backline, which would not only allow Spalletti to get Kostas Manolas, Antonio Rüdiger, Federico Fazio—and really all his best players—on the pitch at the same time, but would put Bruno Peres in prime position to wreak havoc against the opposition. The nice, ancillary benefit of this setup is what we just discussed; it may be the key to finally unlocking Emerson’s talents.

Emerson won’t exactly rewrite the history books, but if the derby was any indication, he has the tools to be a major contributor for this club for many years and in many roles.