Emerson Palmieri’s arrival in the summer of 2015 was not met with much fanfare. He was not a large money signing from a prestigious club. He was not a star forward likely to fill seats in the stands. He has a young inexperienced foreigner arriving to be a back-up in a position not deemed glamorous by most fans. That innocuous arrival might well be one of the most significant transfers for AS Roma in recent years. The young Brazilian appears to have solved one of the club’s most difficult positional problems since the Americans arrived.
AS Roma has struggled to find a quality left fullback to bomb down the left flank practically since Vincent Candela formed one of the best fullback tandems in Europe with Cafu in the early 2000s. Christian Panucci, Marco Cassetti and John Arne Riise have provided competent stop gap seasons making them fan favorites towards the end of the Sensi era. Federico Balzaretti also offered hope of a long term quality solution before injury tragically cut his career short however Roma has not seen a quality two way left back since before De Rossi’s cheeks last felt direct sunshine.
Enter Emerson. He spent a season apprenticing behind Lucas Digne whose meteoric attributes can be charted at the upper portions of a bell curve. Having learn’t how to perfectly gel his hair from that apprenticeship, the 2016 season offered an opportunity for Emerson to secure a starting berth after Digne opted for a pair of Nou Camp quality pitch side season tickets. Once Mário Rui ruptured his Cruciate Ligament in his knee, the door seemed open for Emerson to show his worth once the season began.
What would naturally follow in the development of a young player would be a gradual integration into the team allowing them to gain confidence and steadily improve tactically. But since this is Roma, Emerson was thrown to the first fixture against Porto at half time for Diego Perotti and asked to protect his whole flank without a winger/midfielder ahead of him because of an earlier red card to Thomas Vermaelen. He would concede a crucial penalty in this game. Seven days later he would be thrust into the same situation against the same opponents after Daniele De Rossi’s red card. He proceeded to earn a red card eight minutes after his entry. Spalletti proceeded to hide him from the Roma fans and media for a month before beginning a gradual integration system through short substitute cameos.
Once Emerson won his first start after that baptism of Roman fire, he never looked back. He quickly became one of Roma’s most consistent performers and a vital tactical asset. Analyzing his development and performances requires a look at the importance of fullbacks in the modern game.
Whilst underappreciated, fullbacks are expected to be good at practically everything. They have to be able to defend one on one against the most skillful players in the world and have sufficient pace to keep up with quick wingers. They have to be strong in the air and tactically astute defensively. They are also expected to be good on the ball and should be able to run the ball out of defense. They have to have the stamina to get up and down the pitch and the distribution skills of top midfielders. As Jamie Carragher put it: “If you're a fullback, you're either a failed winger, or a failed centreback. Nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville”. Yet the quality and contributions of fullbacks often separate the top European teams from each other. Teams with elite fullbacks tend to overcome teams of similar all round quality with separation in that area as seen in the final two Champions League teams this season. A good fullback can cover an entire flank allowing for width whilst the wide forwards take up more central goal scoring opportunities.
So how does Emerson match up to this checklist? Defensively he was solid, rarely getting beat one on one (he was dribbled past 0.4 times a game, a better rate than Sandro and most fullbacks in the league). His pace and stamina allowed him to recover quickly and his positioning meant teams often opted to attack down the opposing flank. He won 68.29% of his aerial duels, (also better than Alex Sandro and Digne from his season with Roma) displaying his strength in the air and complete defensive prowess. He has room to improve defensively but has already come a long way with this aspect of his game. He isn’t quite as physically strong and dominating as Sandro but he already stacks well next to him statistically.
Offensively on the ball is where Emerson really separates himself from his peers. He has fabulous technical ability and supreme confidence on the ball that mirrors Marcelo at Real Madrid. He often glided past opponents like they were cones on a practice field completing 71.43% of his take ons. By comparison, Sandro this year and Digne last year’s take on success rates were closer to 50%. He averaged 1.4 key passes a game, (double Digne’s return with Roma) and completed 88% of his passes ( better than all starting fullbacks in Italy). His efficient use of the ball was probably the headline quality of his game. Despite all this and his obvious talent on the ball, he finished the season with only one assist and one goal (memorable as it was). In years to come, the hope is that he will improve his final third production to mirror someone like Marcelo’s return at Madrid.
Emerson’s progression this season has been stunning even for those who identified his potential last year. Whilst he has easily surpassed the perfectly competent bar set by Digne, he still has areas to improve to match the defensive consistency of someone like Sandro and the offensive productivity of Marcelo. Hopefully we will be able to watch his progression at Roma and not at one of Europe’s Titans. His injury at the end of the season was a setback but the upside is it keeps him at the club through another summer.
What do you think of Emerson so far?
This poll is closed
Dodo is not extinct! (flop)
Digne was better
Not getting attached he will leave soon
Solid, left back solved!