If it’s almost August, that means one thing (at least around here), time to countdown the top ten prospects in Roma’s vaunted youth system. Way back in August of 2014, I hatched out a haphazard plan to meld my mutual sporting loves, calcio and baseball. Each year, MLBs 30 teams draft hordes of players spread over a whopping 40 rounds, and given the sheer magnitude of that, it’s only natural that people start to weigh and measure those kids, sizing up the next superstars and humiliating the next great flop. And hey, since we’re not above speculation and predictions, we’ve done the same thing for Roma’s U-23 players for the past three summers.
And while Roma may be considering crossing the previously forbidden €40 million transfer threshold for Riyad Mahrez, this is still very much a club that relies on it’s youth, not only to flesh out the squad, but to make major contributions early and often. So no matter how much they may spend on the open market, the kids will always be a major piece of the puzzle; not quite the corner piece you start off with, but one of those oblong ones towards the bottom that always ends up between the couch cushions.
In the coming days/weeks, we’re going to start rolling out this year’s prospect countdown. However, in this our fourth iteration of this countdown we’re actually scrapping the word ‘prospect’ and rebranding it simply as an Under-23 countdown. While we always used 23 as our standard cutoff age, there was always some ill ease on my part when we used the word ‘prospect’ in association with players like Antonio Rudiger or Stephan El Shaarawy, players who, while young, had ample first team minutes at that point in their careers.
Having said that, our U-23 countdown will include any and all players 23-years-old and under on opening day, whether they’ve earned first team minutes yet or not. Similarly, the countdown will account for current production and future projections just as it always has; we just wanted to be clearer about the whole ‘prospect’ part of the equation.
Got it? Good, with that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look back at some of our prior top contenders: What happened? Where are they now?
Mattia Destro: 2014’s Top Prospect
Three years ago, Destro was fresh off a torrid run through the spring of 2014, one in which he scored 13 goals in only 20 appearances, averaging an astounding 0.95 goals per 90 minutes, while converting 37% of his shots into goals. He was, in a word, clinical. At that point in time, Mr. Right had 49 appearances in a Roma shirt, during which he scored 24 goals; the future was blindingly bright for Destro.
So what happened? Well, frankly I’m still not sure. During the summer we wrote his initial prospect profile, Destro was being chased by some massive clubs, who were no doubt seduced in equal parts by his scoring efficiency and corner flag grinding, but he, for a variety of reasons, found it difficult to replicate that success.
Destro struggled at the outset of the 2014-2015 season, scoring five goals in 16 appearances before being loaned to Milan in the winter of 2015. For whatever reason, despite still being good for roughly a goal every other game and remaining Roma’s most efficient forward/striker, he didn’t fit into Rudi Garcia’s wing-focused attack, and his career has never really been quite the same since then.
While his move to Milan generated a decent amount of buzz, it turned out to be a complete flop, as he grabbed only three goals in 15 appearances, disappointing an already disappointed fan base. Despite that downturn, Destro has since found a home of sorts in Bologna, scoring 19 goals over the past two seasons.
What was once destined (or at least hoped) to be a career as Italy’s next great striker looks like it's slowly morphing into a modern day Alberto Gilardino type of career. And you know what? That’s still pretty damn impressive.
Gerson: 2015’s Top Prospect
I’m still not sure what to make of this kid. Gerson has been an anomaly in our countdowns thus far, as his rise was based purely on potential. By the summer of 2015, Gerson existed in name only, as he had yet to even set foot in Italy by that point. However, his pedigree spoke for itself and his performance during that year’s state championships put him on the radar of some of Europe’s true heavyweights. Each of whom Roma beat out to land Gerson for a cool €15 million.
Gerson wouldn’t make his Roma debut until the fall of 2016 and has been a massive disappointment since then...through little to no fault of his own. Gerson simply couldn’t get off the bench for either Garcia or Luciano Spalletti, save for that one inexplicable start against Juventus, making his first two years with Roma essentially a waste.
But here we are, Roma has their sixth manager in six seasons and, based on what we’ve seen this summer, as far as Gerson is concerned the sixth time might be the charm. In only a handful of summer exhibitions, Eusebio Di Francesco has shown more faith in Gerson than his previous managers ever did.
Gerson may come good just yet, so don’t be surprised if he earns our top honors again at some point.
Stephan El Shaarawy: 2016’s Top Prospect
This was one of the rare instances in which I flexed my editorial muscle, fending off Kevin and Jimmy’s claims that SES wasn’t Roma’s best U-23 player, but I’m like The Mooch in that way—I call it like I see it, letting the expletives fly in the process.
But, if we’re of like minds, it’s not hard to see why I was so amped about SES at this point last year. El Shaarawy was a revelation for Roma down the stretch, providing a previously unseen boost, pairing with with Diego Perotti and Mohamed Salah to give Roma a 2010s version of Spalletti’s vaunted false nine attack that revolutionized calcio a decade earlier.
SES, much like Destro before him, shot up the ranks thanks to an incredibly hot six month stretch, scoring eight goals in 16 appearances, showing incredible efficiency in putting 60% of his shots on target and converting 23% of those into goals, good for 0.60 goals per 90 minutes.
However, the ensuing season wasn’t so kind to El Shaarawy as he was, along with Francesco Totti, a victim of Edin Dzeko’s success. With the lumbering number nine in peak form, there simply wasn’t as much need for Spalletti’s strikerless formation, and given that Salah is the superior player and Perotti was more effective dropping back a bit, SES was left out in the cold.
While no one will proclaim he’s Roma’s best player, his skill set seems ideally suited for EDFs philosophy, so I’d expect a pretty productive season from El Shaarawy; if he can accept his place in Roma’s pecking order, he can carve out a nice career for himself in the capital. If not, well, he can pile up goals for a lesser Italian side and I’ll still love him.
So that’s it, take our poll and make a prediction about this year’s to U-23 player—we haven’t sorted it all out just yet, but who knows, we may surprise you!
Who will be Roma’s Top U-23 player?
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