While Edin Dzeko and Radja Nainggolan grabbed the headlines with their goals against Verona yesterday, and Cengiz Under elicited the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ with his impressive debut, there was another new face in Roma’s lineup yesterday, and while he didn’t do anything particularly YouTube worthy, his shift was no less impressive and could signal a sea-change in Roma’s midfield in the coming weeks and months.
Lorenzo Pellegrini is no stranger to life in Serie A, having played two seasons of more or less full time duty with Sassuolo, but yesterday’s 3-0 thrashing of Verona was his first start for Roma, which is obviously a bird of a different feather for a multitude of reasons. Starting for your hometown club is always a fraughtful endeavor, let alone when that club is Roma, let alone when that club was coming off two less than stellar turns against Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid. By at least temporarily supplanting Kevin Strootman in the midfield, Roma’s calling card, Pellegrini was stepping into a pressure cauldron.
But Pellegrini did not wilt like so many other non-Totti/DeRossi/Florenzi Romans have in similar situations. Pellegrini’s 90 minutes against Verona were, save for his near goal, understated yet brilliant and extremely impactful, so much so that he may soon press Kevin Strootman for playing time.
In those 90 minutes, Pellegrini took 88 touches, created five scoring chances, drew four fouls, completed two tackles, put one shot on goal, was a perfect four-for-four on long balls and completed 94% of his passes overall. In a word, he was efficient. No wasted movements, his touches were purposeful and effective. Everything you want out of a central midfielder.
But beyond mere statistics, it was the manner in which Pellegrini was deployed that sets him apart from Roma’s other midfielders, namely Kevin Strootman. Now, before we compare their performances, a quick note on the selected data. Against Inter Milan, Strootman lined up to the left of Daniele De Rossi, with Radja Nainggolan on the right, while Pellegrini was fielded to the right of DDR against Verona; a small but noteworthy difference.
For a variety of reasons a straight Pellegrini vs Nainggolan comparison isn’t apt; Radja is Roma’s best player by a country mile, so he isn’t going anywhere, and his role only varies slightly based on how close to the striker he’s deployed, but as we’ll see the role of Roma’s other wide midfielder can and has changed based on personnel selections.
Strootman vs Inter: August 26th
As you can see, the lion’s share of Strootman’s touches came on the extreme left flank, ranging some 40-50 yards of midfield in either direction. Strootman was not at his best in this match, completing only 82% of his passes and creating only one scoring chance; not bad, just not as great as we’ve seen in the past. Although the vast majority of his passes were forward in nature—and he worked quite well with Aleksandar Kolarov and Diego Perotti—as you can see, given the space on the pitch he occupied, they didn’t really amount to much; he was a conduit rather than a conductor.
Not a bad match from Strootman in the strictest sense, but his numbers were emblematic of this match as a whole; lots of build up, very little pay off. Strootman’s main objective here was to push the ball forward to either Kolarov or Perotti—there was no direct creativity and very little carrying of the ball required from the Dutchman on this particular day; he attempted only one dribble and created only one scoring chance.
Now, when we contrast Strootman’s role in the midfield against Inter versus Pellegrini’s against Verona yesterday we see some subtle yet potentially significant differences. And yes, the level of opponent was and is a factor, so let’s just get that out of the way.
Lorenzo Pellegrini vs. Verona: September 16th
The first difference you notice is simple the spread of touches. Where Strootman was largely focused on hugging the touchline, Pellegrini was decidedly more central, with nearly 25% of his touches coming in the center channel just past the center strip. But more than that, you’ll see that he was simply pressed further up the pitch, with twice as many touches (based on %) just outside of the 18-yard-box, and indeed when you look at his chances created, three of the five came in this area. By simply taking touches in a wider spread of the pitch, Pellegrini kept the defense off balance, shifted the point of attack and created more space for his teammates.
Beyond simple positioning, Pellegrini’s place in the passing network was equally impactful. With 15 connections coming from De Rossi, Pellegrini was serving as a critical central outlet for Roma’s attack. Where in prior weeks, EDFs tactics relied on immediately spreading play out wide, yesterday, thanks in large part to Pellegrini, they were able to shift the point of attack to the middle before spreading play, where Pellegrini was once again instrumental, hooking up with Alessandro Florenzi 16 times (the highest combo in the match for either club) to advance play up the pitch. By providing an outlet for De Rossi, Pellegrini ensured that Roma’s attack didn’t stagnate or get confined to one area of the pitch.
Another ancillary benefit of Pellegrini providing a spark in the center of the pitch was that it enabled Nainggolan to move further up in attack to provide another link for Pellegrini. In essence, Roma’s flow chart yesterday started with De Rossi and went straight through Pellegrini before moving ahead to Nainggolan or Florenzi. Pellegrini was manipulating space and moving the ball like a veteran.
And then there are the things we can’t quite quantify, like Pellegrini’s athleticism and speed, which were undoubtedly factors in Roma’s more direct and more successful approach yesterday. The attack just seemed livelier when he was on the ball, and his work with De Rossi and Florenzi was sublime.
While the emergence, or at least the signal of intent(s), from Patrik Schick and Cengiz Under could potentially relegate Gregoire Defrel to bench duty, and similarly the return of Florenzi booting Bruno Peres to purgatory, there is no zero-sum game between Pellegrini and Strootman. The examples we just poured over were subject to several external factors, namely the level of the opponent; Pellegrini would not have had such an easy time against Inter Milan’s defense as he did Verona’s. Furthermore, the respective plans of attack in these two matches were the results of purposeful changes by Di Francesco, so Strootman may very well have moved more centrally had he played in this match.
Still, if we go by the always subjective eye test, there was something different, something more vivacious about Roma’s midfield yesterday. Pellegrini’s form and function in the attack was instrumental in the club’s more direct and more effective approach. Rather than having three bruising midfielders, Pellegrini’s quick touches and incisive passes gave De Rossi a fulcrum on which to transition the ball from defense to attack, while the attention he drew from Verona (four fouls drawn) gave Nainggolan a bit more freedom in the attack. Simply put, they didn’t know where Pellegrini would be, much less what he would do with the ball.
Again, these aren’t things Strootman can’t do in the strictest sense, it’s just that with Pellegrini they were so much more apparent and effective yesterday, and given the composure of the rest of the midfield—De Rossi being better in defense than Strootman and Nainggolan simply being the best on the squad—an increase in Pellegrini minutes will necessarily come at Strootman’s expense.
But that is precisely why we harped so much on depth this summer. With Luciano Spalletti ignoring Leandro Paredes until late spring, Roma effectively had no depth in midfield last season, so in that sense, this new Roma stands in stark contrast. With the additions of Pellegrini, Maxime Gonalons and a newly emboldened Gerson, not only is there depth in numbers, there’s a diversity in skill sets. There will be plenty of matches that call for the lockdown trio of DDR, Strootman and Nainggolan, but with Pellegrini’s ongoing maturation, he brings an attacking spirit that was missing last season.
Much has been made of Eusebio Di Francesco’s tactical intransigence, and while there is some credence to that argument, the tools and options at his disposal are seemingly limitless and exceed anything any Roma manager has had over the past decade, and Pellegrini may be at the heart of that. He is the very definition of symbiosis—putting Pellegrini on the pitch benefits everyone.
With Pellegrini and Florenzi carrying the Roman standard into the next decade, it may be hard to wipe that smile off your face.