Born out of my love of all things baseball, our Top Ten U23 countdown has fast become my favorite annual piece. What started as a somewhat haphazard attempt to replicate the scouting and prognosticating that follows baseball prospects from the time they graduate high school has slowly morphed into a more pragmatic, and dare I say professional, exercise than I ever would have imagined. We pour over scouting reports, read interviews, watch clips, and digest stats to present the most objective argument possible, and while it is definitely a labor of love, there is a certain amount of subjectivity inherently involved in the process; everyone has their champion, that’s just the way it is.
What impresses me most, though, is the spread of pieces such as these. Many of our SB Nation colleagues do similar countdowns for their squads, while traditional media outlets often weigh in with their “most valuable player under ______” lists, and if you’re anything like me, you lap them up. If nothing else, it’s a measure of how obsessed the world is with football.
Still, despite the popularity of those lists, seldom do international outlets cover the tremendous amount of young talent running up and down the Italian peninsula. So you can imagine my surprise when a friend passed along just such a list from, of all places, The Guardian.
Published in January of 2017, The Guardian ran through the top 50 talents in a list that was “part scout report, part celebration; our aim was to profile 50 of the finest young talents on the peninsula at this moment in time. While the players featured vary from established first-team members to hot prospects, they were all were born on or after 1 January 1995.” So, in essence, they did a top 50 U22 countdown—although, now that I look at it again, it was more a collection and less a ranking, but still an instant must read for someone like me.
So, what gives? Why am I bringing this up? What’s the point, you might ask?
Well, two years does not a career make, nor is it enough time to necessarily doom a prospect, but the fortunes of some of these kids have changed dramatically since this list was published nearly two years ago, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit this list; like a well-child checkup if you will.
While this collection featured players that have since been connected to Roma (Federico Chiesa and Gianluigi Donnarumma), we’re going to limit our discussion to the ones who are actually donning the red and yellow this season.
First up, Bryan Cristante, who was plying his trade for Pescara at the time this list was published. The Guardian were somewhat restrained in their praise for Cristante:
Several months later he received his first start against Atalanta, and capped off a promising display with a tremendous goal, rifling the ball into the net via the post from outside the box. It looked like a star had been born.
However things didn’t quite go to plan. Nine months later he was sold to Benfica, but he never really settled with the Portuguese giants and was loaned back to Italy.
This was obviously written before Cristante actually moved to Atalanta, for whom he scored 12 goals in 48 appearances, paving the way for his big money move to Roma, and since then, well, we’re still not sure. I don’t think anyone can debate Cristante’s innate talent, but he’s starting to look like the sort of player who will always come up wanting in terms of public perception. It’s not fair and it has no bearing on how good he actually is, but many excellent players have failed to garner headlines and have still become indispensable for club and country. If Bryan Cristante can become the 21st century Simone Perrotta, you won’t find me complaining. Given that odd set of circumstances, The Guardian’s restrained praise was somewhat understandable.
There was no such ambiguity when it came to Lorenzo Pellegrini, however.
Lorenzo Pellegrini is, hands down, the most interesting young midfielder of the new Italian school...He’s one of those players who makes people buy tickets. With his skills, his Totti-style backheels and his tendency to push on into the box at every possible opportunity, he’s a joy for the eyes. He can also use both left and right foot, invariably to provide assists for team-mates.
Damn, that sure sounds like a player Manchester United might want, right? I kid, I kid. To say Roma fans are excited about Pellegrini’s future in the capital would be a massive understatement. While Pellegrini’s Roma career got off to a rather understated start, since Eusebio Di Francesco switched to the 4-2-3-1, he’s been reborn as the architect of Roma’s attack. With three goals, five assists and over two key passes per match (all comps), Pellegrini’s star is beginning to shine—I’m not sure how many kits he’ll sell worldwide, but he’s starting to look like the perfect player to lead this club into the next decade.
Landing somewhere in between Pellegrini and Cristante on the potential vs production spectrum is Patrik Schick, who was still Sampdoria property when The Guardian published this collection. On the tall Czech, The Guardian chose to (astutely) focus on his position:
When he does feature, the Czech international is often deployed as a seconda punta by Samp boss Marco Giampaolo. This suits Schick, allowing him to float between the lines of defence and midfield. He is also happy to drift out wide, especially to the right, where he can cut inside and unleash shots with his devilish left foot. With a languid yet graceful poise, he feints and shimmies past opponents. His height – 6ft 1in – ensures he also carries a substantial aerial threat. Expect to see plenty more from Schick in the coming months.
Well, they nailed that last part, didn’t they? Before all was said and done, Schick managed 11 goals and three assists in 32 appearances for Sampdoria during the 2016-2017 season. These weren’t record breaking numbers by any means, but they were enough to leave many large clubs salivating at the prospect of signing Schick, and while it appeared like Juventus had snared this prize pig, thanks to a failed medical, Roma were able to swoop in and land Schick for a cool forty-two million euros.
Shick may very well prove to be a shrewd investment, but, thanks to a variety of factors, namely the presence of Edin Dzeko and continued uncertainty regarding his proper position, Roma has rained on The Guardian’s parade. Still, as we’ve said several times over the past two years, there’s just something about this kid—when he has the ball at his feet, you can see the unique combination of skill and size that led to so much effusive praise to begin with. It won’t be long before he forces his way into Roma’s lineup more often. They just have to, you know, figure out how to use him. No biggie.
Two years is definitely not enough time to write some of these kids off as busts (think more in the five year range), but it is remarkable how quickly the drum beats fade after only 24 months. Due to factors ranging from injury, ill-timed transfers, and simply being stuck behind better players, some of these kids simply have not gotten a chance to prove their mettle yet, while others still have been shown for what they really are; rotational fodder.
For Roma, the fates of these kids is no laughing matter. Between Pellegrini, Cristante and Schick, Roma has (or will/may) invested nearly €80 million; a sum that has long-lasting and far reaching ramifications for the always budget conscious Giallorossi. Fortunately for Roma, The Guardian’s enthusiasm for Pellegrini seems well founded—he’s already one of Roma’s most important players—while their predictions for Cristante and Schick are predicated on the extent to which they can assert themselves in EDF’s rotation.
Two years may not be enough time to properly assess that trio, but I hope against hope we’ve got it all figured out in two more years. If everything pans out, Pellegrini, Cristante and Schick could be the foundation of Roma’s next great team.