Nicolo Zaniolo’s feature interview with Ultimo Uomo is timely, as he’s one of the many class of ‘99 players making headlines at Trigoria. Alongside him in the senior squad is 19-year-old Justin Kluivert, who just took home a UEFA man of the match award in a Roma shirt, and left-back Luca Pellegrini.
In the Primavera ranks, ‘99-born Zan Celar’s agent is putting his name forward as the next ‘baby Dzeko’. Celar is full of tireless pressing and already matched his entire goal tally from last season, with 11 goals in his last 5 games - most of them headers and tap-ins that mirror Dzeko’s 2016/17 form.
So what’s the difference between a player who fades out at Primavera level and one who... goes from Primavera title winner to megabucks transfer, to senior international call-up, to professional debut at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League all within four months?
Zaniolo spoke with Ultimo Uomo, just 5 days before his recent full Serie A debut against former club Fiorentina, to shed some light on an answer.
Nicolo Zaniolo spent seven years at formation club Fiorentina, before cutting himself loose from the nest in Florence two seasons ago. “They wanted to send me out on loan,” Zaniolo said to Ultimo Uomo, “and I prefered to become a free agent and choose where I’d go next.”
Two years later, Zaniolo would be back in Florence to lineup against the Viola in Serie A.
Zaniolo himself admits saying goodbye to Fiorentina was a gamble back then, even if the nature of graduating from youth to senior football is already a gamble within itself. As Ultimo Uomo point out, by way of an Calcio e Finanza study in 2016, just 12% of all Primavera players go on to have a senior professional career in football.
Maybe that was Zaniolo’s thinking - aided by the advice of his ex-footballing father Igor (who earned Serie A promotion with Messina in the early noughties) - when choosing to sign with Virtus Entella in 2016/17. “If I’d collected an injury at Entella,” Zaniolo said, “I would have been stuck with a career at that level for good.”
Fate took a different turn for the Tuscan teenager, but few would have predicted it’d turn to the fast lane.
He was already courted by Monchi in Zaniolo’s final days at Entella, but Inter won that race for Zaniolo’s signature at the time. “Both Juventus and Inter wanted to sign me,” Zaniolo said, “but I chose Inter because I thought it was the right project for me.”
That chapter in his career is something we’ve covered here on CdT. His goalscoring form was remarkable. Zaniolo scored more goals with Inter’s Primavera from midfield than Zan Celar did for Roma Primavera up front, in 2017/18. One crucial match-winning goal in the semi-final was just a milestone on his way to collecting the Primavera title with Inter, on June 9th.
Then only three weeks passed before Zaniolo found himself in a mega-swap deal to Roma - he was a 4 million euro makeweight for the departing Radja Nainggolan in the media’s eyes. But evidently he’d been much more than that to Monchi for a while. “I didn’t think twice about saying yes to Roma,” Zaniolo said, “my desire to join was strong, as was Roma’s desire to have me. So I was and am happy today.”
It didn’t stop there, and the nature of Zaniolo’s rise since signing for Roma has been one for the record books. He didn’t even train with Roma until late August, as he was busy getting to a EURO U-19 final with Italy. His team would fall short at the final hurdle in a seven-goal extra time madness against winners Portugal, but he claims the final was key to catching the attention of Roberto Mancini just months later.
“Mancini called me up because he saw me in the Euro U-19 championship,” Zaniolo tells Ultimo Uomo. “It was an important stage to show your talent. Every Italian player that played in that U-19 final now plays in either Serie A or Serie B today.”
No doubt the current Roma and Italy U-19 players Alessio Riccardi, Stefano Greco and Devid Bouah will all have their ears perking up at that remark. After all, this past September, Zaniolo became only the third player in Italian football history to be called up to the Nazionale before playing a single minute in Serie A.
That was the beginning of some speculation as whether he’s been used as a tool for opportunist coaches in their own career politics. It didn’t help that both Roberto Mancini and Eusebio Di Francesco mentioned Zaniolo’s senior call-ups, to both club and country, were “to send a message” through the football world. Nonetheless, the explanation for Zaniolo’s rise could be far simpler: his imposing physique.
For his part, Zaniolo idolised Kaka when growing up, and his choice to wear the #22 shirt - like Adem Ljajic in his very latter days at Roma before departing for Inter - was an homage to Kaka’s favourite number at Milan. “Kaka had a change of pace within him that’d leave 2 or 3 opponents behind each time,” Zaniolo said of his idol. “That goal at Old Trafford is Kaka’s game, for me.”
But his coaches through his career have advised he model his game after Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard - both box-to-box legends who had the motor to be equally imposing in both defensive and attacking phases of the game. In other words, Zaniolo could be Monchi’s future gift to EDF’s preferred 4-3-3 formation - similar to Bryan Cristante.
Both are young Italian players who seek competitive advantage in the physical side of their game. They marry this advantage with an instinct for when to make runs into space ahead. These were the fundamentals behind Zaniolo and Cristante earning their ticket to Rome, even if both have since had to adapt.
Nicolo becomes his own critic on his senior Roma debut, when looking back at a failed pass forward to El Shaarawy at the Bernabeu. It was a 30-yard vertical ball to meet SES’ trademark cutting in from the wing. “I messed up there,” Zaniolo said, “because the pass wasn’t on. I should have looked to carry the ball forward or play it high. Playing it on the ground like that was a mistake.”
Knowing when to make the incisive pass forward - like the assist Zaniolo made for Moise Kean in the U-19 championships - is a matter of getting to know his teammates. The key actions that could make Zaniolo a success at trequartista are the ones he believes will take more time. “I knew Kean liked to run to goal,” Zaniolo explained, “as I’d played with him for months before.”
Still, he doesn’t hide in matches and carries self-confidence in his decisions. He made several mistakes in that Real Madrid match, but didn’t back down from receiving the ball each time. Zaniolo even took on Gareth Bale in a duel before skipping past him with the ball. Nicolo draws his confidence from the support of his family. On his thigh, he carries the dates of birth of each family member tattooed, along with ‘Family’ itself tattooed on his wrist. He has another couple of tatts elsewhere, dedicated to sister and mother.
His mother moved with him to be in Rome once his transfer became official. Father Igor stayed behind in La Spezia to manage the bar he owns. Since training in Rome, Zaniolo doesn’t miss a beat when asked to name the most impressive players at Trigoria.
“De Rossi, Dzeko and Kolarov are players on another level,” Zaniolo sums up, “it’s an honour for me to train with them.”
Zaniolo on jumping from youth to senior level:
“The problem at this level is you have less of everything. There’s less time and less space. You have to think about your next play ahead of time, and physical duels are different. The jump to this level is big.”
Zaniolo on life in the fast lane:
“The risk of moving too fast was losing your head and losing everything that motivates you. My family is crucial to me. They stay close to me and give me advice.”
Zaniolo on father Igor Zaniolo’s advice:
“Even in the difficult moments, his experience can help. He can tell you how to carry yourself and the attitude you must have in the dressing room, because he’s already lived it. We talk three or four times a day. We see each other often. He told me that where I am now is just the beginning, and that I don’t need to get a big head because you can fall down just as fast as you rise.”
Zaniolo on whether he’s a physical or technical player:
“Honestly, I’m more of a physical player. I’ve got a good technique but I have to improve many things. Today’s football means you have to be built well physically. There aren’t any small players in the Champions League, and even the small players that are there are exceptional players. Physicality in the main thing in football. The most important thing in today’s football is to be just as good on the defensive end as the attacking end. If you don’t defend well, the team suffers the results and then you won’t attack well either.”
Zaniolo on his senior Italy call-up:
“Mancini told me to stay calm, because if I was called up to the senior squad then it was for good reason. It’s hard to see myself as part of the senior Italy project any time soon. I’m not thinking about whether I get called up to the Euros. I think only about playing and enjoying myself. The best is yet to come.”
Zaniolo on his role on the pitch:
“I see myself at mezzala, which I think will be my future. When I first came to Inter, I was missing so many things that William Vecchi managed to add to my game and I have a lot to thank him for. He was the first to tell me I have to play at mezzala. Playing at trequartista, you have less to do defensively but you have to make sure every pass you make is important. At mezzala, you have to play both sides of the game well and you have to think of doing the little things that don’t stand out in games. At Roma, maybe only playing in the two deeper defensive midfield roles is something I can’t see myself in but I could also play on the wing.”