When Radja Nainggolan was shipped to Inter this summer, it hurt. Nainggolan had battled for the Roma colors for years and endeared himself to the fan base. The Ninja had been unceremoniously shipped out of the capital for €24 million Euros, damaged goods in the form of Davide Santon, and some kid named Nicolò Zaniolo. Is that all Radja was worth? What was Monchi thinking? How could he get fleeced so badly? Many Romanisti were perplexed.
Well, apparently, Monchi was very well informed. Even though the cash Roma received was less than expected, the move is beginning to look very shrewd. The players that arrived in the deal have more than made up for the the lack of cash. Santon has been more than good for Roma, as the team’s primary reserve at full back. And of course, Zaniolo has begun to show that, in the end, he may be the real trump card when assessing this deal in a few years.
Zaniolo was very highly thought of upon his arrival in Rome, after a phenomenal season for Inter’s Primavera squad. He was considered the crown jewel of Inter’s youth set up. His former coach at Inter, Stefano Vecchi, said he had all the characteristics of a modern mezz’ala, likening him to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. High praise for a 19 year-old.
Before he had even played a senior squad match for Roma, he was called up to the Italian National Team by Roberto Mancini. Even though he didn’t suit up for either Nations League match, the call-up spoke volumes to Zaniolo’s potential. Roberto Mancini is building for the future and he wanted to see the kid in person.
A short time later, Zaniolo made his debut for Roma against...Real Madrid. The kid hadn’t even played a game in Serie A and here he was debuting against the defending European Champs at the Bernabeu. And guess what. He held his own for 54’. After that, there wasn’t much time for Zaniolo with more experienced midfielders getting the bulk of minutes in the middle of the park.
However that has changed in recent weeks. Due to injuries suffered by Javier Pastore and Lorenzo Pellegrini, Zaniolo has been given the opportunity to man the trequartista position in Roma’s 4-2-3-1 formation. He’s taken the bull by the horns and run with his opportunity. Not only has the teenager been good, he’s been great against two formidable opponents: Real Madrid and Inter.
In both cases Zaniolo was the highest rated Roma player by many publications, including EuroSport, which said the following after the Madrid match:
“Nicolò ZANIOLO 6.5 - The best of Roma. Started in a timid manner, but grew exponentially, fighting for every ball and putting Under in front of the door.”
If Zaniolo’s debut against Los Blancos proved that he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the bright lights of the Champions League or awed by a famous opponent, his second crack at Real showed that he could shine on Europe’s big stage. It was a mature performance from a youngster, who excelled in many facets of the game. Zaniolo showed the skill and ability to deliver the killer ball, read the game, and win physical battles with his 6’2” physique. He finished the game with two key dribbles, and an 84 % passing percentage, along with a sure assist that Cengiz Ünder inexplicably skied over the bar. Take a look at his work to set up Ünder below.
The praise continued after the Inter match when he was even more highly rated by EuroSport,
“Nicolò ZANIOLO 7 - Played with the extra motivation of one who has been considered a bargaining chip and produced a lovely match. He put grit and quality on the field, kicked and protested for a penalty not given. Came out to applause.”
Zaniolo again proved to be a danger man during the Inter match, sparking the team with his running, pressing, and shooting. His highlights included drawing the now infamous penalty that wasn’t called or looked at by VAR. But that non-call shouldn’t overshadow his strong all-around performance. After the match Zaniolo drew praise from non-other than Francesco Totti.
Meanwhile, Il Romanista continued to heap on the praise in their player ratings, saying,
“THE BEST: ZANIOLO 7.5 - The best: in the first six minutes sowed panic twice in the Inter area, tried the shot on several occasions, won a (uncalled) penalty and called the (poor) attention of Rocchi on second which was granted. Not satisfied, he fought, slid and if it was the case, he also railed, also getting Totti’s blessing at the end of the game. To date, the exchange with the former Romanista now in Milan is unequal. In favor of Nicolò. Nineteen years and doesn’t feel it.”
Zaniolo is proving to be mature beyond his years and has arrived onto the scene sooner than anyone could’ve expected in Rome; drawing praise from influential men like Totti and Mancini. There’s no question that the talent that was witnessed at the youth level translates to the highest levels of football, as evidenced by Zaniolo’s performances against Inter and Real Madrid. Now it’ll be up to Di Francesco to continue utilizing him in the most effective ways possible, even with the returns from injury of Pellegrini and Pastore, to continue his development and spark a struggling squad. If his upward trajectory continues, Roma may have stolen the crown jewel from Inter’s youth system.