Two, one, two, four, five, six, ______ and four. With one exception, those are Radja Nainggolan’s goal tallies from the past eight seasons. There’s nothing exceptionally good or bad about that range, but it does show some small measure of consistency and steady progression. Of course, the figure that goes in that empty line would sort of skew that data set. Under Luciano Spalletti, Nainggolan turned in a career year in 2016-2017, banging home 11 goals in 37 appearances. That statistical outlier had the perverse effect of warping our expectations for Radja this season, at least in terms of his offensive role.
In years past, Nainggolan was expected to charge every which way but loose in Roma’s midfield, winning loose balls, making match-saving tackles, and delivering killer passes all while leading the league in haircuts per 90 minutes and expected neck tattoos. But those 11 goals, man those were sweet. Throwing that splash of offense into Nainggolan’s already well-rounded recipe instantly launched the Belgian into the best midfielder in the world conversation. Things were looking up for Radja, that is until Eusebio Di Francesco took the reins at Roma.
While we can and should hail EDF for his performance this season, if there was one area in which he was slightly off, it was his use of Nainggolan, arguably the club’s best and most versatile player. Radja’s role as an unorthodox number ten under Spalletti last year was an awkward fit at first, but his strength on the ball and tenacity off it made him an effective, albeit odd, number ten. No one would hold him up as an example at youth camps, but he was damn effective in that role.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it was probably foolish of us to expect Nainggolan to repeat last year’s impressive performance, regardless of who was calling the shots, but he was just so great and so transformative last year that it was only natural to expect it to become a regular thing.
Well, that notion was dispelled rather quickly once the new season started. In the early weeks and months, Nainggolan was effectively gelded by EDF’s tactics—he was too far removed from the thick of the action, and too detached from Edin Dzeko, with whom he made magic last season—that many started to wonder how much Nainggolan had left after so many years barrelling over Serie A midfielders.
Still, despite the outward appearances, Nainggolan was rather effective in his new, detached role, scoring two goals and contributing four assists through the season’s first three months. But something just didn’t seem right, not with Nainggolan and not with Roma, and it took a midwinter's swoon to rattle Roma’s cage.
Once the calendar flipped to February, EDF made a long awaited change, shifting from his preferred 4-3-3 to a more dynamic 4-2-3-1, putting Nainggolan and Dzeko in lockstep once more, and the results were quite dramatic. From February through, well, yesterday, Nainggolan was a man reborn, scoring four goals and dishing out seven assists in all competitions.
So, sure, Nainggolan didn’t turn in the 14 goal and 10 assist campaign many people were envisioning in August but the finally tally was still incredibly impressive: 42 appearances, 6 goals and 11 assists. That doesn’t make him the best midfielder in the world, but he’s Roma’s best by a country mile.
Final Grade: B+ Not as great as last year, but still well above average
High Point: November 18th against Lazio—four shots, two key passes, four dribbles, one goal and three tackles.