It’s June 22nd, 2017, and Roma have just sold Mohamed Salah to Liverpool for an initial €42m fee. And while most giallorossi fans are unhappy to see one of their most-prized scoring threats go, the profit made from the sale and the whispers of a possible Riyad Mahrez acqusition provide the hope that a suitable replacement will be found. Moreover, with the recent arrival of transfer guru Monchi and newly appointed Eusebio Di Francesco’s preference for inverted right-wingers, there is no reason to fear a lack of depth in a position that yielded 15 goals and 11 assists in the prior campaign.
Now, fast-forward to August 31st. The transfer window has just closed and Roma’s depth chart for right wing include former Sassuolo striker Grégoire Defrel, Czech wonder kid Patrik Schick, and a mostly unknown Turkish prospect, Cengiz Ünder. With Financial Fair Play restrictions and the failed pursuit of Mahrez to blame, Roma all of a sudden have a flimsy attacking front on the right of the park. There is much to worry about with these options as two are not true wingers at all, and the latter has no league experience nor can he speak the language. With the Frenchman being the apple of Eusebio’s eye, it is widely assumed he will have to fill in the enormous Egyptian boots left by Salah.
It doesn’t take long for EDF to realize he has a quagmire of a dilemma with his attacking right. After a month of games it is clear that Grégoire, although left-footed and pacey, is not the answer. Come mid-September, two juicy back-to-back games with Verona and Benevento allow the mister to give Ünder some starting minutes, and while the Turk shows glimpses of what he can offer, it is evident that he just isn’t gelling yet. Furthermore, with a healthy Patrik Schick joining the fold, the young Turk must take every opportunity he gets.
But he doesn’t. Cameos here and there, starts with nothing to show for against the minnows, Ünder gives his all, but ultimately poor judgment and lack of strength relegate the Turk to more of a sub role. Additionally, EDF’s tinkering with El Shaarway on the right creates even more competition. No, things aren’t looking up for Ünder. And worst yet... Winter is coming.
Although miraculously topping their group in Champion’s League, Roma’s league form is showing signs of decay. By January 28th the giallorossi are win-less in seven matches and virtually lost, out of the Scudetto race for good. And while their European campaign is still strong and running, fans are beginning to turn on EDF and Monchi. Meanwhile, over the pond, Mohamed Salah has just scored his 17th goal of the season for Liverpool. Roma’s right-wing contingent currently sits at 0 goals in all competitions. And then there’s Ünder, seemingly forgotten, an afterthought. It is evident that the team is in need of a savior, but they need inspiration. Totti is gone and cannot save them anymore.
It’s February 4th and the starving wolf that is Roma needs sustenance. The team cannot survive off UCL glory alone and an ominous fog hangs over the capital as the squad teeters on the edge of crisis. Roma need a win against Verona. Roma need a hero. And just when they need it the most, this happens:
The deft left everyone has been waiting for finally emerges and Roma all of sudden have a right-winger. Not even a week later he is at it again:
Just when Roma were on the fringes of catastrophic meltdown, Under comes up big, providing 5 goals across all competitions in February, including what will be a Champion’s League saving away goal against Shakhtar. But it’s not just the goals, it’s the injection of life Under has given the team. All of a sudden, the future looks bright and Roma’s attacking woes are behind them, for now.
The ice of winter has thawed and Roma look at the towering Spanish hill in front of them. After going down 4-1 against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, they must overturn the deficit by scoring 3 goals at home. With a change of formation, EDF opts for Patrik Schick in tandem with Dzeko, leaving the in-form Ünder on the bench. But with a 2-0 lead and 20 minutes left, the Turk enters and immediately challenges Barcelona’s defense with his pace and agility. And it would be by his cross that Roma wins perhaps their biggest game in the last decade and enter their first Champion’s League semifinal since 1984:
Which brings us full circle. Yes, much happened after the Barcelona win, Cengiz scored a couple crucial goals in the months leading up to now, and Roma lost to Liverpool in the UCL semi-final after a mental collapse at Anfield. Oh, and hey, Roma clinched 3rd place in Serie A despite their horrid December slump. But to focus on the gem at hand, Cengiz Ünder had quite the season for a 20-year old player who had never played in top European league. Scoring 7 goals and providing a sole assist, the young Turk’s stats belie his true worth. Ünder’s torrid February form inspired a team lacking any semblance of creative attack. With the confidence of his coach and fellow players, Cengiz proved he can be the outlet this team needs. Furthermore, at such an young age, there is much to look forward to in the coming seasons.
For fun, here is a matrix comparing the first Serie A seasons of Ünder, Dybala, and, for the sake of argument, the one and only Juan Iturbe. While hindsight proves Iturbe as an anomaly, it is interesting to see the similarities between Dybala and Ünder. Now of course these are just numbers, and surface numbers at that, but I think it’s safe to say that Ünder’s rookie season was no fluke, and that the years ahead are very, very promising.