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Diego Perotti Still Trying To Re-Invent Himself at Roma

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The 2017-18 story of a man who would be (midfield) king.

AS Roma v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Diego Perotti is my favourite Roma player. I may as well get that out the way now. When he arrived on a late January evening, immediately hustled into the team’s starting lineup against Sassuolo in 2016, El Monito just kept going all day. He ran to the byline, he beat his man, he picked the ball up from deep, did it again, collected an assist. When it was said and done, he just kept going some more. He was, alongside (the old version of) Radja Nainggolan, one of the two reasons why I had the heart to keep seeing a future with Roma beyond Francesco Totti. (The third reason was Antonio Rudiger but let’s not go there - I’m still sour about it.)

Perotti showed this ability to nestle the ball in between his ankle and the long toe-ends of his boots that reminds me of Juan Roman Riquelme or David Beckham in the mid-noughties wearing those long toe-end Adidas Predators (a theme only reinforced by Perotti now wearing off-white Adidas Nemezizs this year). But Perotti is nothing like Riquelme or Beckham were; he’s the anti-thesis of their game if you want to compare. While they needed others to carve out time and space for them to do their thing, Perotti makes his own space at the 11th hour - both off and on the pitch.

1 vs 1? No problem, he skips past his man each time. Double up on him in a 1 vs 2? Still, no problem for Perotti to escape that squeeze with the ball at his feet.

To be specific, this year Perotti has won 58% of his take-ons according to Squawka... and that’s from a total of 100 dribbles tried. 58 dribbles won over the season. Perotti reigned in Serie A as the ‘King of Dribbling” until Juventus had to ruin it by signing Douglas Costa (77.87% successful take-ons for Juventus in 2017-18 from a total 121 dribbles tried - significant daylight between Costa and Perotti or anyone else in the league this season).

Another thing I love about Perotti is he’s avoided buying into the “Jose Reyes excuse”. When Arsenal dropped a club-record amount of money on a Spanish winger out of Sevilla many eons ago, Reyes’ one saving grace in an Arsenal shirt was how many fouls he won for his team in dangerous positions. That could easily have been said about Perotti if he were willing to go down easily or look for contact, but he genuinely wants to beat his man in the pursuit to moving closer to goal. The number of fouls committed on Perotti in the league this season (29) is way down on what you’d expect from a player who could take the “professional” easy way out.

But here’s the kicker beyond the fandom and the praise: Perotti’s Roma career has never hit the individual heights of Genoa.

For everything that made Douglas Costa’s season at Juventus great, Diego Perotti was doing better at Genoa four years ago. 177 total dribbles over the course of the 2014/15 season with the Grifone, 98 of them successful. No end-product, I hear you cry? Perotti had more key passes in a Genoa shirt (49) than Douglas Costa in a Juventus title-winning season (38).

The conflict above is some insight into Perotti’s motivations at this late stage in his career, trying to add feathers to his cap at a bigger club. Many people’s gripe with Perotti is whether the club can really afford for him to be stealing time to re-discover himself on Roma’s watch.

A Strange Love Affair at the Touchline

“For me, Perotti is really a player with all the characteristics of a midfielder,” summed up Di Francesco in a recent pre-match presser. It’s an open theme by now. Everyone sees the Argentine as more effective in the middle of the park. Everyone except the one person that counts: Diego Perotti, himself.

When EdF tried out El Monito in the hole against Benevento at home this season, you couldn’t think of a better fixture in which to test out a long-awaited experiment... and it completely tanked. Lasting only one half in the middle and constantly pulling wide, Perotti oversaw his Roma toiling to avoid being the only side in Serie A (besides AC Milan) to give Benevento league points at that stage.

EdF later claimed that Perotti told him in the dressing room at half-time that he much preferred doing his thing down the left side again. The switch was made and Roma rescued a 5-2 result on the night from a losing position at half-time.

So just how much of a future can Diego buy on Roma’s left flank? Or is it really enough to say he’s the kind of player who’s value to a team cannot be quantified by stats? Frankly, as a fan, I’d have to hope so because the argument on paper is grim.

Difference-Maker or Not?

His 2017-18 key passes are down from yesteryear, his dribbles are down the league-leading 90 successful dribbles he made in the calendar year of 2016 under Spalletti, and just about every individual stat is down on Di Francesco’s watch. Yet Perotti claims Di Francesco is “the one coach who’s asked the most of me and the reason why I had a shot at making the Argentina squad” for the World Cup. It’s a curious mismatch between what the player feels and what he shows on the pitch.

The last time Perotti could point to outright tangible on-paper evidence of him being a difference-maker was in that revelation 2014-15 season at Genoa. The Grifone won an average of 1.6 points per game with DP10 in the side, as opposed to 1.36 points per game without him. The margin earned them 6th place - enough to qualify for Europe had Genoa not been late filing their UEFA application license and thrown out by the Lega Serie A themselves. A bit of a farce for a hard season’s work, that one.

At Roma this 2017-18 season, the Serie A win rate is suggesting something totally different. With Perotti, Roma collected an average of 1.7 points per match in the league. Without Perotti, the team collected 1.9 points per league game. In fact, without Perotti in the side, Roma went near undefeated in all 13 league games played. The only Serie A loss Roma suffered without DP8 in the matchday squad was an inexplicable smash-and-grab defeat at home to Fiorentina.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that Perotti has been fielded in the toughest games this season and only left out (or missing through injury) against minor sides in the league. The Roma wins without Perotti were against Torino, Genoa, Chievo, Cagliari, Crotone and the only “big” side you could say Roma won against - AC Milan away.

For the Champions League, the Argentinian dribbler made 7 starts and contributed to 3 wins, 3 losses and 2 draws among those starting appearances. Pretty even stuff all the way down the middle. He came off the bench in the CL only once away at Anfield, and contributed to a loss while scoring a penalty to bring his side back into the tie. His winning games as a starter included what some sites (whisper it quietly, WhoScored) considered to be man-of-the-match performances at home to Chelsea and Qarabag, scoring in both. Even in the losses, he came up with an assist in the 4-1 loss at the Camp Nou to Barcelona and should have score himself in front of an open wide goal but fluffed the header.

So is Perotti’s future at Roma as a big-game player? A man you can call off the bench to manage the balance of games for his side? He came off the bench in league to seal matches against Udinese and Fiorentina with goals on the break from open play. His 9 substitute appearances in the league include 6 wins, 1 draw and a loss. On the other hand, his one bench appearance in the Coppa Italia did nothing to stop Roma crashing out at the first hurdle against Torino. Key passes and build up is all well and good, but it isn’t the same impact as goals and assists.

Shunning Midfield Guarantees for A Wide Forward Rebirth

There are upsides to Diego’s completed season. Perotti, unlike Douglas Costa, actually offers a defensive side to his game. Where Douglas Costa’s defensive performance was frankly non-existent at best, Perotti was eating up blades of grass defending like an animal against Shakhtar 1-0 up at home. Perotti has also upped his accuracy on goal. Even if he takes far less chances than El Shaarawy (Perotti’s 26 shots to SES’ 58 shots in the league) he shades SES on accuracy (Perotti 69% shots on goal vs. SES’ 67%) and has hit the woodwork more often in the league than SES (2 times versus SES’ 1).

If he wanted to, he could round out his career at top level as a strong guarantee in midfield. It was more or less the way Spalletti was using him in the first half of the 2016-17 season in a 5-man midfield line. And what was Spalletti’s reward?

“If Spalletti has stayed at the club last summer, I probably would have left,” Perotti summed up last winter. “Actually, yes, I would have left. Milan wanted to sign me. It’s not a question of Spalletti being wrong, it’s just a question of choices. If I played in a team that was focused on possession, I probably wouldn’t have a place in the squad.”

There was no love lost there, and no fond memories of the Tuscan trainer in Diego’s eyes. It’s an unusual read from a football player who’s more enthused by taking risks (and largely failing to find reward) under EdF. The Abruzzese coach let Perotti challenge himself to find the one trait you arguably cannot learn so late into your career at 29 years of age: goalscoring. EdF has so far been willing to overlook the missing third of Perotti’s artwork near the byline and in the box, but that story may change with the club fishing for arrivals like Justin Kluivert.

Perotti’s season has played no small part in Kolarov’s phenomenal attacking numbers in flanking him, but his on-pitch relationship with Roma’s other Balkan hero has been more of a slow-burner. Now that Dzeko is shaping up in terms of mobility and winning space for his wide men, it puts the spotlight on questioning what the wide men are willing to do with those gifts.

Perotti hasn’t made a career out of profiting from the time given to him by others, even if he’s up for the challenge of trying. He’s the guy who’s outrun injuries, making up for what was lost; the guy who creates space for himself just when you think you’ve seen the last of him being closed down by double-teams. It would be romantic if Diego himself wasn’t satisfied with that romance.

For next season, he’ll have to be show more on his path to embodying something different: a goalscorer. He’ll need more finishes like the one at home against Chelsea. Cutting inside, seeing the goal, putting it in the back of the net. Where has that been all season? He may quietly relishing the challenge of learning how to become a striker at 29 years of age but, if you think about it, it’s selfish of him to even try.

A lot of people would just want him to fade into a midfield role for the good of the team’s stats. If you’re a stats guy, you love guys like Nainggolan for being self-serving because they made the individual ambitions count where it matters on paper. Perotti has not. And yet, I’m willing to give Diego a free pass for this where I wouldn’t give Radja one, guilty of playing favourites.

Even if Diego fails at one last roll of the renaissance dice, he’s managed to be my cult hero inside of football, all the same.