Lately I was doing some research around AS Roma and its history in my spare time (my life is not that adventurous) and I came up with something very peculiar. The position of leftback has always been a merry-go-round in the Eternal City, and we have seen a lot of people come and go.
Some were prodigies, future stars in the making, others were already past their prime and meant as bench warmers. Italians, Norwegians, Brazilians, Spanish, name a country and it probably delivered a leftback to Roma.
Curiously the older alternatives tend to do better than their younger counterparts. In fact, since 2006 or so, pretty much every player around or in their 30s was a hit for Roma. The ones younger than 25 have been average or even simply disappointing.
Of course I have some examples to justify this remark. Eight names to be exact. Four oldies, four young guns. Four times a bull’s eye, four times a failure. Let’s start in chronological order. The year is 2007. Roma’s leftbacks were the 20-year-old Portugese Antunes and the famous Max Tonetto, 13 years older than Antunes.
Tonetto came to Roma at the age of 32 from Sampdoria and while many believed Max to be a backup for the left flank (he could also play on the wing), Tonetto surprised not only Roma fans but the whole of Italy. He amassed 80+ games for Roma in Italy, was rarely injured or below-average and kept Antunes on the bench. He was undeniably Spal’s first choice as Roma won two Coppe Italia in 2007 and 2008.
Antunes only gathered 5 appearances before he was send out on loan the next season. Tonetto stayed until 2010 and also ended his career at Roma. He still enjoys a cult status in Rome and in Church here. Antunes never returned to Rome and is now playing for Getafe in Spain.
Ouch, first blood, 1-0 for the oldies.
In 2008 another notorious leftback joined Roma: John Arne Riise. JAR JAR took over the reigns of Tonetto and was immediately the new fan favorite. Riise was basically a straightforward leftback: no Brazilian flair or tricks and no Italian finesse or charms. Just run your ass off, get your man, push forward, bomb the ball into the box. Decent, resolute, devoted. Around 100 apps for Roma between 2008 and 2011, an everpresent in the line-up.
2-0 for the oldies.
In the summer of 2011 Riise left for Fulham and Roma’s new coach Luis Enrique wanted his fellow countryman Jose Angel Valdes as the starting leftback. Since 2006 and after Tonetto and Riise, Roma finally paved the way for a younger, more dynamic version of the modern leftback. Or so it seemed. Angel played 27 games in a for Roma thorougly disappointing season, the first one under American ownership. AS Roma ended on a seventh place with a mere 57 points. After only one season, Angel was loaned out to Sociedad and just like Antunes he never returned to Rome again.
Still 2-0, no points scored for the youth so far.
We’re in 2012 now and Roma appointed Zeman as head coach. The new leftbacks? Federico Balzareti and Dodo. A clash between young and old once again. Balzaretti, 31 and succesful careers at Juventus and Palermo. Dodo, a Brazilian prodigy of 20 years with no single European experience but with a lot of hype and promise. Balzaretti was Zeman’s first choice as Dodo had to do with about 11 apps in Serie A.
Only due to an injury for Federico, Dodo amassed more games in his second season but he could never replace the energy and skill of Balzaretti. Castan and Torosidis had to intervene on leftback from time to time. The Greek, normally a rightback, featured in about the same amount of games as Dodo. After 2014 Dodo was sold to Inter while Balzaretti lasted until 2015 and is still working for Roma’s management right now.
Dodo’s highlights in a Roma shirt could be summed up in a YouTube vid of approx 20 seconds, while there are probably 20 videos alone of Balzaretti’s amazing goal against Lazio and the following tears and celebration. That was his piece de resistance. Overall Balzaretti’s impact was much bigger and the fact that he’s still a part of the club nowadays tells a lot.
So yeah, 3-0 for the oldies.
After Balzaretti anounced his retirement in 2015, Roma once again went for a shot at the youth. Ashley Cole and Holebas, both on the wrong side of 30, didn’t convince (you could make a case for Holebas though).
Enter Lucas Digne. The same scenario as in 2011 with Luis Enrique and Jose Angel. Rudi Garcia, a Frenchman, wanted Digne from PSG as his starting leftback. Rudi knew hem well as they worked together at Lille for some years. But like I said, the leftback position in Rome is not for the faint of heart.
As Garcia probably promised him, Digne started most of the time, he even had 33 apps in Serie A, but just like Jose Angel he couldn’t make that position his own. Not like Riise, Tonetto or Balzaretti did before. Digne was on loan and Roma didn’t buy him outright in 2016, mainly because his buddy Garcia was already sacked by then and Spalletti wasn’t a fan.
The score remains 3-0.
The leftback position in 2015-2016 was a curious case, an anomaly. You see, it simply didn’t exist for most of the time because Spalletti opted for a 3-4-2-1 and not 4-3-3. In the beginning three men played leftback in the 4-3-3: Peres, Jesus and Emerson. One is a rightback, one a CB and the last one only broke through as a wingback later on, in the 3-4-2-1 system.
In 2017 and with a new coach at the helm, Eusebio Di Francesco, the good old 4-3-3 returned and Roma had to search for a new leftback, an original one this time. No left-footed CB or flexible rightback. No, a true, tried and tested leftback. Is it a surprise Roma once again chose an older alternative?
Aleksander Kolarov, 31 going on 32, was signed from Manchester City and did exceptionally well. 40+ games in all competitions, including some lovely free-kicks. He was one of the first names on Eusebio’s sheet. Emerson would have been the starter at leftback but the Brazilian suffered an unfortunate injury in May 2017 and missed all games until December 2017.
Kolarov was an Olimpico hero by then and so Emerson was sold to Chelsea in January 2018. Roma quickly replaced him with the 23-year-old Jonathan Silva (as old as Emerson) but does someone here even know how he looks like or how much minutes he has clocked in? A flop. Once again the oldies prevailed.
4-0 and dilly ding dilly dong, that’s our final score!
By the looks of it, it seems the domination of the oldies will continue throughout the 2018-2019 season. The 4-3-3 is still in town and Kolarov shows no signs of slowing down, a goal against Costa Rica in the World Cup says enough. Roma bought the 31-year-old Marcano from Porto who can also operate on LB, which is a good sign if you’ve read this post (thanks for that!).
And the youth? Well, Luca Pellegrini and (to some extend) Davide Santon will try to have their say in all of this, but can they realistically condemn this Kolarov to the bench? History is not at their side.
My prediction? A dry and painful 5-0 score by May 2019.
Best oldie at leftback?
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