Roma fans were quite naturally upset when Radja Nainggolan was sold earlier this summer. Not only was Radja one of the best midfielders in the league, but he was an unquestioned fan favorite, one who burrowed his way into the hearts and minds of the Roma faithful through his tenacity, tough tackling and love for the crest. So to see him shipped off to Inter Milan for a paltry sum was a swift kick to the gut for Roma fans, but there is a silver lining to this deal; a young, tall and talented silver lining named Nicolo Zaniolo, who kicks off our 2018 U-23 countdown.
Number Ten: Nicolo Zaniolo
Prior Club: Inter Milan (Primavera)
Current Club: Roma (exact level TBD)
Future Comparison: Javier Pastore
Who is He?
Since we discussed this in-depth after the signing, I’m just going to plagiarize myself again.
Zaniolo, who will soon turn 19-years-old, stands 6’3’’ in the air and originally came up through the Fiorentina and Virtus Entella ranks before being sold to Inter Milan last summer for €1.8 million, a figure that was likely to double once certain bonuses were met, and based on his performance with Inter’s Primavera team last year, it’s a safe bet they had to fork over that additional €1.7 million.
In 35 total appearances last season (all comps), Zaniolo was a dynamic threat, posting 14 goals and 11 assists and was instrumental in Inter’s drive to the Primavera and Supercoppa titles
What Can He Do?
While that’s not the best video every compiled on a youth player, one needn’t look any further than his performance with Inter’s youth side to see what kind of player he is—he’s equal parts creator and finisher. Zaniolo is quite nimble for a kid his size and uses his left foot to finish from a variety of positions and angles on the pitch, and while that clip doesn’t show a ton of his playmaking ability, his 11 assists last season are testament to his passing and intuitive attacking play.
What Can He Become?
Well, if you look at his statistics, his stature and his gait, he looks every bit like a newer, thought not quite as skinny, Javier Pastore. While he has a strong scoring record at the youth level, like Pastore he may very well make a name for himself as a creator rather than a scorer, or he could very well be a taller, slimmer and not quite as talented Francesco Totti-type; the kind of player who can chip in 13 goals and 7 assists one season then follow that up with a 6 goals and 14 assist campaign. Zaniolo doesn’t have blinding speed, but his feel for the game should ensure that he sticks around for awhile.
As with any player this age, we can’t simply assume his senior career will follow the same trajectory as his Primavera days, both in terms of results and role. However, what we do know is this: Zaniolo is strong, technical, can finish with his feet and in the air, and has that killer instinct to pick out a final pass.
Roma will have to be patient with Zaniolo, finding a suitable incubator for his talents before bumping him up to the first team, but his combination of skills are the stuff of dreams.