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Much Ado About Alessandro Florenzi

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With a new 5-year contract extension agreed, Florenzi’s faults and merits come under the spotlight for another season.

Italy Training Session And Press Conference Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Alessandro Florenzi is reported to have finally agreed a base salary of 2.8 million euros over five years, plus bonuses on top. It’s (maybe) the last contract he’ll be signing in his twenties, as he’ll be 32 years old by the time it expires. By then will he be wearing the captain’s armband? Will he still be a right back? Will he still be covered with over-the-top praise on the English-speaking web and countered with over-the-top contempt from the Italian-speaking side?

If Florenzi has any faith to restore in Rome, first I’m asking myself: How did it get here?

September 2017 - Falling Out The Grace of God

Florenzi’s problems began before he’d even had the chance to make a full comeback from double injury; before he’d even kicked a ball in his friendly appearance against Chapecoense last autumn. Alessandro found himself embroiled in rumours of a falling out with Francesco Totti over an issue that was so reportedly petty, it’s hard to believe the two men couldn’t have sorted it out by now if the story were even true in the first place.

Totti was reported to no longer have a personal relationship with Florenzi after falling out over apartment-hunting for the younger Roman. The story is so tenuous that I’d rather stop writing about it here, but the underlying theme of the story ran from years back: the idea that Alessandro had become too big in his own head, and willing to get out of pocket with even Roma’s legend of all legends because of it.

Ever since that Barcelona goal from the halfway line, Florenzi has been accused of letting the glory of that goal get to his head, and apparently it’s been in the clouds ever since. Yet, where is the evidence of this?

From what I could see, he’s continued all the off-field duties expected of a vice captain, showing personal initiative last winter by phoning in a few (famous) sporting friends outside of football to help fundraise for the club’s annual sponsor event with Telethon’s hotline charity. There is little I could find to say Florenzi is too busy for Rome, or the duties it requires of him as one of the club’s senior playing figures.

Yet if you’d looked up any sort of fan commentary videos during the whole of last season, Youtube was not short of fan-made videos inside of Roma claiming that if Florenzi really wanted a payraise on his next contract, then he was welcome to pack his bags and see himself out of the door... and that’s putting it midly. The videos have been more vitriolic.

January 2018 - The Sampdoria Incident

To be fair to fans, Florenzi didn’t help his cause in the home loss to Sampdoria. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Alessandro in that game was helped along by the player himself. He stepped up to take a penalty, failed to score and then appeared to place the blame on his team-mate in the post-match interview. He felt the need to comment that he was never the club’s first-choice penalty taker, before inventing a weak excuse for refusing to approach the Curva Sud at full time. He claimed club guidelines forbid players from approaching the Curva, and the story would backfire months later after an (on the night) home victory against Liverpool in the Champions League.

On that night, Florenzi was suddenly more than willing to come to the Curva and applaud the fans. Some looked on at him disbelieving, taking to the web after the game to express incredulity at his change of heart. It only helped them buy into the idea that Florenzi was that ‘sing when you’re winning’ type of character who would duck facing the music when the team was down, but was happy to take part in the glory on the way up.

Now all of that off-the-field noise really doesn’t stack up when you look at the responsibilities Florenzi has embraced on the pitch this past season, and this is where I get frustrated that Florenzi’s own fans don’t actually ever go into detail and real perspective on the credit Florenzi’s character has actually merited, these past 12 months alone.

Florenzi’s Role as Playmaker Fullback

Of all the parts of EDF’s game known to have been stolen directly from former mentor Zdenek Zeman, the playmaking fullback is arguably the biggest shoplift. Zeman directly coached EDF as a mezzala, teaching Di Francesco to look at the foot with which his fullback would receive the ball, to then know what run (if any) to make up the field when Roma was in possession.

Years later, this is a passing chain tactic that Di Francesco hands down to his own mezzale and fullbacks. It should be said the results were less than spectacular in Florenzi’s half of the pitch for 2017/18, but that’s kind of a separate issue. It’s enough to say the right side of Roma’s passing network often lacked the same fluidity that we saw on Kolarov’s side, leaving an imbalance in the action zones (though Napoli never came under criticism for being an even more left-wing dependent team on their way to a title challenge).

All that aside, the underlying spotlight on Florenzi’s character remains the same: he came back from a double-injury to take on one of the most important roles in the side. I personally feel that deserves more credit than just damning Florenzi with faint praise of being a player full of grinta, hard work and passion - values that should be more of the norm for a Roma player by now, and not lauded as the caricature exception.

Florenzi spent the best of last season trying to get his fitness back, in a scenario where most players would be hoping to ease their way back into top flight football with a less demanding role.

You know... one where you can take breaks in large periods of the game and hide behind your opposing man if you needed a breather. But no dice for Alessandro.

As a matter of fact, Flo... Welcome to heatmap-city, population 2!

Roma 1-0 Cagliari, Saturday 16th December, 2017 - Heatmap Report by Whoscored
Whoscored.com

A heatmap like the above was by no means a one-off match situation for Roma last season. Because the fullbacks are not just relied upon to offer width to the play (a source of groans for EDF’s football in Rome so far) but to actually dictate what runs the midfielders make ahead of them, you see Flo and Kolarov - between them alone - end up with as much as 38% the amount of touches that the entire Cagliari team took on the same matchday. In that December game, Florenzi ended up with 105 touches of the ball (the most of all 22 players) ahead of Kolarov’s 97 touches. It’s a direct reflection of their roles as ‘registi’, or playmaking fullbacks, within the Roma backline.

Florenzi never asked for a place to hide under EDF, either. He always embraced more responsibility and more risk. His increased time on the ball left him open to more chances to make mistakes, and come under more criticism for errant passes and errant decisions. Some of the mistakes in possession were indefensible, like the error during the turnover and buildup to Sassuolo equalizing goal and lost points at the Olimpico, but they were tempered by beautiful (and effective) moments of skill on big game nights, like this:

Then there’s the crossing, for which I feel both Florenzi and EdF have to share some of the responsibility here. While Florenzi’s long, searching cross-balls up the field from deep seemed like he was going for the Hollywood pass, he was really only following EdF’s style of positional play football by design.

A natural space opens up for EdF’s fullbacks to hit that cross-field ball to the opposing winger (in Florenzi’s case - to Roma’s left winger) thanks to the positioning within the 4-3-3, and this can be used to surprise the opponent by switching play to attack their defense’s weak side when done quickly, directly and effectively. Florenzi, in this respect, was really just following the principles of EdF’s game but - for Florenzi’s own part - lacked the disciple to recognise he either didn’t have the form, fitness or possibly the talent to pull those passes off correctly.

In truth, we will see if midfielder-turned-fullback Rick Karsdorp fares better with those same cross-field ball opportunities soon. For a while, this past spring, Florenzi started to hit truly quality crosses deep from inside the opposition half or byline that looked like he had partially found a new niche, but he still lacks consistency in this area.

How well will Florenzi’s career settle at right back? The pitch will tell the real answers soon.

One big variable changes on Florenzi’s half of the pitch this coming season. There’s no more Radja Nainggolan to blame for mistimed runs, and there’s even a more mature Cengiz Under standing ahead of him. In a way, Alessandro is the only constant on Roma’s right side of the pitch for the coming season. So once again, he’s left with no place to hide and no teammate to hide behind.

Assuming he starts games over Karsdorp and Santon, he’ll probably be pushing himself to venture forward a little more this time around and not leave most of the dribbling up the field to Kolarov. If Kolarov can find the discipline to hang back more often (and that’s a big assumption in itself) then Florenzi can find the cues to become more than a fullback who stays back, trying to bypass the opposition with speculative long balls.

EDF will also need to find a solution to Florenzi being targeted constantly by opposing teams posting a big man on him, as their get-out-of-jail-free card to bypass Roma’s pressing with long balls to the opposition left wide man. As the shortest member of Roma’s backline, Florenzi has to find a way to manage aerial duels better before EDF’s solution becomes merely benching him for the taller Karsdorp.

Hopefully Florenzi finds all these answers for himself and the team, with a more measured and united support from the crowd behind him. He’s a Roma player for a few more seasons yet, and he’s now 27 years old. Save for a couple of isolated incidents at a time when he was rebuilding his career from massive injuries, he’s never ducked the responsibilities placed on his shoulders in a Roma shirt. Hopefully with greater maturity in his relationship with Roma fans, comes the same degree of stability in his performances both this season and beyond.