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Season Preview: The Midfielders

If there’s one area if the pitch that hasn’t been clicking in Rome for a while now...

AS Roma v Avellino - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Roma’s midfield - modern football’s closest rendition of a WW2 epic. A ‘no man’s land’ minefield of aimless runs off the ball, frustrated turnovers and a nerve-wracked team staring at the 0-0 scoreboard just waiting to blackout under pressure. Even if the club has teased something different with the likes of Pastore and Coric this summer, will we ever see true ball-movers operate in the middle of the pitch under an EDF 4-3-3 formation? Probably not.

But it’s a reasonable expectation to want to see Roma’s midfield doing a better job of creating space and options for one another, two years into EDF’s tenure. After all, it’s one of the basic ideas of his footballing philosophy where possession is concerned.

Under EDF, if you’re not on the ball then you’re moving to attract the attention of the opponent pressing you, trying to draw him off a teammate who could be free’d up to receive a pass. Failing that, if no one is pressing you then you’re moving to attract their attention from afar and trying to con them into closing down your run, drawing them out of their defensive line and shape. It sounds ambitious, with a lot of movement involved - in fact Sarri’s Napoli in possession is a textbook case study of these ideas successfully put into action.

It took 2-3 seasons’ worth of drilling it into that Napoli side for Sarri to get the balance right between hard work, fluid football and cynical low-percentage play. The last element was his final trick in a failed title-bid. While everyone was waxing lyrical about “beautiful” Napoli of seasons past, Sarri was actually winning and breaking open games through set pieces alone. I believe Roma, EDF and Monchi are already planning to be more efficient at set pieces, but that’s by the by.

Back to reality and that midfield play: in 2017-18, the fluid teamwork simply did not happen for Roma. Most teams didn’t buy the Giallorossi’s bait in the buildup play. The painful sight of Roma in possession against teams sitting back deep became a mainstay of Serie A weekends.

The Lupi’s runs were either poorly timed or poorly spaced. Instead of forming triangles to move the ball up the pitch, Roma players would sometimes end up standing in a straight line up the wing, easily man-marked into turning over possession. Then there was the lack of intelligent movement through the middle, which virtually made up opposing teams’ mind for them to just stand there as a block on the 18-yard line, forcing Roma to go wide on the flanks.

While crossing is already a low-percentage route to goal by nature, last season’s Roma was not known for attacking midfielders and forwards winning headers in the opposition box, so giving up crosses to Roma was even less of a big deal for opposing defences. With this in mind, you can start to see a little of what Monchi was trying to cover on this summer’s transfer market for the worst-case scenario of breaking open 0-0 deadlocks with low-percentage plays. But he didn’t stop there. He added a little something extra for unpredictability into the team alchemy. As the DS himself said, he wanted to sign players that would give several different options for all matchday situations. Let’s look at those options below.

The Mediani

Cagliari Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

Maxime Gonalons

Age: 29

Roma Appearances: 26

Serie A Appearances: 16

Yeah, you wish we were talking about Barella in that picture above, amirite? But at the time of writing, Gonalons is still a Roma player - even if Premier League transfer deadline day might change that fact. On the flipside, Maxime received very strong backing from De Rossi - in the pre-match of Real vs Roma - to make a fist of it in his second season at the club.

If you look at the stats in isolation, and keeping in mind Gonalons played far less game time than the likes of Steven Nzonzi last year, it’s hard to see why the club would be willing to spend the bucks to replace him with Sevilla’s Frenchman.

Gonalons’ 1.6 tackles per game was higher than Nzonzi’s 1.4 tackles per game, just as much as Gonalons’ 1.4 interceptions per game topped Nzonzi’s 1 interception per game. Gonalons racked up 17 interceptions in 1092 minutes of minimal playing time - even less than the game time Pastore received at PSG last year. Gonalons’ 32% success rate in tackling tied Strootman in the Roma midfield.

Gonalons is also one of the few high quality possession players in the Roma squad, period. In a club bereft of players who can regularly average above 85% passing accuracy, Gonalons finished last season with 87% passing accuracy even with his riskier passing game (his 16m average pass length was the highest in Roma’s midfield - as would be expected at his position - and equalled only by Bryan Cristante’s high-risk passing at Atalanta while beaten by Nicolo Barella’s average pass length of 19m at Cagliari).

Gonalons is also decent at evading his man under pressure (9 successful take-ons made for a 75% success rate in beating his opposing man with the ball at his feet). Add to that, the highest aerial duels success rate in last season’s midfield (70% duels won in the air - though second-best to Nzonzi’s 82% aerial success rate) and it’s easy to see Gonalons is a quality player, in isolation.

However, football doesn’t happen in isolation and we’re still marred by the all-too-often sight of Maxime rushing to close down his man, ending up one second too late and leaving his defence exposed to get sliced open like a hot knife through butter. It’s those little emotional nuances in the game that Maxime has failed to manage, undermining faith in his Roma career.

Real Madrid v AS Roma - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Daniele De Rossi

Age: 35

Roma Appearances: 593

Serie A Appearances: 441

So, Daniele just turned 35 years old this summer and the captain is still throwing up oxymorons. On the one hand, his best individual playing days are behind him. On the other hand, the Roma team clearly suffers in his absence. How does the man keep embodying those two opposing statements together in one shirt?

DDR made a tangible difference (maybe the most tangible difference) to Roma’s success in 2017-18. We’ve mentioned before that the one man out injured during Roma’s bleak winter winless spell was none other than De Rossi himself.

The captain slightly paid towards the end of the season for his over-use at the beginning of last autumn. He hasn’t really had to contend with a season playing over 2400 minutes for some years. And while he didn’t play much over that amount last year, he did rack up the most part of his eventual 2500-approximate minute season in the early weeks. He needs more able backup in the form of a well-adjusted, injury-free Gonalons or otherwise.

What does De Rossi tangibly do for the team? He makes blocks. His 12 blocked shots last season were the highest in the squad behind only the central defensive pair of Fazio and Manolas. He was often the guy willing to put his body on the line, as the last line of defence. But it’s when he’s in the mood to orchestrate things on the ball that I really appreciate DDR. Metronomic, one or two-touch short and long passing. When he pulls it off, it’s beautiful enough but it’s not something that he’s not always in the mood to do each week.

The Intermedio

AS Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Kevin Strootman

Age: 28

Roma Appearances: 136

Serie A Appearances: 101

With one half-time tunnel talk against Shakhtar, and a perfectly timed through-ball to Dzeko moments later in the evening, Strootman’s place in Roma’s midfield begins to look justifiable again. Without those moments, you have a player purely active on the defensive phase (top tackler in Roma’s midfield last season with 36 successful tackles at a 32% success rate) and no real attacking game to speak of.

Kevin has shown runs into the box and goals in pre-season training - and most recently in the friendly against Real Madrid - but it’s time to carry those into competitive matches again. Then there was the pretty beautiful passing side to his game that he’d found in the 2016-17 season under Spalletti, showing that the injuries were no excuse and no blunt to his offensive game. So where has that gone?

It’s debatable whether Strootman’s future at Roma is at mezzala or moving further back to switch with De Rossi from deep. He would have to worry less about different types of positioning in both phases of the game if he were deeper, but still have even more lateral running to do to cover all flanks (shouldn’t be a problem since he covers the most km per game in the team - behind only De Rossi).

Strootman might be mentally free’d up in a deeper role to find an attacking, passing side to his game once again. While he was buried at international level for underwhelming performances as a deep-lying midfielder, he is burying himself for a lack of any real teeth on the ball at mezzala in Rome.

In his defence, he has regularly contributed to the passing chain and chemistry struck up and down Roma’s left side of the pitch last season, working in tandem with Kolarov and Perotti to good effect. There’s no real ego to Strootman’s game, as a willing mover and runner off the ball and link-man in the passing chain for teammates to wind up on the end of the glory. You’d just want to see him more decisive in key passing to really justify his inclusion, at the very least. If not making more regular runs into the box, once again.

The Mezzale

Italy U19 v Finland U19 - International Friendly Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Nicolo Zaniolo

Age: 19

Roma Appearances: 0

Serie A Appearances: 0

While he may well not figure in the Roma senior team at all this season, with no pre-season training with the rest of the team and missing the US tour completely to begin training at Trigoria by his lonesome, the club’s plans for EURO U-19 Azzurini finalist Zaniolo are still unclear so we can’t rule him out of playing a role.

As a 6 ft 3 tall youth who’s shown himself capable at Serie B level and a serious scoring-midfielder inside the box at Primavera level, you’d think Zaniolo could find himself at home in Eusebio Di Francesco’s midfield if ever there were an injury crisis.

AS Roma v Avellino - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Bryan Cristante

Age: 23

Roma Appearances: 0

Serie A Appearances: 71

At 23 years of age, Cristante is in line to break his Serie A centenary of appearances by the end of this season. But first, he has to make a highly-competitive position his own. He has all of the physical attributes and the proven performance stats to make the best case for himself.

The imposing, 6 ft 1 tall midfielder racked up 85 aerial duels won in Serie A last season. He was the second highest ranked player in the entire league for winning balls in the air, behind only Missiroli but ahead of even star-man Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio.

To give an idea of just how much Cristante throws himself about in the air, his aerial duel success rate was only 51% compared to Maxime Gonalons 70% success rate. So while Gonalons may have picked his moment to shine at headers from deep, Cristante just kept competing for absolutely everything in the air in all areas of the pitch - most notably inside the opposition box.

Cristante also racked up 46 winning tackles - ranked just outside the Serie A top ten at 11th highest in the league and well ahead of Kevin Strootman’s 30th place league-rank for tackles - with a 34% tackling success rate. He doesn’t lack for beating his man when he’s on the ball either, winning 61% of his take-ons and racking up 43 successful dribbles last season.

It may have been a club record spent on a midfielder when Roma signed Bryan Cristante, but now you know why Monchi claimed Cristante was one of the best midfielders in Italy last season. Because he indisputably was. Now just do it again in a Roma shirt.

Real Madrid v AS Roma - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Age: 22

Roma Appearances: 38

Serie A Appearances: 76

One year younger than Cristante, Pellegrini is arguably the best class of ‘96 midfield talent in the league. His pass-and-move game is arguably the best weapon in the squad for moving the ball up the field with pace before the opposition has time to settle. He also never stands back to admire his own work, looking immediately to draw runners with him, after making a pass.

Pellegrini, however, spent most of last season focusing on the one big weakness to his game: defending and tackling. As a 6 ft 2 man, you’d expect him to have better control over his physique off the ball, but mastering that side of his game has so far evaded him.

That beind said, he still racked up the highest number of interceptions in the Roma midfield last season with 36 - ahead of De Rossi, Strootman, and ahead in the league over names like even Matuidi. Of all the rumoured options available on the market to Roma, only Nicolo Barella did better in the interceptions column than Lorenzo’s 1.5 interceptions per game.

He also puts in a similar header success rate (51%) to Cristante, with 23 aerial duels won from 1812 minutes played compared to Cristante’s 2837 minutes.

Where Pellegrini can make immediate improvements - besides the tackling - is on his passing accuracy (81 percent) though his passes are no less interesting for their end product, bringing 4 assists and 1.6 key passes per game - ahead of Cristante’s 1.3 key passes per game - behind only Nainggolan in Roma’s midfield last season.

While he may play more at his preferred role in a 4-3-3 this season, Lorenzo cannot neglect building on the defensive flaws in his game. Overall, if we get to see more of him in his element as a one-touch passer who does his best work in tight spaces on instinct, then he should keep his assist rate up to hit double figures this season. We’ve also seen the finishes in a Sassuolo shirt and in Roma pre-season training, which he must start carrying into competitive games with more regularity.

The Creators

Real Madrid v AS Roma - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Javier Pastore

Age: 29

Roma Appearances: 0

Serie A Appearances: 69

Is there anyone who really believes the best of Javier Pastore will be seen in a 4-3-3? It seems a waste to crowbar Roma’s summer showpiece signing into a formation that strips the team of building around Pastore’s creative talent. El Flaco will instead be asked to pitch in defensively, with merely the option of making defence-splitting passes, as and when the opportunities arise.

At 29 and the twilight of his career on the far horizon, Pastore’s brings ironically as much Serie A experience as the younger names of Cristante and Pellegrini alongside him. But he brings so much more in terms of title-winning experience, Champions League experience and just sheer creative vision. Look no further than Daniele De Rossi’s words, when the captain side he is not worried about a talent like Pastore’s finding his place in any side.

It is hard to compare Pastore’s stats, given the lack of consistency in his playing time at PSG in the last few seasons. The notion that Pastore cannot physically hang on the defensive side is without basis, though. In his best all-round season at PSG of 2014/15, he put in 2 tackles per game - a better rate than anyone in the Roma midfield last year. However his all-round defensive read of the game was less than solid, averaging only a high of 1.1 interceptions per game in that same season, and only 0.6 interceptions per game in his last season in the French capital.

Pastore’s 82 percent passing accuracy was the worst in PSG’s midfield last season, and he only passed at an average length of 14m at that. He likes the short, high-risk through balls and is willing to fail at pulling them off, without getting his head down or giving up on the next chance. In his best season in a Paris shirt, his passing accuracy was a low as 73 percent so he really isn’t one for playing it conservative. This is a guy who wants to release his teammates and put them through on goal.

Again, this makes you think a guy like that would be best served in a 4231 with cover behind him for all the losses of possession at his feet, so we’ll see how the season plays out and whether circumstances force EDF’s hand to make the best of things and not - as CdTers have said - leave this Ferrari idling in the garage with the keys misplaced.

Juventus v GNK Dinamo Zagreb - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Ante Coric

Age: 21

Roma Appearances: 0

Serie A Appearances: 0

Last but possibly not least by the end of the coming season, Ante Coric is the wildest of wildcards. Though he may be young with no Italian league experience to his name, don’t let that deceive you. Coric has mileage on his legs, both domestically and in the Champions League for some seasons now.

It’s nigh-on impossible to compare Coric’s stats because all the regular data sites don’t track the Croatian league, but barely anyone in Roma’s pre-season interviews - throughout the entire playing and coaching staff - has gone on record without mentioning Coric as one of the most immediately impressive talents at the club.

Really the only thing that counts against him, in this Monchi world, is his relative lack of height compared to the other midfield names. But he can beat his man on the ball like Perotti and find a defence-splitting pass like Pastore. With his ability to play on the wing as well as in midfield, if El Flaco’s signing doesn’t pan out to full effect, then most of the creative honus among the midfield will likely fall to Coric as the unlikely hero for 2018-19.