Much like the first half of Roma’s current campaign, Bryan Cristante’s young career has had plenty of peaks and valleys. From making his Milan senior team debut in the Champions League as a sixteen year old, to being shipped out to Benfica and making only seven appearances in two seasons, to being loaned to the likes of Pescara and Palermo before finally living up to his potential with Atalanta. It was his time in Bergamo that saw Cristante become one of Serie A’s best midfielders last campaign when he scored nine goals. As a result, Monchi splashed some serious cash on the 23 year-old to the tune of €30 million when all is said and done.
Of course, with a big price tag came big expectations for one of Italy’s most talented young midfielders. So, of course, big things were anticipated of Cristante in his first season in the cauldron that is Roma; those suppositions weren’t lived up to immediately, as Cristante adapted to a new coach, team, and system.
Without any true noteworthy performances to speak of, playing time was limited for Cristante early in the season. Despite playing in ten of Roma’s first eleven matches, he lasted 90 minutes in only one (against Chievo) in which he also scored. In no other match during that span did he play more than 59 minutes. Over that time, the move for Cristante began to be scrutinized more and more by the week.
That all changed in early November, with the unfortunate news of Daniele De Rossi’s balky knee. Once DDR went down injured against Napoli, EDF needed someone to sit next to Steven N’Zonzi in the double pivot of the recently adopted 4-2-3-1. After trying Lorenzo Pellegrini there in De Rossi’s first game out, EDF realized he was better off with Pellergini in the trequartista position that had turned his season around. So, Roma needed somebody, anybody to fill in for DDR. Enter Cristante. Since taking over a starting role as a defensive midfielder on November 11th, Cristante has played every minute of Roma’s ten matches in all competitions.
Naturally, there were growing pains for a player accustomed to playing in either an attacking or traditional central midfield role at Atalanta. Cristante had to learn a whole new position, while at the same build a rapport with his partner in the double pivot, N’Zonzi. This was no overnight process, remember Rome wasn’t built in a day; but the results have begun to come for Cristante and, consequently, Roma.
December has been a testament to this when Cristante really took the bull by the horns and made the position his own. During eight matches in all competitions, Cristante tallied three goals and two assists. All of that offensive production coincided with Roma’s five positive Serie A results (3 wins, 2 draws), while he was kept off the scoresheet in the team’s three loses. With his fine December production, Cristante has raised his goals + assists per 90 minutes to 0.56*, which only trails Ünder and El Shaarawy (0.61)—as Cristante has produced, Roma has begun to prosper.
With N’Zonzi carrying the lion’s share of defensive responsibility, Cristante is free to exploit open spaces in the opposing formation. This allows him to use his strong passing ability to Roma’s advantage (81.8% passing and 0.8 key passes/game). He often looks to pick out the forwards with diagonal balls (2 long balls/game); something he was unable to do as a mezz’ala during his early season struggles. Despite playing in a deeper role, Cristante has also been able to find himself in important attacking positions on the outskirts of opposing areas. This is highlighted by his goals against Cagliari and Genoa.
His goal against Cagliari was a combination of great positioning, as Cristante lurked just outside the Rossoblu area, and a great low, hard shot. If Roma hadn’t blown that match late, it probably would’ve been remembered for this goal and Cristante finally establishing himself with a nice performance.
Meanwhile, his match winning goal against Genoa, which was scored from a slightly closer position, was a lovely one-two with Justin Kluivert. You can track Cristante through the play in the video below; he starts with the ball in a deep position from Robin Olsen, dribbles up field, and makes a pass to N’Zonzi, who switches the play. While this is happening Cristante subtly drifts into a pocket of space at the top of the Genoa box. Once he’s there he’s in perfect position to play a one-two with Kluivert (who makes a nice headed pass) that he finishes with a low, well-placed shot.
Cristante’s deep passing can be seen below. He set Patrik Schick off on the break with a great through ball in this one against Sassuolo. (Skip forward to about 1:50)
Cristante’s big physique (6’1”, 172lb/186cm, 78kg) has also been a benefit for Roma on both ends of the pitch. On the offensive end, he has a headed goal (Parma) and would’ve had a second had Juan Jesus not toed one in off the line against Sampdoria.
Conversely, Cristante also has embraced his defensive duties. He uses his height to win aerial duels in the midfield (2 per game), while his physicality has been key in breaking up opposing play. Cristante leads the team in fouls with 30 (12 better than Manolas who is next best). Additionally, he averages 1.6 tackles, 0.9 interceptions, and 0.9 clearances per league match. The tackling number is fourth best on the team, while his interceptions are on nearly par with the more defensive N’Zonzi’s 1 per match.
Cristante’s all-around contributions were best displayed by his man of the match performance in Roma’s last match agianst Parma. On the offensive end, Cristante contributed a goal, 4 shots, 3 successful dribbles, 1 key pass, 5 long balls, and 68 completed passes for a 89.7% success rate. Meanwhile, in defense, he had 4 tackles, won 2 aerial duels, intercepted 2 passes, and commiteed 1 foul.
With De Rossi still not at 100% and likely playing limited minutes the rest of the season, Cristante will be crucial to Roma’s success from here on out. The growth that he’s shown over the last couple of months shows why Monchi invested so heavily in him. If Roma are going to have a second half resurgence then more great things will be needed from Cristante.
*All stats are from Serie A