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Examining the Varying Roles of Zaniolo & Florenzi for Italy and Roma

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Both players’ positions have been heavily debated, and now that debate has spilled over into the national team.

Bosnia and Herzegovina v Italy - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

There are always some players that, for whatever reason, are used by different managers to fill different positions for club and country. Whether it be a result of tactics, injuries, roster make up, or just being plain versatile, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly their position is.

We’ve seen it happen in the past with Daniele De Rossi. At the time one of the most highly regarded central midfielders in the world, De Rossi was thrust into a central defender role during Euro 2012 with Italy. A role he filled quite well with Andrea Barzagli out hurt.

It’s something he later did with Roma during the 2015/16 season. Again De Rossi sacrificed to help his side. However, there was never any doubt in De Rossi’s heart, he was a midfielder even though others debated if he should transition to defense as he aged. Something that never happened.

Things aren’t so clear cut when it comes to positional roles with Roma versus the Azzurri for a couple of current Roma men. Alessandro Florenzi and Nicolò Zaniolo’s ideal positions with Roma have both been subject to debate. Something that has spilled over to the Azzurri during the current international break. So, let’s take a closer look at both situations.

Alessandro Florenzi

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

One of the players that has created the most debate over where he should play on the pitch is Roma’s current captain, Alessandro Florenzi. Florenzi came up through the youth ranks as a midfielder, but through the years has morphed into a jack of all trades type player. Under Rudi Garcia in 2013-14 he was often played on the wing. And, of course, since then it’s been a lot of time at right back. A classic Italian “jolly”. Yet, that role as the ultimate utility man has also made him a master of no position.

The current Roma captain is the ultimate team player. He thanklessly stepped into that right back role for the Giallorossi during the 2014-15 season when Maicon broke down physically. It seemed like a short term solution to help a team in crisis, a la Gianluca Mancini in midfield this season. Yet, it eventually turned into a full time positional change; more due to the Giallorossi being unable to find a suitable substitute for Maicon rather than Florenzi being a stud right back.

Through the years, Florenzi’s team-first role has made him the target of criticism. At times, Florenzi has been much maligned for being shredded by top level attacks down the Roma’s right flank. His lack of defensive prowess has come back to bite Roma time and again. Many Romanisti have grown tired of it, often calling for Florenzi’s proverbial head.

I’m not here to defend or attack Florenzi. But, let’s be honest, he’s not a defender. For better or worse, the Roman has done a thankless job covering for his club’s inability to find a proper right back. This season that has changed.

Roma brought in Leonardo Spinazzola and Davide Zappacosta to help cover the position. Yet, when Zappacosta went down it looked like Florenzi would be forced to continue to play in defense. Except he hasn’t. Spinazzola and the forgotten Davide Santon have combined to start every game there since the beginning of October. Florenzi has seemingly been pushed to the margins of the squad.

In spite of that, Florenzi started at right back for Italy on Friday night in Bosnia. What should we make of that? Italy, like Roma for so many years, hasn’t been bursting at the seams with full back talent. However, it was a bit surprising to see Florenzi, seemingly cast aside by Fonseca, starting for Mancini at right back. Granted Spinazzola and Inter’s Danilo D’ambrosio were both unavailable, but Florenzi has barely played in the last six weeks. What has turned into controversy in the Capital, was business as usual on the international stage.

Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that Florenzi played such a defensive role against Bosnia. Florenzi, so often criticized for as a defensive liability, was the full back that sat back while Emerson marauded down the left flank. Believe it or not, he handled himself quite well in the role with 4 clearances, 2 blocks, 2 interceptions and 1 tackle to go along with 4 accurate long balls on 81 touches.

Florenzi average position vs Bosnia
whoscored.com
Emerson average position vs Bosnia
whoscored.com

With Euro 2020 approaching, it will be interesting to see how things play out for Florenzi the remainder of the season for club and country. Perhaps this was a one time gig for him due to injuries and he’ll fall down Mancini’s pecking order as well, or maybe it’ll inspire Fonseca to give him another look at right back, considering Spinazzola’s fragile fitness. It’s hard to say and only time will tell. However it plays out, Florenzi won’t be the one stirring controversy. Based on his post match comments, he will continue to put the club first.

“If I am to be the Roma captain, I must set the example. As I did in past years, I put Roma first, certainly before me. We all need to stay quiet and work hard. If the captain does it, then everyone must follow suit.”

Nicolò Zaniolo

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

Zaniolo’s position has often been debated since his arrival in the Italian capital last season. He’s considered a generational talent by many, yet unlike De Rossi and Totti, who burst onto the scene with fairly defined roles, he hasn’t been pegged into a fixed position. We’ve seen him play in central midfield, at trequartista, as a false nine, and right wing at Roma. With a player this highly regarded, managers have gotten creative just to get him on the field.

This season Zaniolo has most often been deployed out wide under Fonseca. With each passing match, the young Italian looks more and more comfortable there, highlighted by five goals and two assists in all competitions as a wide man. With that kind of recent success it would lead one to think that Mancini could give Zaniolo a look out wide with with the national team.

Mancini, however, made it clear that he sees the Roma man as a midfielder, not a winger, hence his hesitation to start him against Bosnia, saying,

“The doubt stems from simply the fact that Zaniolo has been playing wide in the attack for Roma or as second striker, not as a central midfielder.”

If Mancini was ever going to give Zaniolo a look out wide, now would seem to be the time. Italy has already locked up Euro 2020 qualification, leaving some freedom to experiment in these last two qualifier. Meanwhile, wingers Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardecschi, and Federico Chiesa haven’t been in the best of form. On top of that the Azzurri have a plethora of central midfield options. Nevertheless, even under the current circumstances, Zaniolo looks unlikely to play wide for the Azzurri.

So, with that in mind, at least at the moment, it looks like Zaniolo will have to excel at multiple positions to feature for both club and country. Zaniolo seems to be more than capable from a talent standpoint, but with such a young player, one wonders if it will hinder his development. Things could of course change in the future as Zaniolo finds a more defined role with Roma or with managerial changes for both sides. Nonetheless, as things currently stand, it looks like Zaniolo is one of those guys that will play different positions for club and country based on the tactics of each side. How much of a role he plays with the Azzurri at Euro 2020 will likely be up to how well quickly Zaniolo can adjust when he’s at Coverciano.

Zaniolo and Florenzi may be at different points of their careers both for Roma and Italy, but they must continue to show this positional flexibility if they stand a chance at making Euro 2020.