There’s an old adage in professional art when it comes to production rate: everyone loves the finished piece, no one cares how you made it. Nicolò Zaniolo’s journey to becoming the finished product at senior level has a long way to go, but his performance this weekend, and the criticism surrounding it, suggest he’s better off shooting first and asking questions last. With Roma in need of a striking option to relieve Edin Dzeko of game time, could yet another change of role be in the pipeline for Zaniolo this season?
We’ve spent plenty of time writing and speculating over what’s best for the young Italian’s blossoming career. Last season, we were split between those who wanted to see Zaniolo in the middle of the park versus playing out wide, and it looks like that debate has been settled with the #22’s blistering run of goals for both club and country in the last few weeks. All of this was done from the out wide position, even if it came with downsides to Roma’s general team play.
The Search for Control of Possession Goes On
It comes off counter-intuitive to say Zaniolo is one of two players (along with Justin Kluivert) that have been the weakest link in Roma’s offensive possession so far this season, but that is the price of fielding youth at senior level. No one’s going to argue too hard against Zaniolo’s 7 club goals in the last 10 appearances for Roma, but plenty of seasons gone by have witnessed mid-table and European-hopeful teams fall at the last hurdle, despite having an absolutely prolific goalscorer leading their charge for the season. Ciro Immobile can attest to this, and the Lazio striker will be hoping it doesn’t happen to him yet again by the time 2019/20 is over.
You can have a marksman up front who bangs them in for fun, and still finish outside the top 4. What you need to truly hang at the summit of any league table is balanced play, and that elusive quality of looking like you can dictate possession at will when needed. We all know the feeling of watching your team play a big side that look like they are letting you have the ball while they take a breather, but all the while there’s that niggling sensation they’ve been sizing you up and know exactly how to take you apart on the counter when the time calls for it.
I’m always thinking of the Manchester United sides of the 1990s and early 2000s when I write that, as they epitomized that quality to the fullest. You were always dead scared when facing the earlier incarnations of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United even if the latter-day United sides have all the threat of stuffed bunny rabbit today. Funnily enough, Roma have sometimes looked like having that fearsome quality this season, but that little bit of alchemy in the final third still breaks down as Roma pay the price of fielding youth in their buildup; specifically in the shape of the two 1999-born talents of Kluivert and Zaniolo.
In Zaniolo’s case, his shoot-on-sight policy and slow, stuttering possession play has still paid individual dividends. His stock couldn’t be higher thanks to the goals he’s buried in the back of the net. And lest this sound like we’re being backhanded about his recent success, there’s a genuine sense of carefree, positive body language returning to his overall play that is very good to see. With his arms stretched out and relaxed in celebration against Udinese, I began to recognize glimpses of the old Zaniolo had fun breaking onto the scene before everybody and Zaniolo’s mother started taking his career way too seriously.
Zaniolo is not just performing, but is back to having fun while doing it. That’s exactly how you want your young players feeling when playing for the Roma shirt. But... hold on a minute. No sooner had that begun then it went and changed this weekend against Brescia.
Against Serie A’s basement side, Zaniolo tried something different that I’d been asking to see from his game (and overall self-belief) for a few weeks now. He looked up within milliseconds of receiving the ball, he tried a lofted 30 yard cross-field pass that I’ve rarely seen from the Italian in one and a half seasons so far. And, most notably of all, he tried to position himself as the give-and-go man in one-two exchanges that would put Zaniolo’s overlapping fullback through on goal.
In previous weeks, we’ve seen Nicolò pass the ball behind his overlapping full-back—whether it be Spinazzola, Santon or Florenzi—forcing them to put on the brakes and be the go-between that puts Zaniolo through on goal instead. It looked like Nico was all about Nico, until Brescia where he tried a far more selfless and searching approach to his own buildup play within Roma’s attack. And what was his reward? He was slammed for his performance this weekend to the point where I’d apologize to him for suggesting he even try.
Whether it was coming last in Roma’s official player ratings on the day or the non-stop criticism from ESPN’s sole commentator at the game, Zaniolo tried to put others first and was roundly kicked in the stomach post-match for it. No good deed goes unpunished and all that. Could it be a sign for Zaniolo to focus on the areas where he’s proven his quality, rather than trying to round out the less confident facets to his game?
We’re back to that old adage again. You know what, Nico? Just go back to banging them in and don’t worry about the smaller details. Only this time, try it up front.
Let’s See How Fonseca Does with a Poacher Instead
Strictly speaking, Roma’s prima punta position has demanded atypical selflessness over the last few seasons, whether it be under Rudi Garcia, Eusebio Di Francesco or Paulo Fonseca. The last time we saw a truly selfish Roma #9 was Edin Dzeko being told by Luciano Spalletti to “just run off the shoulder of Salah no matter what, and nothing else” during the 2016/17 season. Edin Dzeko’s goal tally certainly profited from the simple instruction, as did Roma’s league points tally. But Roma’s generally all-round crap play under Spalletti was too easily dismantled when it mattered.
A team that was so dependent on the fitness of Nainggolan, Perotti, Florenzi and Salah just to have some kind of threat in the game ended up being dismantled by Lyon, Lazio and most notably by Porto in a disastrous Champions League qualifier one fine August. And that was the memory of Spalletti at Roma summed up in a nutshell over both managerial spells. Forever second-place, because you’ve got no answers when it comes to showing up in the big games when it counts.
All that changed once more when Spalletti left and Dzeko was asked to resume a more withdrawn role. Dzeko’s goal tally went down but the overall quality in his play went up to the point of becoming one of the Champions League’s best performers, period. You could argue the demands put on Dzeko in recent seasons (Spalletti aside) are a legacy of Francesco Totti’s own “false nine” days before him. But you could also ask whether Roma’s ‘withdrawn centre forward’ instruction was done by design at the tactics board, or down to Edin Dzeko’s own personal style of play evolving to keep him looking good through age.
As the years go by for the Bosnian, he’s been able to move away from the Achilles heel through his entire career—weak finishing within the 6-yard area—and pull back deeper from goal to look like the heir to Totti: the talisman that feeds his Roma teammates through on goal. Dzeko can balance this with moments in the game where he has to be the goa-lgetter himself, and that is what makes Roma’s #9 so good in his own individual right. Dzeko has more than enough versatility in his repertoire that opposing defenders don’t know how to defend against him from one passage of play to the next.
But you have to wonder what Roma’s attack would look like trying to improve on that brief 2016/17 mold—this time with genuine team play and not just kick and rush football to Salah—and going back to fielding a forward player who’s more comfortable running into goal and burying it from close range.
Nicolò Zaniolo may or may not be that forward, but Paulo Fonseca is guaranteed to be the kind of coach who will find out. Fonseca has shown he can and will change the team’s overall approach when a change in personnel calls for it. In what little talk there has been of Zaniolo potentially moving to center forward in a Roma shirt, it’s been talk of Zaniolo playing as a false nine. But why? The false nine stuff is not only anachronistic, it also just doesn’t fit in with Zaniolo’s overall makeup.
With Zaniolo as the lead striker up front surrounded by more experienced wide men to his flanks, such as the returning Henrikh Mkhitarayan, we could see a Zaniolo that is rewarded for keeping his head down and using his physique to charge through to goal. He has the dominance to win duels in the box, and the composure to take a breath before slotting it past the keeper in one-on-ones. Zaniolo has also shown he’s got a radar for finding small gaps to slot the ball past the keeper from greater distances to goal, too.
That change of role for Zaniolo could come hand-in-hand with a Roma side that is finally able to keep the vice grip on opponents within the final third of the field. While it would come at a slight cost to Zaniolo learning to push through the less confident facets of his game in the deeper build up play, the team’s overall cohesiveness should be the aim here.
Truly fluid command of possession and consistent pressure on the opponent is the one change of gear that has eluded Fonseca’s Roma so far, and using Zaniolo up front may just unlock this squad’s potential to another level. If anything, it’ll guarantee Zaniolo goals and headlines all the same, so no one will be complaining by the time they pull the trigger on this experiment.
Go for it.