It may cause some among us to bristle, but the player to whom Nicolo Zaniolo is compared most often, at least since making his debut early last season, is none other than Francesco Totti. I don't think this comparison is necessarily based an identical skill set nor playing style, but Zaniolo has that same knack for making a play as Totti, and that same "what the hell is his position” question that drives pundits crazy. There will never be another Totti, but as we discussed last year, Zaniolo has made us go hmm a lot sooner than we ever imagined.
At various points in his career, Totti was deployed out wide, in the hole, and even as a forward, and if the first 50 games of his Roma career are any indication, Zaniolo better get comfortable being uncomfortable. Thanks to his blend of skills and innate feel for the game, Zaniolo's managers will inevitably take advantage of that versatility, changing his role and position in subtle and significant ways, a shift that will necessarily impact the numbers he's able to put up, which, in turn, will determine how people perceive Zaniolo.
At the dawn of his Roma career, Paulo Fonseca really put The Next Totti fable to the test, slotting the 20-year-old Zaniolo in the number ten role in his 4-2-3-1. Zaniolo had some good games (his three shot, six dribble effort against Lazio) and some absent ones (his disappearing act against Genoa) but he just didn't seem to rise to the occasion in that role, and one look at the stats might tell us why.
In 260 minutes as a trequartista/number ten/attacking central midfielder, Zaniolo's considerably sharp sword has been blunted:
As you can see, not very productive. And it’s not as if his touches were down as a number ten—he took 46 touches against Genoa, two more than he took yesterday against Napoli when he was deployed out wide, but if we grab his heat map from that match, clues start to emerge.
As you can see, Zaniolo was kind of everywhere, and while we'd laud that performance for a box-to-box midfielder, this scattering of touches may have been the culprit in Zaniolo's disappearing act. Zaniolo had only one shot on goal (which was off target), only one successful dribble, and he didn't create a single scoring chance for his teammates—not exactly what one wants from a number ten.
Granted, this was early in the season, but this lack of a clearly defined role made Zaniolo a passenger in this match rather than the driver. If the first 50 matches of his career have proven anything, it's that Zaniolo needs to be involved. At this stage in his career, he's not the sort of player who can just drift in and out and make a play when called upon...he will be someday, but not yet. Give him a task, let him off the leash and enjoy the results.
Sensing something was amiss with his deployment of Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini and even Bryan Cristante, Fonseca decided to shake things up towards the end of September, putting Zaniolo out wide on the right for the first time against Sassuolo, a shift that carried over to Roma's Europa League fixture against Istanbul on September 19th—Zaniolo's coming out party if you will.
As you can see, Zaniolo had a more clearly defined role and sphere of influence in this match; he pretty much stayed on the right flank, doing most of his work directly in midfield and venturing up closer to the area when necessary. Without the onus of shuttling between the sidelines or hustling from box-to-box, Zaniolo ran wild in this match, completing eight successful dribbles, putting 50% of his shots on target, setting up two goals and scoring one of his own.
For his efforts, Zaniolo was given a perfect 10 from WhoScored, so, yes, this is somewhat of an extreme example. However, before you accuse me of cherry picking, let's take a look at his radars as a wide player, both right and left, covering all his league minutes in those roles.
First up, his performance as a left-sided attacking midfielder, a role Fonseca seems to have abandoned for him, but one in which he's logged two-and-a-half hours of match time:
I mean, it's no comparison, right? Zaniolo's shots, goals, assists, and xGChain (a measure of expected goals for every possession in which a player is involved) all dwarf the numbers he put up as a number ten. It almost makes the decision to use him in the hole comical.
And when we switch things out right, a role it seems like he'll occupy full-time this season, the difference remains just as stark:
There are some slight differences between these last two radars, mostly because of Zaniolo's recent goal streak as an AMR, but you see the same pattern: an uptick in shots, goals and assists. In other words, as a wide player he has more chances to directly and acutely impact a match than he did as an AMC. With less on his plate, Zaniolo is free to take on defenders (with more space to run at them, too) and can link up quicker (and in more dangerous areas) with the likes of Edin Dzeko, Javier Pastore and even Gianluca Mancini.
Listen, this debate only exists because Nicolo Zaniolo is an absurd talent. After all, how many 20-year-old players have been entrusted by their manager to fill five positions already? Having the capability to even be average at any one of these positions would be a sign of progress for a player as young as Zaniolo, but he's already proven (granted, in some cases intermittently) that he can succeed in a variety of attacking roles. Sure, his numbers out wide are better now, but if he was locked in as a number ten, do you have any doubt he'd adapt and thrive as a nouveau Totti?
In some ways, much like Totti before him, these debates will ultimately die down simply because Zaniolo is a footballer in the purest sense. Put him anywhere on the pitch in any role, and sooner or later he'll make the big play, so his position is irrelevant in some ways.
However, as we've seen this season, and as Fonseca has figured out, there are certain conditions in which Zaniolo can make those big plays more often. By shifting him out wide, Fonseca has reduced Zaniolo's cognitive load; he doesn't really have to think or to analyze as much, he can just play. Rather than being passive, he has the time, space and freedom to be aggressive; he can attack rather than react.
It may sound strange, but by asking Zaniolo to do less, Fonseca is ensuring that he’ll do more, and Roma are reaping the rewards.