You know what they say: life is all about timing. It's unfortunate but often times the confluence of events, situations and people determines the way of the world more so than individual effort or merit. For football clubs, that mixture often revolves around a particular player, a particular tactical fit and simple opportunity, which, in and of itself is, often dictated by age and injury.
For Roma and Radja Nainggolan, the tale wouldn't be the same were it not for a series of unfortunate injuries to Kevin Strootman, who was really Roma's first Nainggolan—a heart on his sleeve, do it all midfielder that made life easier for everyone else on the pitch.
Brought in from Cagliari on January 7, 2015, Nainggolan was originally a short-term loan meant to provide depth in Roma's midfield, adding a bit of muscle to augment Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Strootman when needed. However, once Strootman re-aggravated the ACL injury to his left knee, requiring further surgery, Nainggolan, who was once an insurance policy, became a direct replacement for Roma's beloved washing machine, making Roma's €9 million decision on him during the summer of 2015 a no-brainer.
Strootman would eventually scratch and claw his way back to fitness, but by that point he was the deputy to Nainggolan. Although Strootman and Nainggolan would intermittently share the midfield, in his absence Radja became one of the most dynamic midfielders in Italy, putting in prolific performances for Rudi Garcia, Luciano Spalletti and Eusebio Di Francesco over the next several seasons.
In parts of five seasons with the club, Nainggolan made 203 appearances in all competitions, scoring 33 goals and contributing 24 assists. And this is sort of a new statistic being borrowed from hockey (and I'm not sure how relevant it is to football) but Nainggolan had a +122 in his final four seasons with Roma, meaning the club scored 122 more goals than they conceded while he was on the pitch, which is almost one goal per 90 minutes—pretty impressive.
Notable Achievements: 2016-2017 Offensive Explosion
As was the case with several players, the return of Luciano Spalletti was a boon to Nainggolan's offensive output. With no real number ten to speak of (I'm not rehashing the Spalletti-Totti rift here), Spalletti ramshackled Nainggolan as his de facto number ten, trading the silky smooth passing and creativity typically associated with the position for Nainggolan's brawn and athleticism.
It looked awkward on the outside, but it worked brilliantly. In 51 appearances between the league, Coppa Italia and Champions League, Nainggolan transformed into one of the league's truly dynamic midfielders, scoring 14 goals and chipping in seven assists. In terms of per 90 statistics, Nainggolan's 0.45 goals + assists per 90 minutes were (and remain) career highs.
Statistics aside, the pure energy Nainggolan brought to this role delivered a host of unforeseen advantages to the Nainggolan-as-attacking-midfielder experiment. Watch that clip above and you'll notice two things: First, Radja was able to bully virtually any defender for position in the final third (particularly if he had a head of steam charging into the area), and second, his strength, tenacity and tackling ability helped Roma win countless 50/50 balls in the attacking third and/or bust up counter attacks before they took root, keeping possession they otherwise would have lost.
They were subtle advantages that made the shift worthwhile as it was, but adding 11 goals to the mix was incredible.
Nainggolan's emergence in this role was key to Roma's record breaking 2016-2017 season.
Where is He Now?
Sold to Inter Milan in the summer of 2018 for essentially €38 million, Nainggolan was one of the more divisive departures in the American era, as he was at once one of the most productive (15 goals and 14 assists in his final two Serie A seasons with Roma) and beloved players in recent club history.
Granted, some of that stain has been removed with the emergence of Nicolo Zaniolo, who was included as a make-weight (of sorts) in that €38 million deal, but this sale did not go over well within the Romaverse, particularly not when they sold Strootman in practically the same breath.
However, as we've said with so many of the players in this series, don't let the departure tarnish your memories of Nainggolan in a Roma shirt. Sure, there were some off the pitch controversies, but it's not often that you see the amalgam of player, timing and tactical fit align so perfectly as they did when Rajda came to Rome.
I don't know what the future holds for Nainggolan, but with four goals and five assists in 14 appearances for Cagliari, he's still got a bit left in the tank.