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Why Is Alessandro Florenzi Such a Divisive Figure?

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The man third in line to the Crown of Totti has suddenly become a bit of a hot point among Roma fans, but why?

Chievo Verona v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

This may be Chiesa di Totti, but if it feels like we've devoted an inordinate amount of column space to Alessandro Florenzi over the years, there's good reason—his ascendancy from intriguing youth prospect to the next savior of Rome coincided with our own growth as a site. From the mop-haired kid wearing the awkward #48 to the guy who scored that goal against Barcelona to becoming Roma's newest Captiano Futuro, we've been with Florenzi the whole way, watching him grow from a curiosity into a club leader and, at times, fan favorite.

I say "at times” simply because, for a variety of reasons, Florenzi has become a bit of a divisive figure among Roma fans. Typically, Romans are above reproach from their fellow citizens in the stands (at least the talented ones. I'm not sure anyone cared about Rosi or Cerci either way), but over the past 18 months or so Florenzi has faced a level of criticism seldom seen by Romans fortunate enough to wear their city's colors.

But why? Why has a guy who's done whatever has been asked of him received so much scorn lately? Why is a player so obviously in love with Roma subject to such passive aggressive hate?

As with all things Roma, the answer is exceedingly complicated, but I suspect it comes down to the confluence of two factors: salary and performance.

There's not much we can analyze about the first one, except to rehash the rather ugly contract negotiation that unfolded last year. With Florenzi reportedly seeking €4 million per season—a substantial jump over his previous €1.7 million salary—the cries of "he's not worth that!” came raining down from the darkest corners of the internet. Ultimately, Florenzi and Roma settled on a new five-year pact, paying Ale roughly €2.8 million per year through 2023, making him the club's fifth highest wage earner.

And with that raise came further scrutiny. While a near three-million salary is chump change by some club's standards, for Roma it represented a substantial investment. At that price point, you not only demand production but you expect consistency, a trait that has troubled Florenzi recently.

Even something seemingly as obvious as consistency is fraught with subjectivity—which measures does one use? What limitations or exceptions does one allow?

While my aim here isn’t to parse those words, with the Florenzi fault-finding spiking over the weekend, I became curious: has Florenzi really been that bad or is there a bit of recency bias going on here?

Per usual, Florenzi has been the footballing version of duct tape: tear him off the roll haphazardly, usually with a couple threads hanging on, and then just slap him on the wall, or the mattress, or the tailpipe, or your shoes—whatever, it's $4.99 per roll.

Given his positional flexibility, I decided to narrow my focus on his time as a right back, looking at an assortment of attacking and defensive statistics. Statistics only paint part of the picture of course—though I pray that someone develops a baseball style WAR or OPS+ for football someday—but if nothing else, they should take some edge off the river of Florenzi sucks tweets we see after every match.

So, much like I did when the Florenzi-to-fullback-experiment began, let's take a look at how he's fared as winger in fullbacks clothing.

Attacking Attributes

First things first, Florenzi has made 18 official appearances as a right back, scoring two goals and contributing two assists. While that's all well and good, goals and actual assists from fullbacks are sort of luxuries; that’s not exactly what they're paid to do, so let's take a look at broader passing stats first.

Given the emphasis on wing play under EDF, let's start with crosses and long balls, two areas in which the numbers have been both kind and unkind to Ale. Florenzi's 2 accurate crosses per 90 minutes is tops among all right-backs, but his 3.5 inaccurate crosses per 90 is the league's sixth worse mark, well behind Dario Srna's unbelievable 5.6 per 90—yikes.

With respect to long balls, Florenzi plays 3.2 accurate long balls per 90 minutes, third best mark among right-backs, but his 4.9 inaccurate long balls per 90 is actually the worst mark among Serie A's right backs. Do the math (off the gross totals), and Florenzi hits on about 40% of his long balls, which is the second worst among the top five right-backs (in terms of total accurate balls played)—bit of an awkward sentence, but among the guys who play the most accurate long balls, he also plays the second most inaccurate ones—but something tells me you already knew that.

However, when Florenzi does hit on a cross, it tends to produce positive outcomes. Key passes—those which lead to a shot—is another area of strength for Florenzi this season, where his 1.7 per 90 ranks third among Serie right backs, with a full 1.0 of those coming from crosses, third behind Srna and SPAL's Manuel Lazzari.

The less said about Florenzi's dribbling prowess the better—he's pretty much dead last in successful attempts—but when it comes to creating chances in attack, particularly off the cross, Florenzi is one of the league's most effective right backs. The problem, as we just saw, is that with the good comes the bad; he plays a lot of inaccurate crosses and long balls.

Essentially he's a volume passer (his 54 passes per 90 are fourth most among right backs), so while he's been effective, he's not exactly what we call efficient. So in that respect, he's due some contextual criticism—if he were more efficient in the passing game, he'd be a lot better and Roma's attack might not be subject to as many fluctuations, but he's not what we'd call shite, as many on Twitter would have you believe.

Our complaints should simply be, at least in terms of passing and play-making, that he's not better. In essence, we wanted Steph Curry's all around MVP contributions, but instead we got a guy who's pretty good at one thing, okay at a few others and inefficient at the rest—we got Seth Curry.

Defensive Duties

Once again, we stacked Florenzi up against his right back peers, using mostly per 90 metrics for the basic defensive duties of your standard fullback.

Defensive stats, at least the ones readily available to the public, are subject to a host of external factors beyond the player’s control, so I always try to take them with a grain of salt, especially tackles. But fuckin’ hell, Florenzi has performed atrociously in that regard, where his 0.9 tackles per 90 are second to last among right-backs, while he's been dribbled past 0.9 times per 90 minutes, the fifth most among that same data set.

That's not good, in case you weren't aware.

Florenzi does a bit better in the other standard statistical areas. He actually leads the league in interceptions per 90 minutes among right backs, while ranking fourth and eighth in passes blocked per 90 and clearances per 90, respectively, though he hasn't fared quite as well in blocking shots or crosses.

Of course, these are just the things we can objectively quantify, for the other, finer aspects of defending we'd have to rely on the old eye test. Does his positioning leave his teammates vulnerable? Is he pushing up when he should be tracking back, or vice versa? Does he leave too much space behind him? Ahead of him? Next to him? And so on and so forth.

No matter how you slice it, Florenzi is not exactly a defensive dynamo, particularly in one-v-one scenarios.

Criticism: Fair or Not?

Look, your opinion of Florenzi is probably already formed, and no argument, objective or otherwise, is likely to sway that. In a sense, your love or hatred of Florenzi is a bit like aligning with a political party—you were probably always going to fall into that camp, so everything else is just varying shades of gray.

Further complicating this discussion is the always curious discussion of finances. I don't give a damn how much Florenzi makes, or how much he makes in relation to his teammates, but for some reason that €3 million figure (which is actually €2.8 million) strikes a chord with a certain segment of the Romaverse.

While it matters in the context of how much money they have left to spend on the rest of the roster, it sure didn't limit their spending this summer when they added Javier Pastore's €3.5 million and Steven Nzonzi's €3.1 million salaries to the rolls. Of course, continually adding salaries like those, particularly for sunken costs like Pastore and aged 30+ midfielders, isn't sustainable, but Florenzi's raise was completely justifiable for a player his age and with his versatility.

In a perfect world, Florenzi would never have become a full-back to begin with, but he's always been stuck in an odd sort of limbo. As you can see, he is (if nothing else) adequate as a full-back—though I'd argue he's among the better play making ones in the league—but he's not quite good enough to supplant any of Roma's wide forwards or attacking midfielders. Yet, he's still too skilled and can contribute in so many areas that he's too good to completely leave out of the mix.

Florenzi is, to borrow a baseball term, a utility infielder. He'll never hit 25 HRs a year, but he can play second, third, and shortstop, hit maybe 14 HRS and steal 20 bags, which may not be All-Star level, but represents tremendous value. And without advanced metrics that actually tie performance to financial worth, we cannot definitively say how much a guy like that is worth to a club: Could be €1 million, could be €4 million or it could be €2.8 million.

What we do know, however, is that Florenzi is tied to Roma through at least 2023 when he'll be 31-years-old, at which point his transfer value will have cratered, so the odds that Florenzi finishes his European career with any team other than Roma are extremely slim.

And whether or not that sentence brings a smile to your face has probably already been decided, but imagine this scenario...

You're building a football club from the ground up and all you have access to are scouting reports: no names, no nationalities, nothing. Sure, you'd want a superstar striker, a dynamic attacking midfielder and a left-footed, silky smooth center back, but eventually you'd look at your roster and realize you have a bunch of square pegs that only fit into square holes.

And sooner or later, some of those pegs will get hurt, or they'll need rest or they'll simply have a dip in form, then what?

Well, then you'll probably want a guy who can play five positions and play them all reasonably well. And if that guy occasionally chips a goalkeeper from midfield, scores bicycle kicks in the box, stands up to players twice his size, and runs into the stands to kiss his grandma, all the better.

He was never meant to be a superstar, but every club with ambitions needs players like Alessandro Florenzi—by simple virtue of playing five positions and logging 2,500 to 3,000 minutes per season, Florenzi provides tremendous value and flexibility to his boyhood club.

Could he be better or more efficient in certain aspects? Yes, of course, but show me a guy who can play five positions at a world class or even simply at an above average level, and I'll show you a guy worth four to five times what Florenzi makes.

In a sense, this Florenzi controversy is a bit like his career in and of itself—no one is quite sure what to make of it, but you can rest assured that he (and it) will always be around.