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Making Sense of Kostas Manolas and His Complicated Roma Career

Once a young talent who never found the confidence, just getting 90 solid minutes from Manolas is a job now.

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ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - Coppa Italia Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Two things to recognise about Manolas’ season. First off, he’s the best individual defender left at the club. Second, he can dine out on the town for years over that goal celebration against Barcelona. His trademark anxiety worked to cinematic perfection that night.

At the end of that 3-0 victory, Manolas looked exactly like how I felt. I couldn’t believe what was happening, and neither could he. I needed someone who could be the vessel for my rollercoaster of emotions during that game, and Manolas was the hero stepping into the frame. But that in itself shouldn’t make a career, and the Kostas Manolas film could be winding down to a different ending than what we’d pictured back in 2014.

We’ve Been Here Before with Mexès

UEFA Cup: AS Roma v Middlesbrough Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Manolas is a second-generation footballer, nephew to a Greek international legend, and started off his career back home winning a league title for Olympiacos. When Roma signed him, you genuinely felt like they’d done the business. He had all the advantages a young footballer could possibly have going for him; he was a predestinato. Since then, you’d have to back to Phillipe Mexès to find a similar defensive talent that had their career stunted to a halt at Roma.

When Mexès was originally signed for Roma’s defence, he was the coup of all coups to steal from Auxerre’s mini ‘golden generation’ of talent; good enough that every Roma fan agreed to look the other way at the club caught poaching and slapped with a transfer ban over the Frenchman’s arrival. But in Europe’s eyes, the hooplah over his illegal signing was the most notable thing about Mexes playing for Roma.

We all have own memories of Mexes in a Giallorosso shirt - plenty good, some bad - but the gift of hindsight says Mexes devolved from a potential world-beater, to missing out on French international squads, to a simple hothead that had to resort to dickmoves on the pitch just to hang. In the end, the repression over how backwards Mexes had gone just became too much for even the man himself to keep up the pretense with Roma fans.

He dumped Roma. All for a fruitless attempt at winning trophies up north in Milan, and I doubt Ole Phil was even sorry, as much he was just relieved to take up the challenge of proving something to himself again.

The only thing saving Manolas from a similarly flat ending is that this FFP-conscious club management would never let Manolas run down his contract and leave for nothing.

And that’s hardly cause for comfort.

Between Contradiction and Chaos

AS Roma v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

In itself, Manolas being the best defender at the club this season isn’t saying much by now - we’ve all seen Roma get smashed 7-1 in the cup - but credit where it’s due.

Manolas has used his experience to tackle less over the years, and intercept the ball more. Compare that to Juan Jesus (in all honesty one of my favourite Roma players for reasons no one ever has to understand), who’s best days on the pitch involve tackling all over the place and never being able to see the next threat coming; you realise as much of a liability Manolas’s defensive errors have been to Roma, on a purely individual level it can still be worse.

But growing into a better defender than Juan Jesus is one thing; Manolas seeing himself as good enough to start off this season courting a dream move to Real or Barcelona is another standard of football altogether.

If he really is to grab that dream, Manolas needs the confidence back that Roma have stripped from him on the pitch. He needs more than just being a fast defender in a high line defence. That’s like being a token femme fatale in a B-movie where the sex is the punchline. And he needs more than the ‘hardman’ persona that everyone else politely ignores.

There was always a clear pecking order in the dressing room, spelled out by Dzeko when the striker was asked who was the real general in training between Manolas and Strootman last summer.

“Strootman,” Dzeko replied bluntly to Roma TV. “Manolas complains all the time, but Kevin wants to win games. Manolas is a tough player to play against on his day, but you want a guy like Kevin in your team.”

On his day, Manolas is a respectable cover defender who struggles to maintain concentration over 90 minutes. The problem is that’s really Manolas’ only job.

And when you’re struggling to get your one job right, where’s the upside from here?

Being Manolas’ Defensive Partner Is Career Suicide

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Manolas is the man-marker in Roma’s backline for most games. His defensive partners over the years - be it Fazio, Rudiger, Marcano, Juan Jesus and a very skeptical mention of Vermaelen - have agreed to zonal mark and take on the responsibility of playing the ball out the back.

Add in the names of more classic stoppers like Davide Astori, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Leandro Castan... enough names have been fielded alongside Manolas to see their playing careers do better either before or after they met him. The lack of teamwork between Roma’s #44 and the backline makes for awkward win and clean sheet records, both with Kostas vs without Kostas in the side.

And sure, the level of opposition could be a factor in that on paper. But no one in Roma’s backline is forcing the kind of mistakes that lead to Manolas gifting goals against Cagliari, Fiorentina, Atalanta. Or getting done by Facundo Ferreyra last season.

These kind of mistakes make the level of opponent a minor blip in the picture. We’ve also been through two changes of keeper under EDF. Every variable you could think to change in the defence has changed since 2014, and the clean sheets just keep rolling in without the Greek centreback in the team. Manolas isn’t a heroic martyr that Roma are struggling to hold onto, nor should he aspire to be.

Playing for a football club should be more down-to-earth than playing the martyr card. We’ve been here before with a Belgian midfielder last season who remains a personal hero of mine for the player he once was.

It’s enough to say there’s a solid reason (among many others) why we love writing about and following the Roma women’s football team this season. These are players who’ve risked being ostracized by society just to meet up and play the game together, and they don’t make a melodrama out of that choice.

Daniele De Rossi could rightfully claim (though he never has) to have given up a knee to captain Roma, but Elisa Bartoli has never once claimed nor even thought to bring up the fact she lives alone in a Rome apartment with her dog as some kind of “sacrifice” made to captain the Giallorosse. Very few people are going to thank her for choice, nor does she expect them to. She did it because she chose to, plain and simple. It’s sport, not Hollywood.

Juventus Women v AS Roma - Women Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Compare that to kind of men’s football fanatic around the web who claims you should be “grateful” to a player for merely existing, and that’s the Ruffiani of Roma story playing itself all over again. I bet that comes from people who share the same clueness feeling I do when I look at the Roma men’s football team.

You don’t quite know why your favourite Roma guy plays as bad as he does, and it was never meant to be like this. But don’t ask questions, because it’s not worth the pain of well-paid people at the club showing little interest in risking honest answers. Just praise the player to death and sweep everything else under the rug.

That’s my best guess as to how we get by, because I’ll be the first to say the rest of us are just guessing. Or at least I am.

Nearly a year of putting together notes and stats, and I still couldn’t tell you what Roma is going to show up to the next game. I landed this gig out of being a fan, not an expert nor an insider. I could put together the gap between Italian and English football on the web, and they were cool with me doing more of it. We don’t really know what’s going on to explain a player’s form behind the scenes, or why he hasn’t gotten it together after nearly 5 years at the club.

One guess is that Manolas has been playing injured for years, and that’s as good a guess as any. I’ve suspected the same of Bryan Cristante in 2019.

These are little things that only come out in autobiographies years later, when people inside the sport no longer have anything to lose and realise it was never as big a deal to admit to mistakes as Hollywood-football makes it out to be. But when Manolas was a super young lad himself, the hero-ball, inhibited persona and sweeping mistakes under the rug were understandable. Now he’s 27 going on 28 years of age.

His pace won’t bail him out for much longer; he could have learnt a thing from Fazio before the Argentine let his own levels drop this season. Or Manolas could look at the example set by the first-choice defender he forced out the club to Chelsea, pushing Roma to say goodbye to Antonio Rüdiger through Manolas’ own refusal to leave in 2017.

Roma Need Real Confidence At The Back

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Rüdiger was immediately rated by some accounts as one of the best 20 players in the Premier League, later going onto vindicate that press opinion with a man-of-the-match performance in Chelsea’s FA Cup victory last season. I won’t pretend to have watched every Chelsea game since Tonio left; the point is he proved himself as the big man for the big occasion. Meanwhile, Manolas spent the buildup to a Champions League semi-final talking about how he had a plan for Salah, then showed Salah onto his left foot for Liverpool’s opening goal.

Ranked as the fourth fastest player in the Premier League, Rudiger will have much more than athletic ability to rely on as he gets older, while Manolas’ game means that Serie A teams now know it’s open season on trapping Roma’s nervy backline in possession.

Do we really want to sign Gianluca Mancini to play alongside Manolas next season, and watch a young Italian international get swallowed up by the void of being partnered with Roma’s #44?

It looks like that’s going to happen. I’m all in favour of signing Mancini - who looks like a confident character both on and off the pitch - but I’m against knowingly hanging a 22 year-old kid out to dry for the sake of appearances and walking on eggshells. Gianluca Mancini would be better holding the phone with Roma, until the capital club signs two quality CBs this summer and does a reset on the backline.

Ivan Marcano Is Now Roma’s Mr.X Till Season’s End

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

Fazio’s loss of form is undeniable. The big Argentine puts himself into less defensive duels (3.96 duels per game vs 4.98 duels per game last season), wins less of them (28.8% won vs 37.4% won last season), puts himself into less aerial duels (5.64 per game vs 6.79 last season), wins less headers (66.7% won vs 80.6% last season), and wins back possession less (11.97 balls recovered per game vs 14.86 last season).

The only areas where Fazio has improved are intercepting the ball (8.01 interceptions per game vs 6,26 last season) and getting more blocks in (0.89 shots intercepted per game vs 0.23 last season). And these ‘improvements’ can be explained in the wider context of Roma’s midfield defending less this year, and so logically any backline defender’s stats would go up by virtue of seeing more of the ball to cut out.

Likewise, we’ve explained Fazio’s differing performance in possession (at least domestically this season - Champions’ League is a similar story to last year). Thanks to Serie A teams trying to trap Roma into giving Manolas the ball, Fazio has seen less possession (42.38 passes per game vs 53.44 last season) and consequently lost the ball less (6.68 balls turned over per game vs 9.13 last season).

How did Fazio drop off so much from last season? The man is only 31 going on 32 years old.

I say “only” in Fazio’s case, because pace and athleticism was never something he had to rely to make his game work; he learnt the character and read of the game that Manolas should have learnt by now. Fazio working his ass off to make the Argentina World Cup squad, then only playing one single game in the tournament itself while having to watch Sampaoli make a hash of things, may have had the biggest part to play in Il Comandante’s losing the taste for football itself.

Either way, losing peak Fazio has hit the team harder than any match Roma has had to go without guys like Manolas and Jesus. We all have different taste in defenders, but that’s just a fact. There’s only one guy who easily leads in clean sheets kept for Roma since he arrived in 2016, whether he’s had to make a partnership work with either Kostas or JJ. And now Fazio has fallen to putting in over 25% less of the work this season than he was putting in last.

The change is big enough to ask: Couldn’t the club have seen this coming? Or at least cover for the worst case?

Well it’s easier for us to know better in hindsight. Because in a way, they did.

AS Roma v Entella - Coppa Italia Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

That man was Ivan Marcano. A league title winner in different countries, Manolas’ ex-partner for a brief time at Olympiacos and fresh off of leading a Porto side to their most recent league title success. No one really saw Marcano’s difficulty in adapting to Italian football coming (no one foresaw Porto replacing Marcano’s loss with the phenomenon that is Eder Militão either - but that’s all by-the-by).

And now history suggests Roma need Marcano to lead the defence in Fazio’s place more than ever. Otherwise Roma are left trying to do what no team in the history of a Serie A has ever done.

The Giallorossi are on course to conceed 50 goals by the end of the season, if they keep conceeding at the current rate. No team conceeding 50 goals or more has ever finished in a top 4 position in a 20-team Serie A league format, since it began in 2004-05. Lazio pushed that ceiling last year, conceeding 49 goals, but ultimately finishing 5th only because they came out worse on head-to-head results against 4th placed Inter.

If Roma do manage to do it on current form, then next season we’ll be writing about how Serie A turned the corner for good into a high-scoring league. Some people have wanted that to be the case for years. We have Sacchiano coaches like DiFra, De Zerbi and previously Maurizio Sarri who’ve all brought in positional play football from Sacchi’s era, in a bid to be more positive and less reactive.

If Roma finish outside of the top 4 then, in tragic irony at having driven themselves to the point where they’re forced to play Manolas every game possible by now, the Greek defender leaking goals may be the very thing that forces Roma to sell Manolas in the summer anyway.

There’s one light we’ve reached at the end of the tunnel here, as Ivan Marcano played well against Frosinone last time out. Not his first ‘good’ performance of the season, but by far his most encouraging. The ex-Porto league winner brought home the highest average match rating out of anyone in Roma’s backline, when looking through Italy’s daily newspapers last weekend.

I’m convinced of a top 4 finish, so the club can work towards bringing in a defensive duo that works. Upgrading the entire backline can be done comfortably within Roma’s means. Walter Sabatini already found a guy that now plays above the levels of JJ and Manolas, and even above the levels of Fazio last season. Joachim Andersen arrived to Sampdoria for 1.4 million euros. It’s not a mammoth task restart the central defence from scratch.

As for Manolas himself, the Greek defender could still go on to rebuild his game in a more conservative footballing side. But as long as Eusebio Di Francesco is coaching Roma towards his idea of high-line Sacchi-football, I get the feeling Manolas’ chances of growing into a truly confident player are gone.

It almost always boils down to training in a group you can trust to bring out the best in you, flaws and all. At the very least, avoid convincing yourself you need to stick around a place encouraging you to turn yourself into a jacked-up version of your worst days, all put together into one long sliding tackle to nowhere.