If you see a Roma player's name and any of the following words in close succession—Top 10, Rank, Best, Youth, U-21—and your heart doesn't immediately drop, then you haven't been paying close enough attention over the past decade. Roma have a deserved reputation for cultivating young footballers, that's true, but that reputation is very often rendered meaningless when they then flip that talent for profit shortly after the player in question begins to make a name for himself.
The examples are almost too numerous to list, but in recent times we've seen the likes of Marquinhos, Erik Lamela, Alisson and even Alessio Romagnoli sold for a tidy profit before they even scratched the surface of their considerable talents. I used to think it was just the cost of doing business for a not-small-not-really-that-big club like Roma, but now I'm not so certain. FFP seems easier to flout than the age verifications on certain salacious websites, so why haven't Roma able to dive through those loopholes?
But I digress. It was little more than ten months ago that we sang the praises of Cengiz Ünder when he was named one of the 20 most valuable U-21 players in the world, checking in at approximately €32 million per Prime Time Sports (What? You've never heard of them!?), and here we are once again, on the precipice of silly season, and Ünder has earned those plaudits once more.
Only this time it's from a slightly more recognizable source.
20-year-old Kylian Mbappé tops our ranking of the best players under 21 pic.twitter.com/iv5l4R1yfi— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 16, 2019
While Roma's first purchase of the Qatari-era, Kylian Mbappe, heads the list, Cengiz Ünder and Nicolo Zaniolo have been named among the 30 best U-21 players on the planet, clocking in at numbers 28 and 30, respectively, though ESPN didn't actually rank any players after the Top 10—presumably they were too busy working on their exposé of the new lunch items in the NFL's cafeteria to be bothered.
On The Kid, Nicolo Zaniolo, ESPN were quite effusive with their praise, literally calling him the heir to Francesco Totti's thrown. On his actual skill, ESPN noted his size and toughness.
Zaniolo is a tuttocampista, a box to box midfielder, and at 6-foot-2, the teenager is tough to knock off the ball. Even at that size, he’s an effective dribbler and has the timing and awareness to sense when and where a chance is going to appear. Zaniolo starred at the Under-19 European Championships last summer, with his four goals and three assists on the way to the final sufficient for Roberto Mancini to call him up to the senior Italy squad before he’d played a minute in Serie A.
The Worldwide Leader in Sports tabs Zaniolo at €60 million and, of course, questions whether Roma can keep him long-term.
Cengiz Ünder was also valued at €60 million in this countdown, while the list praised his speed...and, well, his speed:
Ünder is a blur on the wing. Coaching staff have had to tell him to manage his energy better because he does everything at 100 miles per hour. He needs to improve in tight spaces if he is to thrive at the next level, and he must develop better skills on the ball: he tends to beat defenders to the byline with pace rather than on the dribble.
ESPN are quick to point out the Arsenal rumors we've heard all season long and caution that, should Roma fail to qualify for the Champions League next season, Ünder could coerce his way out of the Eternal City.
Zaniolo and Ünder's appearance on these lists are essentially meaningless, but it nevertheless speaks to their growing acclaim among their peers, and while I'd like to remain optimistic that both of these players will blossom and flourish with Roma, reality tells me otherwise.
There is no happy ending to this story, but at least the book has pretty pictures.