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Roma’s Midfield Mirrored the Season’s Results

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There were some ups and plenty of downs for the men in the middle of the park.

SPAL v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

Roma’s midfield was always going to be an interesting case study this year. After selling longtime stalwarts Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, the midfield would face a transitional period. Unfortunately, the transition didn’t go quite as smoothly as Monchi planned.

In Nainggolan and Strootman, Monchi shipped out two fan favorites thought to be on the decline, while they still had some plusvalenza. Getting €25 million for Strootman and his injury riddled knees from Marseilles and €24 million plus Nicolò Zaniolo and Davide Santon from Inter for Radja and his partying ways looked good on the balance sheet. Nevertheless, Roma forgot about something in those sales. It’d sold two-thirds of its starting midfield, one that was so instrumental in the Champions League semifinal run of the prior season.

If the midfield is the heart of the pitch, Roma had just sold a large chunk of its heart, soul, grinta and hustle. Like those old MasterCard commercials, some things are just priceless and Roma realized that just a little too late. Without Strootman and Nainggolan, Roma had big shoes to fill. Additionally, Roma loaned out Gerson to Fiorentina and Maxime Gonalons to Sevilla.

To make up for the losses, Monchi went on a shopping spree. The Spaniard opted for a wide-ranging reclamation project, grabbing Serie A’s best midfielder from the previous season, a World Cup winner, and a pair of youngsters with big potential.

The reclamation project, of course, was Javier Pastore for €24.7m from PSG. The Serie A standout was Bryan Cristante, purchased from Atalanta for a loan fee of €5 million with a compulsory purchase option for an additional €15 million and a further €10 million in performance-related bonuses. There was purchase the Steven N’Zozni from Sevilla for €26.65 million, while youngsters were Zaniolo and Ante Coric (€8 million) rounded out the equation. Add those players to holdovers Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini and you have Roma’s 2018-19 midfield group.

So, now that the curtain has been pulled on the final act of the season, let’s assess Roma’s midfield piece-by-piece.

Ante Coric

It was a chore finding a picture of Ante in a Roma shirt.
Gazzetta dello Sport

Appearances (All Competitions): 3 | Minutes Played: 48 |

Coric arrived in the Capital with quite a bit of hype despite being just 21 years of age. The young Croatian was dubbed The Next Modric by many and Monchi spoke of his vast potential. While a transitional period was expected with Coric coming over from Dinamo Zagreb, that period took much longer than expected as Coric barely dipped his toes into the Serie A waters this season. A loan spell to gain top flight experience with a smaller provincial side would probably serve him well.

Final Grade: N/A

Prediction for Next Year: Loan with a Serie A side

Javier Pastore

US Sassuolo v AS Roma - Serie A
The gamble on a Pastore reclamation project blew up in Roma’s face.
Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Appearances: 17 | Goals: 4 | Games Missed Through Injury: Many

Pastore was always going to be a risky proposition given his limited appearances in recent years. However, Monchi took the gamble of resuscitating the career of the Argentine who took Serie A by storm with Palermo nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately, that gamble didn’t equate into abjackpot for Monchi. For a team like Roma on a limited budget, spending almost €25 on a player that doesn’t contribute spells disaster. And that’s just what Pastore’s season turned into.

While we saw flashes of the massive amounts of talent that Pastore still possesses—highlighted by a couple classy finishes—El Flaco was unable to be a regular contributor, scoring only 4 goals in all competitions. The main culprit was injuries, which completely derailed the Argentine’s season. It’s unlikely he sticks around another season if Roma can find a suitor desperate enough for a big name signing.

Final Grade: D+

Prediction for Next Year: Sold to a Chinese or Middle Eastern Club

Steven Nzonzi

AS Roma v Juventus - Serie A
It was a tale of two seasons for N’Zonzi.
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 39 | Goals: 1 | Aerial Duels Won: 126

When Roma purchased Nzonzi in mid-August, it looked like they’d finally solved the problem of finding a strong alternative to De Rossi. After Gonalons hadn’t worked out the previous season, this move just made sense: Roma was getting an experienced defensive mid with plenty of big game experience. Nzonzi had just won the World Cup with France and had lifted a Europa League trophy with Sevilla in 2016. Perfect signing, right?

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. If you’ve ever tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, you know it just doesn’t fit. Well, consider Nzonzi to be the square peg in the round hole of Eusebio Di Francesco’s tactics. Things just didn’t fit quite right and Nzonzi often looked bad, real bad in EDF’s system. The Frenchman looked lead-footed and was often caught out of position.

That all changed when Claudio Ranieri took over Roma and moved to a more defensive system. Under the Roman CT, Nzonzi sat deep in the midfield in front of the defense and he looked like a whole new player. This was highlighted by his masterclass performance against Juve, where he was one of the best players on the pitch. With that in mind Nzonzi, who was being shipped out by the supporters about halfway through the season, could still have plenty of use depending on who is hired as Roma’s next manager.

Final Grade: C

Prediction for Next Year: Still at Roma or sold to a mid-table Premier League Club depending on Roma’s new system.

Bryan Cristante

AS Roma v Bologna FC - Serie A
Cristante’s the only player to not miss time through injury.
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 44 | Goals: 4 | Yellow Cards: 10

Cristante was brought into Roma on the heels of a breakout season with Atalanta in which he scored 12 goals in all competitions and was one of Serie A’s best midfielders. With that in mind, expectations were high for him. Cristante had a rough go of it early in his first season with Roma, as he had to adjust to a completely different role in EDF’s system. Eventually, he settled into the defensive double pivot role next to Nzonzi in most matches.

Once he settled in, Cristante began to show his worth and went on a streak in December where he scored in three out of five matches; something that many Romanisti expected after his Atalanta campaign. One thing Cristante has to be given credit for is the fact that he stayed healthy and was available for every match this season; something no other player besides third-choice keeper Fuzato can be credited with.

Cristante was also willing to put in the defensive work and play a physical game. Something Roma desperately needed with the losses of Nainggolan and Strootman and the prolonged absences of De Rossi. There is still room to grow positionally, as he was caught out of position too often, hence the 10 yellow cards. Cristante seemed to grow more comfortable as the season wore on and should be a key piece of the midfield going forward.

Final Grade: B-

Prediction for Next Year: A key member of the Roma midfield rotation

Lorenzo Pellegrini

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A
His backheel goal against Lazio was Pellgrini’s highlight of the season.
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 33 | Goals: 3 | Assists: 6

Pellegrini had a season of fits and starts. Like most of the Roma roster, Pellegrini was oft-injured, missing time throughout the season. However, at times, he looked like he'd be an important part of Roma’s future.

The first derby of the season looked like Pellegrini’s coming out party. The young Roman stepped up on the biggest of Roman stages with a goal and assist against Lazio. However, he couldn’t put it all together on a consistent enough basis. Injuries certainly played their part, but even when fit there were matches when he was anonymous.

Fittingly he scored in De Rossi’s send-off match, a young Roman stepping up as the ultimate Roman was honored. Pellegrini’s darting runs from the midfield, ability to play a slick through ball, and some precise free kicks look to be assets Roma can build around. And the 22 year old looks like he has the desire to stick around and follow in the footsteps of fellow Romans.

Final Grade: B-

Prediction for Next Year: A key member of the Roma midfield rotation and the next vice-Captain

Nicolò Zaniolo

AS Roma v Parma Calcio - Serie A
Could Zaniolo be Roma’s next #10?
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 38 | Goals: 6 | Positions Played: 5

Where do we begin with Zaniolo? The kid went from a prospect used as a makeweight by Inter to land Nainggolan to playing for Italy’s senior National Team. It was a quite the meteoric rise. Little if anything was expected of the 19 year old at Roma this season. Then, all of a sudden, he was starting against Real Madrid in the Champions League and getting called up by Roberto Mancini; all before making his Serie A debut.

Zaniolo faded a bit as a the season wore on, but man was he impressive on his day; highlighted by his two goal performance against Porto. One issue for Zaniolo was Roma’s inability to find him a consistent position. He often looked most comfortable in an attacking midfield role, but played often enough as a right winger, right midfielder, center mid, and even a game as a false nine. In spite of this, his ascension in his first season culminated in being named Serie A’s young player of the year.

The sky looks to be the limit for Zaniolo and it’s not every day Roma has a player like this on its hands. The club would be wise to give him the raise and extension he’s asking for and building a long term future around him.

Final Grade: B+

Prediction for Next Year: A star is born.

Daniele De Rossi

AS Roma v Parma Calcio - Serie A
It was an emotional farewell for De Rossi.
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 23 | Goals: 1 | Tearful Farewells: 1

Daniele De Rossi’s final season didn’t go down quite as he probably planned it in his head for many reasons. Unfortunately, De Rossi was limited to just 22 total appearances due to injuries. However, when he was on the field, DDR’s presence was known and he proved that he can still play at a high level on his day.

More obvious, though, than De Rossi’s impact on the pitch, was just how much Roma missed him when he was absent. At this point in his career, his impact was more than stats. De Rossi provided leadership that nobody on the roster could replicate and served as a sort of coach on the pitch for the team. He will be missed in more ways than one now that management has decided to part ways with its captain. Roma needs to find a suitable heir for De Rossi this summer.

Final Grade: B+

Prediction for Next Year: MLS, Boca Juniors, or retirement

Conclusions

In a disappointing season for the club, many in the midfield were also disappointing at times. However, youngsters Zaniolo, Pellegrini, and Cristante also showed the talent, at times, to be the foundation of Roma’s squad in the center of the park going forward. Even at his advanced age, De Rossi will still be difficult to replace. Names like Barella and Tonali have been rumored but the team will have limited spending power without Champions League football. Meanwhile, the club will have decisions to make on both Pastore and Nzonzi’s futures in the capital. Of course, Roma will need a new sporting director and manager in order to sort that all out.