“The Belgian is a great player. I’ve played against him and he impressed me. I take after Nainggolan but it’s not easy reaching his levels,” said Jordan Veretout in a 2017 Gazzetta dello Sport interview. And so it was. Though Veretout would later add: “I’ve no tattoos, no piercings and no strange haircuts. I love simplicity. Got it?”
12 months later, Veretout got closer to the levels he sought and changed tact when speaking to the Corriere Fiorentino: “Yes, Nainggolan is very strong player. But I don’t like the comparisons. He’s Nainggolan, I’m Veretout.”
But hell, it’s a comparison La Romanista made this very morning: “In many aspects he’s like him. He’s one that looks to win the ball back by using Nainggolan’s own move: that hook tackle.”
And that’s the comparison we’re going to make straight out the gate here. Can you blame us? Look at the French dynamo’s heatmap from last season:
Veretout was everywhere.
Despite dropping deeper, in a needs-must Fiorentina midfield last season, Veretout’s pitch coverage exploded into the entire middle third of the pitch. Is this the picture of simplicity, or the frenetic movement of a man who knows the simple life will always evade him?
We asked that question two seasons ago in Rome. Today, Jordan Veretout represents a second chance for Roma to get right what they mismanaged in Radja Nainggolan’s career. Can you take a player’s gifted athleticism and blend it with tactical discipline?
Covering the range of tasks Roma will ask Veretout to intuitively manage on the go is no simple story. But we’ll start with Veretout’s favourite act.
Winning The Ball Back High and Early
Among the many Fonseca demands is counter-pressing. And the box-to-box midfielder’s athleticism is no small influence in its success. In Veretout, Roma have signed a player who immediately looks to win the ball back in the middle third. Jose Mourinho once said the first assumption you can make about any possession-dominant team is not how good they are at keeping the ball, but how good they are at winning the ball in the first place.
A possession-team should look to make the defensive transition phase of the game as short-lived as possible for their side, getting back to the attacking transition once more:
“Sure, having to drop back could mean I score less,” Veretout reflected on his new deep-lying midfield in Florence last season, “but it’s equally true that playing in that position I win so many balls and I like that.”
Jordan Veretout excels when it comes to robbing the opponent of the ball before they even know what’s hit them.
He’s done this to dramatic effect when blindsiding Torino’s Acquah, stealing the ball and running into Torino’s box to score the opener on the way to a 2-1 away victory that day. Veretout would repeat the same feat on matchday 33 at home to Lazio, intercepting a ball Lucas Leiva never got under control before Veretout pounces. The French midfielder then dribbles into Lazio’s box, leaves Romulo for dead and finishes across the face of Strakosha’s goal to complete Veretout’s hat-trick against Lazio and put Fiorentina 3-2 up on the night.
Unfortunately those goalscoring heroics would end up fruitless, as Fiorentina would chuck the night away with a 4-3 loss. But it was a reminder of how Veretout used to earn his pay in his Ligue 1 days; or when he was starring in France’s 2013 U-20 World Cup win (6 starts, 1 sub appearance and 1 goal in those victorious 7 games - as well as burying a penalty in the final shootout victory).
There’s a new-age Wyscout stat measuring the intensity of player’s pressing. It does this by singling out their interceptions leading to goal-assists within 20 seconds of winning the ball back. In Veretout’s case, you may track how many times the Frenchman wins the ball on the way to assisting himself onto the scoresheet.And for those who worry his game sounds too individualistic from the outset: Fear not.
Finding his new Roma teammates with the ball is a guarantee, owing to Veretout’s expertise on set pieces.
A Creator: Dead Balls or Otherwise
It’ll be good to see Roma bolster the competition for who gets to take set-pieces.
They’re throwing the Veretout-cat among the Kolarov and Pellegrini pigeons this season (sidenote: Guinea’s coach claims Amadou Diawara is also a free-kick specialist - though we haven’t noticed this). Roma found out first-hand about Veretout when he put a penalty past Olsen last season, but you can re-watch the highlights of Veretout’s hat-trick against Lazio to see the Frenchman is capable of scoring from dead-balls anywhere from within 30 yards to goal.
His free-kick and corner accuracy helped boost Veretout’s total key passes to 2.3 per game, in the same way Lorenzo Pellegrini boosted his own to 2.4 key passes per game last season. When you take into account active play, Veretout finished 2018/19 as the second-highest Serie A midfielder for setting up his teammates with goal chances. First place went to Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic, while Veretout did this from a relegation-form Fiorentina.
With Gianluca Mancini, Federico Fazio or Bryan Cristante waiting to get on the end of chances in the box, we figure on Roma being even more efficient at scoring from dead-ball situations in 2019/20 (the Giallorossi were already among the league’s best last season in this area). But what we’ll be wanting to see major improvements on is the chance-creating from open play.
Roma’s Midfield Ability to Draw Out Opponents
In Amadou Diawara’s in-depth preview, we talked about the Guinean’s threat to opposition defences from both long and short-range. Roma have now doubled up by partnering Diawara with Veretout, who himself also possesses a fine long-range radar while he’s equally able on both his left and right foot. Let’s say Roma’s backline were to come under pressure on the ball with an opponent’s high press in effect. What now?
Fonseca doesn’t hesitate to ask both his deep-lying defenders to drop back and offer combined passing outlets to help Roma players play it out from the back. After all, the more the opponents press up high then the more there’s a numbers advantage from Roma waiting further upfield, provided the Giallorossi can break through the opponent’s press.
Veretout would be expected to drop deeper alongside Diawara in these moments; their combined threat on the ball would dictate that the rest of the opposition’s midfield take the bait. Opponents would be forced to commit whatever they have left of their defence to trying shutting down the long and medium-range threat of the Diawara-Veretout tandem in possession. It won’t always play out this way, and it’ll largely come down to the intuitive of Veretout on whether to drop back deeper or push up ahead and join the Roma’s frontline.
There are Roma passing webs to be made at both ends of the pitch, provided Veretout can link up with them in the right time, right place. We could see the return of counter-attack goals (something largely lost since Salah left the club) and Roma’s strikers having space to run off the shoulder of the last man. It’ll all depend on how well Veretout and Diawara work together to keep the opposition guessing on what’s coming next.
Veretout’s ranked as Serie A’s top midfielder for long-range passing last season (an average 21.9 metres) and he never has to break his stride if he’s called to hit a pass forward while running at full speed. He also ranked as the ten-highest player for forward passes per 90 in the entire league last season, and was in-fact the fourth-highest ranked midfielder in that same category with 12.28 forward passes per 90 minutes. Will opponents double-team Veretout on the ball to counter all this?
That would only leave Diawara with plenty of space to do his own thing, provided Veretout can recycle possession with him. In short: Roma have everything they need among their midfield and full-backs to pull opposition sides apart.
With Veretout’s dynamism to link-up play between midfield, attack and wide, the Giallorossi can keep even the most stubborn defensive blocks moving from side to side, inevitably tiring opponents out and leaving Roma free to hit teams on the weak side of possession at will - a favoured Paulo Fonseca tactic.
There Are Still Challenges Ahead
We’ve almost made it seem like Gianluca Petrachi has put together the perfect side, even if we know no such thing exists. Yet this is the most balanced Roma midfield (on paper) that we’ve seen in at least 5 years; that’s something we couldn’t come close to saying about Fiorentina’s engine room last year, while questions linger over Veretout’s part in it.
It won’t just be Roma looking to realise a midfield dream, but Veretout looking to put some Viola nightmares behind him. You look at the nature of Veretout’s mistakes last season and ask: Is he entirely compatible with Fonseca’s ideals?
Veretout has gotten used to relying on his quickness of mind to try passing early, without hesitation. This isn’t a quality you’d expect us to criticise, but nitpick we will anyway. After all, Fiorentina’s relegation was typified by their struggle to control possession (50.4% average team possession overall - 11th ranked team in Serie A).
Veretout played no small part in that possession struggle: The Frenchman’s overall passing accuracy was a so-so 81%, and Veretout often tried vertical passing directly into the hole as his first instinct. It brought erratic results. His success rate at completing passes into the opponent’s hole was just 75%.
That’s the same kind of rushed passing that has plagued Lorenzo Pellegrini over his brief career, and it’s no different that putting Javier Pastore’s risky passing back deeper in Veretout’s position in the double pivot at that rate of accuracy. Fiorentina degenerated into a side that relied on the sheer athleticism of players like Veretout and Federico Chiesa to outlast the constant turnovers of the ball like a hot potato.
That frenetic, vertical-obsessed football - frequently seen in Rome under the hand of Eusebio Di Francesco - is something none of us want to see return to the Giallorossi state of play. Not even me, as a big EDF fan. It’s also the anti-thesis of Fonseca’s desires in possession.
The Portuguese tactician is the next-coming of Nils Liedholm, in how Fonseca emphasises ‘keeping the ball is the best form of defence’ - mirroring Liedholm’s own immortal catchphrase on the walls of Rome’s Stadio Tre Fontane today. Veretout will have to show greater discipline on the ball this season in the attacking phase, learning to calm himself, shorten and slow down play when needed. It’s great that Jordan works hard at getting his team back on the front foot, but can he contribute to keeping them there?
That’ll be down his own intuition, and trusting the range of tactical options Fonseca has built around Veretout’s role on the pitch. Only then may the simple life become reality from the heart of Roma’s midfield.
Right Place, Right Time for Improvement
Another personal challenge lays in how Veretout anticipates the chance to intercept, often able to do so because of how he follows the opponent’s body language instead of the ball itself. But this can sometimes prove fatal, as Veretout’s dribble concession suggests.
Getting dribbled past at 0.9 times per match is no disaster (it’s respectable comparative to the league’s midfielders on the whole) but it’s certainly not world-class, and not at the levels of De Rossi, Diawara or Nzonzi when it comes to plugging holes. Veretout will have to show greater discipline off the ball, even if his all-action style is still better than players like Nicolò Barella in every single category - especially better than Barella getting dribbled past 1.5 times per game.
It doesn’t end there. Protecting the ball? Bad touches? Key passes? Interceptions? Veretout outperforms Barella in all over them, with the Italian midfielder only coming out ahead in his tackle-rate.
In Veretout, Roma managed to get a midfielder hitting his prime, and thus more ready to mould himself to the balance Roma crave this season. Petrachi secured this by spending less than half the price of Barella in the end. It’s understandable why Roma’s sporting director felt the need to clarify he had never personally sought after Barella this summer, when the surer thing lay waiting in Veretout.
Roma have to take care of results and winning games right now; Veretout looks like he can become a key part of achieving that both today and tomorrow.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We’re still expecting the club to seek upgrades to the Roma spine by bringing in competition for Fazio in defence, and settling Edin Dzeko’s future one way or another. But neither of those changes would be anything we can’t analyse in 5 seconds.
Another centre-back would come in with the same expectations we outlined in Gianluca Mancini’s piece, and Paulo Fonseca was pragmatic about the kind of striker he prefers up front: “I like strikers who score goals.”
Then there’s the question of whether Roma will really go for a Mr. X signing to ‘upgrade’ the 3 interchanging trequartisti behind the striker - a move we call unnecessary, if not completely unneeded. But we can’t argue with Petrachi and Fonseca pursuing their vision. They’re the experts.
But Jordan Veretout looks like last major tactical pillar in this new Roma side; a team that exemplifies balance and dynamism at the heart of it. As such, this is likely to be our last in-depth review on Roma’s summer signings for 2019 (at least for the men’s team).
Veretout’s progression as a player is one of a guy who used to rack up goals and assists, then discovered a greater hunger for stealing the ball back deeper in midfield. That’s a good sign for a player’s long-term maturity, if he’s to be more than an athlete who’s “lost it” once his prime years melt away. And that’s exactly how we’re hoping Roma’s incoming transfer campaign matures.
It’s been relief, intrigue and excitement on Petrachi’s moves to date, as every character brought into the squad looks like a low-key, team-oriented signing. Whoever Roma brings into the fold from here can only feel confident about their chances of fitting in, thanks to the ability of Veretout and co. to back them.