It’s self-indulgent to finally get to writing this in the middle of the summer transfer window, but Luca Pellegrini’s recent sale had that same question ringing around Roma: Why don’t the club do more to launch academy players into the Roma first team? On the surface it’s a justified question. But in the wider perspective around the peninsula, it’s one that’s incredibly harsh to Roma’s considerable recent success with youth.
If there is one area of ownership where James Pallotta hasn’t done well, it’s the men’s first team. But that’s arguably the only (if still most important) problem child at the tip of the mountain, held aloft by a foundation underneath that’s never seen so much organised and frequent success as the last few years. We’ll run over each youth team of the now-finished 2018/19 season, using a bottoms-up approach rather than looking at it from top-down level.
That may seem counter-intuitive, since every name talked about below will be moving up a level for the new season. But it gives us a chance to answer that age-old cult question in Trigoria: Whatever happened to Pietro Tomaselli?
Roma U-15s: Second Scudetto In Six Seasons
Tomaselli doesn’t feature much for Roma right now, making just 4 appearances (3 off the bench) in Roma’s 30-game regular season. That came after Roma handed Tomaselli a contract extension last August; the club are reportedly hopeful the diminutive Tomaselli will hit a growth spurt in his latter teens. In the meantime, the Youtube sensation still has his ten-year Nike sponsorship in the bank.
On the pitch, Roma’s U-15 success this past season was their second league title won since the last triumph in 2013-14. This year’s was led by coach Tuğberk Tanrivermis (feature picture), a man who Cengiz Ünder went on to declare as Roma’s most successful Turk of all time. That’s no exaggeration when you consider the only legitimate competition for that title is Ünder himself.
Tanrivermis is a revelation since his days coaching Ünder at youth level with Altinordu. Since then, Tanrivermis became a match analyst at Galatasaray as he rubbed shoulders with the likes of CdT favourite Cesare Prandelli and current Udinese head coach Igor Tudor. That’s probably where Tanrivermis learned to speak Italian, one of the five languages he speaks fluently. All this while he earned his UEFA PRO coaching license in his late twenties, which technically would qualify him to coach a Serie A team if not for the Italian federation’s rules that you must be 32 years of age (and the fact you couldn’t imagine Edin Dzeko or Federico Fazio taking orders from a coach younger than them).
While the prodigal coach lies in wait for his future career at top level, Monchi poached him to lead the Roma Giovanissimi to the best results possible: Not just a league title two weeks ago, but an U-15 Supercoppa win two days later. The double-trophy celebrations made a quiet splash in Rome, but they made a splash all the same:
Midfielder Riccardo Pagano (pictured above) is unquestionably Roma U-15’s player of the year, acting as captain and sometimes false nine for the title-winning side. While winger Luigi Cherubini could be mistaken for a famous classical composer, but is in actual fact the talent Roma stole back from Lazio’s youth ranks last season.
Cherubini’s star-season at this level comes a year after Lazio tempted the kid to leave Roma and sign for them. We hope is a tug of war Roma now won indefinitely, now that Cherubini has seen the light of a trophy raised aloft on the right side of the city. Both players and their teammates will move up to U-16 level next season.
Roma U-16s: A New Cassano Into the Quarter-Finals
What if I told you Roma had signed a trequartista and Puglia-native named Cassano? Would that be something you’d be interested in?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on where you land on Fantantonio) there is no blood relation to this story of remarkable parallels. But there was nothing doing for Claudio Cassano’s teammates on the pitch, as Roma U-16s were the only one of Roma’s youth teams not to make the final four of their championship.
Instead, an impressive regular season run led to a quarter-final knockout loss at the hands of eventual-champions Empoli. But Roma coach Aniello Parisi has been confirmed for a second season at the club, while he’ll have to wave goodbye to talents like Cassano to the U-17s next season.
Roma U-17s: A Title Defence Gone in the Final
Roma’s U-17 side were the only Lupi going into the 2018/19 season with the Tricolore on their jerseys, lead by coach Fabrizio Piccareta. The title success 2 season ago meant talents like Edoardo Bove first hit our radar when Roma went to the Alkass Cup final this past winter, which I’m guessing is the U-17 equivalent of the Champions League.
Roma’s kids unfortunately lost that final to Rangers on penalties, and it wouldn’t be the only last-stage heartbreak of the season as Roma then lost the U-17 Scudetto final against Inter Milan last month. If it’s the last Roma see of Inter’s Sebastiano Esposito for a while, they’ll be happy. Unless Esposito feels like turning up in a Roma shirt.
In the interim, Edoardo Bove tore up this level with a goalscoring rate of one-goal-per-game. Bove is a defacto central midfielder who, like Pagano at U-15 level, just gets goals for fun wherever you put him on the pitch. His form is already enough to have been called up to play for Roma Primavera a couple of times, while also making TuttoMercatoWeb’s list of 100 Most Promising Italian youths at number 53. Bove will presumably stay under the guard of Alberto De Rossi for next season.
An honourable mention should go to winger Riccardo Ciervo, who was a key part of the team’s run to the final. Looking like a young Patrik Shick at this level, Ciervo has the same awkward, gangly physique that helps him deceptively stride past opponents with his technique and stride in possession. Ciervo also has the same struggle to put muscle on his frame but has finally broking his scoring duck at this level.
Roma U-18s: A New Hope?
The second-most questionable gap in Italian youth football is the jump from 16 years of age to Primavera (U-19) level. That’s exemplified by Bove, who’s now too accomplished for U-17s but will be giving away as much as 1-3 years to more experienced Primavera opponents next season. Roma are reportedly looking to bridge that gap as one of the clubs pushing to join a formal U-18 league that may happen in time for next season.
Up until now, there exist only a few U-18 regional cup competitions that Roma has turned down the opportunity to take part in. But the chief of all Roma’s youth sectors, Massimo Tarantino, sounds more upbeat about an U-18 league championship:
“The Under 18s could be an opportunity if the Federation manages to find enough teams to make a league. We’ve given our availability to the league, and we’ll see if the FIGC and Lega work to put it all together. It could be especially important for players born in 2002, who’ll have a difficult time finding space in the Primavera.”
Roma U-19s: A Semi-Final Loss to that Kid Esposito Again
Roma Primavera is the one youth level we cover semi-regularly on the Chiesa, so you can find our Best 11 of the Roma Primavera Season here. I breezed over any kind of match report of that semi-final loss to Inter, because Sebastiano Esposito found the time to be everywhere this past season. The Inter sensation finished off Roma at this level, too.
Where Roma really have gone legitimate bad business is giving away Italy youth international Jean Freddi Greco to Torino, to make up for sporting director Gianluca Petrachi coming the other way. If we want to be crestfallen at the Luca Pellegrini to Juventus part-exchange deal, at least exchanging a player for another player makes sense. Giving away Greco and Luca Bucri for managerial staff is the ugliest example of Romashorterm-ism gone wrong.
While Bucri legitimately struggled to fit in at Primavera level (and was already been kept out for new signing Felipe Estrella) and badly needed a move, Greco is a multi-talented midfielder with a strong work ethic and engine on him, as well as goals from midfield. He’s ahead of his class at club level, and has never failed to be called up to an Italy international side at every age group of the way.
Greco was also ranked on TMW’s 100 Most Promising Italian Youths last season. Only the kid’s inconsistent form for Alberto De Rossi’s side last season (at a level where Greco is still very young to be judged against peers) makes losing the midfielder an easier pill to swallow.
Roma U-23s: Is It Ever Happening?
This is the biggest gap in calcio, calling out for a bridge to be built over it.
The number of interviews from players complaining about the demands placed on players caught between the awkward football age of 20-23 goes back over a decade within Italian football. It’s great if you’re a super-talent that can jump straight to the top level, but the rest of the talent pool are just trying to make pro and put food on the table.
The idea of a Roma B team, for Primavera graduates to ease into professional senior football, has been floating around for over a year now. But vice-president Mauro Baldissoni recently confirmed that Roma would, once again, be passing up to opportunity to launch a Roma B team into Serie C; Baldissoni claimed “conditions still aren’t right at the moment.”
What would those conditions be? Money.
And the financial conflict of internet was the original gripe that every club (besides Juventus) had about launching B teams into Serie C in the first place. The argument from clubs towards the Lega’s B-team project launching in the third division essentially boiled down to: ‘Do you really expect to be that idealistic? We have a bottom line to take care of here.’
To explain: Serie C clubs currently benefit from FIGC subsidies for every U-23 Italian youth played on matchday. This includes loan players from Serie A clubs, or however you can get U-23 Italians. No questions asked. The Serie C teams are happy to kick some of those funds back up the pyramid to the Serie A parent-clubs through the loans.
No such subsidy exists at Serie B level, where Italy’s biggest clubs originally wanted their own ‘B’ teams to be given the right to compete. Serie A clubs claimed they wanted to do it right, or they wouldn’t trust fellow league rivals to do it at all. This is a rare case where Juventus come out as the good guys here. Idealism never turned to reality beyond Turin and, predictably, every Serie A club besides Juve turned down the ‘opportunity’ of giving up money to spend even more money in 2018/19.
Not only would Roma and others lose out on subsidies kicked up their way, but they’re asked to deposit a 1.2 million euros just to license a ‘B’ team into the third division. You may argue Roma can afford to do this, and you may even be right. After all, it arguably would have prevented Roma giving away Italy U-21 international full-back Arturo Calabresi to Bologna last summer. Or maybe his transfer fee could be argued as the funds for the Roma B team in any case.
But the club and Baldissoni disagree for now.
Meanwhile, the Lega have stated their aim of getting at least 6 ‘B’ teams from the biggest names of Italy into reality soon. Despite the widespread thought that the U-23 project has been a massive flop, that won’t deter the league from doing what they feel is the right thing for domestic football. They are doing what they can to force top clubs into picking up more of the tab.
Two key changes: The over-age quota for Primavera (U-19) sides rises from the previously allowed 3 players maximum to 5 over-age players, from 2019/20 onwards. Meanwhile, the Lega made direct moves against loan-farming in Serie C, as third division clubs are now only allowed a maximum of six loan players per season.
We’ll see how this shakes out for Roma’s talent aged between 21 and 23, both this summer and moving forward. It’ll certainly give names like William Bianda and Salvatore Pezzella a bigger stay of execution; both are being pushed by the media as names who have to impress Paulo Fonseca in pre-season. If Bianda and Pezzella can prove they’re ready to alternate between playing backup to the Roma first team and getting game time at Primavera level, that’ll go a long way to saving on Roma’s budget for the senior squad.
Are Roma Doing Enough to Launch Youth Into Serie A Football?
I believe they are, comparatively. Which sounds a lot like whataboutism, and it is what it is.
Aside from the winning mentality being installed at almost all ranks of youth football in the capital, we can look at the number of U-21 players launched directly into their Serie A debuts this past season. For Roma, that number was four.
It may not sound like a lot, but it ranked joint-third in Serie A with Juventus and Lazio. The two Serie A clubs who gave the most U-21 players their debut last season were Chievo (5 players) and Fiorentina (6 players). If we needed a reminder of the risks in fielding too young a squad at the highest level of Italian football, Fiorentina only beat relegation on the last day of the season. Meanwhile, Chievo have a rock-bottom 20th placed finish as consolation for their efforts.
Roma’s number is comparatively even more respectable when you consider two of the Giallorossi appearing at senior level this year were academy players Luca Pellegrini and Zan Celar. Where the criticism against Roma lies here is that Luca Pellegrini is now at Juventus, while Zan Celar has gone off on loan to Cittadella. Who knows if Celar will even return?
Nonetheless, Roma’s record ties joint-second with Juventus (2 academy Serie A debutants) and Atalanta (2 academy Serie A debutants) while Chievo once again came out on top in this category (3 academy Serie A debutants).
Perhaps the most telling category for relying on youth is how much Serie A game time each club gave their kids. Here, Roma still leads the pack among a new set of clubs. After all, Juve’s former coach Allegri only threw on kids for a substitute appearance here and there. And maybe we were too quick to link youth with relegation, as it was the same story of minimal game time for Chievo’s legion of talent.
Instead, the three leading Serie A clubs giving the most minutes to Under-21 players last season were Roma, Empoli and Genoa.
Perhaps the ultimate crown should go to Empoli, who gave their Empoli academy graduate defender Hamid Junior Traore 32 Serie A games last season, while playing the notable talent of midfield teammate Ismael Bennacer (37 Serie A games) who was originally nabbed from Arsenal. Meanwhile, Genoa relied heavily on talents Cristiano Romero (27 Serie A games) and Christian Kouame (all 38 Serie A games).
Roma’s response was to rely on 19-year olds Nicolò Zaniolo (27 Serie A games) and Justin Kluivert (29 Serie A games). Neither talent born or raised inside the academy walls of Trigoria, and both signed for millions. But Roma should be cautious about bringing down the average age of the senior squad even further this summer.
One finish outside the top four is already playing enough havoc on Petrachi’s squad building (and dismantling) within the next 12 months. We can only imagine what a second season-finish outside the top four would do for the club, the mythical Stadio della Roma permitting.