If it were possible to get more excited over Amadou Diawara than I already have, I’d find a way. Everyone has a favourite kind of player; considering the most hyped I’ve gotten over names either linked with or playing for Roma recently are Sander Berge and Giada Greggi, it turns out I love deep lying midfielders with an all-action box-to-box side to their game. And Diawara may just top the list.
This is a player we once dreamed of joining Roma all the way back in 2016, when we were already looking at the Guinean prodigy through the lens of a potential Daniele De Rossi replacement.
We’re now forced to scrap ‘potential’ from that last statement and get right to a head-to-head comparison between Amadou Diawara, Steven Nzonzi and Daniele De Rossi in midfield last season. No pressure.
Defending and Cutting Out the Danger
You’ve probably noticed a few surreal statistics if you read Roma’s official 10 Things to Know About Amadou Diawara page.
In 2014, the Guinean emigrated with nothing more than a t-shirt and pair of jeans for luggage, promptly introducing himself to Serie C football in a San Marino shirt for 15 games. The club were convinced to take him on after African talent scout Numeku Tounkara relayed to football agent Roberto Visan that he could sign “an African player with the feet of a Brazilian.”
Visan took him at his word, promptly shuttled a 16-year old Diawara into the peninsula and the rest was history.
A teenage Diawara’s contribution to San Marino wasn’t enough to avoid the drop, but they were just a conduit to Bologna snapping up the new midfield talent in time for the Serie A 2015-16 season. Bologna coach Delio Rossi didn’t believe in throwing Diawara in at the deep end, but fortunately for the rest of us Rossi was fired by October and replaced by Roberto Donadoni.
The former Italian CT didn’t hesitate to try out Diawara in the starting lineup, where the teenager never left. Not only that, but the Guinean midfielder finished the 15/16 season with 91 interceptions (4th best in Serie A 15/16) and winning the ball back 258 times (6th best in Serie A 15/16).
Diawara firmly put to bed any doubts that he was defensively made for Italian top flight football before he’d even reached 18 years of age. Now about to turn 22, Diawara hitting those kind of performance levels may just be needed once more if he’s to become the man to protect Roma from counter-attacks.
That’s a big assumption to make about Diawara’s role in Roma’s starting lineup next year, as he may just be fielded as the “other” midfielder who has more responsibilites pushing up front.
Either way, since moving to Napoli, Diawara’s interception rate has gone down by over half or more from his Bologna days. That’s partly to be expected when playing for a bigger club, let alone one like Napoli that emphasises not losing the ball in the first place. Still, if Roma were the make as many turnovers of possession as last season, Diawara’s 2.7 interceptions per game (back in his season at Bologna) can only be matched by Daniele De Rossi back in Rudi Garcia’s second season on the Roma bench.
De Rossi at the peak of his powers - back in 2011/12 and playing a slightly more advanced position mirroring Diawara’s at Bologna - reigned supreme with 3.1 interceptions per game. Steven Nzonzi may like to push forward and press aggresively, but he’s never come too close to the former two’s levels in any season. Whether it be in France, England, Spain or Italy.
Italian midfielder DDR’s kryptonite, over his entire career, is how often he can get dribbled past. DDR managed to get this down to an impressive 0.6 dribbles conceeded per game in his final Roma season. Still, Nzonzi did better by conceeding just 0.4 dribbles per game last year.
Diawara? He conceeded 0.1 dribbles per game last year and, if you take the average of his 3 seasons in a Napoli shirt, has conceeded just 0.2 dribbles per game over the last Serie A seasons.
In the bigger picture of defense, Diawara just has to re-find his old levels when it comes to cutting out passes and he’s more than ready to be a shield for the Giallorossi.
Evading Pressure on the Ball
De Rossi was tasked with helping his defence to build possession out of the back, dropping in between his two centre-backs splitting wide for the salida volpiana. This is really just the shorthand term for what we’ve just described: your team is in possession, your centre-backs move wide closer to the half-spaces and your regista drops in between them to form a passing web of three teammates.
(This web becomes four teammates if your keeper is comfortable moving out of his area to join in possession - the kind of keeper Roma are about to sign in Pau Lopez and previously enjoyed in Alisson).
If the opposition feels like they are stronger at pressing than Roma’s backline is on the ball, they can opt to press Roma high up the pitch all the way to the Giallorossi penalty area. We saw this a lot last year, not least of all Roma’s back three or four getting trapped into giving the ball to free-man Manolas - exactly who the opposition wanted Roma to hand the ball to.
Steven Nzonzi was criticised, despite his strength in freeing himself up to receive the ball, because he was dispossessed 0.4 times per game. That’s an extremely respectable number, but it was always going to be hard for him to walk into Daniele De Rossi’s boots when the Italian was getting dispossessed just 0.1 times per game. Roma’s former captain was the best in the entire league here. So yeah, sorry Steven.
It’s a similar story for receiving the ball under pressure, which was crucial when getting a rushed pass from either Fazio or Manolas in hot water. De Rossi could handle that task with just 0.2 bad touches per game. Once again he was the best in the league in this category, and beat Nzonzi’s 0.5 bad touches per game.
If we take the average of Diawara’s last three seasons in a Napoli shirt, the young midfielder comes out somewhere in the middle of the other two, with 0.4 bad touches per game. It’s one category where all three men are high-qualtiy under pressure, but further highlights why De Rossi felt he still had a lot to give to his club. Roma axed the best man in the league here and it’s a baffling decision.
Roma are in still in safe hands when it comes to their registi helping to recycle the ball among the backline. Despite Claudio Ranier’s protests that it shouldn’t be done, this is a valid tactic for drawing the opposition team higher up the pitch. In turn, that frees up more space for Roma’s frontline to run off the shoulder off opposition defenders, provided you have a man that can find them with his passing.
Hm. Who could that man be?
Defence Splitting Passes
Did you ever hear the one about the kid who went to his first ever African Cup of Nations with Guinea? He came up with this assist on his tournament debut. That’s Diawara just two weeks ago doing his bread and butter move.
Truthfully, the run from striker Sory Kaba is the best part of the move, as he times and angles his run perfectly.. But teammate Diawara still has the presence of mind to receive the ball facing Guinea’s goal, turn on a sixpence and instinctively anticipate Sory Kaba’s run while making sure his pass is floated behind the Madagascar defender’s right shoulder, where the backline wasn’t prepared to immediately run back with Sory Kaba.
And any time, Diawara could have taken the easier option (given he’s right footed and receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch) to just put a straight ball over the top. But instead he’s ready to catch the defence out cold. And all this within less than 2 seconds of thought and execution put together.
Our graphic here is a little bit of a different scenario to that African Cup game, but familiar to any top of the table team in Serie A: The dreaded 18-yard Wall of Doom that’s served as Roma’s nemesis, when fancing smaller sides, since forever.
Roma will need a man who can instinctively risk that ball over the top to find the striker peeling off the last man into goal. In this category, De Rossi was once again the best of our three competitors last season with 0.75 completed passes per 90 minutes into the profondità (the final 18 yards of the pitch) in 2018/19.
It’s enough to watch that home game against Barcelona two years ago, to see how good De Rossi was at finding Dzeko this way. But it’s easier to do it in the Champions League against bigger opposition, harder to get it right every week in the league.
Diawara was only slightly behind DDR in this respect, completing 0.64 passes per 90 minutes into the profondità with Napoli last season. Steven Nzonzi came out last with 0.4 passes per 90 minutes here.
Where Diawara prefers to do his long-range passing is from deeper, while he drops the ball into the hole; sometimes slotting the ball between the opponent’s two defensive lines or otherwise putting his attackers completely through on goal depending on the opponent’s position on the field.
This is where Diawara comes out on top of all three midfielders we’re comparing here.
Steven Nzonzi’s 82.27% passing accuracy into the hole may be the best of all three men last season, but that’s paired with the fact he risked passing into that area of the pitch just 8.96 times per 90 mins in a Roma shirt. Because of the bad runs of Dzeko and co. I hear you say?
It didn’t stop Daniele De Rossi from executing 10.78 passes per 90 minutes into the hole, albeit with only 73.63% accuracy. Would you rather a player that risks more vertical passes and losses it more often? Eusebio Di Francesco would have probably answered ‘yes’ in favour of De Rossi, but I’m going to defend Nzonzi’s quality here.
DDR’s 21.29 horizontal passes per 90 minutes last season was more conservative than Nzonzi’s 19.49 horizontal passes per 90. And the former Roma captain’s 49.72 short passes per 90 minutes again was more conservative than Nzonzi’s 48.98 short passes per 90 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with short passing or conservatism when well-timed; we’re just seeing evidence to question whether Nzonzi earned himself a reputation as ‘nothing but a safe, short passer’ that was largely unmerited.
Asked to play the very same style of football, De Rossi was both more conservative yet more varied in his play than Nzonzi. Variance is the real key and goes back to why we say Diawara is the best midfielder of all three in this area, even at just 21 years of age.
In a more possession-focused Napoli last year, it’s only natural Diawara’s 61.54 short passes per 90 minutes was well ahead of what the Roma midfield put together last season. Yet the Guinean regista also put up 11.64 passes per 90 minutes into the hole for the Partenopei. You really don’t know whether Diawara is going to try and draw out your team with short-passing among his teammates, or to try to punish you with long-balls regardless of whether you push up or sit deep. What you do know is Diawara’s capability and fearlessness in executing the full arsenal of weapons a midfielder can possess on the ball.
Roma’s new midfield signing can almost dictate the passage of place by himself, which he has proved on the biggest stage by waltzing into Bernabeu, in the Champions League knockout rounds of 16/17.
As Maurizio Sarri once said of Diawara: “He plays a Champions League game as if it were a Thursday mini-match back at the training ground.” You’ll hardly sum up Diawara better than that, though it wasn’t enough to stop Napoli from going under a heavy aggregate defeat to Real Madrid back then.
In the unlikely event Steven Nzonzi is still at the club for the new season, Roma have two capable midfielders of different vintage to form a dangerous double pivot at the heart of Roma’s midfield. The Guinean offers Paulo Fonseca the possibility to field a 4-2-3-1 formation just as much as a more conservative 4-3-3 with Diawara as lone regista, though it’s likely that Nzonzi and Diawara would be competing for the same starting spot regardless of either formation. And again, that’s if the Frenchman is still at the club beyond the summer.
We hope we’ve outlined just why Diawara is worth looking forward to. The midfielder comes with 5 seasons of Italian football under his belt, though he’s never truly completed a full season’s worth of action. Italy were still gutted when Italian-citizen Diawara chose to represent home nation Guinea over the option to become an oriundo for the Nazionale. And with good reason.
Though he’s been accused of his greatest flaw being a lack of physical pace, who really needs that when you have the midfielder’s presence of mind? De Rossi’s twilight years of his career are a testament to that effect. But Diawara does have one hole in his CV: the numbers he racks up in the two headline statistics of goals and assists. Even deep-lying midfielders have to get judged by those someday.
In close to 70 total Napoli appearances, Diawara has bagged just 2 goals (including a penalty) and 2 assists in all competitions. He appears happier within the chain of build up play, which flies against all the time we’ve just spent talking up his ability to deliver that final, defence-splitting ball. Nevertheless, Roma’s newest midfielder is already the most versatile playmaker, from both long and short-range, of the three men we’ve compared today.
The Guinean prodigy has plenty of time on his side to bridge the small gap to De Rossi’s legendary best when it comes taking the pressure of the defence, shielding his backline and winning the ball back whether from deep or further up the pitch. The 21-year old can play in either berth in midfield, already giving Roma director Petrachi a phone call to let the club know Diawara can fly back immediately to find his role within Fonseca’s starting lineup at the Trigoria pre-season ritiro, once African Cup duties are over.