The nature of our U23 countdown has changed a bit over the years, shifting from a passion project (I think I did the first countdown entirely alone) to a concentrated team effort with more depth and breadth than I ever could have imagined. Going forward we hope to shift the focus to players who haven't made their first team debuts, but throughout all these changes and different signals of intent there was been one constant in our U23 coverage: Lorenzo Pellegrini.
From the crown of the Primavera system to the one who almost got away with Sassuolo, Pellegrini has loomed large in the eyes of Roma prospect hounds for the past half decade. Since making his debut with Roma in the winter of 2015, Pellegrini has gone on to amass over 8,000 Serie A minutes, somewhat belying the fact that he only just turned 23 in June.
However, now that he's entering the transition phase in his career, moving from an up and comer to a core contributor, the next two seasons are critical for Pellegrini—will he become the star we all envisioned four years ago or just another solid-to-average squad piece?
We tend to lean towards the former, which is way he once again clocks in at number two.
Number Two: Lorenzo Pellegrini
Future Comparision: Still sticking with the Pjanic/Isco/Iniesta hybrid
Who Is He?
By now you're no doubt aware where Pellegrini stands in the hearts and minds of Roma fans. Born and raised in the Eternal City and a graduate of the Roma academy, Pellegrini has always been third in the line of succession for the Crown of Totti, and now that Daniele De Rossi is finishing his legendary career in Argentina, fellow Roman Alessandro Florenzi has assumed the captains armband, making Pellegrini the new Capitano Futuro.
Pellegrini has had intermittent overtures from other teams, but lest you think he'll be tempted, let this quote from 2018 provide you some solace:
I will never get tired of saying it: playing here, for a boy born in Rome, is something that gives me both great pride and a feeling of responsibility. When you go out there on the pitch it is like you are also representing your entire family, who all grew up wearing these colours.
What Can He Do?
While Pellegrini isn't a hybrid midfielder in the sense that he unilaterally allows Roma to shift formations between phases, his blend of attacking acumen and defensive work rate enables him to succeed in most midfield roles. Despite his ability to get stuck into a tackle and to pick off a pass (his 41 INTs in 2017-2018 were second only to De Rossi among midfielders), Pellegrini's calling is and will likely always remain passing and playmaking.
This past season, Pellegrini averaged 2.58 key passes per 90 minutes, leaving him with 59 total key passes, best on the squad last season. While his gross assist total (three) wasn't terribly impressive last term, he was top four in assists, expected assists and expected assists per 90 minutes.
Simply put, Pellegrini thrives in a quick, one-touch passing system, one in which he can work in tandem with his midfield partners to quickly advance the ball up the pitch. Just exactly where he fits in that attacking trio will depend on Roma's manager du jour, but he has spoken to a preference for playing as an attacking trequartista type, a role for which he is certainly suited.
What Can He Become?
Well, heading into only his third full season with his hometown club, Pellegrini will have the pleasure of suiting up for his third different manager, a pace that could make even the most veteran player dizzy, and as we've seen already the dance between Pellegrini's defensive duties and attacking freedom varied greatly between Eusebio Di Francesco and Claudio Ranieri, so the manner in which we measure what he becomes is necessarily dependent on who's calling the shots.
Under new manager Paulo Fonseca, Pellegrini could serve as the forward half of a double pivot alongside either Amadou Diawara or Steven Nzonzi, but he will likely sit further afield, slotting in behind Edin Dzeko/Mariano Diaz/Alexis Sanchez/Mauro Icardi or whoever the hell Roma hires as their number nine.
Pellegrini's penchant to play pinpoint passes in proximity to his midfield mates should enable him to thrive in Fonseca's narrow, combination attack. Sitting in between the likes of Cengiz Ünder, Diego Perotti, Nicolo Zaniolo and maybe even Mirko Antonucci, Pellegrini will be the fulcrum of a tight and quick moving unit of attackers, working give and goes to attack opponents between their lines. Pellegrini should even find himself with the odd one-v-one on the keeper when Roma's striker drops back allowing him to make late runs into the box.
In a perfect world, Fonseca hits the ground running and Pellegrini thrives in this advanced role and the two walk arm in arm into Roma's Hall of Fame, their necks craning under the weight of all their winners medals.
If, however, that fairy tale doesn't come true, Pellegrini's sublime set of skills should still ensure a long and productive career with his boyhood club.