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Ranking Roma’s Youth, #1: Nicolò Zaniolo

Once a relatively unknown makeweight in the Nainggolan deal, the Italian’s stock has risen exponentially since his arrival in Rome.

AS Roma v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

By now anyone who pays any reasonable amount of attention to European football knows the name of Nicolò Zaniolo. The kid took the Italian peninsula and eventually the continent by storm last year after arriving from Inter as a relatively unknown teenager last summer. With his star ever brightening, Zaniolo has attracted attention from the likes of Real Madrid, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Juventus since bursting onto the scene. Yet, despite rumors that an exit from the capital could happen for a hefty plusvalenza after just one season in Giallorosso, it looks like Gianluca Petrachi will be looking to extend his contract instead. Thus, Zaniolo has vaulted his way to the top of the CdT U23 rankings for the 2019-20 season.

Number One: Nicolò Zaniolo

Age: 20

Position: Midfielder

Previous Club: Inter Primavera

Rank Last Year: 10

Future Comparison: Frank Lampard

Who is He?

Zaniolo has begun to blaze quite the path to potential stardom. However, his career path didn’t always look so bright. He began his career in the Fiorentina youth system before being released by the club as a seventeen-year-old. Zaniolo then found his way to Virtus Entella and made his Serie B professional debut. Just a year later Zaniolo was sold to Inter for a reported fee of €1.8 million, plus €1.7 million in bonuses. He subsequently lit up the Primavera level with Inter and then was shipped to Roma in the Nainggolan deal last summer.

After many were unsure where Zaniolo would start his Roma career, the then 19-year-old was with the first team from day one and the upward ascension began. Zaniolo was called up to the Italian National Team and made his Champions League debut before ever playing in a Serie A match. Soon after, Zaniolo burst onto the scene in league play as well; scoring four goals in Serie A. However, his two goal performance against Porto in the Champions League Round of 16 put him into the European spotlight.

What Can He Do?

Zaniolo is a versatile player who can play in various positions around the pitch. Last season he was used as a right winger, deep lying midfielder, and even made an appearance as a false nine. However, his most effective position looks to be in the trequartista role. That’s where his best qualities can shine.

Zaniolo’s a big strong kid, standing at 6’3” with a sweet left foot and he uses that big frame to keep possession. He’s a playmaker with plenty of finishing ability and his numbers as a Primavera player with Inter highlight that ability. Zaniolo had 14 goals and 11 assists in 35 appearances two seasons ago.

As Francescso Totti himself summed up last season, “Zaniolo plays like a veteran. He has explosive strength and technique, and everything it takes to become a truly great player.”

Besides all of the quality that he oozes on the ball, Zaniolo also works hard off the ball. He can often be seen putting in his defensive shift as well, using his big frame to get into opposing passing lanes. He uses his physique to try and bully opposing players off the ball; an aspect of his game that needs refining.

What Can He Become?

If last season is any indication, the sky is the limit for Zaniolo. He’s received plenty of praise from the likes of Totti, Mancini, and numerous others. However, he’s still young and raw with plenty to learn. If Zaniolo continues to work hard he has the potential to be Roma and Italy’s next number 10 for years to come. He’s a different type of player than Totti but looks like a player you can build a team around. Think Frank Lampard in his prime.

However, certain aspects of his game could use some refining. Even though he can play a killer through ball, as evidenced by his assist numbers, his overall passing could use some fine tuning. Additionally, even though his defensive work rate is to be applauded, he needs to pick and choose his spots better; Zaniolo committed lots of fouls and received eight yellow cards in league play. Also, for as tall as he his, Zaniolo doesn’t have much of an aerial game.

The kids seems to have a good head on his shoulders, so if he can continue to improve, watch out. He could have a special career. Let’s just hope he’s in the capital long enough for us to enjoy it.