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Ranking Roma’s Youth, #4: Cengiz Ünder

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No one has shown more love, commitment and loyalty to modern-day Roma than Cengo.

AS Roma v Athletic Bilbao Friendly Match Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you want candidates for Mr. Roma then Cengiz Ünder is my nomination. We’ve been back and forth over whether Italian players are cost-effective, psychologically tapped into the club culture... or simply overhyped, overpriced and long on excuses. Cengiz removes all those excuses in his two seasons (and counting) of Giallorosso bloom.

The greatest Turkish player to have ever played for Rome (there’s next-to-no competition in this category so he wins by default) has to deal with twice as many social media followers as the next Roma player in his age or below. He took home the Italian press award for Best Young Player in Serie A in 2017/18, and Ünder has kept his international profile soaring at senior level with goals against Greece and against world champions France in 2019.

Did Ünder have a bad 2018/19 season? Unquestionably so after he missed 3 straight months through injury and struggled for fitness (let alone effective defending from the front) on his comeback. And yet his worst is still already a bigger contribution than most - 6 goals and 12 assists in all competitions at club level made Ünder the joint-second most productive attacker (along with SES) in Roma’s squad last season behind Edin Dzeko. All this with Cengiz playing just 1378 minutes in a Roma jersey, when he was still only 21 years old.

Number Four: Cengiz Ünder

Age: 22
Position: Inside Forward/Winger
Previous Club: Basaksehir
Future Comparison: Cengiz Ünder

Who Is He?

One of the most lethal left-foot marksmen in the business. If it weren’t for his 2-yard miss against Real Madrid, we’d have no problems calling Cengiz the best finisher in the squad. But more than that, Cengiz is loyal to Roma through and through.

You’d think Roma’s most dangerous forward would kick up a fuss or play games in the press over his 1 million euros per year net wage. He earns just 200,000 euros a year more than William Bianda and Luca Pellegrini, before Pellegrini left the club for bigger pastures. Ünder earns just 300,000 euros more a year than Nicolò Zaniolo.

In the summer of 2018 after his blockbuster finish to the season and picking up individual awards - an opportunity a lot of players take up to stirring the pot over prospective moves to Barcelona, Real Madrid or the Premier League - Cengiz simply told Sky Italia: “Moving to Roma is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.”

Hellas Verona FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

12 months later, with Roma out of the Champions League and Cengiz ripe for better pastures elsewhere, the Turk simply rallied the team this pre-season: “I think we’ll get back to the Champions League because this club, the fans and everyone deserves it.”

Originally hailing from the modern-day Turkish talent factory of Altinordu, Ünder made waves when moving to Basaksehir and helping the Istanbul-club to their best ever Turkish league finish of 2nd place in 2017. Then a move to Roma followed. Today, Ünder is the youngest ever Turkish player to score in European Cup history and holds a near 1-goal-every-2-games scoring record at senior international level.

What Can He Become?

Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist. One of the best things about players like Ünder is he only has to find a right-foot in his locker and the world is his. It looks like he’s done exactly that in this pre-season.

He always had the right-foot hanging crosses at the byline in his arsenal, but now he’s got the finishes in front of goal too. But okay, it’s not that simple if you really want to become a top-level forward.

The challenges for Cengiz are three-fold: For one, Claudio Ranieri (and EDF before him) rightly critiqued the Turk’s need to improve his defending from the front. The young winger is often found either out of position in a press or simply lacking the legs to keep tracking back for the full 90 minutes. Second, Cengiz himself has touched upon the related issue of building up his physique. He considers this to be the area he needs to keep improving without fail. Finally, he needs to find the confidence to keep playing with his head up and seeking out exchanges of passing with teammates, rather than the head-down 30-yard-runs to goal that players like Ünder and Perotti exemplify in recent Roma sides.

Lille OSC v AS Roma - Friendly match Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

This latter point is especially important in Paulo Fonseca’s side. If Ünder does not grasp the mental side of the game, where he’s expected to keep opposition defences narrow and on their feet with his off-the-ball positioning in Fonseca’s team, that could mean Ünder prematurely hitting his ceiling in the Italian capital.

It doesn’t help that he still struggles to speak Italian (though I don’t speak a word of Turkish despite my years of fanaticism for Turkish telenovelas - so I’m loathe to criticism him) nor that he failed to name either De Rossi or Totti in his Dream Team Eleven, but Cengiz is the model talent for Roma bar none. If you ever wanted to sign potentially world-class talent raising the level and morale of the club at a bargain, then Ünder is the blueprint.

The fork in the road ahead for Ünder is simple: Does he want to remain just a prolific scorer of great goals? Or become an all-round unplayable forward? Not a bad couple of choices to settle for in such a young career.