It goes without saying, but we all love AS Roma. Despite some occasional philosophical disagreements relating to transfers or tactics, generally speaking Roma fans are on board with the club's decision making process. When the club is typically among the 20 most valuable in the world, our complaints are pretty granular. Despite that general appeasement, most fans can't help but wonder what it would be like to blow up Roma and start from the ground up; call it Football Manager syndrome; we're all experts and we'd all love a shot at building the club in our own image.
And that's precisely what's been so fascinating about Roma's women's team, which essentially started as an expansion team in the summer of 2018. With no prior experience in Serie A Femminile, Roma had literally nothing to lean on, so they cobbled together a roster of mostly Italian players, a large percentage of whom were Romans, and still managed a fourth place league finish and a trip to the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia during their first year in existence.
While the ensuing two seasons have seen incremental progress on the pitch, they've been a crash course in team building 101. From the outset, the blue print was clear: focus on young and versatile talents like Giada Greggi, Agnese Bonfantini and Annamaria Serturini—players who can make an immediate impact based on athleticism alone—and flesh that out with capable, talented, and savvy veterans like Elisa Bartoli, Andrine Hegerberg and Andressa Alves.
And through two and a half years, that formula has worked pretty well. Roma managed back-to-back fourth place finishes—decreasing the gap behind third place AC Milan from 15 points in 2018-2019 to one point last season—and sport a manager of the year (Betty Bavagnoli), Italy's young player of the year (Greggi) and even signed the reigning league MVP last summer (Manuela Giugliano).
However, as quickly and as successfully as Roma's foray into women's football has gone, the club has struggled to find stability and production at striker. During their inaugural season, Roma took a flier on young Martina Piemonte and veteran Luisa Pugnali, but neither Italian forward provided enough punch to counter the club's bevy of wingers. Piemonte, with her size, mobility and strength, looked the part but simply didn't find the back of the net often enough, while Pugnali was more of a winger/forward tweener.
The club fell backwards into a striker last season when Frenchwoman Lindsey Thomas cracked nine goals in her debut season, but she doesn't offer the physicality or holdup play that all teams need from that position from time to time; a fine player and piece of the puzzle but not a striker in the traditional sense. Another new addition last summer, Danish forward Amalie Thestrup, had the work rate and strength but, much like Piemonte before her, struggled to score enough to justify a roster spot.
What Roma really needed was a forward strong enough to play with her back to goal, quick enough to keep up with Bonfantini and Serturini, smart enough to work in concert with Giugliano and clinical enough to deliver 10+ goals in Roma's 22 game season.
Strong, quick, smart and clinical. Not an easy package to find and while it may sound like we're describing star strikers like Juventus’ Cristiana Girelli or Milan’s Valentina Giacinti, we're actually talking about a woman who is quickly looking like the signing of the season in Serie A Femminile: Paloma Lázaro, Roma's 27-year-old Spanish forward.
Initially viewed as a depth move behind Thomas, Lázaro earned a surprise start in Roma's week one fixture against Sassuolo, scoring the club's only goal in a 1-1 draw. And since then, well, she's practically remade Roma's entire offensive approach, providing the strength, technique and finishing the club has been desperately seeking since the club's inception in the summer of 2018.
With five goals in only six appearances, Lázaro is the league's third leading scorer—trailing Girelli by two goals—and is only one goal away from tying her career high. Any way you slice it, Lázaro has rewarded Roma's faith in her ten fold.
But what makes her so special and so transformative? To answer that question, let's take a look at a few of her noteworthy plays through six rounds of play.
Paloma in the Run of Play
Lázaro doesn't have the same end-line speed as Bonfantini, nor does she possess the jackrabbit ability to skip around defenders like Serturini, but she's quick enough and smart enough to pick her places, knowing when to make a run into the box and how to work in concert with the rest of the attack. Indeed, some of the most fluid moments we've seen from Roma this season stemmed from Lázaro's off the ball movement, her holdup and linking play and her chemistry and understanding with Roma's creative leaders.
Check out her work with Andrine Hegerberg on this goal against Pink Bari:
This will probably end up being one of my favorite goals of the season for no other reason than it shows just how important seemingly mundane moments can quickly become. In this instance, this entire sequence started with a throw-in from Elisa Bartoli. 99 times out of 100, a throw-in results in nothing more than a couple of quick touches before the other team dispossess the ball, but thanks to Lázaro's great backwards flick onto Hegerberg, Roma were able to keep the play alive...but it gets better; so much better.
Without absolutely no hesitation or doubt, Lázaro instinctively knew where to go next. Confident that Hegerberg could settle the ball, Lázaro immediately peeled off and made a diagonal run straight towards the box, meeting Hegerberg's ball in stride. And with a defender quickly closing down on her, Lázaro made the only play she possibly could: a diving toe poke to score the goal.
It was a blink and you miss it kind of play—the kind that only top quality strikers can make—and it wouldn't have happened without Lázaro's soft touch, sense of timing, spatial awareness and finishing.
Lázaro can also create chances in the more traditional fashion; with her feet. Check out this play against Verona:
Unfortunately, Serturini was denied by the keeper here but that doesn't take away the beauty of Lázaro's key pass. With two defenders in front of her (and a third closing from behind), Lázaro did well to shake off the first defender with a quick stutter dribble, giving her sufficient time and space to find Serturini on her left. She'll never be confused for peak Ronaldinho, but this play shows that Lázaro is enough of a threat on the ball that defenders are forced to back off her, which then allows her to create for her teammates or take a shot herself.
Lázaro's off the ball work was also on display in this Verona match, as she did well to track an Agnese Bonfantini run to double Roma's lead:
It's a bit tough to see here (we can blame that on the lack of camera angles in the women's broadcasts) but Lázaro does a fantastic job shadowing and waiting for Bonfantini to make her move here, not breaking until Bonfantini has cleared her markers. There's nothing ground breaking in this passage of play, but had Lázaro jumped too soon, she would have been ruled offside and had she made her break too late, the ball would have been easily cleared by the defense. But this kind of intuitive striker play has befuddled Roma for two years now, so we can't understate just how important everything she did before scoring was to the success of this play.
Lázaro is far from the fastest member of Roma's attack, but as you can see, she's more than capable of keeping up with Roma’s über athletic wingers, while her sense of timing and space make her the perfect foil for the playmaking of Serturini, Bonfantini and Giugliano. Furthermore, when she’s dictating action on the ball, Lázaro is quick enough and clever enough to create effective space to threaten the goal or create for her teammates.
Paloma in the Air
At roughly 5’4”, Lázaro isn't the tallest striker in the league (or even on Roma for that matter) but with two of her five goals coming from headers, she's proving equally adept in the aerial game, competing with and out jumping more physical defenders in the area.
Take this stunner from week one against Sassuolo for example:
While she didn't have to sky that high to reach this ball, she does well to shield the defender with her right arm, giving herself enough space to get her head on the ball, but just look at that technique! Lázaro catches the ball with the edge of her forehead, gently flicking yet somehow putting the perfect arch on the ball, allowing it to dip just past the keeper's outstretched arms.
If she miss-hits this even one iota, that ball either lofts over the bar or dies on the pitch. Just a sensational effort from Lázaro here: great timing, great strength, great technique, great goal.
Lázaro perhaps got too comfortable with her sublime technique later in the season against Inter Milan, when she missed a free header in part because she tried to finesse a ball that required more brute force, but she more than made up for that against San Marino:
Lázaro left nothing to chance on this one, rising up and slamming this header home against San Marino; one of two goals she had in Roma's narrow 3-2 victory. But once again, you get a feel for what makes Lázaro so special: timing, technique and aggression. She also played an instrumental role in Roma's match winner, providing a secondary assist on Serturini's match winner.
What to Expect Going Forward
With five goals in only six appearances, Paloma Lázaro is in the midst of a breakout season and seems likely to set new career highs in not only goals but appearances and minutes played. At 27-years-old, Lázaro has spent much of her career as a part time player, never eclipsing 11 starts or even breaking 1,000 minutes at any stop along the way, so it is fair to question whether or not she can sustain this pace. But she has a few crucial components working in her favor: timing, skill and opportunity.
Lázaro's best season to date, 2018-2019 with Pink Bari, was her high water mark for goals and appearances, and while she was fortunate enough to parlay that performance into a gig with title contending Fiorentina last season, she was second fiddle to Tatiana Bonetti and Ilaria Mauro, playing little more than 500 minutes.
With no true number nine standing in her way in Rome, Lázaro had, for arguably the first time in her career, the chance to claim a starting role for a top club. But more than that, she's fallen in with the ideal crowd. For all the reasons we just laid out—her touch, her technique and her intuitive play—Lázaro is the perfect addition to Roma's wing-oriented attack.
Lázaro has enough poacher-like tendencies that she can shadow the runs of Bonfantini or Serturini and slip into the smallest spaces in the final third, using her innate sense of timing to pick the perfect moment to break away from her marker. But at the same time, Lázaro is skilled enough on her own to keep defenders honest, using her deceptive speed and skill on the ball to carve out shooting and playmaking space.
In essence, Lázaro has enough passive qualities (tracking and corresponding runs, manipulation of space, off the ball movement) to remain effective while Bonfantini, Serturini, Andressa or Giguliano dominate the ball, but still remains aggressive enough to influence the match directly (dribbling, winning aerial battles, jockeying for space and shooting from distance).
I'm not sure late bloomer is the appropriate term to describe Lázaro's ascendency this season—after all, she's averaged 0.61 goals/90 minutes the past two seasons—it's more that it's taken this long for the confluence of timing, club, manager and teammates to fall in her favor.
Paloma Lázaro was little more than an intriguing signing over the summer—a slight upgrade over Thestrup and likely a backup to Thomas, if we're being honest—but she's seized this opportunity and has made the most of it through the first quarter of the season. And based on the early returns, Lázaro looks like the missing piece in Roma's puzzle; the striker they've been desperately seeking since their inception in 2018.
Roma have had their ups and downs this year, but Lázaro has been their most consistent and persistent threat in the early parts of the 2020-2021 season. Whatever Roma goes on to achieve this year, you can rest assured that Lázaro will play a critical role in propelling the Giallorosse forward.
If the first six weeks are any indication, and if Lázaro can actually keep this up, this once intriguing signing could soon become one of the best forwards in the league.