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Cristante’s Distribution Key to His Success in Defensive Role

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He may never live up his lofty offensive expectations, but Cristante has become a valuable member of Roma’s squad by reinventing his game.

AS Roma v BSC Young Boys: Group A - UEFA Europa League Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

In his time with the Giallorossi, Bryan Cristante has become one of the most maligned players on the team. The now 25-year-old Italian is one of the lightning rods of Roma Twitter, often attracting the ire of many Romanisti just for stepping on the pitch. But why?

Well, for one, he arrived in the Capital with big expectations after his breakout campaign with Atalanta. During the 2017-18 season, Cristante bagged nine goals playing in an attacking midfield role in Giampiero Gasperini’s high-flying attack. That output prompted a certain Spanish sporting director employed by Roma to drop a cool €21 million on Cristante.

Of course, any time Roma spends that kind of money on a player expectations will be high. And, unfortunately for Romanisti, perhaps expectations were too lofty from an offensive perspective. However, Cristante has never truly played in an attacking midfield role for the Giallorossi like he did in Bergamo. And, as we’ve seen with plenty of other former Atalanta standouts, the results have been mixed outside of Bergamo.

In fact, most of Cristante’s starts over the last few seasons have actually come in the more defensive role of Roma’s midfield double pivot—to mixed results. Against certain opponents, Cristante’s size has helped Roma win the physical battles in midfield, particularly aerial duels, but against pacier opponents, he’s looked slow and lumbering, which is when he’s most often criticized.

Nevertheless, whether you love him or hate him, there’s one area where it’s hard to criticize Cristante: his willingness to sacrifice for the team. With the Giallorossi loaded with attacking talents like Nicolò Zaniolo, Javier Pastore, Justin Kluivert, Cengiz Under, and Stephan El Shaarawy upon his arrival, Cristante willingly took on a deeper-lying role under Eusebio Di Francesco; a trend that continued under Paulo Fonseca when he arrived with his 4-2-3-1 in 2019.

However, with Fonseca transitioning to a three-man backline last summer, Cristante's role has changed once again. Initially, Cristante continued in a more central midfield role, but with Lorenzo Pellegrini moving into a deeper midfield position, plus the emergence of Gonzalo Villar, minutes in the midfield have been scarce for Cristante.

Yet, Fonseca has found a creative way to deal with Roma’s injury and COVID-19 issues along the back-line: playing Cristante in a sweeper role in the center of the back three. And while it was surprising to see Cristante in the center of defense initially, the move has paid dividends for Roma in Smalling’s absence.

In fact, Cristante has been pretty good there and seems to be growing into the role as the weeks have gone by. Which begs the question: Is Cristante better off transitioning full time to the role?

What Do the Numbers Say?

So far this season, Cristante has made five starts as a central defender (technically six when you count the Verona match, but he moved into more of a midfield role in that match). He also shifted to defense when Roger Ibañez was injured during the Benevento match. Those five starts have come in Roma’s last five matches—four of them being 90-minute performances.

In those five matches, Cristante has had varying degrees of success. Statistically speaking, his most successful outing came in Roma’s 3-0 thrashing of Parma, while (unsurprisingly) his worst match came in Napoli’s hammering of Roma. I’ll focus on his league starts here.

In the Parma match, Cristante was strong on both sides of the ball. Against the Ducali, Cristante intercepted four passes, made a tackle, and had three clearances. He also was successful pressuring opponents five out of six times. Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, he was instrumental in Roma’s build-up play, completing an eye-popping 95.5% of his 88 passes and launching 15 successful long balls. And his progressive distance on those passes was 674 yards, according to fbref.com. That was nearly double Roma’s next best performer in that area.

Now, of course, you might be thinking, Parma is pretty bad, so it’s no surprise that he shined. And while that may be true, his numbers against other opponents have been solid as well. In Roma’s worst match of the season against Napoli, Cristante put up some solid numbers despite Roma conceding four times. Against the Partenopei, he had two interceptions, a clearance, a tackle, and a block. He also had another strong passing performance completing 91.3% of his 69 passes with three successful long balls.

However, Cristante’s most impressive defensive performance in the central role may have been this past weekend against Sassuolo. Cristante was effective at organizing Roma defensively while looking to spring counter-attacks with the Giallorossi in a numerical disadvantage. With Cristante leading the backline, Roma was able to blank one of Serie A’s most dangerous attacks.

Numerically, it wasn’t his most eye-catching stat line with just three clearances, one tackle, and just two successful pressures. Nevertheless, Cristante displayed an impressive leadership ability as the backline kept Sassuolo at bay.

With Fonseca preferring to hit Sassuolo quickly, Cristante was vital in helping Roma spring numerous counter-attacks, completing 82% of his 61 passes, including six successful longballs.

For a visual of how instrumental those longballs were to Roma's counter-attacking approach, check out the thread below:

How Does He Compare to Smalling?

Last season, Chris Smalling was the gold standard of Serie A center backs. It didn’t matter if Roma was in a back four or back three. However, this season Smalling has been limited to just two league starts.

Rather than compare Cristante’s three aforementioned performances to Smalling’s entire 2019-20 campaign, I thought it would be more useful to compare them to Smalling’s two starts this season. In some ways, Cristante stacks up quite well to Smalling.

In Smalling’s first start of the season against Fiorentina, he had two tackles, two interceptions, two clearances, and one block. On the opposite side of the ball, Smalling completed 92.5% of his 40 passes.

Meanwhile, in Smalling’s other start against Genoa, the Englishman had one tackle, an interception, and six clearances. And on offense, he completed 89.1% of his 61 passes with two successful long balls.

In terms of strict defensive numbers, Cristante actually compares quite favorably to Smalling’s two league starts. Both players have also shown the ability to complete a high percentage of their passes—often hovering around 90%. The difference is that Cristante plays many more long balls and in turn, the progressive distance of his passes is greater. He also completes a greater number into the opponent’s final third (17 to 4).

Conclusions

This piece is in no way, shape, or form suggesting that Cristante should be the first choice in Roma’s back three. After all, he is still a natural midfielder filling a position of need and learning on the fly. However, the early signs suggest that he is a viable option when Roma are shorthanded along the back through injury or if they'd simply want to rest Smalling during busy stretches.

Although he is not on Smalling’s level defensively, Cristante has shown that he is an able enough defender. His big frame and strength allow him to match up with larger strikers. He’s also shown an awareness to organize and lead a backline. Additionally, he offers something Smalling doesn’t—the ability to play killer long ball and spring counters from deep.

In the near term, as Smalling makes his way back from injury, I expect Cristante to play a role as a rotation player both in the midfield and central defense. This duality could be key for Roma as the Giallorossi fight through a compressed schedule, injuries, and bouts with COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the long term, it will be interesting to see what these spot starts mean for Cristante’s career. The early evidence seems to suggest that he could have a future as a central defender in a back three. With more experience playing in this role, Cristante could become an above-average sweeper in a side that values playing the ball out of the back and looks to spring quick counters.