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What Makes a Perfect Footballer?

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In a two-part series we take a look at what makes a perfect footballer and then set out to create the perfect Roma player.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-AS ROMA-FIORENTINA Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

If you've ever played fantasy football (or even the FIFA or Football Manager series), you're familiar with what it take to assemble the perfect football team. While there are different opinions and different blueprints to construct that dream team, you're still going to need a top goal scorer, some strong and intelligent defenders, some crafty wingers and a reliable keeper.

But how do you make the perfect footballer? Are they tall or short? Do you sacrifice speed for bulk? Do they have to be a dynamic dribbler or is a more straight-forward approach better? Are they more brains than brawn?

Not an easy question to ask, but over the next day or so the CdT crew is going to try and solve this riddle, dissecting what makes a perfect footballer and then actually creating the perfect Roma player.

Before we set out to build our mythical Robo-Roma Player, we had a brief discussion about what exactly makes a footballer perfect.

1) When we talk about the perfect footballer, what qualities come to mind? Is it more physical than mental? Can you have 10/10 physical traits but a C+ understanding of the game and still be dangerous?

Bren: I think it has to be a blend of mental and physical. Not necessarily 50/50, but we’ve seen players with legs for days and, well, shit for brains. They can make their mark in certain matches but you can’t exactly count on them week to week. So a perfect footballer to me would need at least one or two exceptional physical skills to make them standout and an above-average tactical understanding and temperament to ensure consistency.

Dallagente: A one-liner that always stuck in my head is Roy Keane telling the story of Brian Clough praising his game at Forest: “You can run it, you can pass it and you can hit it. You’d be surprised how few players can do all three.” That rings true to me.

Of course there’s a little more to it than that, but the perfect footballer should recognise any match-situation unfold and make the right decision as needed, between when to do one of those three actions on the ball; that’s independent of their role or position on the pitch. I mean that’s the dream, but you also need to be able to handle the emotions that come with how many times you’re going to fall way, way short of perfection in reality.

That’s where I strongly agree with you on temperament. A player is going to make mistakes and they’re going to screw up, and they need a good head on their shoulders to keep going and learning through those mistakes. If even the most gifted athlete doesn’t have the heart to ride their emotions and trust their ability to keep making better decisions, an opponent will figure out how to make that athlete become more of a danger to themselves before anyone else.

Ssciavillo: For all the reasons mentioned above, I agree that it has to be a combination of the two. The player that immediately came to mind with this question was Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo was far from the most gifted athlete on the pitch for much of his career, but he was able to maximize what physical talents he did have with his footballing IQ. The man seemed to jog effortlessly around the midfield most of the time. He didn’t have the best physique, great pace, or the hardest shot. Yet, he became a world class player. His best physical gifts, passing and free kicks, were brought to an elite level because he could read the game and had a cool, calm demeanor; he never wilted under pressure.

JonAS: Intelligence > physique. A smart player will work/run/move a lot less than his counterparts because he has vision, he knows where to be, where the ball will be, where there’s space, he can even look into the future and read the game extraordinary well. I don’t say he’s a lazy ass, he just is one step ahead of the others who have tired legs. It helps if you can run five marathons in one day but brains = beauty. I agree with dallagente that the ideal footballer needs a cool head, but I find myself loving all the ‘crazy, insane’ players in Roma’s history more than the calm ones (Vucinic, Manolas, Kolarov, Nainggolan, Osvaldo, Mexes,...).

Jimmy: As everyone said before, it’s the balance between physicality and mental fortitude that makes a star. Before Mo Salah took the next step, he was seen as a roadrunner with no brains. At Roma, he honed his ability to become more intelligent on the ball and as a result turned into one of the best outfield players in football today. I personally agree with Jonas and say that intelligence matters more than physicality. I think a good example of this would be Miralem Pjanic. Definitely not the most physical player, but the way he could be Totti-esque as a playmaker while in Rome (I haven’t kept up with him since he moved north) made him a special player. I don’t think you get the same kind of special player if you gave someone flipped levels of physical skill and intelligence as Mira.

2) Who would you say is the smartest player in world football right now?

Bren: Messi is a footballing genius of course, but I’m going with Luka Modric. There’s just something about a level-headed, not uber-athletic midfielder who can still dominate that exudes intelligence to me—that’s Modric in a nutshell. He may not do it as consistently as in years past, but that understanding hasn’t been dulled by age.

Dallagente: I don’t watch enough football to be able to answer this in all honesty, so I’m going to go for the hipster answer if that’s ok. One guy I feel has gotten smarter and smarter is Higuain. He destroyed us this season with his all-round performance, and you don’t spend every summer going out for barbecue, then shredding in August, unless you know you’ve got a real football mind stored in your locker come September. Unfortunately, Higuain has rarely kept his nerve in big games on the biggest stage. As a lover of deep-lying midfielders though, I totally agree with Modric.

Ssciavillo: I’m in the same boat as dallagente here in the sense that I don’t watch a whole ton of football outside of Serie A and Roma. In my time as a fan, I’ve always thought Pirlo was the most intelligent player, at least on the peninsula. So, going along those same lines of deep-lying midfielders, I’ll go with the other guys and agree with Modric.

JonAS: I don’t want to sound too much like a patriot here, but Belgian Kevin De Bruyne of Man City is one heck of a player. He just throws around assists like they were rose petals in one of the toughest leagues out there. He’s fast, smart, perhaps looks a bit childish but is no pushover. You want brains on your team? Hire Kevin.

Bren: Damn, forgot about him. I change my answer. KDB is probably the smartest-best player at the moment. Modric is still a footballing mastermind, but he's not quite as good as KDB anymore.

Jimmy: Luka Modric is the obvious answer; in my mind, he’s the closest thing to Pirlo that still exists in professional football today, and he’d be ten times more of a superstar if he was from a larger country and hadn’t been behind Cristiano Ronaldo for so long.

3) Who is the most freakish athlete in world football right now?

Bren: I gotta go with my man Kylian Mbappe. Speed, touch, explosion, finishing. He’s got it all and is nearly impossible to stop.

Dallagente: Agreed with you there 100 percent. I was a little too young to fully appreciate how Ronaldo changed the speed of the game in the 90s, but Mbappé is pushing the needle in the same direction now in this era.

Ssciavillo: Normally, I would say Ronaldo because in my opinion, he’s got the best physical make up a footballer could want. However, with him now past his physical prime, I’ll agree and go with Mbappe.

JonAS: Mbappe? Really? He looks like a Ninja Turtle. I’m not a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the man’s a freak of nature and still one of the best athletes. His body is on ‘Hugh Jackman in Wolverine’ level. Touch one of his abs and you might cut yourself. Wow, wait, I got it! Let’s organize a fencing championship between Ronaldo’s abs and Montella’s cheek bones.

Jimmy: Mbappe Mbappe Mbappe. The fact that he’s 21 and has all of what Bren described is honestly incredible. I watch PSG games sometimes because I spent a year living in Paris, and I got to see him live when he first moved on loan there. Even when he was 19, he was a force, and the scary thing is you don’t really see all of it until you’re watching him in the stadium.

4) Give us one Roma player in recent history that was one or two traits away from being a world-beater. Who was it and what were they missing?

Bren: If I could take Mattia Destro from the spring of 2014 and inject him with a cocktail of steroids to make him stronger and faster, he may have been the best striker on the planet. He had the finishing touch and the worm-like ability to find space in the box, but if he were just a tad more athletic, he could have created his own chances and transformed Roma for the better.

Dallagente: Emerson Palmieri. The perfectly balanced player, he could play it moving to his right almost identically as a change of direction to his left. I could picture him playing as a defensive midfielder, just as much as he had the legs to play out wide. He could grab a goal as well, as he proved against Villarreal. All he was missing was the good luck not to get injured right when his career was taking off, for club and adopted country.

Ssciavillo: I’m going to stretch the recent part of this question just a bit and go with Alberto Aquilani. Aquilani felt like he was going to be the third big time Roman for Roma during the mid-2000s before his move to Liverpool. The local kid had the ability to cover various roles in the Giallorossi midfield with good technical ability, vision, and passing. However, whether it was at Roma or elsewhere later in his career, Aquilani just couldn’t beat the injury bug.

JonAS: I can perfectly understand the choices of Destro and Emerson. You know, I once had high hopes for Rick Karsdorp. Prickly Rick. One hell of a marauding fullback like in the good old days. He had all the modern tools, even tattoos! Just run the crap out of the opposition and swing in a perfect cross from time to time. Our very own Radja Nainggolan at right back. What was he missing? Go back to question 1. Brains..

Jimmy: Kevin Strootman with less injury trouble and just a touch more of a nose for goal. I’m realizing now that we’re seven years out from Strootman’s first year with Roma, but for those of you who weren’t following when he joined, man was he a sight to see. I don’t think it’s an unpopular opinion to say that his ACL injuries derailed him from superstardom, but I think that the last thing he could’ve used to become the kind of player kids have posters of in their rooms was a slightly better goalscoring record. Imaging Radja’s skyshots if Radja didn’t send them into the Curva Sud half the time. Now that Strootman would have been a world-beater.

5) Was Francesco Totti the closest thing to perfection Roma has ever seen?

Bren: Physically speaking, I’m not sure—you could argue for Batistuta during 2001, Benatia or even Gervinho in recent years, he was an incredible athlete—but Totti was one of the most intelligent and skilled players the game has ever seen. If he were a bit taller and faster, there’s no telling how many more goals he would have scored, but he’s the closest to perfect we’ve ever seen because he created miracles with basically just his brains and his feet.

Dallagente: Most likely yes, I could be a troll and say it was Falcao or Di Bartolomei. But I never saw them play live, and wasn’t even born when Falcao last played for Roma.

Look, I’m going to end up giving a huge answer, but Totti played over three different decades and it’s hard to sum up such a fragmented career with the respect it deserves. I want to be consistent with what we’ve just said earlier.

At his physical best (pre-2006) Totti came up short on temperament. It was too easy to wind him up and get him to take himself out of the game. Not insignificant red cards we’re talking about here, costly ones where Roma lost games (arguably titles), went on losing runs and Italy crashed out of tournaments. But pre-2006 Totti was my favourite ever player, alongside Rivaldo.

Then Totti grew mentally after riding the wave of major injuries, but his role grew more limited - if he didn’t already before the injuries, he now focused exclusively on being a rifinitore. Which is fine for Italian culture, because it’s in the style of Italian number 10s like Baggio, Rivera, Mazzola. Like those Italian legends, Totti had a great footballing mind in the final third, but he was definitely no longer (if ever) asked to deal with the same number and complexity of decisions as, say, a modern number ten already does in all phases of the game today.

You see Pellegrini satisfying himself with trying to master the same limited role as Totti right now, and people already say Pellegrini should aim for more, which says a lot about the demands on young talents in the modern game today to become complete, well-rounded players.

You’d want post-2006 Totti in the final third for your team any day of the week in any competition, but you couldn’t say “I’d pick Totti as the first name on my team.” You needed to know Tommasi or Perrotta was in the lineup before you could pick the captain.

Just this morning Damiano Tomassi summed it up in far less words than I can: “Let’s say one of the most beautiful presents I gifted to Roma was allowing Totti to play till 40 years old, given that for ten years I had to do the running for him.”

This is not really the point of Totti’s legend, I know. But we’re talking about perfect football.

One thing you can never take away from Totti is his scoring record at any age, and the fact he indirectly influenced Italian, English and Spanish football in the same decade, by planting the seeds for the modern false nine with his play, at both Ferguson’s United and Guardiola’s Barcelona. So his impact on world football was profound throughout his career.

He is the best Roma have done to date, but his talent kept him at the top of the Italian game almost in spite of Roma’s chaotic formation of him as a player. If Roma were a stable football club with consistent direction, who knows how much further towards perfection you could go with the next Totti-level youth talent?

Maybe moulding someone who can play like Luis Figo could: in a flat midfield four, in a diamond, in a front three, in a front two.

Ssciavillo: I’d have to say yes to Totti being the closest thing Roma has had to perfection. Unfortunately, I didn’t really start watching Roma and Serie A on a weekly basis until the mid-2000s, so most of the live matches I saw of him were post-injury. By then he didn’t quite have the legs that he did in the first half of his career, but just the way he combined his footballing abilities with his reading of the game was a joy to watch. Totti was always two steps ahead of everyone else with his ability to see a pass before it was there or the opening for a chance to chip the keeper. His intelligence of the game was certainly on par with his physical gifts in that sense.

Of course, as dallagente mentioned above, there were some flaws to his game, especially his temperament early on in his career. The incident with Christian Poulsen at Euro 2004 still comes to mind. However, for a club like Roma, which doesn’t attract or keep the game’s biggest stars in their primes, the Giallorossi will be hard pressed to do better than Totti. He’s the gold standard at Roma, just look at who up-and-coming players like Pellegrini and Zaniolo immediately get compared to.

JonAS: Yes every day of the week and twice on Sunday (I can’t really speak about Roma players before 2002 though, I’m not THAT old). Some big Totti fans might deny this but Francesco had his flaws too, as my colleagues pointed out. But that’s what made Totti so special. I never doubted his class nor skills, even after that spitting incident or the tackle vs Balotelli. He’s human after all. On top of his game, he was one of the best, but not THE best like Messi or Ronaldo. A price he paid for remaining at Roma instead of moving to Real. However, in Roma’s hall of fame he’s our no. 1 by miles.

*Honorable mentions for Dzeko and Radja edition 2016-2017 and De Rossi 2010.

Jimmy: I’d say that Totti is the closest thing to perfection Serie A has seen, at least in the modern game. Sure, he was a bit of a hot head when he was younger, and sure, he didn’t always have to blaze the fastest trail down the pitch (thanks for that, Tomassi), but he’s one of maybe two, three players I’ve ever seen play or even seen footage of where I just go “wow”. If Totti had moved to an even bigger club than Roma, he would’ve been seen as a far better player than most of the other legends from his era. He didn’t, though, which in my mind makes him even more perfect.


Come back tomorrow for part two where we build the perfect Roma player.