When Roma swapped highly-touted Roman left-back prospect Luca Pellegrini for then 26-year-old Leonardo Spinazzola of Juventus, the move was met with raised eyebrows. Many Romanisti were upset with the idea of shipping one of the Giallorossi’s most coveted talents to Italy’s most loathed team. It was a case of the rich getting richer, as Juve took advantage of Roma’s need to make a plusvalenza prior to the close of the fiscal year.
It’s a position Romanisti have become all too familiar with through the years of Financial Fair Play: selling prized assets to balance the books. However, this move was a bit different than sending players like Mohamed Salah and Alisson to Liverpool, getting only cash in return. This time around, the Giallorossi got a player in return; one that seemed more prepared to help Roma during the 2019-20 season than Pellegrini. In the long term this move seemed like a potential loss for Roma due to Pellegrini’s vast potential, but in the near term it could’ve worked out somewhat positively for Roma.
After all, even though Spinazzola hadn’t been the most consistent or healthiest player through his Serie A career, he had characteristics that seemed tailor-made for Fonseca Football. The Italian is pacy, a strong dribbler and capable of pushing up the flank to providing attacking width. He’s also a good passer of the ball, a valuable asset in Fonseca’s attacking approach. He looked an ideal change-up to the aging Aleksandar Kolarov.
However, as we now know, things haven’t quite work out as planned. Spinazzola was nearly swapped in January for Matteo Politano of Inter and his playing time has been limited to just 902 total minutes in 15 total league appearances (10 starts). And strangely enough, Spinazzola has actually played more matches at his secondary position (right-back) than his primary position (left-back).
The reasons for this are two-fold. For one, Kolarov continues to play at a high level much of the time. Secondly, Roma’s incessant right-back issues led to Fonseca giving Spinazzola a string of starts at the position, which led to much criticism from supporters after sub par performances.
However, after Inter reportedly nixed the swap deal over concerns about his fitness, Spinazzola seemed to turn the corner slightly. The Italian looked ready to prove his detractors wrong with his best Roma performance coming in his first start after the failed swap against Genoa. It led to a string of matches where Spinazzola started four of five league matches at left-back for the Giallorossi, playing 90 minutes each time. It looked like a vote of confidence from Fonseca—certainly not as an undisputed starter, but as a viable alternative to Kolarov.
With Roma now poised to play a loaded schedule down the stretch, Spinazzola will have to be utilized, possibly on an every other game basis. With Roma playing basically every three days, it’s hard to imagine Kolarov playing too many back-to-backs at 34-years-old, especially if Fonseca wants to get the best out of his aging legs. So, in essence, these last 12 games could be crucial for Spinazzola to prove that he should remain with the Giallorossi moving forward.
With Davide Zappacosta back in the fold at right-back to go along with Bruno Peres and Davide Santon, Fonseca should be able to keep Spinazzola on the left when he does play. This should provide optimism for Roma because in his limited time at both positions, advanced metrics greatly favor Spinazzola on the left.
As you can see, Spinazzola contributes much more to Roma’s attack from the left (green) than he does from the right (blue). With an xGChain of just 0.25 at right-back, Spinazzola is performing worse than Peres, Santon, and the exiled Alessandro Florenzi. The same goes for his xGBuildup90 of 0.12. Neither is very good. In fact, both are pretty poor.
Conversely, when Spinzzola swaps over to the left, his numbers spike pretty significantly. His xGChain90 just about doubles from 0.25 to 0.49, while his xGBuildup90 more than triples from 0.12 to 0.43. Those huge jumps reflect just how much he can contribute to the attack when playing in his preferred position.
In fact, and perhaps even more eye-opening, is how well Spinazzola, when playing at left-back, stacks up up with Kolarov in those same key advanced metrics; albeit in fewer minutes. As you can see below, Spinazzola’s xGChain90 (0.49) is nearly identical to Kolarov’s 0.50. Meanwhile, his xGBuildup90 actually slightly outpaces Kolarov’s (0.43 to 0.38).
Of course, Spinazzola doesn’t provide the same goal-scoring threat as Kolroav, but not many full-backs do. There’s also a drop off in expected assists, as Kolarov is a better crosser of the ball. And while his 83.4% passing completion percentage stacks up well with Kolarov (82.2%), the Serbian does a better job of playing decisive passes, with 1.95 key passes per 90 compared to Spinazzola’s.
On the defensive side of the ball, Spinazzola has been proven to be no slouch either. He leads all Roma full-backs with an average of 2.2 tackles per 90 minutes, while only being dribbled past 0.5/90—lowest on either flanks. His 2.4 clearances per 90 are also best among Roma fullbacks. His interception, shot blocking, and pass blocking are in line with Kolarov, while outperforming the Serbian in blocking crosses. Spinazzola also commits slightly less fouls per 90. All positive signs when taking into account his all-around game.
What does all this mean?
Well, it’s not to say that Spinazzola will be able to directly replicate all of Kolarov’s offensive contributions, but the underlying numbers (particularly his similar scores in buildup metrics to Kolarov) do show that he can provide plenty in Roma’s build-up play. In order for Roma to function well with so many games in so few days, Fonseca will need Spinazzola to bring that form to the left-back spot during Kolarov's rest periods.
After an up and down debut season with Roma, this could be Spinazzola’s opportunity to prove the detractors wrong and make the loss of Luca Pellegrini easier to swallow.