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Why Did Nicolò Zaniolo Succeed Where Patrick Schick Failed at Roma?

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A story of two young men charged with breaking Roma out of the false nine era, from the right flank onto their left foot.

RB Leipzig - Tottenham Hotspur Photo by Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

The False 9 years of Roma, weren’t they great? It was all good when Francesco Totti was near single-handedly remaking the face of European football from the heart of the Eternal City, but the long kiss goodnight to Totti’s career brought the adverse side-effect of permanently changing Roma’s front-line shape. That very same shape has claimed the victims of otherwise-talented strikers: Stefano Okaka, Marco Borriello, Mattia Destro... ok, Destro couldn’t attack a near post to save his career, but he had lethal goal-scoring potential when he first stepped into Rome. And then there is Patrick Schick.

€42 million is still, even today, a sizable amount of money by A.S. Roma standards. It’ll have Roman press doing mental gymnastics until the day Schick’s club-record fee is broken. Was Schick “miscast”? Were the tactics wrong? Was he really more suited to playing shooting guard in a clay-court season five-setter at Roland Garros?

What are we even saying anymore? This is the power of money-fetish in football. Once you get that price tag stuck to your name, you have to live up to the billing in one way or another; be it great expectations met, or a great conspiracy behind your failure. There’s just one problem with spinning a convoluted tactical tale around Schick’s demise in Rome (and subsequent re-emergence in Germany), and that problem is Nicolò Zaniolo’s unrestrained success.

Zaniolo works the same role for the Giallorossi, albeit with different individual tools, that Schick was tasked with during his time in Rome: breaking the team out of the False 9 era to become a club suited to out-and-out goalscorers up front, once again. It’s been a good 15 years since we could last say that about Roma.

So, where exactly did Zaniolo succeed where Schick failed? And where do both young men go from here?

Two Left Feet and A Couple of Shoulder Barges

Not everyone feels this way, but the majority of Roma fans would likely agree Paulo Fonseca’s Roma have looked the most dominant when Gianluca Mancini is playing in the heart of midfield, in tandem behind Javier Pastore. That doesn’t mean I’m going to advocate for Mancini playing in midfield for the rest of the season—there are solid reasons why a player should continuously work the position he trains for each week, especially at a club with tight deadlines like Roma—but it is what it is.

Part of that is down to Mancini-Pastore’s range of options in midfield bringing the best out of a young Roma front-line whose natural instinct is move vertically at all costs.

Roma’s most balanced shape this season has seen Zaniolo work as a shadow striker.

If Lorenzo Pellegrini isn’t looking for the killer vertical pass, then you can bet your gut instincts that either Zaniolo or Cengiz Ünder are running with one eye over their shoulder for the direct pass from behind or over the top. Agnese Bonfantini recently described her game as one where she doesn’t think about anything other than running through to goal once she sees the chance, and that could almost sum up Zaniolo, Pellegrini and Ünder’s collective game since 2017 (albeit with Zaniolo arriving later).

Some of that is changing gradually with Paulo Fonseca, but the end result is that Zaniolo works best as a shadow striker for Roma this season. And not even a false nine, since there’s nothing “false nine”-ish about Zaniolo’s play, even if the term is now used to describe anyone-who-plays-like-a-striker-just-not-in-the-striker-position.

Originally, the false nine role was about hold-up play, and working others through to goal in the gaps that the false nine had vacated ahead of him—the polar opposite to Zaniolo’s most effective traits. Zaniolo plays like a straightforward, traditional number nine, even if he starts his runs from outside of the box.

Fonseca was astute enough to know that he still had to make the most of vertical talents like Zaniolo and Pellegrini up front when the Portuguese maestro first landed in Rome. Since then, players who’s first instinct is to look for the pass—the Justin Kluiverts of the world—have found reinforcements with Carles Perez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the club. But Fonseca’s shift from EDF’s vertical football has been gradual, not radical.

Playing for possession deep in the back-line and midfield, thanks to the Mancini and Pastore duo, has proven the best way to do that. With Roma’s back six comfortable to pass the ball around amongst them (thanks to the great touch of players like Pastore and Diawara and the Mancini’s phenomenal eye for direct, defence-splitting passes) that often roped more aggressive sides like Napoli into committing six players or more into Roma’s half.

Clearing out the attacking half made Zaniolo’s job simple: run to goal. Most defenders, if any, cannot live in a straight one-on-one with Zaniolo at full pace. It’s not that he’s blazing fast, but more that you wouldn’t fancy getting in Zaniolo’s way once his sizable frame has gained full momentum.

We could do a poll: would you rather get in the way of a Fazio or Zaniolo shoulder barge? Neither sounds like you’d get out of bed the next morning the right way around. But why did Patrik Schick—a fellow left-footer who finds his confidence from moving inwards from the right flank—fail at shadow striker where Zaniolo succeeded?

Where Zaniolo is naturally a physical dribbler, Schick strengths lay more on the technical side of his game. This was probably a harder sell than ever under Eusebio Di Francesco’s football, because emphasis was on any one of the front four (including the AMC at the time, Radja Nainggolan) being able to finish off moves in two phases or less. Players like Stephan El Shaarawy found a home within that ethos. Only Diego Perotti acted as a foil to put the brakes on attacks before they inevitably, and prematurely, broke down from the rush.

That rush meant Schick was largely dribbling into an alley of his own blind expectations. Instead of finding willing teammates to move into spaces ahead of him to shine creatively, Schick found himself at the tip of the spear of Roma moves, much like Zaniolo today. The difference is Zaniolo puts his left foot through the ball and embraces that pressure. Schick used that pressure to dribble the ball straight into the nearest opponent.

Ironically, though, Schick has turned himself into more of a flick-on player in Germany and spends a minimal amount of time on the ball in attack. So could the difference be his teammates?

Finishing and Conviction in the Face of Edin Dzeko

Lest you think I’m making it up about Patrik Schick being a guy who finds his confidence dribbling from out wide on the right, here are heat-maps of the few games where Schick has allowed himself to drive the ball in Germany this season:

Schick’s driving the ball upfield with Leipzig is rare but shows the same pattern as his time in a Roma shirt

There’s a guy starting from out wide right, dribbling his way through to goal on his left foot. His name is Patrik Schick. Nothing new. It’s the same habit he showed at Sampdoria, and at Roma under both EDF and Claudio Ranieri, which I first drew attention to over a year ago, back in March 2019.

Let’s be clear though: this year’s snapshot of Schick driving the ball is from an incredibly small number of matches. Owing to the fact that:

  1. Schick has re-modeled himself into a player that takes less time on the ball, leading to an overall more staggered heat-map of play in the Bundesliga.
  2. Schick hasn’t played much football this season.

Timo Werner may be on the brink of a mega-money move to Chelsea but, at the same age as Schick, Werner has played the most out of any Leipzig outfield player this season. Werner is a machine than just keeps going.

In comparison, Patrik Schick (still at the time of writing) has barely played more league football than Alessandro Florenzi did in his time under Paulo Fonseca this season, though that should be very different by the time the 2019-20 season is done. Schick works incredibly hard off the ball like he always did, but you get the impression Patrik has always asked a level of work rate from himself that his body is still learning to cope with, even today.

To date, Schick has only completed 5 full league matches for Leipzig, and 11 league matches where he’s played over 70 minutes in each game. Why has Schick used such a limited game time to become a link-up man rather than a fantasista on the ball?

1. FC Koeln v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga Photo by Ina Fassbender/Pool via Getty Images

Playing Schick from out wide right was a call to find his confidence in games, but Schick is also accurate when he claims the style of football in Rome wasn’t suited to him finding the follow-through. Most of Schick’s creativity—of what there is—comes in flick-ons at high-speed play, when the opponent is too off-balance to anticipate his creativity inside of the box.

With Roma playing much slower in the capital, that left Schick looking for a different kind of creativity—vision to unlock even the most static-paced games—that will probably always elude him in his career. That was a doubly-whammy to deal with in Rome, coupled with the pressure around his price tag.

It’s a case where no one in particular is to blame, but everyone is equally at fault for lack lack of initiative. Most of all Schick himself, as his of lack of follow-through on goal meant he often failed to be irresistible in moving aside the immovable Edin Dzeko. In comparison, Zaniolo has often taken opportunities by the scruff of the neck.

The space Zaniolo demands to finish off moves has meant a gradual return to something in between 2016-17 and 2017-18’s positioning on the pitch for Edin Dzeko. Dzeko finding his cues around Zaniolo has morphed Roma’s captain into a complete forward who’s getting back to facing goal and sniffing out play inside the 18 yard box, instead of outside of it.

Here’s Dzeko’s out-and-out striker play during his most prolific season in Roma under Luciano Spalletti:

Dzeko’s action in front of goal in 2016-17

Here’s Dzeko playing as a more complete forward under EDF with a touch of Ranieri from 2017-2019:

Dzeko’s more withdrawn role outside of the box from 2017 to the summer of 2019

And here is Dzeko this season, owing to advancing years but also Zaniolo’s influence as his de facto strike partner, under Paulo Fonseca’s football:

Dzeko’s move back towards the 18-yard box around Zaniolo’s play

Edin Dzeko has been convinced, whether by necessity or by Zaniolo’s influence, to move back into the box for taking chances and laying it off to teammates. I’ve been labelled as the one CdT writer who isn’t as keen on Zaniolo as the rest of us, but Zaniolo is already transforming Roma’s front-line to one that can embrace out-and-out strikers once more.

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

That also highlights another area where Zaniolo holds the conviction that Schick doesn’t have: Patrik Schick simply isn’t a natural finisher.

You can look at Leipzig’s recent league game away to Cologne, or their double-header against Spurs in the Champions League. These are the only Leipzig games I’ve seen live this season but, in both cases, the Czech forward put away harder chances than the easier ones he missed. No one minded on the day though, as Leipzig emerged winners of both ties.

But on this front, I unreservedly thank Zaniolo and hope he comes back from injury as soon as possible to regain his form from this past winter. There’s nothing like a player who can simply put his foot through a ball and have it wind up in the back of the net, where it should be. And there’s nothing like a guy who rewards Edin Dzeko’s movement with straightforward, number nine play in the box.

Sometimes the old-school pleasures in football are still the best.

Self-Awareness In Spades

So is Edin Dzeko the bad guy behind these differing fortunes? Far from it.

You’ll recall the 2018-19 Roma started off with Schick coming on as a lead striker in Roma’s first home game of the season, with Edin Dzeko immediately pulling back to play behind Schick—in some moves even feeding Schick through on goal himself. You’ll recall Schick starting up front in a 5-3-2 away to Milan last season, or the season prior where he started games as a lone striker. Sometimes he scored (against SPAL), sometimes he no-showed (against Chievo).

You’ll recall Schick winding up on the end of golden chance to equalize, through on goal against Szczesny away to Juventus. Which he fluffed. Or remember Schick starting up front against Barcelona in the game he still calls, even just this past week, the best night of his career. The point being, throughout it all, Schick was given more than enough room and opportunity by Edin Dzeko, Di Francesco and everyone else. The problem is when you’re a giraffe that grows up believing you’re an elephant, the end result is a damn mess for everyone involved.

Yep, you can quote me on that proverb. Just don’t go spending all that wisdom all in one place.

I don’t know what Patrik Schick’s upbringing was like in Sparta Prague or the Bohemians, other than his interviews this year where he opened up on falling out with coaches back in Czechia over his role there. But if you think Schick was played out of position in Rome then the natural question is this: What is Schick’s natural role in football?

What I remember of Schick is, contrary to his reputation when he first arrived here, that of a hard worker who would give you an honest shift. When Claudio Ranieri asked Roma to play the long-ball, there was one guy putting his body on the line to win six headers back-to-back-to-back in Ranieri’s return to the capital. That guy was Schick.

And while Juventus Stadium may have been the site of Schick missing a clanger against Szczesny, it was also the same place where, just twelve months later, Schick would dominate the physical duels against Giorgio Chiellini. Not many footballers in Italy, let alone the world, can lay claim to that much. Even if Roma lost both games.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Schick is a willing player, and he’s gradually finding the maturity to channel that effort into results (he also has no choice, he’s now 24-years-old and no longer a young man in football terms).

Whereas Zaniolo, for myriad reasons, found that maturity and self-awareness around his strengths and weaknesses much earlier. He was the guy willing to cut his contract short at Fiorentina to take a gamble on lower-league football at Entella. If that hadn’t worked out or he’d picked up a major injury in Serie B, we may have never heard of Zaniolo, never mind writing about him as Roma’s next big thing up front.

We never saw Zaniolo claim he could take on the world when he first signed as a makeweight in the Nainggolan-to-Inter deal. Rather, we heard a kid deliver an interview where he was all-too-aware of his lack of confidence in instinctively picking out passes for teammates.

Zaniolo’s interviews were so balanced, from Day 1 of landing in Trigoria, that several writers on Italy’s sport pages speculated over whether Zaniolo had spent his teen years being media trained. That’s just how much of a down-to-earth character he put forward, on and off the pitch. But Zaniolo also surprised himself by finding he was up to snuff, in terms of physical duels, at Serie A level.

That was all it took to get a foot in the door, and move onto a wider array of tricks.

FBL-EUR-C3-ROMA-BASAKSEHIR Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

A huge part of that greater chemistry and trust Zaniolo has struck up with his teammates comes from self-awareness at a young age, and the broad shoulders to embrace the pressure.

Zaniolo’s ease of chemistry reminds me of a line from 2013’s Pain and Gain. Mark Wahlberg’s lead character, a truly dark and manipulative human being, accounts for his actions by the end of the film with a universally-relatable and honest motivation: “People finally saw me like I saw myself, and you can’t ask for more than that.”

The Italian hasn’t just stopped short at being honest, but followed through to finding congruence. Essentially, interpersonal qualities that go well beyond the tactics board into day-to-day living. What you see with Zaniolo is what you get and, with time on his side to learn for the next four years or so, who knows how much more the footballing world is going to get from him?

Meanwhile, Leipzig face a difficult decision: despite Schick’s very healthy scoring rate in the limited time the Czech forward has been on the pitch, that time has still been limited. Do the German outfit really trust Schick to take over the workload from the right side, once Werner has left a hole on the opposite flank for Premier League pastures?

RB Leipzig v Hertha BSC - Bundesliga Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Roma and Patrik Schick hope the answer is yes. After all, Schick has been repeatedly adamant that he wants to stay in Leipzig and not come back to Rome, which is completely understandable.

The worst outcome for Schick would be another summer spent at one club, only to end up elsewhere by August and miss yet another pre-season finding rhythm with his teammates. It’s happened to him in the summer of 2017 and 2019, and can’t be ignored as a major influence behind Schick’s lack of game time this season. Next season he’ll be turning 25, and it’s really on Roma to sort him out nice and early. More than that, 29 million euros (a belated 12 million euro plusvalenza for Roma) is how failures should work for Roma.

It may not be the world-record breaking fee that Roma gambled on Schick claiming this decade, but it’s a disappointment the club can afford to absorb; a damn sight better than Walter Sabatini splashing the cash oh Juan Iturbe, then forcing the same player to play through a broken leg on the way to serious, permanent injury and a write-off deal in Mexico.

Don’t ever forget the amoral ambiguity around how Roma used to mismanage their most expensive talents when reminiscing about the near past. In the here and now, Schick and Roma could manage false expectations in an unusually sober way. And even if they don’t, would Schick returning to play up front be the worst thing for Roma? It might take him learning to stay out of Zaniolo’s lane if it really comes to that much.

All this being said, if Roma’s record-breaking losses of 2020 have the biggest say in the matter, then both players end up sold this summer. Totti forbid the thought.

Now, back to that poll we mentioned earlier...

Poll

Who would you rather take a running shoulder barge from?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Nicolò Zaniolo
    (101 votes)
  • 29%
    Federico Fazio
    (42 votes)
143 votes total Vote Now