Yes, Roma are currently 5th place and, no, they are not competing for the title. But if you’ve been a Roma fan for anywhere near long enough then you know you could say that about most seasons since 1927. Once you get over that, you see what’s left is hoping the club delivers at grass roots level.
One of James Pallotta’s promises, since his takeover last decade, was to turn Roma into the kind of player factory where all young talents would be proud to come learn the trade at Trigoria—even turning down moves to places like Barcelona or the Premier League if they had to do so. In our weeks of recapping Roma’s season, Gonzalo Villar’s early Roma form looks like the club may finally be able to take itself seriously on that front.
When Roma sporting director Gianluca Petrachi first announced, in the middle of this past January’s mercato, that the club were chasing a “young central midfielder” who could “immediately make an impact on the first team”, not many people could believe Petrachi was talking about Lega Segunda talent Gonzalo Villar.
Not only was Villar making the jump from Spanish second-division crowds to Italy’s top flight (dare we think of what that says about the current state of Italian football... nah, maybe another day), but he was plying his trade as a number 10 at Elche. Albeit, on a convoluted loan deal from first-division giants Valencia.
Villar was marauding around the attacking half of the field at Elche, playing like a Juan Roman Riquelme in the making. Could the kid really find the discipline to take over Lorenzo Pellegrini’s initial spot in the squad when the 2019-20 season began? This meaning Villar was to slot into deep-lying midfield, after Lorenzo Pellegrini’s move back to trequartista free’d up a spot among Roma’s mediani.
It took Petrachi confirming later, at a pre-match talk after Villar had signed, that the kid was indeed the first-team midfielder Roma had been chasing all along. This is the kind of January signing you make on Football Manager, after you’ve searched the game’s fan forums for a certified list of in-game talents that can change your season’s fortunes. It’s also the kind of signing that, when it goes wrong, gets you fired in real life.
But you know what? So far, Villar hasn’t made a fool of Petrachi or coach Paulo Fonseca. The midfielder’s performance against Cagliari shows you don’t need money when you’ve got an eye for players who already understand what the coach wants from the team, regardless of their position on the pitch.
Recap: Cristante and Villar Win the Midfield Battle in Sardegna
Now, if you ask me who Roma’s best player on the night was in that 4-3 win away to Cagliari, it’d have to be Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian has shown himself as arguably one of only two Roma players in this current Roma squad, along with Javier Pastore, with the sense of timing, experience and decision-making that allows him to break open two or more of the opposition’s defensive lines.
Perhaps unlike Pastore (and even Totti in his prime before him), Mkhitaryan is explosive enough that he often unlocks the opponent’s midfield and defense within the same fluid action. It only takes a matter of seconds before Miki has pick-pocketed the ball off the opponent, that he’ll be playing a one-two with his teammates and even pop up on the end of those chances to slot the ball into goal himself, if he’s not providing the assist in the box for someone else.
Fonseca hasn’t bothered to hide his desire for Roma to sign Mkhitaryan permanently. Players who can play the modern number 10 role to perfection don’t come cheap and, for clubs like Roma, that means they often don’t come injury-free. But the experience they provide for younger teammates to learn key-decision making in the final third is gold. That being said, Mkhitaryan’s 2020 resurgence in Rome is in no small part—and I truly mean no small part—thanks to the acumen of Bryan Cristante.
Look at Miki’s successful steals of the ball over early 2020—be it in Serie A or the Europa League—and you’ll notice Cristante is almost always (though sometimes it’s Veretout) the shadow-press choking off opponents’ space at the right time, so that Miki can step in from the blind side and catch them cold. I still maintain that Cristante is overall miscast in deep-lying midfield and would enjoy far more success as an unshackled box-to-box midfielder. but Bryan does more than his fair share in defensive transition all the same.
Against Cagliari, Cristante’s ability to trap opponents was exploited to the maximum by Paulo Fonseca as Cristante reduced his Roma predecessor Radja Nainggolan to a passenger for most of the game. Similarly, Gonzalo Villar was tasked with squeezing Marko Rog on his side of the pitch.
Roma’s defensive shape was more of a 4-2-2-2 rather than Fonseca’s standard 4-4-2, but truthfully you could call it what you want. The numbers don’t matter so much as the aim.
That aim was for Kluivert and Ünder to drop deeper than usual off the ball, cutting off Cagliari’s midfield from supplying the ball to the flanks, as Ünder and Kluivert taking full-backs Cacciatore and (Luca) Pellegrini out of the game. With Nainggolan and Rog unable to spread the ball out wide, they only had the option to drive it themselves (something Nainggolan loves to do) or pass it back and play the long-ball game. It wouldn’t take them long to run into the brick-wall sized problem of Bryan Cristante (and Villar) pushing up from deep to force them backwards.
Nainggolan simply didn’t fancy taking Cristante on in a one-on-one. Who would?
In fairness, Nainggolan is in his thirties while Cristante is just coming into his prime, nor was Cristante’s performance perfect. Far from it. One fatal lapse of judgement against Nainggolan in the second half, when Cristante was caught upfield, left space for Radja to feed the ball through the midfield on Cagliari’s way to scoring a second goal and getting back in the game.
But long before that error, the chalkboard shows Nainggolan only had the confidence to make three dribbles in Cristante’s zone (this along is already uncharacteristic of Radja), completing just one of them. That left Cagliari taking the easier option of playing it backwards. And the more the Isolani chose that option, the more the center halves pushed up to try and give Nainggolan and Rog an easier pass to make.
Exactly the aim for Roma.
That was the key to baiting Cagliari’s backline into coming out to play, despite the obvious difference in pace between them and players like Ünder, Kluivert and Mkhitaryan who would ruthlessly exploit the gaps to go on a 3-1 lead and eventual 4-3 victory.
Cagliari only managed to partially solve this problem by asking a phenomenal amount of work from midfielder Artur Ionita trying to take on from deep Cristante instead, allowing Nainggolan to start his own runs from further up front in Roma’s half, but even Ionita had to eventually be subbed from the sheer demands of trying to be everywhere at once.
Wearing out Cagliari all began with Cristante and Villar choosing when to close on Cagliari and help Roma steal the ball off them at the right time. It was the beginning of a mini-match run where they likely would have applied the same tactics (and maybe even the same players) against Sevilla in the Europa League, as Sevilla share similar weaknesses to Cagliari in their build-up play.
Even though we’ve spent this entire post, until now, talking about more experienced players like Miki and Cristante, this is an emphatic show of confidence from Fonseca to Villar; the Roma coach including the youngster in his plans over two competitions at the business end of the season.
Villar’s Moment of Merit
So what has Villar done in a Roma shirt—when you take away the Spain U-21 highlights, the Elche performances and the Valencia cameos—to deserve so much confidence already? Is it on his own merit, or is it all just circumstance favouring the brave?
The answer looks like it’s a little of both.
As much as we can say Cristante’s performance in Roma’s last league game fell some way short of perfect, we can say the same for Villar. His direct opponent, Marko Rog, was able to find a way past Villar and space on the ball in Roma’s half. Even if Rog’s share of the ball behind Villar was never fatal—almost all of his 36 touches of the ball in Roma’s half ended up in either short, sideways passes or losses of the ball—it happened enough times to cause uncertainty in Roma’s backline.
In fact, it was often in those moments where Villar was caught short that, once again, Bryan Cristante stepped in to snuff out the danger for his younger partner. As it should be. There’s no surprise that Villar still has to physically get up to speed with the strength and cardio demands of top-flight football in Italy. Until that comes, Villar has to show enough on his own merit to justify the trade-off of including him in the team.
Much to Roma’s delight, Villar has already done so.
Besides the excellent first touch and ball-control that Villar has shown in tight spaces, there’s also his resilience under pressure that makes the difference for Roma on the scoreline, exemplified by this passage of play at 0-1 down on the night.
Unfortunately, the highlights of Roma’s first goal above don’t show (starting at 56 seconds) the true beginning of this play: Villar helps out Bruno Peres, who himself struggles both against Brazilian wing-back archetype and to dribble under pressure from opponents, when Peres is on the ball.
Villar helps Peres with work the ball up the right flank with one-two play, then accepting the ball back from Peres before Villar moves the ball across to Cagliari’s weaker side through Kluivert. And Villar doesn’t stop there.
We’ve just marked out Miki and Pastore as the two guys who understand what it takes to play number 10 and unlock several lines of defense, but maybe we should include Villar in that list, if the youngster keeps pulling off moments like this one.
The Spaniard presses on and calls for the ball from Kluivert but, once he sees Roma have moved the ball out wide, Villar gives Kolarov that extra target in the box to take the pressure off Kalinic. How many times in the past would we have seen no one help Dzeko, and Roma’s striker inevitably wind up double-marked by defenders?
This is the sense of timing and moving between phases that Roma never got from the Strootmans or Nainggolans on a consistent basis. From then on, Villar and Kalinic both get a stroke of luck from Cagliari’s Luca Pellegrini slicing the ball straight back in their path in the box, but take nothing away from Villar’s resilience and ambition getting Roma back level on terms here.
It would be far easier to sit back and simply focus on keeping mistakes to a minimum while you hope your teammates dig the team out of trouble, when you’re making your full senior debut for Roma on the night. Instead, the kind of reaction Villar showed to Roma going a goal down speaks for itself.
Hopefully the midfielder stays fully dialled-in to Fonseca Football™ and doesn’t get “Roma-fied” on his journey to becoming a senior player in the capital. Too often we’ve seen this club take legitimate talent, like the very names we’ve mentioned in this post, and show them that what it takes to pander to public expectations in Rome is very different to having your say on the match result.
If there is one major point of redemption to James Pallotta’s reshaping Roma as a club, it may just be in sticking with Paulo Fonseca when things get tough, and guys like Fonseca and Petrachi having the guts to both sign and play names like Gonzalo Villar in those very same moments that define a season.