If there was one thing we were all worried about with the arrival of Fonseca Football, it was the amount of goals we anticipated Roma conceding. Sure, Roma would score a bunch under the Portuguese tactician’s attacking mentality, but how were we going to keep them out?
Kostas Manolas was shipped out over the summer after being Roma’s rock at the back for years, while Ivan Marcano quietly followed him out the Trigoria doors. That left Roma with Federico Fazio, who was clearly on the decline last season, and Juan Jesus, who is...well...Juan Jesus.
That meant new blood would arrive to construct a new-look back line. Gianluca Mancini was brought in as an important signing, but he was still fairly young. And then there was unknown youngster Mert Cetin. The last piece of the puzzle was Chris Smalling on a dry loan from Manchester United. And that’s just the center backs that started the season.
In the winter transfer market, Gianluca Petrachi made a move for another relative unknown in Roger Ibañez, meaning Roma finished the season with six center backs; four of whom were in their first season with the club.
How did it all work out?
Well, overall Roma’s defense was middle of the pack in terms of goals conceded. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the individual pieces were all average. In fact some were really good, while others were not.
So, let’s hand out report cards for the center backs and see who’s worth keeping around and who will likely be shipped out this summer.
Appearances: 30 | Clearances Per Game: 3.9| Interceptions Per Game: 1.9 | Aerials Won Per Game: 3.2
What more can be said about Chris Smalling? Brought in during the waning hours of the summer transfer market, Smalling seemed to be a head-scratching move. Yet, Roma couldn’t have done a better job of replacing the departed Kostas Manolas.
The Englishman was everything Roma could’ve asked for and more. Smalling led all Serie A center backs (minimum 20 league starts) in average player rating on WhoScored (7.04). He seamlessly slid right into the heart of the Roma back line, teaming with Gianluca Mancini to form one of Serie A’s better defensive partnerships.
Just look at some of his ranks among center backs in the league (minimum 20 starts):
- Tackles-56 (tie-7th)
- Dribbled Past-3 (1st)
- Clearances-121 (14th)
- Blocked Shots-35 (5th)
- Aerial Duels Won-95 (4th)
- Goals Scored-3 (tie-6th)
Smalling used his pace to clean up plenty of messes, while utilizing his height to dominate in the air. Also, not known to be a great passer of the ball, Smalling completed 90.5% of his passes in the league and 89.7% in all competitions.
Aside from the on the field success, Smalling also brought with him plenty of big match experience, great professionalism and leadership from his time with Manchester United. Unlike many of his countrymen, he adapted quickly to life on the Italian peninsula and fell in love with the city of Rome. Has a loan move ever been such a success for Roma?
Final Grade: A
Prediction for Next Year: Smalling’s future is very much up in the air. His dry loan expired at the end of July and the Giallorossi really missed him against Sevilla. It’s well known that Roma want him back despite United’s tough negotiating. In the end, the new ownership and Smalling’s desire to stay should get this one over the line, making his return to northwest England short lived.
Appearances: 32 | Clearances Per Game: 2.9| Interceptions: 1.8 | Fouls Per Game: 2.1
The now 24-year-old Italian was brought in over the summer from Atalanta on a €2 million loan with €13 million obligation to buy. And for the most part Mancini lived up to expectations.
Mancini is a big physical defender, who paired well with the quicker Smalling. He uses his physical gifts to win the ball and possesses good enough speed to close down many attackers. His distribution was also an asset at times for the Giallorossi. He completed an average of 52 passes (88.2%) and 2.7 long balls in the league.
And let’s not forget the positional versatility he possesses. Mancini looked comfortable in both the three man and four man back lines. He even stepped into the defensive midfield position when Roma were decimated by injury and played well there.
However, despite having a solid season, the Italian will have to learn how to harness his physicality. Mancini was second among center backs with 58 fouls, which translated to the most yellow cards in the league (15) and three one-match bans. Mancini is a student of the game, always looking for ways to improve. So, with experience and proper coaching he should tidy up his game and become a solid center back for the Giallorossi.
Final Grade: B
Prediction for Next Year: Regular starter. Mancini looks to be one of the building blocks of Roma going forward.
Appearances: 16 | Clearances Per Game: 3.1| Long Balls Per Game: 3.3 | Aerials Won Per Game: 2.1
Just a year ago, Fazio was ranked Roma’s best defender in these very same rankings. Boy, how things have changed. Father Time hasn’t been kind to the already lead-footed Argentine. Now 33-years-old, Fazio has fallen off from his heroics of recent seasons.
No longer a regular starter, Fazio essentially became Roma’s fourth-choice center back with the emergence of Roger Ibañez. He’s still capable of putting in the odd standout performance, but those are now few and far between. Incidents like the giveaway to Lorenzo Insigne stand out far more these days.
Final Grade: C-
Prediction for Next Year: If Roma can retain Smalling and buy another center back, then his days will likely be done in the capital. If Roma sign only one, then perhaps he sticks around in a fourth-choice role.
Appearances: 6 | Clearances Per Game: 1.3| Potential Match Saving Red Cards: 1
It’s hard to judge the 23-year-old in his limited playing time (only two league starts), but Roma may have found something in the previously unheard of Turkish defender. Cetin showed flashes of potential in his first league start against Napoli and didn’t shy away from the spotlight. He may have been red carded in that match, but he did enough for Romanisti to ask for more Mert.
With more playing time and coaching to go with his physical gifts, Cetin could turn into a solid defender. Spending next season at the Bentigodi could provide him with the perfect environment to do just that.
Final Grade: Incomplete
Prediction for Next Year: Hellas Verona on loan with an option to buy. Roma retains a buyback clause.
Appearances: 9 | Clearances Per Game: 2.2| Interceptions Per Game: 2 | Long Balls Per Game: 2.2
Ibañez arrived from Atalanta in January on an 18-month loan with obligation to buy. It seemed like a gamble considering Ibañez had only made two total appearances in his time in Bergamo, but it looks like Petrachi was on to something here. The 21-year-old Brazilian was a surprise starter in the first match of the restart and didn’t look back from there.
Ibañez started seven of Roma’s twelve league matches this summer and showed reasons for optimism about his future. Ibañez put in back-to-back man of the match quality performances against Verona and Inter; looking especially comfortable in Roma’s new back three.
He was everywhere along the back line to snuff out opposing attacks. Against Verona alone he had six interceptions and four clearances. He also showed great poise on the ball and the ability to pick out a pass from the back. The Ibañez hype train was full speed ahead.
However, despite all the flashes of brilliance we saw from him, the Sevilla match reminded us not to get ahead of ourselves. Ibañez still has to tidy up his game positionally, as he was caught out of position a few times against the Spaniards. That’s something that should come with experience. Roma looks to have a real player on its hands, but his overall grade reflects a small sample size.
Final Grade: C+
Prediction for Next Year: A key member of Roma’s back line and regular starter, especially if Fonseca sticks with three at the back.
Appearances: 4 | Points He Cost Roma in the Table: 2| Meaningful Contributions:0
Not much can be said for Juan Jesus. The veteran Brazilian made only two starts and five total appearances all season for Roma and for good reason. Never expected to be a major contributor this season, Juan Jesus was a disaster in his one league start, single-handedly costing Roma two goals and two points in its week one draw with Genoa. He was surpassed on the depth chart not only by Smalling and Mancini, but also youngsters Cetin and Ibañez, so his substitute appearance against Juve could be all she wrote on his Roma career.
Final Grade: F
Prediction for Next Year: Off-loaded to clear salary. Perhaps a return to Brazil or smaller Italian side.
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