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Veretout & Mkhitaryan Thrived in Roma's Multi-Look Midfield This Season

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A deep look at Roma’s engine room will tell you if you truly love or hate Fonseca’s football.

AS Roma v Parma Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

We’ve combed through the stats and approached them from many angles, in anticipation of the classic “do the numbers really tell us anything about football?” debate. When it comes to Roma’s midfield players this season, I believe they’ll let you know—in your heart of hearts—whether you love or hate coaches like Paulo Fonseca.

None of Roma’s midfielders excelled in any individual category, as you’d expect when playing under a coach with the collective ideals that Fonseca drills onto the pitch. Taking a look at the names below, it’s evident that the most eye-catching traits of some players’ games (that arguably lead Roma to sign them in the first place) have been eliminated, or at least filed down sharply, since they put on a Giallorosso shirt. There’s no better example than Roma’s top midfielder for 2019-2020: Jordan Veretout.

We’re strictly using league stats only throughout (taken from WhoScored, Opta and StatsBomb), but taking a feature-length look at Jordan Veretout’s path through the Eternal City will really show you what we mean.

(Sidenote: ‘Pressing Success’ is defined as the rate at which Roma won back the ball within 5 seconds of a Roma player putting pressure on the opponent in possession of the ball.)


Star-Man: Jordan Veretout

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Appearances: 33 | Goals: 6 | Assists: 0 | Key Passes: 40 | Passing Accuracy: 87.2% | Tackles Won: 25 | Interceptions: 20 | Pressing Success: 27.7%

It’s easiest to start with Veretout, not just because he is Roma’s best midfielder for the 2019-2020 season, but because we have the stats that we singled out from his time at Fiorentina last summer to make a comparison, twelve months later.

A creator, we said. A dead-ball specialist, we said. Before Veretout moved to Rome, he ranked as a top 10 midfielder in forward passing for consecutive seasons. If Jordan didn’t run the ball up the pitch himself, he knew how to move the team forward by making the ball do the work instead. But the fact is Veretout’s key passing—and his entire forward-passing game in general—has been tamed since his move to Roma. He’s become a jack-of-all-trades, if he wasn’t one already.

Veretout delivered 40 key passes in total this season, which is almost half of what he created in his last season for the Viola (72). Veretout’s passing into the final third is also down from his days at Fiorentina, falling slightly from 208 to 186 passes into the final third this season just gone by. And though Jordan hasn’t exactly given up his love of the long-ball (533 long passes attempted in 19/20—the most of any Roma midfielder and the third-most in the squad behind only Kolarov and Pau Lopez) it’s still been forceably neutered by Fonseca’s mandate to support the man on the ball with short-passing options.

In fact, if you want a really damning stat for Fonseca on the surface of it all, aside from the fact that Veretout has racked up zero assists this season, there’s the fact that Veretout’s total progressive yards gained in forward passes is down from 11,348 yards gained for Fiorentina in 18/19, to 8,342 yards gained in forward passes this Serie A season with Roma.

Yeah, here at CdT we love an esoteric stat or two in our locker.

So it all sounds boring, pedantic and cautious so far. What exactly has Veretout gained from crossing paths with Fonseca at Roma? All the forward passing in the world won’t necessarily do damage if you can’t find your teammate, and Jordan’s gained better mates in Rome, as well as a more accurate and efficient passing game for it.

AS Roma v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With better support around him in a condensed Roma midfield, Veretout has upped his passing completion rate from 77.5% in 18/19, to 87.2% in 19/20. In fact, Veretout completed almost exactly the same amount of short and medium-range passes in Roma than he did back in Tuscany—we’re literally talking about just 7 less completed passes this season compared to last—despite Veretout having significantly more passing attempts back in his Fiorentina days.

So, similar results for less effort in Roma as it comes to moving the ball for Veretout. Though he is less involved with putting teammates through on goal than he may want to be.

Mid-season, Paulo Fonseca did try to accommodate Veretout in this area by moving him to an auxiliary full-back role off the ball. This was asking Veretout to provide extra defensive cover when Roma got caught losing the ball, but also meant to make more of Jordan’s long-ball delivery by giving him more time and space on the ball from the back. But that came to an end when Roma shifted to 3-4-2-1.

Speaking of defending, this is arguably the source of Veretout’s biggest flaw. Him getting dribbled past at a rate of 0.9 times per league game is the same as last year—good but not great. Technically speaking, it’s slightly better than the rate that injury-hit Amadou Diawara managed this year (dribbled past 1.0 times per league game) but overshadowed by how much more Veretout commits himself for relatively less success in winning the ball back.

AS Roma v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Veretout pressured opponents in possession a total 528 times in the league this past season, which is 26% more pressure he tried to put on the opponent than his Roma nearest teammates (Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gianluca Mancini) in this category. Remember though, the key word is tried. Because winning the ball back is a different story.

Roma win the ball back 27.7% of the time from Veretout’s pressing (as in Roma win the ball back within 5 seconds of Veretout pressing the opponent 27.7% of the time).

In comparison, Amadou Diawara pressed the opponent in possession far less—318 times this past season—and yet Roma won possession back 29.9% of the time through Diawara’s pressure. It’s not a big enough gap by itself to be damning to Veretout’s defensive efficiency, but then Veretout also has the second-worst tackling success in Roma’s midfield (better than only Lorenzo Pellegrini) and the second-worst interception tally (again only Lorenzo Pellegrini did worse than Veretout here).

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jordan Veretout simply isn’t a great ball-winner on his lonesome, but he is an effective shadow-presser to support other teammates in winning back possession. And I don’t believe there’s a stat invented yet that can shed light on how important that role is to the team. The Frenchman is a great number-two guy to hunt the ball back in wolf-packs, making Veretout emblematic of Fonseca’s collective ethos.

If that doesn’t sound enough for fans who prefer their midfielders to have a headline-grabbing influence on the game, let’s not forget that Roma’s midfield was the department that delivered the least goals this past season (11 league goals in total) and yet Jordan Veretout scored over half of them (6). Granted, those were all penalties, but Veretout is capable of changing a game’s scoreline from more than just spot-kicks.

There was the run and dribble through two Bologna players deep into injury time, playing a key part in Dzeko’s winner on that day and bagging two more league points for Roma at the time. Veretout finished this season as the 7th-ranked player in Serie A for successful dribble percentage, so there are few like him that can run the ball on the peninsula.

There was also the exquisite finish after the pandemic restart, that Veretout saw harshly ruled out for a Carles Perez handball in the build-up. Veretout is capable of the spectacular, and hopefully will keep picking his moments and fighting his battles even better in the coming year ahead.

Final Grade: A

Prediction for Next Year: Veretout’s agent has insisted his man wants to stay in Rome, though the club are in desperate need of money and will accept the right offer if it comes. If he stays then Veretout is a definite starter.

Star-Man: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

AS Roma v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Appearances: 22 | Goals: 9 | Assists: 5 | Key Passes: 26 | Passing Accuracy: 83.7% | Tackles Won: 28 | Interceptions: 11 | Pressing Success: 24.7%

He’s technically a midfielder for the club, but Miki is one of only three current Roma players—the others being Javier Pastore and Andressa—who know how to play the tuttocampista.

The responsibility of playing like a true, modern number 10 in any team is one that few players would envy, no matter how glamorous is sounds from the outset. The reality is a rollercoaster ride of performance.

The fact is Mkhitaryan’s numbers often fluctuate from one extreme to the other in such high volume, that it’s clear his legacy lies heavily in the hands of striking up partnership all along the pitch with teammates. If they’re vibing on the same level as him, then Mkhitaryan looks like a genius. But if they’re out of sync, then Miki just looks like he’s trying too hard.

He can go a match racking up nearly double-figures in tackles won, and yet the same volume in failed dribbles. Mkhitaryan is in the WhoScored Serie A Top XI for most clinical finishers in the league. But to sum up the paradox, Miki’s also finished this season with a worse pressing success rate than Lorenzo Pellegrini. In fact only Cristante, Zaniolo and Villar had worse success in this area than Miki.

Now who in their right mind would watch Mkhitaryan stealing balls in the middle of pitch, weaving passes together on the way to scoring breakneck speed goals and say that Miki doesn’t put good pressure on the ball? Not me.

Final Grade: B+

Prediction for Next Year: Not just great at stealing balls on the pitch, but an absolute steal of a free transfer for Roma on the mercato. Just stay injury free and Rome is Miki’s oyster.

Amadou Diawara

Amadou Diawara of As Roma in action during the Serie A... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Appearances: 24 | Goals: 1 | Assists: 1 | Key Passes: 16 | Passing Accuracy: 89.2% | Tackles Won: 32 | Interceptions: 36 | Pressing Success: 29.9%

A mixed season doesn’t change me feeling like Diawara is one of the best technical footballers I’ve seen play for Roma. Ever. He’s one of only two Roma midfielders to finish this season with a 100% dribble success rate. It’s no real surprise the other is Gonzalo Villar.

Diawara is the best midfielder this season in terms of tackles won, interceptions made and the best pressure put on the opponent to win the ball back for Roma. He’s also the midfielder who’s dribbled past the least, aside from Bryan Cristante. Skeptics might say that Cristante and Diawara spend less time trying to run with opponents. But either way, Diawara is proof that you don’t have to be the fastest defender, you have to be the best defender.

It’s players like Diawara who can read the game as if they were speaking it fluent from straight out the womb. He’s also the midfielder with the best passing reception rate (97.5%) and the guy who’s miscontrolled the ball the least in the entire squad, besides only Fazio and Pau Lopez—we don’t need to tell you how much less pressure a centreback and goalkeeper would be under, to receive the ball on any given day.

Amadou Diawara of AS Roma celebrates after scoring a goal... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

In fact, Diawara’s rate of bad touches (0.1 per game) makes him Serie A’s best midfielder on the ball. He’s that guy in the squad who makes himself available for teammates to pass the rock to, no matter how little time and space Amadou may have in that moment.

At this point you may be thinking he’s a great defensive midfielder, but a non-factor at the other end of the pitch. It’s fair criticism, but Diawara’s steady growth in this area through 19/20 is why I rest firmly in the camp of coaches like Paulo Fonseca.

Under coaches who loved limited, specialist roles like Luciano Spalletti did, Diawara could easily rest his laurels at being a defensive specialist alone. Instead, under Fonseca, Amadou is learning to risk more and vary his portfolio. Which is exactly what we asked of him in our feature last summer.

Diawara’s key pass total nearly quadrupled this season since his days at Napoli, while his pass total into the final third was a bit further away from doubling itself (97 total passes into the final third in 19/20 compared to 59 in his last season at Napoli). Of all Roma’s midfielders, it’s true that Diawara’s progressive rate of passing (meaning passes where Diawara helped Roma move at least 10 yards up the pitch or more) is the lowest at 23%.

This is far behind the progressive passing rate of guys like Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante (both 29.6%), Javier Pastore (29.2%), Jordan Veretout (26.8%) and even Gonzalo Villar (24.5%). Diawara is the most reserved passer of them all, but he less cautious than his seasons at Napoli (where he had a progressive passing rate of 20.7% and 21.9% respectively over two seasons).

It may have only registered the one assist this season, but Diawara is gradually rolling the dice more on the ball. His biggest weakness then? Aside from his lack of shooting on goal, Amadou loves a one-man midfield and is less at home sharing space with another deep-lying teammate.

Torino FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

When Roma switched to 3-4-2-1, Diawara was one of the first to openly tell the press he was happy to get more space to create this summer. Owing to his days playing as a lone regista in a 4-3-3 at Napoli, Diawara likes to be the first point of dialogue with Roma’s backline in possession. That sometimes led to him dropping deep alongside teammates, putting guys like Veretout under avoidable pressure in mistakes like this goal conceeded against Juventus at home.

On that day, we highlighted Veretout and Pau Lopez as the worst offenders, but it’s also Diawara’s mistake to limit his teammate to a short, square pass (instead of staying slightly further up the pitch for an angled option) when building the ball out from defence. This makes up the Juventus players’ mind for them in terms of the space to close down, instead of Diawara leaving Veretout with more space and more passing options on the day.

It’s a running theme with Diawara getting to grips with Fonseca’s preferred 4-2-3-1, which Fonseca has audibly tried to correct Amadou from the touchline several times throughout the first half of the season.

Final Grade: B-

Prediction for Next Year: A genius when fully fit, but unfortunately it looks like Diawara is Roma’s sacrifice to the FFP gods this summer.

Bryan Cristante

Bryan Cristante of AS Roma in action during the Serie A... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Appearances: 26 | Goals: 1 | Assists: 3 | Key Passes: 21 | Passing Accuracy: 85.4% | Tackles Won: 14 | Interceptions: 26 | Pressing Success: 23.6%

As we mentioned with Veretout, Cristante’s pressing success rate doesn’t really do justice (in our view) to how good of a shadow-presser Cristante can be when helping teammates to win the ball back. But the fact is Cristante’s pressing on its own is the second-worst in the Roma midfield (better than only the inexperienced Villar) and arguably the relative worst in the entire Roma squad.

We say this considering the only players who had less success in winning the ball back were either injured for most of the year (Zappacosta), inexperienced (Villar, Calafiori) or playing in goal (Fuzato, Mirante, Lopez). It’s a fatal part of Cristante’s game: He over-commits himself just like Veretout, but without the dynamism or pace of Jordan to justify taking on such a responsibility.

Yet I believe the bigger beef people have with Cristante is, despite the fact his numbers sit comfortably alongside his peers in almost every category, how decisive is Bryan to Roma’s football? Yes, he has three assists, but two of them demanded heroics from Dzeko (dribbling past two-men to score against Bologna, and an over-the-shoulder first-time volley against Sampdoria) while another was owed to poor judgement by Lazio keeper Strakosha in the derby.

Putting it short and sweet, Cristante’s success in slicing open opponents truly came against the odds. There’s just no way you can replicate this middle-of-the-road form over several seasons, unless you’re the luckiest player on the peninsula.

Cristante has never (but once in his Roma debut) been used for the role he was originally signed for, as we all know by now. He’d be better off if he’d never crossed paths with the Eternal City, and that’s more of a damning on Roma than on Bryan.

Final Grade: C-

Prediction for Next Year: It’s a difficult post-pandemic transfer market, so it’s 50/50 to whether Cristante stays for one more season. Rotational player.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Appearances: 27 | Goals: 1 | Assists: 9 | Key Passes: 67 | Passing Accuracy: 75.9% | Tackles Won: 20 | Interceptions: 16 | Pressing Success: 25.8%

A bloody-nose of a season for Lorenzo Pellegrini in several ways, who’s another player that struggles to get an injury-free season of Serie A action under his belt. Since Lorenzo has moved back to Roma, he’s had two-month hot-streaks in the last couple of seasons before it dies down again.

We all know Pellegrini’s calling card: He’s racked up 41% more key passes than nearest teammate Jordan Veretout in this category, out of all Roma’s midfielders. He’s also the joint 8th-highest ranked player in Serie A for passes into the penalty area in 19/20. His assist-rate per 90 is the 3rd-highest in the league behind only Papu Gomez and Luis Alberto, and we can get even more granular when it comes to this area of the pitch.

Pellegrini is the 8th-highest ranked player in Serie A when it comes to shot-creation for teammates, in the same league as players like Dybala (who won the Serie A MVP for this facet of his own game), Kulusevki, De Paul, Ilicic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lorenzo Insigne around him.

And as far as not just creating shots but goals too? Pellegrini is the fourth-highest ranked player in the league per 90 minutes, behind only Ilicic, Gomez and Dybala. When Paulo Fonseca put Pellegrini in charge of supplying the ammunition, there’s no doubt Lorenzo answered the call. In many areas, his creativity has nearly doubled than where it was under EDF.

AS Roma v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

If you aren’t won over yet, then Lorenzo also ranked fourth-highest in the league for nutmegging opponents. Just take another look at him dribbling through two players and second-assisting Dzeko’s goal away to Fiorentina, to understand that Lorenzo can come alive in the final third on a good day.

But realistically, Lorenzo spends a lot of his game time moving out to the right flank of the pitch, especially since he’s seen more and more reason to free up space for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to do his thing through the middle. And the defensive side of his game has declined in every area, since he stopped being a box-to-box midfielder under EDF.

Paradoxically, the shift to a more vertical, direct team style in the 3-4-2-1 formation should have made Pellegrini feel more at home. And yet it didn’t.

Final Grade: B

Prediction for Next Year: Earmarked by the club as one of the five players Roma wants to hold onto at all costs this summer. But there’s no doubt he has a confidence problem, and no clear way to overcome it.

Javier Pastore

Javier Pastore of As Roma during the Serie A match... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Appearances: 11 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 1 | Key Passes: 5 | Passing Accuracy: 82% | Tackles Won: 10 | Interceptions: 6 | Pressing Success: 30.6%

Javier Pastore was arguably one of only two Roma players (the other being Mkhitaryan) trusted with a modern number 10 role under Paulo Fonseca this season.

For a brief sequence of games, we saw Pastore blend both 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 football into the same 90 minutes, giving Roma both the defensive solidity and attacking threat that a mercurial manager like Fonseca so desperately desires from his ideal side. This was also thanks to Pastore striking up the most surprising of understandings with Gianluca Mancini, who was playing as a defensive midfield foil to Pastore’s vision at the time.

That run of form came when Pastore morphed from box-to-box creator to a final-third battler in the same breath, winning the ball more times in a match against Napoli this season than almost any other time that Pastore has done in his career.

It’s performances like that which make Pastore the most efficient presser of all Roma’s midfielders this season, albeit with such limited game time, while he’s also the third-highest progressive forward-passer behind Pellegrini and Cristante.

When you compare Pastore to his days at PSG, his attempted short-and-medium range passes have more than halved in a Roma shirt, while his long-range pass attempts have almost exactly halved. In Serie A football, Pastore is a guy more likely to hold onto the ball than try to look for the killer, Hollywood ball. His passing distribution is 33.1% forward, 29.6% passes to the left, 26.8% passes to the right, and 10.6% backwards passes.

It’s something that flies in the face of his interview last season, where he insisted he used to argue with PSG coaches that a less accurate passing game that delivered more assists is worth more than a conservative game that holds onto possession. That’s a maverick mentality that Lorenzo Pellegrini has taken to heart in place of the old Pastore. The Pastore that’s just turned 31 years old is a different soul.

Pastore is in the middle of an identity crisis, as if the post-pandemic mullet didn’t already let you know. He’s fully put aside his ego while trying to rebuild a career from scratch at Roma, and yet it still isn’t good enough to find freedom from the persistent ankle problems.

Final Grade: Incomplete. He spent too much time in the nurses's office.

Prediction for Next Year: One of only two players at the club who can play a full #10 ten role. Vice-Mkhitaryan for 20/21 if he can over his ankle trouble, but there’s the problem.

Mirko Antonucci

AS Roma v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Appearances: 2 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 0 | Key Passes: 0 | Passing Accuracy: 77.3% | Tackles Won: 2 | Interceptions: 2 | Pressing Success: 26.1%

We barely saw anything of Antonucci this season, even though he looked like a good complement to Fonseca’s final-third requirements in pre-season. Antonucci did not, in fact, save us all like the prophecy was meant to predict.

Final Grade: Incomplete

Prediction for Next Year: Despite Fonseca being diplomatic, the coach just doesn’t fancy Antonucci’s chances in Rome. Mirko has been linked with a move to Vicenza this week.

Gonzalo Villar

SPAL v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Mario Carlini - Iguana Press/Getty Images

Appearances: 9 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 0 | Key Passes: 3 | Passing Accuracy: 93.1% | Tackles Won: 2 | Interceptions: 2 | Pressing Success: 22.8%

Let’s finish with Villar’s determination to be a key factor in his team’s fortunes, almost every time he’s played in a Roma shirt.

It’s been said that Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante has struggled to grow after they’ve been asked to play several different positions over the last two seasons. But Villar has been asked to play no less than three-different roles in less than six months of his Roma career. In every one of these roles, Villar was key in either realizing goals or clear-cut chances.

Against Cagliari, Villar was pivotal to Roma immediately hitting back for the equalizer on the way to the win. Against Parma, Villar came off the bench to work himself into two big-goal chances that he can only blame himself for not finishing on the night (yet Roma still won). And against Juventus, Villar didn’t hesitate to dink a lovely pass out wide to give Califiori a clear path into Juve’s penalty box. It was a move that led to Roma’s penalty equalizer on the way to beating Juventus 3-1.

That’s just the short summary, but there have been more key moments from Villar underpinned by silky-smooth possession on the ball. He’s the only guy midfielder besides Diawara that would willingly make himself open for teammates to pass to him under any circumstance, and Villar holds the best passing accuracy (93.1%) in the entire Roma squad this season.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

That may have been done with less game time, but Villar has the highest passing accuracy of anyone in both halves of the pitch (91.5% passes completed in the opposition half, 92.8% passes completed in Roma’s half) and a machine-line distribution of the ball with 30% forward passes, 20.7% passes left, 35% passes right and 14.3% passes backwards.

No matter whether you play Villar further up field with his back to goal to receive the ball, pushing forward from the middle of the pitch or even sitting in front of the defence, it just reads like Villar has 360-degree vision at all times.

Villar’s biggest flaw, by his own admission, is defending. Even Bryan Cristante had to work overtime to cover for Villar getting blown past against Cagliari. And of course, no one wants to see Villar miss a chance when it’s easier to score.

Final Grade: Incomplete but promising.

Prediction for Next Year: A total-football talent in the making, and one of the five “unsellables” kept off the market by the Roma board this summer. We’ll be seeing more of Villar for sure.


Conclusions

We’ve seen Roma’s midfielders all converge towards very similar performance-numbers this season, where this isn’t any one outstandingly good or bad performer as far as the stats go. There’s little clear daylight between any of these names in most categories.

We begun this review by pointing out it’s either something you grow to love or hate, but that is the core result of positional-play football in a Roma side that plays with such a narrow, compact shape. Roles are fluid, and your first point of reference shifts between being either the ball or your teammate depending on the phase of play. But your last point of reference is always your opponent, meaning this isn’t a team for any Roma player to settle themselves into one specialist role, focused on beating the same kind of opponent week-after-week in Serie A, and call that a career.