Thanks for sticking with us through the CdT end-of-season reviews, in each and every department of the team. Through a season of highs but many lows, the player who put together the best body of work for Roma in 2019-20 was Edin Dzeko.
Before we get to crowning Dzeko, let’s take a moment to appreciate the top 5 runners-up on this season’s Player of the Season podium.
6. Nicolò Zaniolo
It’s been said I’m the one member of the CdT team that isn’t as high on Zaniolo as I should be. After rewatching match highlights this summer, I have to admit that’s absolutely right. The only thing that frustrates me about enjoying the Zaniolo Experience (and young players in general) is when we try to box them into living up to roles they weren’t mean to live up to.
It’d be like saying Cristiano Ronaldo had a great delivery from out wide in his game, because he happened to step into the vacuum left behind by David Beckham at Manchester United. Ronaldo’s passing—whether merely good or great—wasn’t the real story of his career. Nor is the story about whether Zaniolo is the next Roma number 10, the next Totti or the next False 9. He is none of these things; not because he doesn’t merit it, but simply because he couldn’t be more of a different player from Totti if he tried.
One thing that sticks out among Zaniolo’s season is his extraordinary high-rate of dribbling for his age. Arguably only Dejan Kulusevki, who is a year younger, did better than Zaniolo within the same age group of Serie A players.
If you classify Zaniolo as a midfielder, then he ranked 18th for most successful dribbles this past season (one brutally cut in half by a knee ligament injury that limited Zaniolo’s numbers). But if you rank Zaniolo as an attacker, then he is one of the top 5 attackers when it comes to dribbling past opponents in the league.
But what’s insightful about this, other than it being hard to define Zaniolo’s actual role on the pitch, is:
1. Where Zaniolo chose to run the ball
2. How much impact Zaniolo’s dribble made to every phase of Roma matches.
A significant amount of Zaniolo’s dribbling came from inside Roma’s half, especially in the first half of the season, meaning he acted as a release valve for whenever Roma came under pressure defensively while they were still green to Fonseca’s football blueprint. But he’s also able to do this in the opponent’s half, on the wing, through the middle... you name it. Time and space isn’t an issue for players like Zaniolo who like to pick and roll their opponents on the way to goal.
Then there’s when and where Zaniolo chose to do this. He isn’t just a player to kill time and earn his team a breather—even if that would already be impressive enough as his age. But it’s more than that alone.
Zaniolo dribbled past several Lazio defenders at 0-0 early in the first Derby della Capitale of the season, before unleashing a blistering shot onto the post in the very same sequence. He dribbled through and around several Atalanta players in their own back yard—this when the match was deadlocked at 0-0 in the second half—before dallying just a shade too long on the ball, allowing Atalanta to make a latch-ditch block on the line from his attempted finish.
If Zaniolo had put Roma ahead on that day, who knows how that match had turned out? Then there’s what he does in the smaller fixtures that bring a different kind of pressure to the team to grind out results; just ask SPAL about the day Zaniolo came to town. And if you don’t believe SPAL, then you ask Juventus.
All different phases of play, no matter the scoreline and no matter the calibre of the opponent, the truth remains the same: You want Nico in your first eleven.
Zaniolo is a player who marries physicality with speed (and enough technique) to such a level that it makes crossing, passing or shooting the ball a mere formality for him. He’s closer to mimicking his idol Kaka than he was in 2018/19, so play him at shadow striker, or even as an out-and-out traditional #9, and watch the highest accolades in the game pour in for Zaniolo soon enough.
5. Aleksandar Kolarov
Aleksandar Kolarov was passed to by Roma teammates 1449 times this season, where only Dzeko (1558) was passed to more. The Serbian defender is still the second-biggest sphere of influence in the team, in his third season at the club.
It’s pretty revealing to watch the Kolarov touch-count go up once Roma are ahead in games, deep in the second half and just want to close out the match; you can bring as many young ballers as you want into the squad like Mancini or Diawara, but ultimately this team still looks to Kolarov to get them over the finish line.
Kolarov also finished this season as the number 1 ranked player in Serie A for most effective pressing. Roma recovered the ball within 5 seconds of Kolarov putting pressure on a ball-carrying opponent, 42.7% of the time. There’s clear daylight between Kolarov’s performance here and 2nd ranked Serie A player German Pezzella. But this is less of an individual stat, and highly conditioned by team instructions. We’d wager a big part of this is owed to Fonseca’s instructions in 4-2-3-1, where the team were very partial to creating defensive traps out on the wings, in order to spring a counter attack on the opposite flank or through the middle.
Nonetheless, if you marry that aspect of Kolarov’s performance with the fact his left foot looked devastatingly creative in open play, once Fonseca moved him further inside the pitch in a back 3 formation, then Kolarov is guy that’ll hand you game-changing weapons no matter the team shape. Roma have missed a left-footed centre-back for a long time now, and Kolarov’s early passing and control of possession on the halfway line brought a lethal edge to the Giallorossi after the switch to a back three.
It was also a season where Kolarov’s Roma appearances finally outstripped his games played for Lazio, further cementing Kolarov as the modern-day mirror image to the elder Sinisa Mihajlovic.
4. Jordan Veretout
It’s often hard to appreciate what Jordan Veretout brings to every game, until the final whistle is blown and you realise he was constantly there. Case in point: Veretout didn’t figure very highly on our Saints mentions for the season at all, only racking up late numbers from spring onwards in our S & S tally.
Antonello Vendetti’s ‘Ci vorrebbe un amico’ comes to mind when it comes to Veretout’s presence in the Roma team. You definitely want him on your side, helping you to advance up the pitch or backing you up in defence. What you don’t want is Jordan Veretout playing against you.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan
There are several reasons why Mkhitaryan openly feels he’s playing the best football of his career in Rome, all showcased by Steven’s feature on Mkhitaryan being Fonseca’s Weapon X earlier this year.
The Armenian maestro topped our Sinners and Saints leaderboard for the 2019-20 season, with nine Saints awards and not one appearing on the Sinners list.
Miki takes Roma’s play to a whole new level of dynamism when the alchemy does come together. If he can stay fully fit next season, he could easily wind up as as next summer’s Player of the Season.
2. Chris Smalling
I don’t usually like classic stopper defenders, but Chris Smalling’s season was so good it’s impossible not to love him. The Englishman cannot come back to Serie A (and hopefully in Roma colours) soon enough, while Paulo Fonseca’s short-passing edict made Smalling’s limitations in possession a non-issue.
Smalling ranked 7th in the league for interceptions (though teammate Mancini did actually rank ahead of him in 6th with two intercepts more). Roma’s backline was second only to Torino’s and Cristian Romero at Genoa, when it came to aggressively cutting out danger before it’d even begun.
Smalling also finished in the Serie A Top 10 for percentage of aerial duels won (again he was outranked by Gianluca Mancini finishing in the top 3). The Englishman can cut you off from the ball early, or he can let it bounce and still beat you in a foot-race tracking back to goal. He brought a sense of calm and measured aggression to a Roma backline that loves rolling the dice.
Player of the Year: Edin Dzeko
He started off this season dribbling through two Genoa players and curling a finish into the far corner on Matchday 1. Then came spring where Dzeko greeted two long-range passes over his shoulder with first-time volleys into the net against Sampdoria. He’s also the second-highest player for Saint awards in our S & S tally (7 behind Mkhitaryan’s 9), and the second-ranked player for positively net tally Sinners & Saints mentions this season ( +5 behind Mkhitaryan’s +9).
Edin Dzeko was also mentioned as our MVP among the majority at our end-of-season roundtable. But let’s face it: besides Dzeko now having fully reinvented himself as a complete forward since 2017, he’s also the anti-hero of this team.
I took a step back to look at it, and I think what jars people about Dzeko the most is the incongruent.
For example, a guy like Zlatan Ibrahimovic can shout down the pitch—word for word—“what the f*ck are you doing?” to Ismael Bennacer, in an empty stadium mid-match, and people call Ibrahimovic a motivator who’s completely turned around AC Milan’s morale for the better. Dzeko does the same and he’s a bad captain.
But Ibrahimovic does this 24/7. It’s who we know him to be, whether inside or outside of football, and so the behaviour fits as a final chapter to a narrative that Ibra has had no small part in writing himself. Whereas Edin Dzeko was once an unassuming striker who enjoyed title success in a front two, and yet now he’s trying make up for the lack of titles in Italian football by trying to be the lone striker. The complete footballer. The Man.
Dzeko’s a soft-spoken intellectual on the sidelines, a guy who’s completed his management studies in anticipation of a post-football career, so he comes off as a nice guy who’s trying to be bad. It reminds me of his polar opposite on the tennis circuit, in Serbian Novak Djokovic, who very much comes across as a bad guy trying to be good; not in moral absolute terms, but relative to the get-along-gang of Federer-Nadal that now do nothing more than try to out-compliment one another, in front of marshmallow-like crowds who guffaw in tandem.
Djokovic is at his ruthless best when he plays the heel to Federer and Nadal’s babyface shtick. Grand-slam tennis crowds fail to show Novak the due respect, cheering mid-point on some occasions, and yet it doesn’t rattle the Serbian. Djokovic outlasts his opponent, the crowd and lets rip the kind of shots at the end of marathon five-setters that basically do all the talking for him. He stretches his arm out, expressionless. In those moments his body language speaks volumes, letting the crowd know they can either learn to love it, or shut up and go home.
When Edin Dzeko outstretches his arms on a football pitch, it just doesn’t vibe with the same magnitude. Yet we can’t measure, in tangible terms, how Dzeko does or doesn’t affect the morale of his Roma teammates through his exchanges without the ball.
But with the ball... Yes. Yes we can.
We can say a Roma side that plays through the middle looks for Edin Dzeko more than any other Roma player; the Bosnian having been passed to 1558 times by teammates in the league season. Which inevitably feeds into Edin ranking 1st in Serie A for non-penalty expected goals, meaning Roma gave him constant supply in open play and more than any other Serie A team fed their striker (at least in quantity, not necessarily quality).
We can say Dzeko used the ammo to finish up as Serie A’s most lethal striker in the air (most headed goals in the league - 6). He racked up 19 goals and 8 assists in 43 appearances across all competitions. Of all Roma’s outfield players who don’t play in the backline, he ranked second behind Veretout for most clearances—most likely from all the defending at corners that Dzeko does. He ranked second behind Lorenzo Pellegrini for most shot and goal-chances created this season.
When he’s not clearing the ball, he’s trying to get on the end of a teammate passing it to him. When he’s not serving it up to put teammates through on goal, he’s scoring the goals. He’s had three straight seasons of teaching his younger attacking teammates how and when to attack the space on the frontline, while maintaining his level at the top of the league.
Edin Dzeko is club legend. Enjoy him while the vintage lasts.