By now, we all know the vast potential of Nicolò Zaniolo. Roma’s Golden Boy burst onto the scene last season, making for a debut season not seen since the days of Francesco Totti in the capital. Of course, potential doesn’t always turn a youngster into an instant superstar. That status is achieved through hunger, hard work, and consistent improvement.
However, some players’ potential is squandered through internal forces (poor choices, laziness, etc) while others are stunted by external forces (injuries, poor coaching, etc.) Zaniolo was struck by one of those external forces this January when he ruptured his ACL in a match against Juventus. His season, and his hopes of representing Italy in the Euros, seemed finished.
Yet, with 2020 being the most unpredictable year in any of our lifetimes, all hope wasn’t lost. The delay in the season brought on by pandemic-enforced lockdowns allowed Zaniolo to rehab his injured knee while reducing the number of matches missed.
During his rehab, Zaniolo showed the hunger and work ethic needed to be elevate his game to elite status, but how would his knee respond? Luckily—based on the evidence from his return—it seems to have responded well to surgery and rehab, allowing us to dream of Nico’s vast potential yet again.
Under normal circumstances, Zaniolo would’ve missed exactly half of Roma’s league matches (he was injured in the last match day of the first round of fixtures). However, thanks to the prolonged pause, he was able to return after missing just ten matches. Zaniolo returned to match action on July 5th, after 172 days on the sidelines.
You want to see your young players improving each season—something we haven’t seen with players like Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder—but what about Zaniolo? Was he still able to improve despite the time out injured?
In short, yes.
With the return to play, Zaniolo was able to log around 1,500 minutes in 26 league appearances this season (16 starts), which is similar to his 2018-19 log of just under 1,800 minutes in 27 league appearances (20 starts). This similar workload actually makes for a fairly fluid statistical comparison between the two seasons and shows clear improvements in many aspects of Zaniolo’s game. Despite losing considerable time to injury, Zaniolo still showed improved in most areas compared to the 2018-19 season when he burst onto the scene.
So let’s take a look at his improvements in three key facts of the game: goal production, passing, and possession.
This season Zaniolo scored six league goals, which was a two goal improvement over last season’s total. When you consider he played fewer minutes this season, his goals per 90 actually jumps from 0.20 to 0.36, which roughly translates to a goal every three matches rather than every five. An interesting caveat to this improvement is that his xG was actually slightly lower than last season (4.79 to 4.45), which means Nico outperformed his xG by roughly a goal and a half.
One reason for this is likely his improved shooting. Last season Zaniolo took 49 shots (18 on target) compared to 47 (22 on target) this season; an increase of 2.50 to 2.81 shots per 90 minutes. Meanwhile, his shot on target percentage increased from 36.7% to 46.8%—the best of any Roma regular.
It might be stating the obvious, but shooting more and putting more of those shots on target meant more goals for Zaniolo. With this same kind of shot rate and on-target percentage, Zaniolo could see a real jump in goals with increased minutes next season.
Of course, goal production encompasses more than just scoring the ball. Zaniolo's two assists matched his total from last season, but his expected assists showed a significant jump this season, climbing from 1.91 to 4.97, showing an improved play-making ability. Similarly, his xGChain90—a measure of expected goals on possessions in which a player is involved—increased from 0.45 to 0.67. That’s a 50% increase in possessions that Zaniolo was involved in that directly led to goal-scoring opportunities.
Directly related to Zaniolo’s uptick in xA and xGChain90 is an improvement in his overall passing. According to Football Reference, Zaniolo attempted around 140 fewer passes (584 to 447) and completed roughly 100 fewer passes than last season (451 to 356), which is understandable considering the minutes discrepancy. Despite that drop-off in sheer number of passes, and only a slight improvement in passing percentage to 79.6% from 77.2%, Zaniolo’s passes were statistically superior in many ways, which indicates that he was a more effective passer of the ball.
What exactly does that mean? Well, for one, Zaniolo improved his key passes from 17 to 24, which equates to an increase of 0.54 key passes per 90 (1.45 KP90). Following along these same lines of making dangerous passes, he increased his progressive passes from 37 to 46 and his passes into the penalty area increased from 11 to 18. Additionally, 40 of Zaniolo’s passes led directly to shots this season, compared to 32 last season. All of this seems to indicate Zaniolo developing into a more dangerous passer.
But, almost as important is the fact that Zaniolo was less wasteful with his passes. Zaniolo cut his passes out of bounds (10 to 5) and intercepted passes (16 to 8) in half. Meanwhile, fewer of his passe were blocked (22 to 19).
This combination of more productive passing coupled with less wasteful balls demonstrates an increased awareness from Zaniolo.
One of the most exciting things about Zaniolo’s game is just how good he is on the ball. Zaniolo possesses mouthwatering dribbling ability. His combination of size, speed, and close control is the envy of many around Europe. Just think of his goal-scoring running against SPAL and his slaloming run against Juve to set up Diego Perotti against Juve.
Runs like that allowed Zaniolo to lead the Giallorossi with three successful dribbles that led directly to goal. No other player on Roma had more than one. Additionally, Zaniolo’s dribbling directly led to 16 shots—again the best on the squad by four. That was also a huge personal jump, as Zaniolo had seven the previous season.
Despite having almost 200 fewer touches this season. His overall percentage of successful dribbles improved by leaps and bounds from 49% to 64.3%. In the process, he dribbled past 67 players, by far the best on the team.
Meanwhile, Zaniolo improved in other areas of possession, as well. When carrying the ball, Zaniolo was more effective at getting forward with it this season. Despite carrying the ball about 130 less times than last season, he was able to accumulate a progressive distance of 3,283 yards. An improvement of more than 800 yards.
Zaniolo also drew more attention while on the ball, drawing nine more fouls than he did last season, indicating that he did a better job at getting himself between the ball and his opponent.
While Zaniolo is far from a finished product, the improvements shown this season indicate that he is growing rapidly as a player. While his prolonged absence due to the ACL tear was a bump in the road, his performances this summer show a player that is just as explosive as he was prior to the injury. For that we can all breath a sigh of relief.
Additionally, Zaniolo rehabbed with a fervor and hunger that showed a lot about his character. Rather than sulk and hang his head, Zaniolo got right to work in order to rejoin his teammates before the season ended and even make important contributions down the stretch.
His exhilarating run against Juventus brought him full circle, as it was on a similar run against the Old Lady that he sustained the injury. In a way it must’ve felt like vindication for Zaniolo, providing him a confidence boost heading into next season.
If Zaniolo continues to put the same effort into training and match preparation as he did to his recovery than we should expect to see even greater improvements next season. Zaniolo’s a physical specimen who oozes talent and if this season is any indication, his ascension to superstar status might not be far down the road. Let’s just hope the Friedkin Group ensures that it happens in the giallo and rosso of Roma.