Demanding Rigor in Our Mercato Wishes

With every mercato, football fans bust out the Christmas lists, hoping they've been nice enough that their club decides to get them what they really really want -- a striker here, a midfielder there, and maybe that promising young goalie. With a new owner, that list creation happens even more feverishly, as visions of de Bruyne feeding Mbappe dance through our heads.

Roman wishes are not so feverish as a de Bruyne or a Mbappe: However, there is a key point of clarity which needs to be made evident to avoid undue disappointment by fans. I am talking, specifically, about how we treat what you might delicately call the Dzeko problem.

The problem, as formulated, is as simple as it is familiar. Dzeko is a really good football player. He might even be that good next year. However, he won't be that good forever, and he's much closer to the end than to the beginning of his career. As such, the club needs to make sure Dzeko is firing on all cylinders while still preparing for when he drops off a cliff, performance wise.

The obvious solution here is simple: find your favorite young South American/Italian striker, claim he will be the solution to all of our problems if he "sits behind Dzeko", and wait for him to be magic when the time comes! This sign and develop strategy seems like the simplest way to kill two birds with one stone: We get someone who can spell Dzeko now, and take over in the future. As such, rhetoric around seeking this kind of player typically lumps them both under the heading of "a Dzeko replacement" or similar verbiage.

One key problem with this is that the player who spells Dzeko and the player who replaces Dzeko do not have to be the same at all. In fact, they likely aren't. This confusion is, I would argue, part of the reason why the discussion about how to handle an aging Dzeko is off the mark.

The kind of player who would spell Dzeko looks a lot like Nikola Kalinic: A player who comes on and basically does what Dzeko does, albeit at a much less effective level, and can be counted on to get the occasional goal. He's not going to be a goal a game or really even a goal every other game striker, or he would be the starter, and he's probably going to scuff some shots and miss some plays: Otherwise, he wouldn't be a backup at a club like Roma. Kalinic might actually be close to the upper tier of this kind of player, given his respectable goals record this year (5 goals in 15 appearances is hardly elite, but hardly terrible either for a backup).

This kind of player is distinct from a replacement for Dzeko in at least a few key ways. First, a rest for Dzeko requires a player with the skillset to do what Dzeko does, inherently constraining the set of available choices. By contrast, moving on from a club icon like Dzeko is a good time to fundamentally reimagine what the offense should look like, and offers the opportunity to target a different kind of striker to make that shift happen. Second, Roma being able to offer someone maybe 10 matches a year versus maybe 30 represents very different propositions: A player who we expect to be an elite or at least Roma level starting striker in 2 years probably has other, better offers on the table than backup at Roma. Even if they want to play for Roma, there is no upside to not staying at a different club and just moving in two years when the starting role opens up. Third, the pressure placed on a player meant to be a backup (both publicly and as a matter of the wage bill/transfer fee) and a replacement is likely to be very different. The money invested in a starting striker looks like a real overpay for someone meant to spell Dzeko, and the reverse looks like a criminal underpay at best or catastrophic underinvestment at worst.

None of this is to say that these positions aren't both important, and that there aren't benefits to trying to merge the two in one player. Rome is a notoriously difficult place to play, and determining if the player can hack it before giving him a starter level role is valuable. However, it is unreasonable to expect such a transition to happen, and the language we use in discussing who will be Dzeko's "replacement" when we mean backup, or "backup" when we mean future replacement, is important and has real ramifications on our expectations.