As we outlined in yesterday’s preview of the attacking players, this off-season is unlike any other. Without the dog days of summer providing weeks of prep time for our season preview, we’ve taken a more concise approach in the build-up to the 2020-21 campaign.
With the knowledge laid out of how Roma’s attack will either excel or falter, let’s take a look at Roma’s engine room: the midfield. Without this group winning the ball back and fueling the transition into the attack, those shiny toys in attack will have a hard time putting the ball in the back of the net.
So, without further ado, we present to you the best and worst-cases for Roma’s midfield.
Attacking Midfielders: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (starter), Lorenzo Pellegrini (likely starter), Nicolò Zaniolo (injured but starter when fit), Javier Pastore (reserve)
Central Midfielders: Jordan Veretout (starter), Amadou Diawara (likely starter), Bryan Cristante (sub/utility), Gonzalo Villar (sub)
*The choice in formation affects the midfield combinations. In both the 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1, Foneseca employs two central midfielders, but in the prior formation two attacking midfielders play behind the striker. Meanwhile, in the 4-2-3-1 Mkhitaryan and Zaniolo often play more as wingers with Pellegrini taking up the trequartista role.
Last season, Jordan Veretout was one of Roma’s best players and arguably team MVP. He’s the current team’s version of Radja Nainggolan without the constant ink in the gossip sections of the press. Veretout is the engine that makes the Roma machine go. His box-to-box presence is the main ingredient in a peak performance midfield.
Meanwhile, a healthy Henrikh Mkitaryan adds a whole ‘nother level of creativity to Roma’s attacking midfield. The Armenian had nine goals and five assists in just over 1,500 league minutes last season. In a perfect world, Mkhi will stay healthy and add about 1,000 minutes to that total. When he’s the straw stirring the Roma drink, the transition into attack is exponentially more dangerous.
Veretout and Mkhi are veterans and known commodities, but what about the rest of the group?
Well, much of it is young, so Roma will need Villar, Pellegrini, and Diawara to take the next step in their developments for the best-case to play out.
With the injury to Zaniolo, it’ll be up to Pellegrini to take on a bigger role and add more consistency to his game. Early in the season, Pellegrini was spraying assists (9 total) around the pitch, but his production dropped off as the season wore on. Roma will need Pellegrini to be a more effective on a match-to-match basis.
The same can be said for Diawara who was superb in the first half of the season before injuries derailed his season after the New Year. Roma need a healthy Diawara in the 2019 mold; the one who dictates play from deep in the midfield while breaking up opposing attacks.
If those two players add consistency to their game, and Villar continues on the trajectory we’ve seen in his limited time, then Roma’s midfield will be formidable. The young Spaniard should see quality minutes this season, and if he plays well, we’ll see less of Romanisti’s favorite lightning rod: Cristante.
In the best-case scenario, Diawara stays healthy, Villar continues to grow, and Veretout plays like Veretout which makes Roma less reliant on Cristante in central midfield. That would allow the Italian to be more of a utility player (we’ve seen him as the central player in a back three this preseason) and less of a regular midfield starter. Meanwhile, Mkhitaryan and Pellegrini will feed Dzeko (or any other striker) plenty of juicy assists while chipping in their own goals. Lastly, in a perfect world, Pastore contributes something and Zaniolo makes a successful recovery adding another threat late in the season as Roma secures a top 4 finish.
Well, the worst-case scenario has already begun to rear its ugly head. With Zaniolo tearing his ACL, the Giallorossi will be without their highest ceiling player for at least six months. Besides the loss of Zaniolo, this injury could have a dangerous trickle down effect.
Zaniolo’s absence will force Mkhitaryan to play more minutes at attacking mid. Those added minutes put could the 30-year-old at greater risk for injury. Mkhi spent plenty of time on the trainer’s table last season and if it happens again, Roma will lose its biggest creative threat, along with its boy wonder.
That double whammy would put Fonseca in the unenviable position of trying to piecemeal his attacking midfield. With Zaniolo and Mkhi out, the onus would be on Pellegrini to perform. In the worst-case scenario the Roman’s development remains stagnant for another season, as he wilts under the Roman heat. And who knows what, if anything, can be expected from Pastore.
That’s just the attacking midfield. What about the central midfield? Well, Diawara already has an injury history of his own. So, if that bug bites again, we’re looking at a lot of Cristante. Meanwhile, Veretout will have to work that much harder causing his performance to drop due to fatigue. Oh, and our next great hope, Villar, shows that his performance was more of the exception rather than the norm, leaving Roma badly exposed in the middle of the park.
How’s that for a worst-case for ya?
As mentioned earlier, Roma’s midfield still has some fairly young pieces. After arriving from the Spanish Segunda in January, none of those players has less top flight experience than Villar.
Yet, when he did begin to play, Villar started turning heads. The Spaniard went from unknown commodity to potential breakout player over the summer restart; putting in a man of the match performance against Juve to close out 2019-20. And he’s picked up where he left off with two juicy assists in Roma’s first preseason friendly.
Villar’s strength is in his passing ability, but he’s more than a regista who just sits back and distributes. Villar can play around the midfield, which makes him a candidate to spell both Diawara and Veretout. He’s even able to play as a trequartista.
With the mentality of a total footballer, Villar has the tools and IQ of a player who looks like he could become a poor man’s version of Xavi. It may not happen this season, but we should see him move one step closer under Fonseca’s tutelage.
While the loss of Zaniolo is a big blow to Roma’s attacking midfield, the Giallorossi still have a strong crop of midfielders. The unit’s overall health will go a along way in determining if it approaches best-case scenario or if we’re left staring into the abyss of the worst-case scenario.
However, considering this will only be the second season in Rome for many of these players, the continuity should lead to greater cohesion. If the young players discussed in the article do take that next step, then we should see a strong season from this group, regardless of Zaniolo’s status.