And so we've reached the peak of our 2020 U-23 countdown, the seventh addition of our annual rite of summer and one of my personal favorite series. For a variety of reasons, the young men who have occupied our top spot haven't exactly fulfilled their potential, but injuries aside, something tells me Nicolo Zaniolo won't go the way of Mattia Destro (journeyman), Emerson Palmieri (sold off), Stephan El Shaarawy (chased money) or Gerson (geez, did we actually do that!?).
Although we made this list prior to his injury, if the good folks in Innsbruck sutured him up correctly, Zaniolo should return to action by March, and at only 21-years-old he should have ample time to recover and become the player we all hope he can be. Recovering from multiple ACL injuries is far from ideal, but it isn't impossible. Given that Zaniolo can already flex between multiple positions, that versatility should ensure that he's able to adjust and adapt as he ages, which could potentially extend his career.
For everything he's achieved and everything he may yet become, he narrowly retained his top spot over Amadou Diawara, another youngster with knee issues.
So, for the second year in a row (a first in our series), may we present Roma's brightest U-23 talent.
Number One: Nicolo Zaniolo
Current Club: Roma
Future Comparison: Mega Kaka
Who Is He?
If you don't know the legend of Nicolo Zaniolo by now, I'm afraid I may have to confiscate your Roma card. Zaniolo spent the first two years of his development with the Genoa youth academy before switching to Fiorentina in 2010. And it was with the Viola where things truly got interesting. Deemed not good enough for their Primavera side, Zaniolo soon found found refuge with Virtus Entella, linking up with their Primavera squad during the 2016-2017 season as a 17-year-old. From there, Zaniolo made the switch to Inter Milan in July of 2017, for whom he scored 13 goals during that season's Primavera championship. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaniolo’s now famous transfer to Roma occurred on June 26, 2018, moving to the Eternal City along with Davide Santon in exchange for Radja Nainggolan. Zaniolo would make his professional debut against Real Madrid in the Champions League in September 2018 and has made 76 competitive appearances for Roma since then.
What Can He Do?
Pretty much anything. You won't find many 6’3” players that can seamlessly shift between central midfield, left or right wing and center forward. Really, the first one that springs to mind is former AC Milan great Kaka, who could conceivably run at the goal from any position, from any angle and at any moment. Zaniolo can't do that with quite as much speed, but Kaka probably couldn't leg press a small hippo like Zaniolo can.
Zaniolo is at his best when he's running at defenses from just beyond the midfield stripe, where his speed, agility and dribbling technique are best utilized to terrorize defenses. And once he reaches the penalty area, he does things like this:
A natural lefty, Zaniolo has managed 14 goals and 6 assists in little more than 4,500 minutes in his brief and unfortunately injury plagued career.
What Can He Become?
Well, that all depends on how quickly and fully he heals from his second ACL repair in only eight months. It's not a concern to be dismissed, but Roma haven't had a player like this come long since Francesco Totti in the early 1990s. So, while we were tempted to knock him down one spot or even just put an asterisk next to his name, Zaniolo is simply too good to dismiss for any reason.
If Zaniolo can recover completely and avoid any future injuries, the world is his oyster. You don't see many players his size capable of moving, cutting, creating and scoring like he does; in any sport, quite frankly. With this unique blend of physical traits, Zaniolo could string together a 20 year long career like Totti without ever being pegged down to one position. And much like Totti, when time finally catches up with him, he can easily recreate himself as a hulking target man, or even an opportunistic poacher with really cool hair.
Given his most recent ACL tear, there are a lot of Ifs clouding Zaniolo's future, but he is easily the most talented kid to grace the Roma stage since Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi were getting their feet wet at the Olimpico.
Club leader. Title winner. World Cup champion. Global superstar. They're all within his grasp.
Heal up, Nico. The world is waiting for you.