When Roma signed Javier Pastore in the summer of 2018 for €24.7 million, gauging expectations was difficult. We knew for certain that Roma weren’t signing the same Pastore who lit Serie A aflame with Palermo nine years earlier, nor were they getting the same Pastore who kicked off his PSG career with 22 goals and 16 assists in all competitions during his first two years in Paris. After all, Pastore was 29-years-old when he signed with Roma; certainly not over the hill but his best days were likely behind him.
The problem was simply this: in the absence of a regular and predictable pattern of decline, forecasting Pastore's depreciation on the pitch was incredibly difficult. It would have been one thing if his goals, key passes, or even just his appearances declined at a steady rate, lending us some small measure of predictability, but that wasn't the case—he completely fell off a cliff after the 2014-2015 season.
And when you throw in a string of minor injuries (mostly knocks and sprains, not breaks, tears, or major surgeries) and PSG's practically unlimited spending power, Pastore's marginalization at the Parc des Princes becomes a bit easier to understand. From those halcyon days of the early 2010s in which he was a fixture at PSG—peaking with a sensational ‘14-’15 season in which he made nearly 50 appearances—to the three-year stretch immediately preceding his move to Roma, in which he played little more than 2,900 minutes total, Pastore was a shell of his former self when he signed with the Giallorossi in 2018.
Roma are no strangers to injuries, of course, and apart from one knee injury that caused him to miss 14 games for PSG in the fall of 2016, Pastore hadn't suffered any catastrophic injuries to his joints, ligaments, or connective tissues, so there wasn't really a major cause for concern.
In fact, Roma—and Monchi in particular—were overjoyed:
The signing of Javier makes me very happy – because we are talking about the sort of player who can excite the fans who he plays for...In my career as a sporting director I have signed a lot of players, but Javier might just be the one with the most talent.
We weren't quite as enamored with this signing as Monchi, largely because it came on the heels of Roma selling the much-beloved Radja Nainggolan, but El Flaco's game was never about speed, power, or agility. Monchi was 100% correct in his assessment: Pastore is one of the most skilled men to ever touch a ball—and certainly within the past two decades—and as such, he seemed like a safe bet to age gracefully; the kind of player who could still pull the strings and influence games through sheer weight of intellect rather than athleticism.
But here we are some 30 months after he was unveiled and his Roma career has amounted to little more than 1,600 total minutes. Thanks to a litany of calf injuries, two ankle fractures, and hip surgery this past summer, Pastore has missed a combined 391 days of action since signing with Roma on June 26, 2018. Things had become so bleak that Roma were reportedly considering terminating the remainder of his contract if he wasn't able to return to the pitch by early 2021.
While he hasn't played just yet, Pastore has returned to the training in recent weeks and has even been included on a couple of matchday squad lists. It's certainly an encouraging sign for the health of his surgically repaired hip, but with two years and €9 million in salary remaining on his contract after this season, one has to wonder how much value Roma can extract from those final two years.
All of which begs the question: what should we expect from the 2021 version of Javier Pastore?
How Much (and When) Will He Play?
The first half of this question is pretty easy to answer: not much. Since the 2010-2011 season, his last with Palermo, Pastore's playing time, both in terms of actual minutes played and percentage of his team's total minutes, have decreased in seven of the nine ensuing seasons.
From his 2014-2015 peak with PSG when he appeared in 80% of possible minutes, Pastore's share of match minutes has dropped precipitously, falling all the way down to 25.6% the following season and reaching new lows once he arrived in Roma: 17% in ‘18-’19 and a measly 15% in ‘19-’20.
Needless to say, Pastore's minutes will be extremely limited and must be managed meticulously in order to maximize his contributions. The days of Pastore starting and even playing an hour have likely gone the way of the dodo.
So the better question to ask is when will Pastore play? He may only be 30-years-old, but for all intents and purposes, Paulo Fonseca needs to treat him like a 37 or 38-year-old Francesco Totti, carefully choosing when to make the most of what will likely be 15 to 20-minute cameos in the near-term.
In that sense, we can think of Pastore like a closer in baseball or a three-point specialist in the NBA; a player with one specific job. If the match is deadlocked and Roma are in need of some last-minute inspiration, you could do a lot worse than bringing on a guy with Pastore's skillset. In such a limited role, you need a player who can impact the match with one pass, one well-timed cross, or even just a cheeky flick into the box. Those skills and situations don't require a lot of warm-up, so even if he's been rooted to the bench for 75 minutes, Pastore's touch and intelligence can swing a match in a matter of seconds.
If Roma can use Pastore as anything more than a late-match specialist, they should consider themselves extremely lucky. But now that we have an inkling of when he'll play, we have to address the bigger question.
Where Will He Play?
A year ago, this question was a no-brainer: in the hole. But since Paulo Fonseca's famous switch to the 3-4-2-1 formation last summer, a dyed in the wool trequartista like Pastore is suddenly miscast. In fact, Pastore has played only 15 matches for Fonseca in all competitions since the start of the 2019-2020 season, all of which came under Fonseca's more traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, with Pastore sitting in the hole behind the striker.
But if we look to Pastore's past, both at PSG and his one season with Eusebio Di Francesco at Roma, clues emerge. During his time in Paris, Pastore played for four different managers (Antoine Kombouare, Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, and Unai Emery), each of whom were devotees to variants of the four-man backline, and each of whom used Pastore in slightly different ways.
Under Kombouaré, Pastore was strictly a trequartista, but Ancelotti, Blanc, and Emery each tapped into El Flaco's attacking versatility. With Ancelotti, Pastore was initially used mostly as a forward alongside and slightly behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic but was deployed all over midfield during Ancelotti's second and final season in France in 2012-2013. With Blanc, Pastore spent the bulk of his time as a wide forward in a 4-3-3, sitting to Ibra's left, but played as a more traditional midfielder in Blanc's final season in charge; a pattern that continued under Emery.
In that light, if Pastore is able to contribute anything to this current Roma side, it'll likely come in relief of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who sits just behind and to the left of Edin Dzeko (or now Borja Mayoral), similar enough to Pastore's supporting role behind Ibrahimovic. But given Pastore's skill and vision, he could easily fill in for Pedro and play in tandem with Mkhitaryan as well.
The acquisition of Stephan El Shaarawy throws a few wrinkles into this, but game states should dictate who is the first man off the bench. If Roma are down and need a direct goal-scoring threat, you turn to El Shaarawy. If, however, the match is tied and Roma are having difficulty unpacking a compact defense, Pastore may be the first man off the bench.
If we wanted to dig really deep into Pastore's career, particularly the manner in which Blanc and Emery used him as a substitute during his final days with PSG, then El Flaco the forward suddenly becomes a rawboned regista. While it wasn't a regular role, Pastore served as a deep-lying playmaker several times for PSG (and even with Roma on a few occasions), where his vision and passing helped kick the attack into gear. He won't provide much actual defensive cover in these scenarios (and he may even be a liability), but his ability to create from deep effectively helps Roma's transition play skip a step—it's a tradeoff Fonseca may prefer when times get desperate.
Final Thoughts On an El Flaco Comeback
TL;DR. Javier Pastore's touch, vision, and passing should help Roma in short bursts in multiple roles.
Roma's near €50 million investment in Javier Pastore has been an unmitigated disaster and was perhaps the biggest stain of Monchi's tenure as the club's Director of Sport. And barring some sort of miraculous recovery, there's no removing the stink of that deal. It is what it is, and rather than beating a dead horse or dwelling on what-ifs, Roma needs to focus on finding value in Pastore's remaining years with the club.
Whether you call it ironic or just pure coincidence, Pastore's age-defying traits—his touch, passing, and vision—are exactly what this team needs right now. In short 10 to 15-minute burst, Pastore can potentially provide the linking play, the final touch, and the quick decision-making that the club’s second unit has lacked at various points this season.
Furthermore, thanks to his versatility, Pastore can provide a boost to Roma in all three phases: defense, transition, and attack. Whether he's starting the counter-attack, ensuring its transition through the midfield, or providing the final touch into the box, Pastore can still be a pivotal piece for Roma down the stretch.
None of that justifies his price tag or salary, but if Roma wants to extract anything from Pastore's remaining years with the club, this is the only way. And it may just be the shot in the arm Roma needs down the stretch.