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Finally Healthy, Rick Karsdorp is Living Up to the Hype

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After years of sprain, strains and tears, Rick Karsdorp can finally smile again. And thanks to his stellar play, Roma fans are grinning just as much.

AS Roma v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Rick Karsdorp just looks like a Roma player, doesn't he? From the neck tattoos to the slicked-back hair to the steely-eyed, thousand-yard stare that seems to reflect all the joys and horrors of following AS Roma, Karsdorp could practically be the cover boy for the Roma experience. So when the club threw down €14 million (plus €5 million in bonuses) in the summer of 2017 to land the then 22-year-old Dutchman, Karsdorp felt like a lock to become a fan favorite.

While he wasn't necessarily cut from the same wild cloth as Philippe Mexes—a player with all the self-composure of a toddler at a museum who still managed to delight Roma fans despite his penchant for yellow cards—Karsdorp had that same aura; of a guy who would take to life in the capital immediately, winning fans over with his aggressive style and passionate play. Karsdorp felt like a natural addition to a dressing room that featured adopted Romans like Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, not to mention Aleksandar Kolarov, who managed the almost impossible feat of making Roma fans forget and forgive his Lazio past.

While few among us could claim to be Karsdorp experts in 2017, at first blush the young Dutchman was incredibly impressive. Hidden behind all those tattoos and underneath that finely coiffed hair was a six-foot-tall bundle of energy, a player who could dribble past opponents just as soon (and just as easily) as he'd run them over. Karsdorp had the power and panache of fan favorites like Mexes and Nainggolan but was a quiet assassin in the mold of a David Pizzaro or Simone Perrotta. Karsdorp managed to remain understated yet somehow brash; a strange and seemingly contradictory combination that you can really only find in Rome.

With a quick first step and an impressive bag of skills he honed during his days as an attacking midfielder, the Philip Lahm comparisons he carried with him didn't seem that absurd. But there was steak beneath all that sizzle—Karsdorp dished out an impressive 14 assists in his final two seasons with Feyenoord.

Roma had swung and missed in their prior attempts to secure their right-back of the future, Bruno Peres, who, for a variety of reasons, never lived up to the enormous potential he flashed with Torino prior to signing with Roma. But Karsdorp, in form, function, and fashion, seemed like the cure to Roma's troubles at the position.

But (and there’s always a but), there was one small issue: he was already hurt. Like, as soon as they signed him. Needless to say, it wasn't a good omen for the beginning of Karsdorp's time in the capital.

2017-2019: Injuries Threaten to Derail Karsdorp's Roma Career

Rick Karsdorp during the Italian Serie A football match... Photo by Silvia Loré/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

After tearing his left meniscus in the spring of 2017 with Feyenoord, the start of Karsdorp's Roma career was delayed nearly two months. An inauspicious start for sure, especially when you consider Roma's history with knee injuries, but the wait was well worth it.

After spending the first several weeks of the 2017-2018 season rehabbing from his meniscus repair, Karsdorp's long-awaited debut came at the Olimpico on October 25, 2017, against Crotone. And for the first 81 minutes, Karsdorp was a revelation and seemed poised to solve Roma's decades-old right-back riddle.

With one shot on goal, two successful dribbles, five passes into the final third, one tackle, and 10 recoveries, Karsdorp was as advertised: confident, aggressive, and dynamic. But his impressive debut quickly soured in the 82nd minute when Karsdorp suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, effectively erasing his debut season with Roma before it even began and putting his young career on ice for nearly a year.

Karsdorp would return to the pitch on August 31, 2018, during Roma's week three fixture against AC Milan. But unfortunately, the good news stopped there. Suffering from a spate of muscle strains, Karsdorp missed nearly three months of action during the 2018-2019 season, making only 14 appearances for Roma in all competitions that season.

But, somehow, things got even worse for young Karsdorp and Roma after that. With Alessandro Florenzi and Davide Santon entrenched as the club's top right-backs, Roma took the rather dramatic step of returning Karsdorp to Feyenoord, loaning out the Dutchman for the 2019-2020 season.

However, it was far from a happy homecoming for the kid from Rotterdam, as it didn't take long for his injuries to catch up with him...again. While his knees remained intact, Karsdorp was felled by a groin injury that kept him shelved for nearly two-and-a-half months. All told, Karsdorp saw roughly 1,100 minutes with Feyenoord last season, and while there were intermittent rumors that he'd make the stay permanent, Karsdorp returned to Roma this summer, healthy but with an uncertain future.

2020: A Fresh Opportunity and a New Lease on Life

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-ROMA-SPEZIA Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

While no one quite realized it at the time, that uncertainty was a two-way street. With Alessandro Florenzi returning from an unproductive loan spell with Valencia and Paulo Fonseca unable to convince him to stay, Roma's captain was quickly loaned to PSG, making Bruno Peres the club's de facto starter at right-back. Peres may have been one of the stories of the 2020 restart, but his time with Roma was only marginally more productive than Karsdorp's, so the position remained up for grabs.

With money tight and loan options scant, Roma really had no other choice but to give Karsdorp a proper look—although they nearly sent him to Atalanta, so he was still facing an uphill climb despite Roma's lack of other options. But after a couple of impressive performances during Roma's preseason, the confluence of timing, health, and opportunity led us to ask whether or not Karsdorp could finally make a name for himself with Roma.

Given his injury history and the simple fact that Roma sent him back to Feyenoord, just making the squad and carving out a role would have been considered progress for Karsdorp.

Seriously, just stop and think about how disastrous the first 24 months of Karsdorp's Roma career was: He was injured when they signed him, rehabbed for over two months just to make his club debut and when he finally got on the pitch, he shredded his ACL. But it keeps going. He recuperates for a year and then gets waylaid by a series of new injuries, limiting him to just 14 appearances. And as if all that wasn't bad enough, Karsdorp had to endure the ignominy of returning to his old club, where he barely...barely...played better than his brief stint with Roma.

Things were so bleak for Karsdorp, that low threshold—just making the squad—felt like an admirable goal. In some ways, Karsdorp was like a minor league baseball player in his early 30s you see on some Sunday morning ESPN fluff piece—the guy toiling away in AAA for over a decade, desperately hanging on for just one at-bat in the bigs.

The bar was really that low for Karsdorp, but the now 26-year-old has been so much more than a warm body; he's quietly becoming one of the league's most dangerous attacking wing-backs.

Don't believe me? Check out these figures:

Karsdorp vs. Other Fullbacks: Standard Per 90 Minute Stats
Fbref.com

As you can see, Karsdorp stacks up pretty well against other Serie A full-backs, particularly in terms of assists, where he ranks in the 89th percentile, a number that jumps up to the 91st percentile when stacked against full-backs from Europe's top five leagues. In terms of gross figures, Karsdorp's five assists are tied with Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado and Verona's Marco Faraoni for the top mark among Serie A full-backs, while his 20 key passes rank ninth among that same population. (All stats are through Round 26).

What's interesting, however, is the nature of these assists and key passes. Averaging only 1.80 crosses per 90 minutes—the lowest mark since his ill-fated debut season with Roma—Karsdorp is becoming an elite (or at least above average) playmaker despite not playing like a typical full-back.

Through his first 22 appearances, Karsdorp has only played three crosses into the penalty area and only 35 total crosses in general. For reference, his partner on the opposite side, Leonardo Spinazzola, has played 16 crosses into the penalty area and 73 overall. Indeed, Karsdorp ranks only in the 17th percentile among Serie A full-backs for crosses into the penalty area.

None of this is to suggest that Karsdorp can't place a good cross, it’s simply that he's been much better when pumping through balls into the box. Karsdorp currently ranks in the 78th percentile in passes into the penalty area and in the 92nd percentile in through balls into the penalty area. (Spinazzola has been even better in these areas plus a better crosser of the ball, which has nothing to do with Karsdorp, but is worth mentioning in case you hadn't noticed how amazing he's been this year. Roma are very lucky to have both.)

It's kind of shocking to see Roma's two wing-backs operating so differently (at least in terms of the types of passes they play), and while we don't know if that's by luck or design, it's working, as they both rank among the best full-backs in the league in terms of key passes, assists, and goal-creating actions. And it's bitterly ironic that both players were afterthoughts last season: Karsdorp was sent back to Feyenoord while Spinazzola was nearly an Inter player as recently as last January, part of the ill-fated swap for Matteo Politano, who eventually moved to Napoli.

In order to understand what makes Karsdorp's performance this season so special, let's look at a few illustrative examples.

You can’t ask for a much better pass than this ball to Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Roma’s 2-1 loss to AC Milan. Karsdrop serves this ball up on a silver platter, covering more than 20 yards and meeting Mkhitaryan in stride, it’s just a shame that he couldn’t convert this key pass into an actual assist. But for Karsdorp's part, this was perfect. Had he tried to lob it over the top or keep it on the ground, I'm not sure a) the ball even reaches Mkhitaryan and b) if it does, it's likely a lot harder for him to corral and probably easier for the Milan defense to turn away.

Don't let Mkhitaryan's nonchalant chip fool you, this was a brilliant play from Karsdorp, even if it didn't produce a goal.

But there was no missing this one against Parma...

Great job from Pedro here to suck in the defense, giving Karsdorp that extra little space to fire the ball into Mkhitaryan. Karsdorp might have been able to take another touch here (or even cut in and attempted a left-footed shot), but he made the right call by immediately playing the ball towards the six-yard box. While Mkhitaryan had to hop a bit to pick the ball out of the air, Karsdorp's ball was ideal for that specific situation—had he played it lower, it would have been picked off rather easily, if not deflected straight away by the closest Parma defender. Just a great read and execution from Karsdorp to whip the ball towards the far post. You can't really overstate the amount of skill required to bend that ball at such a low trajectory, essentially curving it around and in front of three defenders.

In these next two plays, Karsdorp's touch and vision are still evident, but he brings his speed and balance to the fore, as well as his ability to contribute to broader, team-based attacking movements.

Here we can see Karsdorp out racing a defender down the right flank, beating him to the end-line. And with another defender quickly closing down on him, Karsdorp has the composure and presence of mind (not to mention the touch and vision) to set up Edin Dzeko at the far post. It may look like a pretty standard play, but a lesser (and weaker) full-back probably can't squeeze off such an accurate pass under such heavy duress.

This last clip showcases Karsdorp’s ability to work within a broader construct.

If you look really closely at the very beginning of this clip, you can see Karsdorp primed to break down the right flank the minute Gonzalo Villar settles the ball. By doing so, Karsdorp is already well into the flat on the right by the time Dzeko plays the ball his way. This is basically a three-touch move before Karsdorp even enters the picture but because he anticipated how this counter-attack was going to unfold, he was able to give Dzeko a target down the right-wing. And from there, he won the foot race down the flank, cut in on an almost 180-degree angle, pulled the final man out of position, and gave Mkhitaryan a wide-open tap-in goal.

Those are just a handful of examples of Karsdorp pulling the strings for Roma in attack, but Karsdorp has chipped in as a center-back and midfielder during Roma's various injury crises in 2020-2021. And in addition to his five assists, Karsdorp has one goal to his credit and has already eclipsed the 2,000-minute mark (all comps) for only the third time in his career.

While we've focused mostly on his playmaking via the through ball, Karsdorp ranks in the 83rd percentile in shot-creating actions, the 86th percentile in goal-creating actions, 71st in successful dribbles, and in the 75th percentile in the fewest times dispossessed, all of which shows how dangerous he is on the ball, despite not being the most prolific crosser.

There are some areas he still needs to address, particularly in defense where his rankings are all rather pedestrian. Some of his finer passing numbers (short passing, crosses into the penalty area, and progressive passing distance, to name a few) need work, but his shortfalls in those areas can be partially chalked up to Roma's tactical approach.

But when you think about how far Karsdorp has come over the past four years, his performance this season is nothing short of remarkable, and as we've just shown, he's among the most dangerous attacking full-backs in Serie A.

What's Next?

Football Serie A Roma-Genoa Photo by Massimo Di Vita/Archivio Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Well, with rumors of a new contract offer on the table, one that runs through 2025, Karsdorp figures to be part of Roma's second American Dream, remaining a key figure in an incredibly promising defensive unit that features young players like Roger Ibañez, Marash Kumbulla, and Bryan Reynolds, as well as fellow veterans like Chris Smalling, Bryan Cristante and Leonardo Spinazzola.

With his injuries woes behind him, at 26-years-old, Karsdorp is just now entering his physical peak, and if he can sustain and perhaps even improve on this form, his partnership with Spinazzola could be the envy of the league.

It's been a long crawl back to respectability for Rick Karsdorp but thanks to his perseverance, he's done so much more than earn respect. He's won the faith and admiration of his teammates and the Roma fanbase alike.

Karsdorp came to Roma full of promise but bruised and bloodied, and for a while, it seemed like his injuries would get the best of him, but after four long and trying years, the real Rick Karsdorp has emerged and Roma are the better for it.

Maybe Monchi was onto something after all.