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Borja's Breakout Was the Bright Spot Among Roma's Inconsistent Forward Play

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A little known Madrid cast off a year ago to 17 goals in his debut season with Roma, Borja Mayoral made quite the impression this year. The rest of Roma's forwards—not so much.

AS Roma v Bologna FC - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With Roma's Matchday 38 fixture against Spezia officially in the books, we can finally put a bow on the Giallorossi's 2020-2021 season. Starting with their 3-0 “loss” to Hellas Verona in week one (the infamous Diawara age listing error) and ending with Sunday's draw against Spezia, Roma took part in 53 competitive matches this year. Ranging from the highs (eight wins in ten to start the season, advancing to the Europa League semifinals) to the lows (pretty much all of April, and especially the 6-2 drubbing from Manchester United) the 2020-2021 calcio calendar was jam-packed with excitement, intrigue, and yes, despair.

While Roma’s backroom staff is busy filing away the Fonseca Football® manuals in the club's Hall of Failed Projects, we can finally start prepping ourselves for the club's Mourinho Makeover. However, before we dive headlong into what makes The Special One so special, let's take one final look at the last vestiges of Paulo Fonseca's Roma by reviewing the player's performances this season.

And we're starting season review...umm, season...with the men who score the goals: the forwards.

Best & Worst-Case Scenarios Revisited

Edin Dzeko of As Roma (L) talks with his teammate Borja... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Back in late September, when prepping for the pandemic-delayed 2020-2021 season, in addition to previewing individual players, we tried to set expectations for each position, detailing the best and worst outcomes for each positional group. So, before we dissect the Dzekos and Mayorals of it all, let's see how these scenarios unfolded.

The Best-Case Scenario in September

...the best-case scenario for Roma’s forwards would see Dzeko and the wingers and/or inside forwards working as an amorphous blob, changing shape, positions, and roles as needed or dictated by the defense. With Pedro and Pérez’s ability to work out-wide as traditional wingers or move centrally and operate as second-strikers or number tens, Roma’s forwards should keep defenses guessing, giving Fonseca the freedom to change tactics in the attacking phases/areas as he sees fit.

Roma may not have done much work on the transfer market, but the blend of high-energy attacking wingers (Kluivert and Ünder) with the more versatile hybrid players (Pedro and Pérez) actually gives Fonseca an ideal blend of skills and abilities to shift between multiple formations. And when you throw in the club’s hybrid midfielders (Mkhitaryan, Pastore, and a healthy Zaniolo), then the permutations are practically limitless.

And if all that goes according to plan, we could see Roma’s forwards account for anywhere from 40 to 50 goals this season.

When we wrote the season previews, Roma was in the midst of remaking their front lines—eventually sending Kluivert and Ünder on loan and bringing Borja Mayoral aboard from Real Madrid—so our predictive powers were somewhat limited in this instance.

Having said that, Roma's forwards (Edin Dzeko, Borja Mayoral, Pedro, Carles Pérez, and Stephan El Shaarawy) combined to score 41 goals in all competitions this season, so they weren't that far off the best-case scenario, though that “40 to 50 goals this season” was meant to cover league play only, so we were left a bit disappointed.

With a club-leading 17 goals (all comps), Mayoral was easily the surprise of this positional group, while Dzeko, despite only finding the back of the net seven times in league play, ranked in the top 20 in total on-target shots, though his conversion rate in Serie A (10%) left a lot to be desired—so, pretty standard stuff from Dzeko if we're being honest.

The Worst-Case Scenario in September

When asking what doomsday looks like for Roma’s forwards, the conversation really starts and ends with Dzeko. If he remains isolated up-top and Roma’s inside forwards can’t exploit the spaces in-between the center-backs and full-backs, then there are no flick-ons, no diagonal balls, no one-twos and no spreading play; the attack will stagnate and Roma will lose the battle for space in the final third.

In essence, Roma’s worst-case scenario is this: Dzeko on an island, swarmed quickly by defenders once he receives the ball, while Roma’s wingers are easily closed out and/or fail to make use of the half-spaces around Dzeko. And without Nicolo Zaniolo running in behind them, Roma have practically no outlet valve, no last resort, no knight in shining armor.

This was true to an extent, especially during Dzeko's dry spells, and the fact that three of the club's five leading scorers were midfielders underscores the point: Roma's forwards were simply too inconsistent to rely upon this season. Throw in injuries to Zaniolo and Pastore and Pedro's hot-and-cold season, and it's no shock that Roma's forwards skewed more towards the worst-case than the best-case.

Okay, but what about the individual performances?

Player Reviews & Ratings: The Forwards

For each of Roma's five forwards, we'll offer a quick look at their individual highs and lows and then assign each player a numerical grade out of 10.

First up, the Bosnian Batistuta.

Edin Dzeko

Edin Dzeko of As Roma looks on during the Serie A match... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 38 games played
  • 13 goals (vs. 17.5 xG)
  • 4 assists (vs. 4 xA)
  • 41% S.O.T.
  • 15% Conversion rate
  • 0.92 key passes per match

Season Summary

Despite seeing a sharp drop in goals scored, appearances, minutes played, and pretty much any statistic you can think of, Dzeko still proved his worth with his back to the goal, so to speak. And while it may be hard to precisely quantify, Dzeko is still able to influence a match when he’s not scoring goals. To wit, Dzeko's goal and shot-creating tallies, expected assists (per 90), and key passes (per 90) were in keeping with his Roma career numbers, suggesting that his ability to create for his teammates remains an understated but effective component of Dzeko's game.

If all of that sounds like we're grasping at straws, well, we are. You pay strikers to score and to score efficiently; two areas Dzeko has struggled mightily in as he progresses through his 30s.

Outlook for Next Season

Well, if you believe the papers, Dzeko may be lapping it up in sunny Los Angeles next season, as he's been linked with a move to the LA Galaxy in MLS. With Roma connected to seemingly every striker on the market, all signs point towards Dzeko leaving the Eternal City this summer—a rather ignominious ending for the club's third all-time leading scorer but the timing finally feels right after years of Dzeko flirting with Inter Milan and Juventus, among others.

Final Grade: 6 out of 10

Bagging 13 goals in all comps isn't bad, but think of how much better it could have been if Dzeko were a tad more clinical.

Borja Mayoral

Torino FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Matteo Bottanelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 45 games played
  • 17 goals (vs. 14 xG)
  • 6 assists (vs. 2.8 xA)
  • 47% S.O.T.
  • 27% Conversion rate
  • 0.78 key passes per match

Season Summary

With Roma spending part of the summer “chasing” one young but slightly disappointing Real Madrid striker (Luka Jovic), they surprised us all by pivoting to a lesser-known wantaway Madrid youngster, Borja Mayoral; a forward rumored to be held in higher esteem by Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. Arriving in Roma on a two-year loan, Mayoral was slow to acclimate to life in Italy, but once he did, he was essentially the anti-Dzeko, scoring with alarming efficiency.

After starting the season leading the line for Roma's B-Team in the Europa League, where he scored three goals in six group stage matches, Mayoral gradually acclimated to life in Serie A, bagging 10 goals in 30 league appearances, converting goals at an astounding 26% rate, putting him just outside the top 20 league-wide.

Mayoral may not be the strongest or swiftest striker to ever set foot on a Serie A pitch, but his first year in Roma was an unqualified success, as he flashed solid off-the-ball movement, surprising touch/playmaking, and an absolutely killer eye for goal.

Outlook for Next Season

Coming to the Italian capital on a two-year loan, Roma's Mayoral experiment will continue through June of 2022. Roma GM Tiago Pinto could opt to exercise a €15 million purchase option this summer, but with the change in managers, he may prefer to let Mourinho work with him for a year before deciding whether or not to invest any further into the 24-year-old Spanish striker.

Either way, if Dzeko leaves Roma this season, Mayoral will reprise his role alongside whatever striker Pinto manages to sign this summer.

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

We knew next to nothing about him a year ago, but 17 goals and 6 assists was a hell of an introduction.

Pedro

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Claudio Pasquazi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 40 games played
  • 6 goals (vs. 7.7 xG)
  • 5 assists (vs. 5.4 xA)
  • 35% S.O.T.
  • 11% Conversion rate
  • 1.1 key passes per match

Season Summary

If ever there were a case study in the rewards and pitfalls of signing 30+ year old forwards, Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma is surely it. Signed as a free agent after a successful stint with Chelsea, the 33-year-old forward/winger signed a three-year deal with Roma. Taking advantage of a new Italian tax law ostensibly designed to prevent brain drain from the peninsula, Roma got a honey of a deal for the Spanish forward, paying less than his actual €3 million per season salary would suggest.

And when the season started, this signing looked like a masterstroke. With four goals and one assist through his first 10 matches in a Roma shirt, Pedro brought a level of intelligence, tactical knowledge, and poise Roma's relatively young roster desperately craved. Roma's attack wasn't perfect, but adding Pedro's veteran know-how seemed like an ideal complement.

But then the wheels fell off. After his hot start to the season, Pedro's performances took a nosedive, failing to score a goal or register an assist for nearly three months. Minor injuries played a part, but Pedro quickly began to show his age as the calendar flipped to 2021. He rebounded nicely down the stretch, chalking up three assists and one goal in his final 12 appearances.

Outlook for Next Season

Considering his experience and Italy's favorable tax laws, Pedro was a relatively low-risk, high-reward signing but something tells me the final two years of his contract will be excruciatingly long. Pedro will be 34-years-old when next season begins, so we're not likely to see an uptick in his performances but he does have a shared history with Roma's new manager, José Mourinho, scoring seven goals and chipping in three assists for The Special One during the 2015-2016 season with Chelsea.

Roma's transfer market activity will likely dictate how large Pedro's role is next season, but if Henrikh Mkhitaryan opts to sign elsewhere this summer, Pedro's experience will remain a valuable asset for Roma.

Final Grade: 5 out of 10

People will likely complain about his wages, but when you consider the tax loopholes Roma exploited, Pedro is a relatively low-cost veteran role player. We've certainly seen worse.

Carles Pérez

Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Stanislav Vedmid/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 31 games played
  • 3 goals (vs. 4.5 xG)
  • 2 assists (vs. 3.1 xA)
  • 35% S.O.T.
  • 8% Conversion rate
  • 0.67 key passes per match

Season Summary

A 2020 winter transfer, Pérez showed some intermittent flashes during his first six months with the club, scoring one goal and registering three assists in 14 appearances in the second half of last season. However, the 23-year-old Pérez failed to take a step forward this season. Blessed with extraordinary speed and agility, Pérez failed to capitalize on those traits, bagging only three goals in 31 appearances—a slightly deceiving number when you consider he played little more than 1,300 minutes all season.

With only a dozen starts and seven full 90s this season, Pérez struggled to impress Paulo Fonseca and remained on the periphery for most of the season, though he did turn in a man of the match performance against Cagliari late in the season, scoring a goal and providing an assist in Roma's 3-2 victory in late April.

Outlook for Next Season

If this were a Magic 8-Ball, the response would be an unequivocal “Outlook not so good.” At only 23-years-old and with three years remaining on his deal, Pérez has time on his side but he'll need an impressive summer training camp to work his way into Mourinho's heart. Failing that, Pérez seems like an ideal short-term loan candidate; the type of player who would benefit from a year away from the Roman hothouse.

Final Grade: 5 out of 10

After his first 18 months in Rome, Pérez looks like the latest in a long line of young, pacey wingers who have failed to carve out a niche with the capital club. The potential remains but 2021 will likely be make or break for Pérez's Giallorossi career.

While Nicolo Zaniolo, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Javier Pastore sometimes feel like forwards, they're officially listed as midfielders, so we'll end our review with Roma's last remaining forward: Stephan El Shaarawy.

Stephan El Shaarawy

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 14 games played
  • 2 goal (vs. 2.2 xG)
  • 2 assists (vs. 1.7 xA)
  • 47% S.O.T.
  • 10% Conversion rate
  • 1.3 key passes per match

Season Summary

A reunion long in the making, El Shaarawy finally found his way back to Rome in January, after nearly making the switch late last summer. Plagued by a string of minor injuries this spring, El Shaarawy struggled to get into a groove, robbing us of the real SES—the streaky but explosive scorer, capable of winning matches with daring strikes from every conceivable angle.

Outlook for Next Season

Considering his injuries and the disappointment of not making Roberto Mancini's Italy roster for next month's European Championships, it's safe to say that the 2020-2021 season was a wash for El Shaarawy. With Mourinho in tow, El Shaarawy will look to reassert himself in Roma and Italy's pecking order. If The Special One opts for a 4-2-3-1 foundation, expect El Shaarawy's goal-scoring numbers to increase dramatically, particularly if he can rekindle his chemistry with Edin Dzeko—or start off on the right foot with Andrea Belotti/Mauro Icardi/Wout Weghorst or whatever transfer rumor tickles your fancy.

Final Grade: Incomplete

El Shaarawy was a feel-good story this January but we barely saw him, so it doesn't feel fair to give him a definitive grade.

Final Thoughts on the Forwards

When we previewed this bunch back in September, we envisioned Justin Kluivert, Cengiz Ünder, and Pedro working in conjunction with Edin Dzeko to beat back opponents. While it wouldn't have been a perfect facsimile of Roma's Dzeko/El Shaarawy/Salah trio from 2016-2017, the speed surrounding Dzeko this season felt familiar enough to that record-setting Spalletti crew.

However, once the season began, Kluivert and Ünder were quickly shown the door leaving Dzeko to work with the aging and inconsistent Pedro and the young and inconsistent Carles Pérez. When you consider the fact that Dzeko is hardly the picture of consistency or efficiency himself, this was hardly a sustainable plan. Things became even bleaker when Dzeko and Paulo Fonseca had their mid-season feud, which resulted in Dzeko being stripped of the captain's armband and indirectly led to more league playing time for Mayoral.

No matter who Fonseca slotted upfront, the results were often left wanting, as Roma's forwards were collectively inconsistent, inefficient, and failed to show up in big matches; three trends that were major factors in Roma's seventh-place finish.

While one never wants to read too much into transfer rumors, particularly when the club is transitioning to a new manager and a new approach, the majority of the Italian press are suggesting a change up top for the Giallorossi.

And at this point, that may be the best course of action. Mayoral certainly exceeded expectations this year but he's not exactly a complete striker and most of his goals came while feasting against smaller clubs. None of this is to suggest he can't take another step forward next season, but Mourinho will likely want additional options beyond the 24-year-old.

With a new manager in tow and arguably the club's greatest-ever striker leaving town this summer, we're in for some monumental changes. And one gets the feeling that finding The Special One a special striker will be job number one for Tiago Pinto this summer.

Poll

Who was Roma's best forward this season?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Edin Dzeko
    (96 votes)
  • 72%
    Borja Mayoral
    (272 votes)
  • 0%
    Pedro
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Stephan El Shaarawy
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Carles Pérez
    (2 votes)
375 votes total Vote Now