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Injuries Prevented Roma’s Midfield From Truly Shining

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Despite the overall mediocre season for the Giallorossi, individually most of the men in the middle of the park were actually pretty good this season. Nevertheless, injuries to that position group halted Roma’s top 4 hopes.

Manchester United v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Semi Final: Leg One Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Matches are often won in the center of the park. With so much turf to patrol, midfielders are often the most important players on the pitch, as they link the play between offense and defense. The men in the heart of the formation are relied to work hard on both ends of the pitch, both snuffing out opponents’ opportunities and helping their own side create goal-scoring chances.

So, just how did Roma’s midfield perform this season? Let’s take a closer look.

The Best & Worst Case Scenarios Revisited

Best Case Scenario in September

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.

Looking back after a long and trying season for the Giallorossi, a lot of the best-case scenarios did play themselves out. Unfortunately, we never did see that late-season return of Zaniolo to put Roma over the top in the Champions League race or even the slightest contribution from Pastore. However, Mkhitaryan, Veretout, and Pellegrini were arguably three of the best players on the squad this season.

Villar also ended up being one of Roma’s breakout performers before fading late in the season. Cristante was that jack of all trades player—albeit in defense. Yet, despite many of those best-case scenarios playing out, the midfield still left something to be desired.

Worst Case Scenario Revisited

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.

Unfortunately, despite some of the best-case scenarios playing out, the worst-case scenarios still appeared. Zaniolo’s absences did weigh heavily on the Giallorossi. Unable to adequately replace his physical presence, Roma’s attacking midfield lacked bite at times.

Meanwhile, as we feared, his absence meant more work for Mkhitaryan, who eventually succumbed to injury himself. And Veretout ended up being overworked, which led him to eventually breaking down late in the season. Diawara also missed more than a dozen games and was inconsistent at best.

Luckily, Pellegrini didn’t wilt under the Roman heat and Villar showed he’s more than just a flash in the pan. But, in the end, the injuries were too much for the Giallorossi to overcome in the latter part of the season.

Player Reviews & Ratings: The Midfielders

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

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

AS Roma v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 46 games played
  • 15 goals (vs. 15.0 xG)
  • 11 assists (vs. 9.9 xA)
  • 0.59 Goal Creating Actions/90
  • 3.58 Shot Creating Actions/90

Season Summary

Mkhitaryan was the straw that stirred Roma’s drink this season. As the Armenian went, so did Roma’s attack. Early in the season, he was even being mentioned as one of the league MVPs for his blazing hot start. He couldn’t keep up that pace or stay healthy enough to remain in the league MVP discussions. However, being the first Roma player since Mo Salah to finish with the goal and assist season double-double in league play (12G, 11A) is nothing to be scoffed at.

Roma sorely missed his presence during his injury absence in March and April. There’s not much more to say—Mkhitaryan was Roma’s MVP hands down this season.

Outlook for Next Season

What happens with Mkhitaryan will be interesting. In most seasons, it would be a given that a player of Mkhi’s talent and production would be back, despite his advancing age. However, the arrival of Jose Mourinho adds an interesting caveat to this one.

Mkhitaryan played under Mourinho at Manchester United, in what was a disappointing spell. Even though there is talk of a two extension offer, his contract hasn’t officially been renewed yet. So, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s willing to return and play for The Special One again. If he’s back, I’d expect him to feature prominently on Roma’s left-wing in a 4-2-3-1 again.

Final Grade: 8 out of 10

If it wasn’t for the injuries and fatigue that eventually set in, this rating could’ve been even higher. Mkhitaryan was vital to Roma’s successes this season and being the first Lupi player with the league double-double since Mo Salah is nothing to sneeze at. One only wonders how much better his season could’ve been without the injuries.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Football Serie A Roma-SS Lazio Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 47 games played
  • 11 goals (vs. 9.6 xG)
  • 9 assists (vs. 10.2 xA)
  • 4.16 Shot Creating Actions/90
  • 0.50 Goal Creating Actions/90
  • 2.15 Key Passes/90
  • 7.00 Recoveries/90

Season Summary

Roma’s newest Roman captain took the next step in his development after a fairly disappointing 2019-2020 season. Much like with Mkhitaryan, Pellegrini was key in Roma’s ability to unlock opposing defenses. The Roman still has his detractors, but when he’s allowed to play the trequartista role, he creates plenty. His assist total was second-best on the team. Meanwhile, he led the side in shot-creating actions and key passes per 90.

Additionally, we saw a greater willingness from Pellegrini to get into passing lanes and work to win the ball back for Fonseca’s side. On the defensive side of the ball, Pellegrini saw an uptick in his tackles and interceptions compared to last season. Additionally, he was a workhorse, playing the second-most minutes on the team (3,390).

Outlook for Next Season

After just being installed as Roma’s captain, Pellegrini looks to play a prominent role moving forward. At 24 years of age, the Roman is entering his prime years and could improve his game even more under Mourinho’s tutelage. Pellegrini looks like he could slot right into the trequartista role of Mou’s 4-2-3-1 formation, much like Wesley Sneijder did on Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter side.

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

Pellegrini bounced back nicely from a disappointing ‘19-’20 campaign. The Roman took on a greater leadership role this season and even upped his defensive ante just a bit—no longer looking like a liability in slowing down opposing attacks. Most encouraging though was him rediscovering his goalscoring boots. After scoring just three times last season, Pellegrini hit 11 this time around.

Jordan Veretout

Manchester United v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Semi Final: Leg One Photo by Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 38 games played
  • 11 goals (8.9 xG)
  • 4 assists (3.4 xA)
  • 2.36 Shot Creating Actions/90
  • 4.77 Progressive Passes/90
  • 7.47 Recoveries/90

Season Summary

Veretout continues to be Roma’s engine in the midfield, but the engine was run just a bit too hard this season. With Cristante often playing in defense this season, Veretout had to pick up even more minutes in the center of the park. Sooner or later, the workload in a compressed season was bound to catch up with Veretout and when the Frenchman went down, the Giallorossi badly missed his presence. Roma’s second-half swoon accelerated when he was injured in early March against Fiorentina.

When he was healthy Veretout was a key cog in Roma’s counter-attack. His high recovery rate and progressive passing helped spring numerous counters. Meanwhile, he chipped in 11 goals, which isn’t too shabby for a central midfielder—even if six were from the penalty spot.

Outlook for Next Season

You’d think Roma will have some Champions League caliber clubs come knocking on its door for Veretout. It’ll be interesting to see if the Frenchman could be lured away for the prestige of Champions League football. If he sticks around then he should be a favorite of Mourinho’s for his grit and hustle in the midfield. He should continue to be the box-to-box workhorse in Roma’s midfield with a more defensive partner.

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

What more can be said about Veretout’s importance to his side? The Frenchman is the engine in Roma’s midfield and the team’s downturn in results coincided with his injury absence. He gets it done on both ends of the pitch and his nose for goal was something Roma lacked from the deep midfield in his absence.

Gonzalo Villar

Gonzalo Villar of AS Roma in action during the Serie A 2020/... Photo by Fabrizio Carabelli/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 47 games played
  • 89.8% pass completion %
  • 2.21 Tackles/90
  • 5.17 Progressive Passes/90
  • 8.67 Recoveries/90

Season Summary

Villar built on the promise that he started to display during last season’s restart. The youngster showed that he more than belongs in Italy’s top flight after arriving at Roma in January 2019 from the Spanish Segunda division. Villar had the most progressive passes among Roma regulars and completed 89.7% of his passes in total. The defensive side of his game needs some refining, as he was dribbled past more than anyone else in the side. That being said, he was third on the team with 2.20 tackles per 90.

Villar began to fade as the season went on. That was likely an effect of the busy schedule on a player yet to play a full season of top-flight football.

Outlook for Next Season

Like Veretout, there will likely be some big clubs ringing Tiago Pinto’s phone lines to at least inquire about Villar. The young Spaniard excels in a more possession-based style, which isn’t really what we expect to see from Mourinho. Villar likely would’ve been ideally suited for Sarri Ball rather than Mourinho’s grind-it-out style. So, if the right offer comes in, it’s possible Roma sells Villar for a plusvalenza to finance a move for a more defensively minded midfielder.

If he is back next season, then the Spaniard should continue to grow. One benefit of Mourinho’s presence could be Villar harnessing his willingness on defense to be more effective at breaking up the opponent’s play.

Final Grade: 6.5 out of 10

Villar really started to blossom this season. The young Spaniard added a new dimension to Roma’s midfield by showing the ability to wriggle out of pressure, while not being afraid to stick a foot in on defense. If not for a late-season downturn in form this grade would’ve been a bit higher.

Amadou Diawara

Manchester United v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Semi Final: Leg One Photo by Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 28 Games Played
  • 8.56 Recoveries/90
  • 89% Passing Completion

Season Summary

It was an overall disappointing season for Diawara. At times we saw flashes of the regista we thought Roma was getting last season, but never consistently enough. His season was interrupted twice—once for Covid and once through injury—which didn’t help him get into a consistent rhythm.

Diawara was serviceable but he didn't look like the standout player in the making he was during his Bologna days. Overall, I have to say he was underwhelming at best.

Outlook for Next Season

Diawara falls into a similar situation as Villar when taking into consideration Mourinho’s system. Being more of a regista than a defensive midfielder it’s hard to see how he fits Mourinho’s football. In some ways, I think it’s even more likely that he is sold than Villar after multiple disappointing seasons in the capital. He’s still young enough to turn his career around, but I’m not so sure that Roma is the right place for that to happen.

Final Grade: 5.5 out of 10

When picking apart Diawara’s numbers, nothing about his season stood out other than a high passing completion percentage. And the fact that he didn’t shine defensively like we thought he would makes Diawara’s season an overall disappointment.

Bryan Cristante

Spezia Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 48 matches played
  • 5.10 passes into final 13 per 90
  • 10.7 completed long balls/90
  • 3.44 clearances/90
  • 8.90 recoveries/90

Season Summary

This season Cristante was the ultimate team player, by moving out of the midfield and into a libero role in the back three. And he performed admirably there for the most part, at times even being Roma’s best defender.

As the season wore on and Paulo Fonseca moved back to a 4-2-3-1, Cristante moved back into the center of the park. Those few matches should work to his benefit looking ahead to next season in Mourinho’s system.

Outlook for Next Season

With Mourinho taking over and Roma likely moving full-time to a four-man backline, Cristante should return to being a full-time midfielder. He’s not a sure-fire starter but should be an important piece of the midfield rotation. If he’s paired with a more defensive partner, we could see him play the more box-to-box role where his goalscoring ability could also be better utilized. Mourinho should also love his grinta, leadership, and willingness to sacrifice for the team.

Final Grade: 6.5 out of 10

The majority of this grade comes from Cristante stepping in as a center-back this season. And although we haven’t seen the player that scored nine goals in the season before Roma purchased him from Atalanta, he has become an important member of this squad. Kudos to Cristante for taking one for the team and playing a solid center back for most of this season.

Javier Pastore

Javier Pastore of AS Roma warms up during the Serie A 2020/... Photo by Fabrizio Carabelli/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 82 Minutes Played

Season Summary

It was another season mostly lost to injury for Pastore. The man once labeled Monchi’s marquee signing has been nothing short of a failure in the Italian capital. The most frustrating part of it is, the few times he saw the pitch this season you could just see the quality he possesses.

He’s the classic case of “what if he wasn’t injured...” One thinks with his class on the pitch consistently, Roma would’ve been much more successful at breaking down opposing defenses.

Outlook for Next Season

Roma will again look to offload Pastore and his big salary this summer. We shall see if they’re successful this time around.

Final Grade: 1 out of 10

There’s no getting around the fact that Pastore played the equivalent of less than one whole match this season.

Ebrima Darboe

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

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 6 Matches Played
  • 95.4% passing completion
  • 6.51 progressive passes/90
  • 10.7 Recoveries/90

Season Summary

Darboe wasn’t even included in our preseason midfield preview, but thanks to some injuries he made the move up from the Primavera. In his handful of appearances, Darboe showed that he belongs at the senior level even at just 19-years-old. His game still needs some refining, as evidenced by a few misplaced passes against Spezia in the last match. However, Darboe shows the personality, talent, technique, and footballing IQ to carve out a long-term role with the club.

Outlook for Next Season

Darboe has certainly shown the potential that he has as a footballer. With Jose Mourinho coming in, it’ll be interesting to see if he has a large role to play. If the Special One wants to bleed a few youngsters into his squad, then he could make his mark. However, if he’s not going to have a role, then Roma would probably wise to loan him out for regular playing time to accelerate his growth.

Final Grade: Incomplete

Nicolo Zaniolo

Holland v Italy -UEFA Nations league Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images

Season Summary

Unfortunately for Zaniolo and Roma, the Italian never actually played in a match this season after being injured playing for Italy in the Nations League right before the season kicked off. He’s been cleared to resume full training just this past week. This brings us to...

Outlook for Next Season

If Zaniolo comes back fully fit then he will be an important building block in Mourinho’s Roma. His pace and physical dribbling would be ideal in Mourinho’s counter-attack. The Portuguese tactician must be looking forward to working with one of the peninsula’s most promising talents and the feeling certainly has to be mutual as Zaniolo seeks to revitalize his career.

Final Grade: N/A

Final Thoughts on the Midfield

When looking at Roma’s overall midfield performances, they left a lot to be desired. Collectively the midfield was often overrun and too frequently hung the defense out to dry. That was a big reason for Roma’s defensive woes this season.

Nevertheless, when you pick the midfield apart piece by piece, there is plenty of reason for optimism. From Henrikh Mkhitaryan being Roma’s MVP to Gonzalo Villar emerging as a starting-caliber midfielder to Lorenzo Pellegrini taking the next step in his development to Jordan Veretout being, well, Jordan Veretout, there was a lot to like from individual players. Plus, when you throw in Bryan Cristante’s adaptability and Ebrima Darboe’s potential, Jose Mourinho has quite a bit to work with moving forward if he so chooses.

It’s just unfortunate for Paulo Fonseca that Mkhitaryan and Veretout went down right in the thick of such a busy and important stretch back in March. It was those injuries, along with those at a few other positions (namely Leonardo Spinazzola and Chris Smalling), that really killed Roma’s league campaign dead in its tracks.

If Veretout and Mkhitaryan don’t go down, we could’ve seen a much different last twelve match weeks to Roma’s league campaign. Perhaps even one where the Giallorossi were fighting tooth and nail for a top-four finish till the bitter end. Nevertheless, the facts are the facts, and despite some nice individual seasons that will give us reason to hope in this position group moving forward, the injuries were just too much to overcome in such a compressed season.