There’s no doubting that Leonardo Spinazzola’s absence due to a torn Achilles tendon will be a major blow to the Giallorossi. After all, Spina proved to be one of Roma’s most devastating players last season and he continued that scintillating form into Euro 2020, where despite being injured in the quarterfinals, he was still named to the team of the tournament.
The Italian was putting it all together with his form finally beginning to match his natural physical talents. And Roma and Italy were all the better for it.
He even stayed healthy for much of the 2020-2021 season—a minor miracle given his past history. That was until his injury against Manchester United in the Europa League semifinal, which ended his domestic campaign in April. However, he looked to be no worse for wear upon his return with the Azzurri and appeared ready to take Serie A by storm again before that ill-fated sprint down the left flank against Belgium.
Alas, Roma and new manager José Mourinho will be without his services likely for six months, even though Spinazzola himself stated that he’s targeting a November return. Tiago Pinto has done his due diligence in finding a suitable replacement in the form of Matias Viña. However, Viña, like almost any other left-back in the world, doesn’t possess Spina’s attacking prowess.
He profiles more like a balanced left-back, one who can push into the attack well enough, but not someone who’s going to tear down the opponent’s flank like Spinazzola would. He’ll likely choose his spots a bit more.
But, no matter how devastating Spinazzola's loss will be, it could benefit another player on the team who doesn’t even play the same position—Rick Karsdorp.
Last season, Karsdorp, like Spinazzola, finally began to show the promise that Monchi saw in him when he dropped €16 million to bring him over from Feyenoord in the summer of 2017. Plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, the Dutchman had a tumultuous two seasons in the capital and was even loaned out to his old Eredivisie club in 2019, bu the homecoming wasn't what many expected and he was nearly sold to Atalanta last summer.
Luckily for the Giallorossi, that move fell through and at age 26 Karsdorp broke through wearing the lupetto on his chest and not la dea of Atalanta. In a season of so many lows for the Giallorossi, Karsdorp provided one of the highs by solving the club’s perpetual right-back issue. And this season, with Spina’s long-term absence, Karsdorp could be poised for an even grander campaign.
You might be wondering how the injury to Roma’s star left-back will benefit the club’s up-and-coming right-back, so let me explain.
Full-Back Tactics: One Attacks, One Stays Home
In his 4-2-3-1, Jose Mourinho has traditionally relied on one of his full-backs to bomb forward, while the other plays a more conservative game in the mold of an auxiliary central defender. For example, on Inter it was Maicon who would tear up and down the right flank, while players like Christian Chivu or Javier Zanetti would stay back on the left.
Roberto Mancini's 4-3-3 operated with similar principles during the Azzurri's run to glory at Euro 2020. Mancini used Spinazzola as almost another wide midfielder, letting him stay high up the pitch and use his pace to get back when Italy had to defend. And it worked to great effect, as Spinazzola was instrumental in the build-up to many an Italian goal, while also hustling back to break up opponent’s counters—even using his backside to save a Belgium goal off the line.
In order for Spina to have carte blanche and make opponent’s heads spin with his marauding runs down the left, someone had to keep the formation balanced. That man was Giovanni Di Lorenzo.
The Napoli man showed on occasion that he was more than capable to make his own gut-busting runs down the right, but picked and chose his spots knowing that his presence was more vital closer to Leo Bonucci in defense than up near Federico Chiesa in the attack.
In the Roma sense, under Mourinho, Karsdorp likely would’ve been expected to play a role more similar to Di Lorenzo’s considering that Spina would’ve likely been given the freedom to roam. However, now with a more traditional left-back in Viña coming in, Karsdorp should be the man playing as the more offensive full-back.
The Spinazzola Effect: Roma Leans to The Left
Last season under Paulo Fonseca, Roma, like in Italy in this summer’s Euro 2020, was very left heavy in the attacking phase thanks to the presence of Spinazzola. The Giallorossi attacked 37% of the time down the left, 31% down the middle, and 32% down the right flank. Meanwhile, for the Azzurri, the Spinazzola effect was even heavier with the Azzurri attacking down the left flank an astounding 42% of the time (27% middle & 32% right).
Spinazzola is undoubtedly a game breaker when he’s in form and for this reason, we’ve seen managers game plan their attacks around him at both the club and international level. While the Azzurri example furthers the point of the impact Spinazzola can have on a manager’s tactics, we’ll focus on how Roma’s attack differed when Spinazzola was and wasn’t on the pitch.
Spinazzola vs. Karsdorp: 2020-2021 Attacking Touches
During the 2020-21 Serie A campaign, Spinazzola broke the 2,000 minute mark for the first time in three seasons, compiling 2,124 league minutes in 27 appearances (25 starts). In comparison, Karsdorp also broke that barrier for the first time in three seasons as well, tallying 2,544 minutes in 34 appearances (28 starts).
In those appearances, Spinazzola averaged 64.7 touches per 90, while Karsdorp averaged 54.1. And while the players’ amount of touches were nearly equal in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch, the big discrepancy between the two came in the attacking third, where Spinazzola joined the attack to a greater extent than Karsdorp, averaging nearly 11 more touches than Karsdorp in the final third (27.4 to 16.5)—something that’s also illustrated by their respective heat maps.
Besides having more touches per match, Spinazzola carried the ball 14 more times per 90 (47.9 to 33.9) and carried the ball a considerable distance more and in a more progressive manner: 341 yards/90 minutes vs. Karsdorp's 169 yards/90 minutes. Spinazzola also edged Karsdorp in progressive yards carried: 228 vs. 71.
Despite those numbers heavily favoring Spina, Karsdorp was perhaps more productive in helping Roma create dangerous opportunities when you consider he took fewer touches in the final third. Spinazzola created nine big chances over the course of the season compared with Karsdorp’s 10. Additionally, Spinazzola contributed 0.38 goal-creating actions per 90, while Karsdorp contributed 0.28. And both contributed an equal share of 0.25 goals plus assists per 90.
Karsdorp Carried the Weight Without Spinazzola Last Season
Karsdorp's performance in matches Spinazzola missed last season could give us a glimpse of how his absence will affect Karsdorp this season. While Spinazzola was healthy last season, he missed three matches around the winter holidays, leaving Karsdorp to pick up the slack.
Karsdorp’s numbers in those were as follows:
- vs Cagliari-40 touches/16 carries/1 assist (Roma 39% attack down left to 33% right)
- vs Samp-83 touches/47 carries/1 assist (Roma 39% attack down right to 37% left)
- at Crotone-56 touches/41 carries (Roma 38% attack down left to 33% right)
Then, late in the season, in match weeks 32 and 35-38, Karsdorp started five matches in which Spinazzola didn’t play. Something to keep in mind in those five matches is the fact that by this point, Roma had shifted to a back four with Karsdorp playing a traditional right-back role rather than wing-back.
In those five matches Karsdrop’s possession numbers were:
- vs Atalanta-75 touches/50 carries (Roma 37% attack down right to 30% left)
- vs Crotone-45 touches/34 carries/1 assist (Roma 36% attack down left to 28% right)
- at Inter-58 touches/43 carries (Roma 32% attack down both flanks)
- vs Lazio -61 touches/30 carries (Roma 35% attack down left to 34% right)
- at Spezia-83 touches/47 carries (Roma 31% attack down left to 29% right)
In six of those eight matches, Karsdorp totaled more touches and carries than his season averages of 54.1 and 33.9, respectively. He also contributed three of the six assists that he totaled for the season. And even though Roma still trended to a more left-sided attacking team in half of those matches, there seemed to be a bit more balance in the attacking numbers overall, highlighted by Karsdorp’s increased contributions in most areas.
While the tactics of the club were bound to change with the transition from Paulo Fonseca to José Mourinho, Spinazzola’s injury undoubtedly throws a monkey wrench into the plans of The Special One. We should see a Roma that’s much less reliant on attacking down the left flank than it was last season when Spina and Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave defenses fits.
Another thing that will likely help balance the attack is the return of Nicolo Zaniolo from injury. With Zaniolo back to full fitness, he will likely take on the role of Roma’s right-wing in Mou’s 4-2-3-1, which should encourage Roma to play more through Karsdorp in the build-up play on the right.
Roma will eventually have its star man back in late 2021 or early 2022, giving Karsdorp a true attacking threat to play off of and make overlapping runs when Zaniolo cuts in on his left foot. Between Mourinho's tactics, Spinazzola's injury, and the return of Zaniolo, Karsdorp should become a greater attacking presence than he was last year, which should help Roma stay afloat until Spinazzola returns to action.