Though he represents his family name well, at the international youth level with his family’s nation Poland, make no mistake that Zalewski is the second regional-born kid on this year’s U-23 men’s countdown. Zalewski was born and raised in the Lazio region, just north-east of the city of Rome in Tivoli, but we first knew him as the kid who took over the Roma number 10 jersey at Primavera level after Alessio Riccardi went out on loan last season.
Well, ok, we knew Zalewski the season prior when he was wearing the number 20 jersey. But the number 10 anecdote has such a nice ring to it!
Number Eight: Nicola Zalewski
Position: Attacking Midfielder/Forward
Future Comparison: Shinji Ono
Who Is He?
Zalewski is one of several debutants who Paulo Fonseca sent out to face Manchester United in the second leg of last season’s European semi-final. Nicola got himself on the scoresheet at senior level for Roma that day, but his journey from the outer skirts of Lazio to the training at Trigoria began much earlier.
Zalewski’s family took the decision to emigrate from Poland to Italy in 1989, as Nicola’s father Krzysztof looked to avoid getting sent into military service for the communist government of that era. After giving birth to Nicola in Tivoli, the family let their six-year-old son play for the regional youth side Spes Poli at first, then later playing for Atletico Zagarolo to get him firmly settled into the region. An appearance in the Young Rieti regional trials tournament put Zalewski on Roma’s (more specifically Bruno Conti’s) radar, and it wasn’t long before Zalewski took up the offer to come play and train at Trigoria within the A.S. Roma youth ranks.
Zalewski described the day he trialed for the club, to Grand Hotel Calciomercato, as one where he turned up on a moped to watch the Roma first-team training session at Trigoria before his own trial later that day. In the stands, sat alongside Nicola, were none other than the Calafiori family—their son Riccardo set to undergo his own trial alongside Nicola on the very same day. Needless to say, the trial went well for both teammates and, together, Riccardo and Nicola have risen through the club’s ranks ever since.
Not a bad summer’s work for Bruno Conti’s scouting team back then. But Conti was not Zalewski’s only admirer before long.
Former Roma, Juventus, and Poland striker (and current vice-president of UEFA) Zbigniew Boniek has been signing Zalewski’s praises since 2018, along with the rumored interest of (at the time) Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho. It was Mourinho’s interest in Zalewski that prompted Rome-based newspaper Leggo to ask Boniek what all the fuss around Zalewski was about:
“I often eat with [Zalewski’s] father,” Boniek told Leggo (via LaRoma24). “He has a wonderful family and he’s a big talent. He’s already shown he’s ready to play with the seniors. He only had to improve his possession game and he’s done that. He moves between all three flanks and he’s got a big hunger about him. And if Mourinho is following him, well...”
Boniek pushed for Zalewski to appear with the Poland national team, where Nicola appeared in the U-20 World Cup for his family’s nation at just 17 years old. So far, Zalewski has yet to appear for Poland at senior level and still has two years (as a duel citizen) to switch it up and put on an Italy jersey, if the phone call comes.
What Can He Do?
It’s a shame there’s no compilation video of Zalewski’s free-kick goals at Primavera level on Youtube from the 2020-21 season. If you’d watch the opposition concede a free-kick to Roma Primavera anywhere around the penalty box last season, then you’re familiar with the Roma TV commentator declaring “... and now Roma have a free-kick” with that ‘well, they done effed up now...’ undertone in his voice, as Zalewski stepped up for what looked like another Roma set-piece goal in the making.
But Zalewski was tasked with more than just free-kicks, as he’s got a good dead-ball delivery from corners and maintains the nerve to take penalties for the club, too. And then there’s his ability to float all over the flanks and through the middle, looking equally effective as he pops up in the box to get on the end of goal chances when Zalewski is supplied by teammates.
All in all, Zalewski is a goal threat from midfield with the ability to set up teammates from set-pieces (if he’s not taking them directly on goal). He’s married those attributes with a work rate and hunger in the non-possession phase of the game that’s looked like it’s won over Mourinho for the second time, three years later, at Trigoria this summer.
What Can He Become?
In this current Roma team, Zalewski makes a lot of sense. He has the pace to hang with the rest of Roma’s attack on the counter, and the sense of goalscoring to make himself counted, which Zalewski already proved in last season’s Europa League. In the long term, however, you have to ask whether the goal bonuses (in the inevitable contract extensions that follow) won’t price Zalewski out of Roma in a few years' time.
Players who can put it in the back of the net get the biggest contracts in football, and we struggle to make sense of Roma’s teambuilding strategy in most summers, let alone having to a player like Zalewski who could command the attention of a lot of Serie A (and European clubs) in the mid to long-term future.
For now, we’ll settle for comparing him with fellow goalscoring-midfielder Shinji Ono. Moreso because I just watching prime-years Shinji Ono. He was cool!