Since arriving in Rome in the summer of 2015, Edin Dzeko has been a revelation. Thanks to his size, strength, and playmaking ability, Dzeko stands as perhaps the most complete striker in club history. However, despite those plaudits, Dzeko never felt completely settled in the City of Seven Hills. From his disappointing debut season to the litany of transfer rumors he’s been subject to over the past two to three years, Dzeko's level of ease in Roma never felt commensurate with his place in club history.
And that dis-ease continued this summer when Dzeko was (yet again) connected with a move to Juventus, among others. In his stead, Roma would have seen everyone from Sasa Kalajdzic to Wout Weghorst to Mauro Icardi taking his place. The rumors became so prevalent that Dzeko actually addressed them in late July, re-asserting his desire to remain with the club.
But, as we all know now, Dzeko's words, while well-intended, mattered little as he was essentially given to Inter Milan for free late last week. And rather than Roma swooping in for Icardi or Andrea Belotti, the Giallorossi broke the bank for 23-year-old Tammy Abraham, forking over €40 million plus a potential €5 million in additional bonuses. The former Chelsea striker joins Eldor Shomurodov, Borja Mayoral, Carles Pérez, and Stephan El Shaaraway, among others, in a completely re-imagined Roma frontline.
Given how large he loomed over Roma's plans, literally and figuratively, this piece was originally very Dzeko-centric, but now that he's out of the picture, we had to quickly pivot to a new narrative. It's not the best way to write a season preview piece, but we'll make do.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at how José Mourinho's new melange of forwards will fare in the 2021-2022 season now that the club's third all-time leading scorer is officially gone.
Center-Forward: Tammy Abraham (eventual starter), Eldor Shorumodov (early-season starter, backup, LW), Borja Mayoral (backup)
Wide-Forwards: Carles Pérez, Stephan El Shaarawy, Pedro, Nicola Zalweski
Since Mourinho will likely use a 4-2-3-1 this season, only one of these wide forwards will likely start in support of Dzeko, so we haven't named a likely starter at that particular position.
Best Case Scenario
Paulo Fonseca's final season in Rome was a tumultuous one—with the club's domestic struggles being countered by a deep run through the Europa League—but when we look at the stats, the Giallorossi's offensive performance was perfectly in line with their final spot on the table: 6th in goals scored, 5th in expected goals, 5th in shots, 5th in shots on target. Considering all that, Roma's seventh-place finish was probably a just result.
But, as we all know, it simply wasn't good enough and the club decided not to pick up the option on Fonseca’s deal. And then, in practically the very next breath, they shocked the footballing world by appointing José Mourinho to the managerial bench. While a club's offense is more than just a product of their forwards, if Mourinho wants to avoid the trappings of his predecessor, he'll need to conjure more magic from this department.
And now we come to the difficult part of this preview: How will Roma's forwards function without Edin Dzeko, who was very often options A-Z during his tenure with the club?
Originally, this section chronicled how Mourinho would reach into his Spurs past, using Dzeko as a stand-in for Harry Kane. Dzeko, much like Kane, would use his size, strength, and passing ability to anchor the offense. In this scenario, the sheer weight of Dzeko's presence would have provided Roma a platform on which to build their entire attack. Dzeko would have absorbed defensive pressure around the edge of the 18 (or even 15 to 20 yards deeper), while the wide forwards would operate as shadow strikers, rushing into the space Dzeko vacated.
Thanks to his physical presence and his playmaking ability, this approach would have kept defenses off-kilter. If the opposition followed Dzeko into the deeper areas, then the wide forwards and attacking mids suddenly had more room to operate and easier paths towards goal thanks to Dzeko luring defenders out of position. On the other hand, if they stood pat and let Dzeko sit deep, he was more than capable of spreading play and creating scoring chances for his teammates from that position.
While that may still be the plan with Abraham, he hasn't yet shown the same level of passing and playmaking as someone like Dzeko or Kane—but then again, few forwards have. In our discussion with Dávid Pásztor yesterday, he described Abraham as a complete striker who isn't quite complete yet, meaning Mourinho may have to alter his approach with the young striker, at least in the short-term.
Rather than playing with his back to goal and serving as a fulcrum for Roma's attack, Abraham may just be one of the crowd; a flock of athletic forwards darting into spaces in the final third, springing off the final defender as Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Lorenzo Pellegrini plays them into the box. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact, it may be Roma's best route forward. (There are many more permutations to this, which we'll discuss in a separate piece that focuses on Zaniolo later this week.)
With the combined size, speed, and athleticism of players like Abraham, Shomurodov, and El Shaarawy, Mourinho may channel his inner-Zeman and just bludgeon opponents with direct, vertical moves, taking advantage of the passing of his attacking midfielders and the speed of his forwards.
In this sense, players like El Shaarawy, Carles Pérez, Shomurodov, and perhaps even young Nicola Zalewski will pattern themselves after Son Heung-min or Dele Alli, darting into spaces around the lone striker, or simply slicing in between the lines, finding pockets of diagonal space in between the opposing full-backs and center-backs.
Where previous Roma managers delighted in triangular attacking patterns in wider spaces, Mourinho’s optimal system favors a more direct approach, with players using fewer passes and moves to exploit attacking space—theoretically. In order to enact this philosophy, Mourinho needs hard-working forwards capable of pressing opponents in the final third, winning the ball back, and countering the opposition deep in the final third with direct, vertical passes. In that light, the Shorumodov addition makes total sense, as he excels in those less-heralded aspects of attacking play and could carve out an immediate role based on that alone.
Under this best-case scenario, we can think of Roma's forwards as a swarm of bees. Abraham is the hive—the hub of activity—and players like El Shaarawy, Shorumodov, and Zaniolo are the bees, swirling around the hive, diving in and out, swooping up and down, doing whatever they can to vex anyone (or anything) that dares approach them.
Given how critical his role in the offense will be, the worst-case scenario for Roma's forwards really all depends on Tammy Abraham: his adjustments to Serie A, his finishing, his passing, and his efficiency. If any of those factors fail to meet the mark, Roma's attack will struggle in kind.
And if Borja Mayoral’s opportune scoring disappears, El Shaaraway's 2021 struggles carry into the new season, or if Shumorodov's late-season scoring spike with Genoa proves to be an aberration, Roma's fictional misery will be compounded.
In this scenario, the scoring onus would then fall onto the midfield, effectively requiring Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Lorenzo Pellegrini to pull double duty, running the offense, advancing the ball up the pitch, creating and finishing the chances. Now, these players are certainly capable of chipping in the odd goal or two, but their plates are already full, so any added burdens could effectively destroy the whole Mourinho machine.
Had Roma kept Dzeko, the club would at least have some familiarity in attack, meaning the best and worst-case scenarios would have been more predictable. But with two new forwards in town, El Shaarawy struggling to recapture his 2019 form, and Borja Mayoral uncertain where he'll be playing after this year, all those adjustments and anxieties could threaten to undermine Mourinho's first season in Rome.
If, however, Mourinho finds freedom in the unknown, Roma could land on the safe shores of the Champions League once again next season.
Given the wave of press coverage behind his transfer, and, quite frankly, his impressive performances this summer, Eldor Shomurodov is the obvious candidate to breakthrough in 2021. If the young Uzbekistani forward can hit the ground running and build off his success from last spring, the club won't have to stress about life without Dzeko because they'll have a ready-made replacement in-house.
However, we're going to take the term “breakout” in a slightly different direction. Stephan El Shaarawy's name is well-known in Serie A circles, so nothing he achieves this season will come as a surprise, but a breakthrough campaign for SES—something on the order of 12 to 15 league goals—is precisely what Roma needs to be successful this year.
Whether it's Abraham, Mayoral, or Shomurodov leading the line, Roma has enough firepower at center-forward to make defenses nervous. And while the return of Zaniolo will increase Mourinho’s options in attack, without a counterweight on the left-hand side of the pitch, Roma's attack risks becoming lopsided and predictable.
If El Shaarawy can recapture his 2019 form (or better yet, 2012)—flying up and down the left-flank, darting around defenders, and firing quick, curling efforts at either post—then Roma's attack could be downright unstoppable.
Shomurodov or Abraham breaking through with 15 to 20 goal campaigns would be amazing and would more than justify their transfer expenditures, but a healthy and effective El Shaarawy could put the Giallorossi truly over the top, so you'll have to forgive me for getting a bit loose with the definition of breakout, so let's call this a re-breakout.
Final Thoughts on the Forwards
Between the size and skill of Tammy Abraham, the speed and agility of Stephan El Shaarawy, and Borja Mayoral's off-the-ball movement, Roma's forwards aren't missing much. And when you throw in the intrigue of players like Carles Pérez, Nicola Zalewski, and Shomurodov, then Roma's attack has enormous potential. They may not lead the league in scoring, but if everything goes according to plan, they won't be far off the pace.