Last summer, Roma made a move that seemed to come completely out of left field, one that shocked the world of calcio: the signing of highly touted Max Kumbulla from Hellas Verona; a player that was heavily linked to both Inter Milan and rivals Lazio throughout the summer.
With Manchester United playing hardball over Chris Smalling, it seemed that this move might mean the end of the Englishman’s time in the Italian capital after one successful season. However, in the end, Roma ended up both Smalling and Kumbulla.
And with Kumbulla’s arrival and Smalling’s transfer becoming permanent, Roma’s stable of center backs became one of the deepest in the league. However, we all know how things went down, as injuries and ineffectiveness forced Bryan Cristante to shift into the back three. Nevertheless, with Jose Mourinho at the helm, there’s hope for Roma to improve defensively and for Kumbulla to begin to live up to his price tag.
Number Five: Marash Kumbulla
Position: Center Back
Current Club: A.S. Roma
Future Comparison: Giorgio Chiellini
Who Is He?
Kumbulla, a 21-year-old of Albanian origins, was born and raised in the Italian province of Verona. He joined the Hellas youth ranks at the age of eight and worked his way through the Gialloblu’s academy system until he made his first-team debut at the age of 18 in the early rounds of the Coppa Italia, with his Serie A debut coming a year later in 2019.
After making his Serie A debut, Kumbulla became a fixture in Ivan Juric’s formation during the 2019-20 campaign. Verona became one of the surprise packages of the league behind a solid defense and Kumbulla’s star grew around the peninsula.
During that same season, Kumbulla also made his international debut with his parents’ home nation of Albania. With all the attention surrounding one of the league’s best up-and-coming defenders, Kumbulla was sold to Roma on a two-year loan deal that will become a permanent deal at the end of this season.
What Can He Do?
Kumbulla is a large, physically strong defender who stands at 6’4” (1.92m) and is comfortable playing in multiple systems. Scouted football provided a very thorough analysis of Kumbulla’s game in February 2020 prior to his move to Roma. You can read the entire piece here. In the meantime here are some of the highlights.
The Albanian already has the classic frame of a long-serving Serie A defender. Akin to a battle-hardened veteran like Giorgio Chiellini, Kumbulla has the stature, broad shoulders and uncompromising ferocity to overpower and overwhelm attackers. In an increasingly rare trait for modern defenders, Kumbulla looks as comfortable digging in and fending off a bombardment for ten minutes as he does strolling out of the backline.
Far from simply dominating attackers on the ground, Kumbulla is a versatile defender who can repel attacks no matter how they arrive.
What turns Kumbulla from “merely” an excellent penalty-box defender into a potentially elite contributor in Europe is his growing comfort in possession. Passing has statistically been the weak point for Kumbulla this season, but there’s enough promise there to envision a future where the defender can confidently kickstart attacks for elite clubs.
He’s rarely satisfied with a lateral pass and is instead constantly swiveling, searching for a gap to exploit.
What Can He Become?
Due to missing multiple stretches last season due to illness and injury, it was difficult for Kumbulla to get into a rhythm and for us to see the real Kumbulla, the kind of defender Roma will eventually splash big cash for at the end of his loan spell. However, despite starting only 14 league matches and playing less than 1,400 league minutes, we did see some flashes of the potential that Kumbulla possesses.
He improved his overall passing percentage, as well as his short, medium, and long-range attempts. Kumbulla also ranked in the 87th percentile in Europe’s big five leagues for pressuring opponents (12.40 per 90); he also improved the success of these pressures by five percentage points compared to his breakout season with Verona. So, despite a difficult maiden voyage in giallo e rosso, the were plenty of signs that Kumbulla will still come good, rewarding Roma's investment in him.
Long-term, Kumbulla still projects as a top-quality center back with the proper coaching. A center-back who can boss his own penalty area, but also pressure opponents into making mistakes further up the pitch. He also shows the ability to jump-start attacks with his composure on the ball. He’s still just 21-years-old and the arrival of Mourinho could be just what he needs to take his game to the next level.
If all goes according to plan, I could see Kumbulla maturing into someone in the Giorgio Chiellini mold—that tough as nails, physical center back that no striker enjoys getting into duels with. In the end, despite being ranked just 5th on this countdown, he could very well have a better career than almost everyone else on the list.