With only 69 appearances, 14 goals, and six assists in all competitions, one might suggest that Nicolo Zaniolo's reputation with Roma fans exceeds his actual contributions on the pitch. Injuries have certainly taken their toll on Zaniolo's performance, but why does the 22-year-old loom so large in the eyes of Roma fans despite not actually accomplishing that much on the pitch?
Simple: He's arguably the most talented player to don a Roma shirt since Francesco Totti. Blessed with size, strength, agility, and balance that would make Barry Sanders blush, Zaniolo is the first Roma player since Totti who gives you that feeling. The notion that, at any point in any match, he can do something extraordinary.
And much like Totti before him, that feeling of impending amazement doesn't necessarily stem from pure, unadulterated athleticism (though he's definitely blessed in that area) but instead comes from a combination of intelligence, aggression, and an almost instinctual feel for the tenets of attacking football. And just like Totti, it may take a few years before those traits are fully unleashed on the league.
If Zaniolo's career follows a similar Totti-like trajectory, then the key to truly unlocking his prodigious talent might lie with the arrival of a bold, brash, and no-holds-barred manager. Making his debut in 1992 as a teenager, no one doubted Totti's innate talent, but his first genuinely great campaign didn't occur until Zdenek Zeman came to town in the summer of 1997 and truly unleashed the beast within the 21-year-old Totti, who went on to score 25 league goals in two years under Zeman's guidance—more than his first five years in the league combined.
And here we are almost 25 years later and Roma has another once-in-a-lifetime talent waiting for the right manager to come along and inspire him to greater heights. José Mourinho will work his magic with many Roma players, but few have the same potential for greatness as Zaniolo.
In order to understand how Mourinho may get the best out of Zaniolo, we're going to take a trip through The Special One's C.V, pulling out illustrative examples from his previous stops to find clues how Mourinho will utilize the kid we affectionately refer to as Mega Kaka. These won't necessarily be like-for-like comparisons, but we're going to focus on Mourinho's utilization of similar attacking midfielder-cum-wingers-cum-strikers to see how he'll get the best of Zaniolo this season and beyond.
And we'll start with The Special's Ones' first stint at Stamford Bridge...
Zaniolo as An Attacking Midfielder
Zaniolo Comparisons in This Role
- Frank Lampard (Chelsea ‘04-’07)
- Wesley Sneijder (Inter ‘09)
- Wayne Rooney (Manchester United ‘16-’17)
- Kaka (Real Madrid ‘11-’12)
- Dele Alli (Spurs ‘19-’20)
Nicolo Zaniolo as Frank Lampard
In another Totti-under-Zeman parallel, Frank Lampard's true breakthrough came under the watchful eye of José Mourinho during Chelsea's back-to-back title-winning seasons between 2004 and 2006. In 170 appearances in all competitions during Mourinho's three-year run at Stamford Bridge (2004-2007), Lampard racked up 60 goals while providing at least 42 assists during that span (assist data is a bit spotty from the early aughts).
Utilized primarily as a central midfielder in a variety of three or four-man midfields, Lampard had veritable carte blanche under Mourinho. With the freedom to roam on either axis and plenty of space to run into going forward, Lampard defied traditional positional definitions and feasted on Premiership competition.
In a masterstroke of symbiosis, Lampard's versatility in attack allowed Mourinho to tinker with a variety of defensive approaches. In a 4-1-4-1, Lampard sat in the middle of the pitch where he was free to focus on his offensive responsibilities, working in tandem with Joe Cole and Arjen Robben to drive Chelsea's attack forward and maintain the supply line for Didier Drogba. With Michael Essien doing all the dirty box-to-box work, Lampard had license to either create his own chances or crash into the box to provide an outlet for Drogba or Hernan Crespo.
Similarly, when Mourinho opted for a 4-3-1-2, Lampard operated as a trequartista, pulling the strings in the final third and threading balls through the middle to Drogba, Crespo, or even Eidur Gudjohnsen. While in Mourinho's 4-3-3, Lampard was deployed on the left side of the midfield, slotted just behind Robben. In this role, Lampard, once again unburdened by the more workmanlike duties thanks to Essien and Claude Makelele, was an offensive juggernaut. During the ‘05-’06 Premier League season, Mourinho utilized the 4-3-3 formation six different times, and Lampard scored in every single one of those matches.
Whether he uses a 4-1-4-1, a 4-3-1-2, or a 4-3-3 with Roma, Zaniolo replicating the Lampard role, with its heavy focus on getting forward, requires a stout defensive midfielder to alleviate some of the pressure on the attacking midfielder. In that light, if Mourinho's insistence on signing Granit Xhaka didn't make sense before, it certainly does now. While that ship may have sailed, securing a midfielder with a similar blend of energy, leadership, and defensive work rate would allow Zaniolo the freedom to move forward and get involved in the attack. And when you throw Jordan Veretout into the mix, Zaniolo has even more freedom to operate as a de facto forward, linking up with Tammy Abraham and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the final third.
This isn't a perfect analogy because, in so many ways, Lampard was one of the most versatile and dynamic players of the past 20 years, so it would be asking a lot of a 22-year-old Zaniolo to replicate that level of performance. However, if we limit the discussion to Lampard's job responsibilities under Mourinho, it's easy to see Zaniolo thriving in a similar setup in Rome, particularly if the midfielders behind him maintain a progressive passing approach.
If Mourinho can find his own Essien or Makelele in Roma's midfield—players who can relieve Zaniolo of the more mundane midfield responsibilities—then Zaniolo could fit a similar profile and could chalk up a 10 to 12 goal campaign to go along with seven or eight assists.
But what if Zaniolo mimicked the man to whom he's most frequently compared?
Nicolo Zaniolo as Kaka
During Mourinho's three-year run at Real Madrid, The Special One preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. And with a roster full of luminaries like Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, and Kaka, you can't really blame him for going heavy on the attack.
Mourinho didn't have the luxury of enjoying peak Kaka, but during the 2011-2012 season, he made the most out of his Brazilian dynamo, deploying Kaka as a trequartista in a 4-2-3-1 to great effect. In roughly 1,400 minutes that season, Kaka scored five goals and provided five assists as Mourinho's default playmaker; a pretty nifty return considering how little he actually played.
Zaniolo may not be quite as nimble as Kaka, but in his brief career, we've seen him put more than a few defenders on their asses with his close control and ability to change direction quickly, so in that light, he could showcase the same balance of dribbling-based scoring and creating that made Kaka so effective.
Of course, Zaniolo won't have the luxury of feeding and feeding off anyone close to a Di Maria, Benzema, or Cristiano Ronaldo, but, much like Kaka in that 4-2-3-1, Mourinho will likely allow Zaniolo to drift laterally around the final third, overlapping and swapping positions with Henrikh Mkhitaryan to keep defenses off-kilter. By doing so, Mourinho's entire attack will play to Zaniolo's strengths; dribbling, finishing and creating in tight spaces.
You can almost picture Zaniolo picking the ball up at midfield with a full head of steam charging towards the 18-yard-box, quickly laying off the ball to Mkhitaryan and then continuing his run into the box before receiving the ball back from Micki. With their combined vision, speed, and ability on the ball, these give-and-goes and one-twos should create ample scoring opportunities for Roma.
And when you add Carles Pérez, Borja Mayoral, Stephan El Shaarawy, and new signings Eldor Shomurodov and Tammy Abraham to that equation, Nicolo Zaniolo may truly become Mega Kaka: a big, bruising, creative and aggressive force around whom the entire attack coalesces.
Zaniolo as a Wide-Midfielder/Winger
Zaniolo Comparisons in This Role
- Eden Hazard (Chelsea ‘14-’15)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid ‘11-’12)
- Son Heung-min (Spurs ‘19-’20)
- Juan Mata (Manchester United ‘16-’17)
Zaniolo as a Right-Sided Eden Hazard
Now we're getting to the meat of the discussion and the most likely fashion in which Mourinho will use Zaniolo: as wide-midfielder/winger. Sitting just behind the striker on the right-hand side of a 4-2-3-1, this position should enable Zaniolo to scratch his creative itch and hunt for goals, all while giving him plenty of room to run into the box—strategies we've seen Mourinho and Zaniolo use throughout the pre-season schedule.
Fortunately for us, Mourinho has used this archetype to great effect throughout his career. From Hazard at Chelsea to Ronaldo with Real Madrid and, most recently, Son Heung-min at Spurs, Mourinho has turned these hybrid attacking midfielder/wingers into superstars. It's highly unlikely that Mourinho will turn Zaniolo into a 40-goal scorer as he did with Ronaldo, so we're going to limit our discussion to Zaniolo as a Hazard or Son Heung-min type of player.
During his two full seasons working with Mourinho at Chelsea, Hazard ripped off 35 goals and provided 18 assists in 96 appearances (all competitions). Seated on the left-hand side of midfield in support of Diego Costa, Hazard, who was 23-years-old at the time, finished the Premiership season as Chelsea's second-leading goal scorer and assist provider.
Similar to Lampard in Mourinho's 4-1-4-1 from his first stint at Chelsea, Hazard had veritable free reign to seek out the ball anywhere in the final third, enabling him to simultaneously serve as facilitator and finisher. One minute, you could see Hazard open and then exploit a tiny pocket of space in the box, creating clear-cut chances for Didier Drogba, while at the very next turn, those two could work a quick give and go for Hazard to finish off in the box.
The beauty of this setup is that it put Hazard as close to the goal as possible while also giving him the freedom to ease off a bit and utilize the wider spaces. With a hulking back-to-the-goal striker, Hazard could feed off that hold-up play by making darting runs into the box to finish off scoring chances. Meanwhile, with a more mobile striker, he's free to read and react to the defensive shape, deciding to either play the striker directly into the area or contort the defense via quick passing patterns at the edge of the area; a more passive but by no means less effective playmaking strategy.
In this sense, Hazard's role was akin to Steve Nash running a pick and roll on the hardwood, where his sense of timing and triple-threat capability (pass, shoot, or dribble/drive) kept defenses honest, which put Nash (or Hazard) in complete control. It takes a great deal of tactical intelligence, spatial awareness, and a keen sense of timing to know which path to choose (direct shot, layoff, or set up a one-two) but in the right hands (or feet, I suppose), this player can be devastating to the opposition.
Zaniolo, due to his larger size and slightly different skillset, won't be an exact facsimile for Hazard in this role, but with his shooting touch, close control, quick first step, and greater mass, he can have a similar effect on Mourinho's Roma attack. Where Hazard chipped in 23 goal contributions (14 G, 9A) during the 2014-2015 season in this role, Zaniolo's ratio will likely include fewer assists, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him rack up 10 goals and maybe five or six assists during his first season in this role.
Throughout Roma's summer pre-season campaign, Zaniolo has been used almost exclusively in this position, but if things get bleak and Roma are desperate for goals, Mourinho could use Zaniolo as the primary scoring threat.
Zaniolo as a Hybrid Forward
Zaniolo Comparisons in This Role
- Karim Benzema (Real Madrid ‘10-’11, ‘11-’12)
- Diego Milito (Inter Milan ‘09-’10)
To be clear, Zaniolo isn’t likely to feature as a lone striker this season, but considering his size, strength, and finishing, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, so let’s take a quick look at how Zaniolo might function as a hybrid forward under Mourinho.
Zaniolo as Karim Benzema
One of the best strikers of his generation, Karim Benzema came to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 on a €35 million transfer from Lyon. In the two years prior to his La Liga switch, Benzema racked up 39 goals and nine assists in 72 appearances for Lyon, so expectations were sky-high. However, with manager Manuel Pellegrini preferring Gonzalo Higuain in the starting lineup, Benzema struggled during his first season with Real, scoring only eight league goals.
But then The Special One took over at the Santiago Bernabeau the following season and Benzema's fortunes changed dramatically. During their three-year stint together at Real Madrid, Benzema quickly shed the bust label, scoring 47 goals while providing 24 assists in 97 La Liga appearances. It may sound a bit reductive, but Benzema's ascendency as one of the 21st century's truly great strikers began once he linked up with Mourinho in 2010.
Rather than using Benzema as a lone striker up top, Mourinho slotted him just behind and to the right of center-forward Gonzalo Higuain. Considering Benezema's incredible talents, this was the correct call, as it provided him with more room to operate and gave him a greater degree of attacking independence. Had he been rooted to the traditional number nine spot, relying on his teammates for service, his talents would have been wasted.
That's not to suggest that Benzema couldn't (or hasn't) led the line or can't play off the shoulders of the last defender, but his ability (and willingness) to drop deeper and act as an additional attacking midfielder, to push out wide and serve as a number eleven, or even sit just behind the center-forward as a secondary striker almost makes him too valuable to waste as a traditional center-forward. What’s more, by removing him from the point of attack, Benzema's ability to exploit space and lure defenders away from the area made life easier for Higuain and later Cristiano Ronaldo.
Considering that Roma just dropped €60 million on two strikers, Eldor Shomurodov and Tammy Abraham, it's not likely we'll see Zaniolo as a legitimate number nine, but Mourinho could give Zaniolo the same sort of artistic license he afforded Benzema a decade ago with Madrid.
By using Zaniolo in a similar, almost mash-up of his utilization of Hazard and Benzema, he'd get the best out of the most prodigious talent to set foot in Trigoria since Francesco Totti two decades ago. In this scenario, Zaniolo would be the prime mover of Roma's attack, picking up the ball deeper in midfield or out on the right flank, where he'd then be free to cut in and fire in a cross, shake off a defender and look for his own shot, or ping the ball back to Mkhitaryan or even attempt a quick give-and-go with Abraham in the area.
Alternatively, Mourinho could field Zaniolo closer to the goal, utilizing his strength and positioning to create scoring chances rather than relying on his dribbling ability. The possibilities in this drifting forward role are almost endless.
Truth be told, and based on what we've seen this summer, it seems like Mourinho is already blending his Hazard and Benzema approaches into one Zaniolo-sized recipe. But, much like Benzema's days with Mourinho, if the opportunity (or need) arises and Roma is forced to deploy Zaniolo as a forward, his combination of skills and physical talents should enable him to succeed in this incredibly nuanced and unique hybrid forward role.
With successive ACL tears essentially robbing him of two seasons, we still don't truly know what Nicolo Zaniolo is capable of; we've certainly seen glimpses of his extraordinary talents but never the full picture. However, outlining the myriad ways in which José Mourinho could use him underscores one important point: this kid is special.
So special that I tried (unsuccessfully) to float the Ken Griffy Jr.-inspired nickname “The Kid” for young Zaniolo. Much like Jr. (and even a young Shawn Kemp), Zaniolo was a manchild. He may have been a teenager, but nothing about his build, his style of play, or even his attitude suggested that he was intimidated by playing with grown-ass men when made his debut in the fall of 2018.
And that's because Zaniolo isn't an ordinary man; he's a unicorn, cut from the same unique cloth as athletes like LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Serena Williams, and Shohei Ohtani. You don't often see players as big as Zaniolo that can move so effortlessly yet so aggressively on the pitch; he attacks the ball with equal parts finesse and force and changes direction like a player two-thirds his size. People as big as Zaniolo shouldn't be able to do the things he does, and that's precisely what makes him so special.
But players like Zaniolo, for all their natural talent, still need someone to coax that greatness out of them; someone to polish the rough edges; someone to show them how to be a superstar. Thanks to the spectacular depth and breadth of his managerial career, José Mourinho has worked with and made superstars out of many players, so he could be the ideal caretaker for Zaniolo's still burgeoning career.
This isn’t the marriage we envisioned a few months ago, but the bond between Mourinho and Zaniolo could launch a world-beating career, resurrect a reputation and end a twenty-year title drought in one fell swoop. And while Zaniolo and Mourinho will likely have different Roma timelines, if Zaniolo does eventually live up to his enormous potential, we may look back on his time with Mourinho as the formative years of a legendary career.
However, for all the talk of tactics, positions, and responsibilities, the most important thing Mourinho can instill within Zaniolo is attitude. The notion that nothing can stop you, that greatness is your destiny, not a happy accident. In other words, the very same sneering sense of self-belief that has enabled Mourinho to thumb his nose at his critics for the past 20 years.
José Mourinho willed himself into becoming The Special One, and in this, perhaps his last shot with a big-time club, he has a chance to shape and mold a truly special talent.