We barely need any introductions when we’re this high up the U-23 Countdown. Ebrima Darboe just misses out on a podium spot in 2021, but the maturity and composure he showed at the tail-end of last season are what sky-rocketed him to this position in the first place.
Before last spring, it’s likely Darboe wouldn’t have landed on our radar as anything more than an honorable mention once more. A lot has changed since then and, as is perfectly normal to any football player’s path to maturity, not all of it has been without setbacks.
Note: A lot of this article is owed to writer Daniele Masunia’s work and May 2021 interview with Ebrima Darboe at Ultimo Uomo.
Number Four: Ebrima Darboe
Position: Central Midfielder
Previous Club: Young Rieti Scuola Calcio
Future Comparison: Xavi
It feels like we can’t go one summer without comparing a Roma midfielder to retired legend Xavi, but that’s the moniker Ebrima Darboe was going by (as well as “young Messi”) back in his childhood days playing on the African continent. Several years later, Darboe is the guy who made his full debut with Roma in the 2020-2021 season; and his first three games on the calendar looked like this:
- A European semi-final against Manchester United
- An away league trip to incumbent Serie A champions Inter Milan
- Rome’s Derby della Capitale
So it’s safe to say Darboe hasn’t had an easy introduction to senior football, and he got through those three initial games with only one major error in possession—in the away game against Inter which, by no coincidence, is the match where Darboe took the joint-most touches of the ball (level with Inter’s defender Milan Skiniar at 90 touches for each player) among all 24 players on the San Siro pitch.
You can choose to interpret that statistic in very different lights: Either it reflects a spinelessness running through Paulo Fonseca’s Roma team of that time, forcing a teenage kid (he was still 19 at the time) to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility in possession because his senior teammates couldn’t care less, staying back to progress the ball through midfield. Or it’s a sign of belief in the kid, belief in the team, and belief in the short-lived, Fonseca-esque philosophy that you can plug-and-play any player, of any rank and seniority, into the first eleven and barely notice the difference.
But what’s followed Darboe’s brief senior career in Roma is the same pattern trailing the careers of technical, ball-proficient teammates Gonzalo Villar and Amadou Diawara: The more these players shoulder the responsibility of possession, the more their individual-error counts creep up. In that sense, it looks like there’s just a critical lack of unity in midfield that could take down all three of these players’ careers unless they seek moves away from Roma. What can stop Roma fans casting Darboe aside like we’ve cast aside the mixed fortunes of Villar and Diawara?
For one, what makes Darboe the person he is today is a very different background from the other two names. Diawara may hail from the same native continent, but Darboe arrived in Italy through the Sicilian route of immigration and managed to get himself inducted into Young Rieti’s football school. It was there that Darboe had to talk his future-adoptive Peruzzi family into even giving him a look.
The family struggled to take Darboe’s words seriously when a kid weighing barely 55 kilograms told them that he was a protagonist of the Young Rieti academy and was worth checking out. But watching one game of Darboe’s from the sidelines was all it took for Italian scout Giorgio Ghilardi (an acquaintance of the Peruzzi family) to push Darboe for trials at Pescara, Virtus Entella (where Darboe scored two goals), and finally A.S. Roma.
What Can He Do?
Signing up to join Roma’s U-19 team in January of 2018 was the biggest challenge of Darboe’s youth career. In the Gambian’s own words, Primavera coach Alberto De Rossi was the first man to really teach Darboe the non-possession phase of the game: Timing runs off the ball, making the right runs into the area and, most importantly, escape markers and make himself open to receive the ball.
It was a big departure from anything Darboe was used to getting praise for, whether back in The Gambia or in the Young Rieti academy, before playing at Trigoria. Most of his friends and teammates respected Darboe for his ability with the ball, but paying more attention to gaining the edge out of possession turned Darboe into an even better midfielder under De Rossi and subsequently Paulo Fonseca's tutelage.
It’s that quality (along with Darboe’s technical skill on the ball) that led Paulo Fonseca to trust the young midfielder with a spot in deep-lying midfield at the top level, which was a slight departure from the attacking midfield role with which Darboe first made a mark at Primavera level. But the sense of responsibility in being available for the pass was evident for all to see, not least of all Paulo Fonseca who spoke (after the Lazio game) of Darboe’s impact on Roma: “It’s not easy to find a player with his bravery and composure. And a player who can always play it forward, always playing vertically.”
The highlight of these qualities is Darboe’s signature move—the pelopina—which is taken straight for Xavi’s repertoire (it sounds exotic until you’re told Xavi’s nickname was the pelopo which is Catalan for ‘pube’):
To return to our common theme: Darboe is very much in the same school of footballing as Diawara and Villar.
These are midfielders that opponents can’t press tight, because their superior ball-control will suddenly turn a one vs two situation into free, open-air possession. And it’s not long before players like Darboe will find a pass upfield to quickly give his side the numerical advantage in attack.
What Can He Become?
There’s one major factor (which you can see as double-sided) to Darboe becoming a successful player in Jose Mourinho’s spell at the club.
Since we’ve seen Darboe become more of a regular fixture in the team, what once looked like a vertical player willing to make risky passes upfield (at least a higher vertical-passing rate than the one that Villar and Diawara settled into) now looks like a young player who’s becoming “Roma-fied” by that same lack of responsibility around him.
The Roma players further up the pitch haven’t made themselves available for receiving passes and, as a result, Darboe has seen his forward passing gradually give way to more patient, sideways passing in an effort to string some build-up play and attract even more opponents onto him. That’s the exact same mistake Diawara and Villar have made at the club: The worse Roma’s teamwork becomes, the more isolated these players get and the more they look to their calling card, embracing the responsibility of the ball at their feet, to find confidence. Then the errors in possession come, and it’s generally a thankless task.
Lest that sounds like we’re making excuses for Darboe (or Villar and Diaware), their mistake is in not developing the other tools of their game to solve the original problem: Sharing responsibility around the team.
To that end (the second side of the same coin), you’d hope Darboe answers the Mourinho call to “wake up” (the very words Mourinho has been shouting at Darboe mid-match in pre-season). Darboe can seize more opportunities to work with teammates and earn trust both ways, such as filling in the defensive gaps when the play is happening behind him. That kind of opportunity was no more obvious than in Debrecen’s opening goal scored against Roma this summer.
Before anything else, it’s a damn good goal scored by Debrecen so I’m not trying to take any credit away from them by making this moment all about Roma. Debrecen started off the match risking players forward, executed a perfect cross and perfect movement from the Debrecen scorer to position himself in “no man’s land” where no Roma center-half could pick him up. The ideals of the game say that who dares wins, and that was a daring play from Debrecen that deserved a goal. But then there’s Darboe’s failure to recognize an opportunity to help his teammates with defensive cover.
When you see your center-halves are outnumbered on the edge of the six-yard area, no one else is going to help out and mark out the extra opponent if you’re not going to do it yourself—especially as one of the team’s anchormen from deep midfield. You may still lose out and watch Debrecen score over you all the same, but eventually, it becomes a habit where you will clear more danger than you concede as a team. The more that happens, the less defensive pressure there is on your teammates, and the more time they have to think two moves ahead about supporting you in possession.
There are several ways to skin a cat and, in this area of balancing the love of possession with non-possession duties, Amadou Diawara looks to me as the player who’s slightly ahead of both Villar and Darboe as the total package. But not by much, and all three players could just as easily see their time in Rome cut short this season instead of progressing under Mourinho’s expectations. Time will tell for Darboe, who has the most leeway on his side out of all three players.
Truthfully, this type of player is so confident on the ball that you field them wherever the opponent’s pressing is the most intense. I’ve often struggled to explain these kinds of players (short of the modern interwebz term du jour “press-resistant”) so I’m just going to rely on Bren’s words describing Roma midfielder Giada Greggi’s importance to the women’s team:
Greggi may be at her best when she’s passing and moving. Working give and goes, one-twos, and creating triangular passing networks with her teammates, Greggi’s imprint may not be felt in the box score, but she’s basically a two-way pressure valve come to life, restricting the flow of the ball towards Roma’s end while also funneling pressure in the opposite direction. Greggi can bide her time, learn by watching and make the most of the opportunities presented to her, she’s the very definition of a glue-girl; the kind of player around whom a team’s tactics coalesce.
That may not produce many viral videos, but it sure as hell wins titles.
In that sense, it’s hard to mark these kinds of midfielders as strictly defensive or attacking midfielders because it depends on how the ninety minutes play out. But the difference is Greggi is playing in a Roma women’s side that has plenty of time and patience to build their team philosophy over a number of seasons, without the need for instant results or income from Champions League qualification.
Players like Darboe have no such leeway, in a men’s senior team that needs the viral videos to convince paying spectators that something... anything... is happening right here, right now. In a parallel universe somewhere there’s a midfield trio of Diawara-Villar-Darboe starting for Roma in a ball-dominant 4-3-3. But in this universe, we know Roma is a club short on time, character, and patience. In that sense, we can’t help but shake the feeling like talents like Darboe are fighting greater odds to realize their full potential at this club.
If Darboe had more explosiveness and pace to his game, he could have been the deep-lying midfielder that saved the club from having to seek out a Zakaria or Anguissa on the transfer market. But here we are with Darboe just a little bit short on the quick-and-fast answers and needing to show more in little time. His agent went to the press, late in the pre-season, to insist the club hasn’t spoken to either him or Darboe about taking a loan move elsewhere.
So it looks like it’s all or nothing for Darboe, at least until January, to keep proving himself in a Roma shirt.