What Gian Piero Gasperini has accomplished at Atalanta over the past few years is nothing short of miraculous. Atalanta may not be the smallest club in the world, but they're miles away from Serie A’s traditional heavyweights. But thanks to Gasperini's guiding hand, he's turned the Bergamo-based club into a source of inspiration, wowing Europe with dazzling displays of attacking football that has put Atalanta in league with clubs they'd otherwise have no business sniffing.
Considering the impact and sheer entertainment value of Gasperini's brand of football, his proteges have become some of the most sought-after talents in the league. The problem, as we outlined last year, was that those players can struggle to replicate their Atalanta form once they leave Gasperini's warming embrace.
So when Roma signed Brazilian defender Roger Ibañez from Atalanta in the winter of 2020, we weren't quite sure what to expect. We signed a defender from Atalanta? A defender? Seriously? Are you sure? Who was this kid? Won't he just fall apart without Gasperini?
Despite that uncertainty, we still had a good feeling about Ibañez, who profiled as the perfect defender for Paulo Fonseca's system. With a new deal tying him to Roma through 2025 signed this past May, our instincts were correct: Roger Ibañez has the goods.
Moving up one spot from last season's countdown, Roger Ibañez is our second-rated U-23 player.
Number Two: Roger Ibañez
Future comparisons: Leonardo Bonucci, Thiago Silva
Who is He?
Roger Ibañez's football career began with Segripe in the Brazilian port city of Aracaju. Snapped up by Fluminense in 2017, Ibañez started off with their U-17 side before debuting with the senior team on January 20, 2018.
Continuing his rapid ascent up the football ladder, Ibañez made his big move to Europe a year later, signing with Atalanta on January 29, 2019. But it was far from smooth sailing for the then 19-year-old, as he wouldn't make his Serie A debut until May, making only a two-minute cameo against Genoa.
Ibañez would only make one more appearance in Atalanta colors, against Shakhtar Donestk in the Champions League in December of 2019. With his path to playing time blocked in Bergamo, Ibañez moved to Roma on loan in January 2020, a transfer that has since become permanent.
What Can He Do?
Standing a shade over six feet tall and with boundless energy and athleticism, it’s almost criminal he's “just” a center-back. In his near two-year stay in Rome, we've seen Ibañez out-muscle bruising strikers, out-maneuver shifty attacking midfielders, and out-run pacey wingers; he's genuinely one of the most athletically gifted defenders in football today.
But he's more than just flash. Despite being two months shy of his 23rd birthday, Ibañez is already the total package. Showcasing the intelligence, anticipation, and aggression of a player 10 years his senior, Ibañez has been among the best and most complete center-backs in Europe since arriving in Rome.
Over the past year, Ibañez has ranked in the 75th percentile or higher among center-backs across Europe's big five leagues in the following categories, according to Football Reference:
- xG differential
- short passes attempted
- short passes completed
- through balls
- shot-creating actions
- goal-creating actions
- tackles won
- tackles in the defensive 3rd
- tackles in the middle 3rd
- tackles in the attacking 3rd
- dribblers contested
- dribbles tackled
- successful pressures
- pressures in the defensive 3rd
- pressures in the middle 3rd
- pressures in the attacking 3rd
- passes blocked
- dribbles attempted
- dribbles completed
- total carried distance
- progressive carried distance
- players dribbled past
- carries into final 3rd
- passes received
- fouls drawn
In short—but not really—Roger Ibañez may be the perfect 21st-century defender, especially if he can cut down on his cards and become a bit more selective with his marauding runs forward.
What Can He Become?
Sure, we bulleted all those categories for dramatic effect, but the sheer length of that list tells you everything you need to know about Roger Ibañez: he's talented, energetic, and incredibly dynamic. Like nearly all young defenders, Ibañez's growth depends as much on what's going on in-between his ears as what's happening on the pitch. Limiting mental lapses and cutting down on cards will benefit his development tremendously.
While you can already see the game slowing down for him as he approaches his 23rd birthday, he can still be a bit rash heading into challenges and a bit reckless when running forward. But if he can tame those instincts and continue to grow and prosper under José Mourinho's watchful eye, then we're talking about a world-class defender. Let me say that again: world-class.
With his exceptional size, deft touch, keen intellect, and absurd athleticism, Roger Ibañez has what it takes to become a once-in-a-generation defender.