From Antonio Rüdiger to Emerson Palmieri to Alessio Romagnoli to Leandro Paredes to Stephan El Shaarawy to Alisson Becker, we've covered an awful lot of talent in our U-23 countdowns over the years. But in the eight years we've been ranking Roma's youth, we've never had a repeat winner...until now.
Not even successive ACL injuries in less than a year could stop Nicolo Zaniolo from defending his crown as the best U-23 player in the Eternal City. Fully recovered from those injuries and dropped right in the middle of José Mourino's Roma makeover, Zaniolo seems poised to finally live up to his enormous billing.
Since we just dedicated three thousand words to Zaniolo's progress earlier this week, we'll keep this piece a bit brief, but let's take a look at what the new Kaka has to offer the Giallorossi this season and beyond.
Number One: Nicolò Zaniolo
Future Comparison: Kaka
Who is He?
By now, you all likely know Zaniolo's tale. Born in Tuscany, Zaniolo bounced around a few youth academies, spending time with Genoa and Fiorentina before finding his young feet with Virtus Entella. After cutting his teeth with their Primavera side, Zaniolo made his professional (Serie B) debut on March 11, 2017, against Benevento.
Impressed by the then 17-year-old midfielder, Inter Milan signed Zaniolo for €1.8 million in the summer of 2017. While he wasn't automatically promoted to the senior team, Zaniolo was a revelation for Inter’s youth side, scoring 13 goals en route to lifting the Primavera title that season.
With his star on the rise, Inter made the puzzling decision to include Zaniolo as a makeweight in their transfer for Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan. While it stung to see a fan favorite like Nainggolan move to a direct rival, we were immediately intrigued by Zaniolo's potential.
As was then Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco, who gave a 19-year-old Zaniolo his real professional debut in the Champions League. Against Real Madrid. On the road. Undaunted by that stage, Zaniolo strung together an impressive rookie season, scoring four goals and providing two assists in approximately 1,700 Serie A minutes.
Zaniolo began the 2019-2020 season full of promise, scoring seven goals and chipping in three assists in 27 appearances before tearing the ACL in his right knee against Juventus on January 12, 2020. Zaniolo would return to action in July of 2020 but had the misfortune of tearing the ACL in his other knee while on international duty with Italy in September of 2020.
What Can He Do?
As we discussed in our piece examining how José Mourinho would utilize his talents this season and beyond, Zaniolo belongs in the same class as athletes like Lebron James, Patrick Mahomes, Serena Williams, and Shohei Ohtani; athletes who seem to almost defy the laws of physics and flout traditional sporting conventions.
Built like a hulking number nine, Zaniolo has the pace and agility of a crafty winger and the technique and creativity of a classic playmaking number ten. Zaniolo can body up defenders in the area just as easily as he can dribble past them in midfield. And while he doesn't have extraordinary pace, he has effective speed; the kind that allows him to beat defenders in wides spaces when it matters most. And even if he can't run past them, thanks to his aggressive style, uncanny balance, and lower body strength, most defenders would need a bionic leg to dispossess him once he reaches full speed.
With his dribbling prowess and the ability to drift around the pitch, picking and choosing the best lane to attack the defense, Zaniolo has evoked comparisons to former AC Milan and Real Madrid great Kaka. While that remains an apt comparison, Zaniolo also has a bit of Karim Benzema and Frank Lampard resting in his carefully sculpted legs.
The best-fit comp for Zaniolo will likely depend on what role he assumes over the breadth of his career, but he's equally effective playing deep, out wide, or in front of the attack.
What Can He Become?
While the health of his two surgically repaired knees will always remain a concern, the imagination of the men in charge of him may be the only limiting factor in his career. If given the freedom to roam, Zaniolo can be a game-changing and game-breaking talent for Roma. You simply can't find players with this blend of size, strength, skill, and confidence. Footballers like Nicolo Zaniolo shouldn't even exist—he's that rare.
We've seen the potential in bunches over the past few years, but if the marriage between Zaniolo and Mourinho is as fruitful as we all hope, the legendary manager could be instrumental in unlocking what could potentially become a legendary career.
If all goes according to plan, Nicolo Zaniolo can be the new face of Roma and Italy; a Francesco Totti for the 2020s and beyond.