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Previewing Roma’s Midfield: Best And Worst Case Scenarios

Roma’s success this season will likely come down to how well Nicolò Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini perform. Can they push the Giallorossi into the Champions League?

AS Roma v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to critique last season’s Giallorossi squad; the defense lacked cohesiveness, the offense lacked consistent goals from anyone not named Borja Mayoral, and the lack of confidence between the posts doomed many a match. One area that shouldn’t be critiqued too much, though, was Roma’s midfield. It was always obvious that there was quality in Roma’s midfield last season, and although injuries to that midfield certainly played a key role in Roma’s fall out of the Champions League and Europa League spots, that speaks more to overarching issues at Trigoria than anything else.

Given that, Tiago Pinto’s lack of movement in the midfield (well, barring all that jockeying over the transfer of Granit Xhaka) is understandable. Roma definitely needed a new forward and a new left-back, and a new goalkeeper was certainly a higher priority than a new midfielder. Add in the fact that a lot of Roma’s deadweight can be found in the midfield, and the Giallorossi are largely left with a midfield that’s intact from last season.

Assuming the club doesn’t make too many major transfers between now and the start of the season, the biggest questions the midfield squad has to answer are how players returning from injury will fit into the rotation and who might be hitting the road before the end of the transfer market.

The Midfield

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

The Depth Chart

Central Midfielders: Lorenzo Pellegrini (starter), Jordan Veretout (starter), Bryan Cristante (rotation), Gonzalo Villar (rotation/on the way out), Amadou Diawara (rotation/on the way out), Ebrima Darboe (likely going out on loan), Edoardo Bove (backup), Javier Pastore (on the way out)

Attacking Midfielders: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (starter), Nicolò Zaniolo (starter)

The Best and Worst-Case Scenarios

AS Roma v FC Porto - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Lorenzo Pellegrini: Lorenzo has shown the ability to be a game-changer before, but one of his struggles has been doing it consistently. The best-case scenario for Roma and Pellegrini is that he uses this season to become the double-double machine he can be, working hand-in-hand with Henrikh Mkhitaryan to make Roma’s offense hum. He’s certainly shown an affinity towards working with Mourinho, and reports suggest that one of the reasons Roma is eager to extend Pellegrini is that José sees Roma’s new captain as a man to build a team around. The worst-case scenario, of course, is that Pellegrini is largely inconsistent with his quality of play this season, making it hard to trust him with the keys to the offense and impossible for the Giallorossi to string together the kind of winning streak necessary to get Roma back into the Champions League places.
  • Jordan Veretout: Veretout is without a doubt Roma’s second starting midfielder behind Lorenzo Pellegrini, and in Roma’s best-case scenario, he will get rid of the injuries that have plagued him for the last season and establish himself yet again as a key penalty kick tacker, free-kick taker, and box-to-box midfielder; a perfect complement to Pellegrini, and perhaps even more the bruiser that José Mourinho wanted when he asked Roma to sign Granit Xhaka. Worst case? Injuries once again derail his season and Roma’s, making it such that he loses another peak season. We know what Veretout is capable of when healthy; the biggest question for him is if he can stay healthy enough to be a net-positive for the Giallorossi.
  • Bryan Cristante: Bryan has shown himself to be an excellent jack-of-all-trades for Roma since his transfer from Atalanta, and there’s no doubt that he is highly valued in and around the club as a glue guy. Yet he has never shown the side of his play that made him such a hot commodity when Roma signed him in 2018. The best-case scenario for the Giallorossi is that José Mourinho is able to unlock Cristante in new ways, giving him the chance to play in a more attacking role as he did with Atalanta. Worst case? Cristante still stays as a glue guy, but his form is poor enough post-Euros that he’s only everyone’s buddy on the bench - not what you would want from a player who is of Cristante’s caliber.
  • Gonzalo Villar: I’m honestly not sure where Gonzalo Villar stands in Roma’s pecking order today. On the one hand, he’s one of the most exciting prospects in the side; on the other, he’s not necessarily the best fit with José Mourinho’s tactics. Yet there’s no denying that a best-case season for Villar would see him force himself into Roma’s starting eleven through sheer willpower. If he can do that, perhaps by building himself into a stronger, more defensively-caring playmaker than he is today, there’s a good chance he lifts Roma further than any of us might anticipate. I don’t think that’s too likely, though, and to a certain extent, I’m hoping he gets a chance with a club like Atletico Madrid so he doesn’t have to go through that many hoops just to receive minutes his quality indicates he should be getting. If he stays with Roma, though, the worst-case is that he becomes a bench player who should be having the opportunity to shine; a player who, like so many others who have come and gone through the Roman circus, loses value not because of lack of talent but because of lack of tactical fit. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, because Villar’s story and growth at Roma is a wonderful one that shouldn’t be spoiled.
  • Amadou Diawara: To be blunt, it would probably be best for Amadou Diawara’s career if he moved on from the Giallorossi soon. It’s clear that he’s not a key part of the midfield rotation, and the promise he showed upon his signing from Napoli has been diminished by injuries, poor form, and his girlfriend breaking up with him on Valentine’s Day (apparently). Given that, the best-case scenario for Diawara, if he stays on board with Mourinho and Roma, is that he reasserts himself above the likes of Gonzalo Villar and Bryan Cristante in the midfield rotation, perhaps even fighting for Jordan Veretout’s starting spot. It’s hard to see that happening, and if it does, Roma probably has bigger problems. Yet that’s the only way I can see Diawara having an individual “return to form” while staying at Roma. As for the worst-case, it seems like the worst-case for Diawara is that he continues to struggle with injuries and form, causing his value to continue to shrink both to the club and in a financial sense. I hope that can be avoided; I’ve always liked Diawara’s style of play. Nevertheless, you have to think he’s one of the most at-risk midfielders who are firmly in the senior side (beyond Javier Pastore, of course).
  • Ebrima Darboe: It would probably serve Darboe best to get out on loan, considering the pile-up of talent on display in midfield (even if you exclude the players who are obviously being pushed out the door). I’m still holding out hope that he moves to a Serie A side like Sampdoria, gets serious minutes against real competition week in and week out, and comes back to Rome next season either ready to be a key part of Roma’s midfield or ready to turn into a nice plusvalenza. Worst case? Darboe doesn’t get a loan to a worthwhile side, and for one reason or another, he rots on the bench somewhere between the senior squad and the Primavera squad, never getting significant minutes with either side. Darboe has shown himself to be quite the promising young player, but that doesn’t mean it’s assured he will turn into a Serie A-level midfielder. This next season will be crucial in determining how his long-term career develops, and doing absolutely nothing for a year is the worst possible thing for that development.
  • Edoardo Bove: Bove’s best-case scenario is that he turns himself into a key backup for José Mourinho, playing in the European Conference League and maybe a Coppa Italia match here and there. If there’s an injury to a midfielder like Jordan Veretout (who has certainly been struggling with the injury bug), he could probably line up well with Lorenzo Pellegrini as a backup for the Frenchman, but it’s likely too soon for him to have that level of responsibility. The worst-case scenario for Bove is the same worst-case that applies to most youngsters looking to break into the senior team: he simply doesn’t get that chance, and the level of play at the Primavera level doesn’t help him develop any further either.
  • Javier Pastore: The best-case scenario for Roma is that Javier Pastore finds a new club before the transfer window closes. The worst-case? He’s still training separately throughout the season, neither with Roma’s senior squad nor with any other club, draining Roma’s bank account without providing anything in return. Sorry, Pastore fans, but he’s got nothing to offer to the club and he should leave sooner rather than later.
  • Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Mkhitaryan bought into José Mourinho’s Roma by agreeing to stay on with the Giallorossi for one more season; all the water is apparently under the bridge from their time together at Manchester United. Given that, the best-case scenario for Mkhitaryan is that he continues to age gracefully, continuing his good link-up play with Edin Džeko and developing a good connection with Zaniolo, perhaps to the point whereas the season dies down, it becomes increasingly clear that Mkhitaryan plays a secondary role to the Italian. Worst case? Father Time is undefeated, and he decides to defeat Mkhitaryan a bit earlier than anyone anticipated. This leads to too much pressure being put on Zaniolo too soon, and the connection between the midfield and attack is never developed into what it needs for the Giallorossi to find success.
  • Nicolò Zaniolo: The best case for Zaniolo is obvious: he builds upon his Serie A Young Player of the Year campaign and becomes one of the best attacking midfielders in Italy, if not Europe. The potential for him to become a star player for club and country is certainly there, and though he looks as if he’s tweaked his style of play since his ACL tears, those tweaks look to be more about guaranteeing his longevity as a player than changing his style of play drastically. Mourinho has already made it abundantly clear that a lot of Roma’s success this season will be on Nicolò’s shoulders; if he returns to the form he had prior to his ACL tears, Champions League football is certainly within play. On the flip side, the worst-case scenario for Zaniolo is that he follows a similar career path to Kevin Strootman: injuries derailing a career where world-class ability was clearly in his grasp. If Zaniolo gets another major injury, it would certainly make it nearly impossible for him to become the face of Roma and Italy in the long-term. It could even make it hard for him to be viewed as a key foundational piece for the Giallorossi; do the words Alexandre Pato mean anything to you?

Possible Breakout Players

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

He’s already listed in the midfield rotation above because of how much he has reportedly impressed during the training retreat in Portugal, but Edoardo Bove is undoubtedly the most likely midfielder to break out from Roma’s youth sides and into the senior squad this season. Tiago Pinto has even refused loan offers from Serie B and Serie A sides for Bove already, as Mourinho sees him as both a good backup for now and a good rotation option for the European Conference League. He’s also shown up for a half here and there in nearly every pre-season friendly to date; only Nicola Zalewski seems to have impressed Mourinho more. I’m not about to go as far as Dallagente did in our youth rankings and say he’s the most likely youngster to seize on a big break, but I do think that he’ll get several chances to show his stuff before the season is through.

Stay tuned throughout this coming week as we wrap up our season preview coverage, including our men's and women's U-23 countdowns!