We mention this nearly every spring, but European footballers and their North American cousins have drastically different approaches when it comes to free agency. In Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, and NHL, reaching the end of one’s contract is often seen as an end-goal. Free from the strictures of collectively bargained contracts that often limit a player's earning potential, players can leverage their talents and star appeal into deals that are quickly approaching the half a billion-dollar mark. While European footballers aren't exactly queuing up in breadlines, they tend to handle their financial business earlier in their careers, making free agency more of a happy coincidence than a carefully considered goal.
However, with megawatt names like Lionel Messi, Memphis Depay, David Alaba, Giorgino Wijnaldum, and Gianluigi Donnarumma all hitting the Bosman market in recent summers, Europe's best and brightest may be tearing a page from the North American playbook.
Roma aren’t likely to land Mbappé this summer, not unless some petro-state lodges a surreptitious bid for the club before July 1st, but there are a handful of intriguing names that could catapult the Giallorossi back into the Champions League, so let's take a look at a few names that might catch Tiago Pinto's eye this summer.
The Ones They Have No Shot At
Kylian Mbappé, Paulo Dybala, Franck Kessié and Paul Pogba
Let's just get this straight out of the way. If Roma were suddenly bought out by a mythical petro-state hell-bent on spending their way to the top, then sure, maybe we could delight ourselves with visions of Dybala threading passes to Mbappé in the box while Kessié or Pogba do the dirty work in midfield, but those fantasies are probably best saved for FIFA or Football Manager.
Still, even with the Roma factor removed, these are names worth tracking, particularly Mbappé and Dybala, who have the talent to potentially upset the power dynamics in European football with one flick of the pen. From the “health of Serie A” standpoint, it would be great if the league could retain Dybala and Kessié, or perhaps even lure Pogba back to the peninsula, but it's not often—in any sport, quite frankly—that you see two players hit the free-agent market in the genuine prime of their careers, so they'll likely have their pick of clubs in any league.
If we had to venture a guess, let's say: Mbappé to Real Madrid, Dybala to Atletico, Kessie stays with Milan, and Pogba takes Mbappe's place at PSG.
The Ones That Aren't Strictly Necessary but Would Be Nice
Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen, Matthias Ginter, Alexandre Lacazette
Who doesn't love a reunion? For Roma and Rüdiger, they could erase the 2017 mistake that saw the talented German center-back sign with Chelsea by inking the now 28-year-old to a free-agent contract. With a few more years of peak productivity remaining in his surgically repaired legs, Rüdiger would instantly become the club's best central defender and would provide a bridge to the club's post-Smalling life, giving Max Kumbulla and Roger Ibañez an experienced tutor. Ginter and Christensen would offer that same blend of age, talent, and experience but are still likely long shots to sign with the Giallorossi.
Lacazette, the only non-defender in this group, has been connected to Roma with increasing frequency over the past few years. While he's fallen off his Lyon heights, Lacazette has still bagged 34 goals in his past 106 appearances in all competitions with Arsenal; not great, but more than suitable for a backup to Tammy Abraham.
The Older Ones Who Can Still Contribute in Small Doses
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, César Azpilicueta, Serge Aurier, Juan Cuadrado
This category is all about veteran know-how. These players are a bit long in the tooth, so José Mourinho couldn't count on them regularly, but with oodles of experience at the game's highest levels, these players can still be important pieces of the puzzle. We know Mkhitaryan's story, and while he and Mourinho aren’t likely to book a holiday together, the 33-year-old Armenian has still been good for 29 appearances in all competitions this season, adding three goals and four assists to the mix.
Azpilicueta, who played for The Special One at Chelsea between 2013 and 2015, is now on the wrong side of 30-years-old but has already made 17 starts for Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge this season, a year after making 43 appearances in all competitions for the Blues, so he has plenty left to offer. Adding Azpilicueta to the mix would not only provide much-needed depth for Roma at full-back, but he could give Rick Karsdorp the little kick in the ass he needs to take his game to the next level.
Cuadrado and Aurier, while never the player Azpilicueta was, can still provide a steady hand behind Karsdorp at right-back—if you can excuse the Juventus of it all in Cuadrado's case, or Aurier's complicated relationship with Mourinho.
The Awkward Fitting Ones You Can't Stop Thinking About
Federico Bernardeschi, Jesse Lingard, Ousmane Dembélé
This trio of players aren't necessarily glove-like fits (for a variety of reasons) but when you're as eager to get back into the Champions League as Roma presumably are, you're not really in a position to turn down talent, regardless of the actual fit.
Bernardeschi is no stranger to Serie A fans, of course, but his inability to raise his game with the Old Lady points more to his (or his agent's) poor decision making than it does some dramatic deterioration of his skills. The truth is that Bernardeschi was probably never quite as good as he seemed during his Fiorentina days, but he’s definitely not the afterthought he's become since signing with Juve in the summer of 2017.
I get it, it's tough to say no to Juve (and their money), but Bernardeschi is your classic “signed with too big a club too soon” player. A return to less green pastures, like the ones at the Stadio Olimpico, could set Bernardeschi up for a second act as a Serie A star.
Lingard, meanwhile, has been linked to Roma over the past 18 months or so, and while he has never been the most prolific player, he would add depth, experience, and versatility to Roma's midfield. After rumored moves to West Ham and Newcastle fell through last month, Lingard has no choice but to grin and bear his way through a lost season, one in which he's made a solitary Premiership start for United. Despite this dry patch, after scoring nine goals and chipping in four assists in just 16 appearances on loan for West Ham last season, Lingard proved he can still be a significant contributor. And for a team with a sudden taste for English footballers, this negotiation could be a breeze.
At only 24-years-old and carrying a nine-figure price tag on his shoulders, Dembélé is the odd man out in this list. Despite a potential €145 million valuation and his innate talent, Dembélé has never found his groove with Barcelona. Injuries have certainly played a part, but there's no denying his talent, which led clubs like PSG, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham to inquire about his services as recently as last month. The cost is likely prohibitive and Mourinho would have to scheme a way to ensure Dembélé and Nicolo Zaniolo can co-exist, but if you're looking for a kid to put Roma over the top, look no further.
The Ones They Absolutely NEED to Sign
Florian Grillitsch or Boubacar Kamara
Finally, we've come to the heart of the matter: Roma's well-publicized need for a defensive midfielder. And we're not talking about some hybrid midfielder who can kinda/sorta hold his own in defensive midfield. Nope. We need a warhorse. A fast, quick-thinking, hard-tackling midfielder who can sprint from sideline to sideline to weed out attacking moves before they take root. A player who can cover 20 meters in the blink of an eye, execute a picture-perfect slide tackle, pop straight back up, and fire the ball off to Lorenzo Pellegrini, Mkhitaryan, or whoever the next link in the chain may be; basically, Roma needs a new Daniele De Rossi.
And, as luck would have it, there are two exceedingly talented solutions on this summer's free-agent market: Hoffenheim's Florian Grillitsch and Marseille's Boubacar Kamara. With both players offering a similar playing style and statistical profile, Roma really can't go wrong here; the only dividing line is age, with Kamara (22) offering a bit more remaining upside than Grillitsch (26), though both players would be instant starters for the Giallorossi for the foreseeable future.
While four years may not seem like a dramatic difference, having more time on his side could price Kamara out of Roma’s range (even without the burden of transfer fees), which could make Grillitsch the default addition. We've been talking about Grillitsch for months now, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a defensive midfielder with his blend of progressive passing and defensive efficiency.
If Roma really feels they are only a defensive midfielder away from being a top-four club in Serie A, and if the Friedkins are really planning another €100 million summer transfer campaign, signing Grillitsch would fill a gaping hole on the pitch while not creating one in the club's wallet.
Free agency isn't a path Roma typically travels, but with this much talent available without the burden of transfer fees, Tiago Pinto may not be able to sit this one out.
Money is no object, who ya got?
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