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The Nicolò Zaniolo “Conundrum,” Revisited

Once again, Nicolò Zaniolo is in the news. But did he ever really leave the news in the first place?

AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

It doesn’t feel that long ago that Nicolò Zaniolo was a mere counterweight in the Radja Nainggolan to Inter Milan deal, a youngster thrown in with Davide Santon and some cash to facilitate Ninja’s departure from Rome. Yet since that transfer, Zaniolo has become one of (if not the) biggest names to play for I Lupi since Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. By the time his first season with the Giallorossi wrapped up, The Kid was already garnering comparisons to Totti, and some wondered if the #10 kit was all but his.

Maybe it’s because the COVID-19 epidemic has fundamentally altered my perception of time, but it’s actually been quite a while since Zaniolo exploded onto the scene. While still only 22, his career was nearly derailed by two ACL tears, and while I could go on all day about why his first post-injury season was more encouraging than not, the point remains that we’ve yet to see Zaniolo return to the heights we both saw him at as a teenager and hoped he could reach consistently as he matured. Despite there still being room to grow in his on-the-field consistency, however, the star power has remained, and with that comes an incessant rumor mill.

This is the price you pay when you have a player on the books who has been tagged as the biggest hope for the future of both Roma and the Azzurri; it’s a good problem to have, albeit one that makes me reach for a bottle of Advil more often than not. When he’s not impeded by shoddy refereeing or overly-aggressive defenders (and believe me, those two go hand-in-hand), the right-winger still has incredible moments on the pitch, and without him, who knows if Roma lifts their first European trophy in decades.

Still, we wouldn’t be Chiesa di Totti if we didn’t look at the pluses and minuses of both sides of the Zaniolo Conundrum; with players like Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini locked into longer-term deals and the signing of Davide Frattesi looking nearly secured, the Zaniolo renewal (or sale) will likely be the main storyline for the rest of the mercato. Without further ado, let me don my Devil’s Advocate cap and tell you...

Why Roma Should Let Him Go

Switzerland v Portugal: UEFA Nations League - League Path Group 2 Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Will He Ever Really Be The Same?

ACL surgery has come a long way in the past decade; even compared to the surgery Kevin Strootman got following his world-class first season in Rome, Zaniolo’s twin ACL repairs were done far more smoothly, and there’s far more reason to have optimism that Zaniolo could return to the trajectory everyone with working eyes saw for him when he first started for Roma against Real Madrid in 2018.

However, one major question any clear-eyed Romanisti has to have about Zaniolo is whether or not those ACL tears and surgeries have changed The Kid’s style of play too much. The Zaniolo we saw this season was far more cautious than the one we saw even between his two ACL tears; it was a Zaniolo that Serie A defenders felt comfortable tearing to shreds because they knew that The Kid had (at least temporarily) lost the ability to out-muscle them while holding on to the ball. We don’t know if the style of play Zaniolo had pre-ACL tears will ever fully come back, and that style of play, while dangerous, is what made him such an intriguing prospect. Defenses feared him in a way I’ve rarely seen for such a young player, and even when they planned for him, Zaniolo found a way to make their lives a living hell. If Zaniolo can’t rediscover that in Rome, is it worth keeping him around regardless of the potential fee?

Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

Which brings us to the next point. Take all the silly season rumors with enough grains of salt to put Morton’s out of business, but if Nicolò Zaniolo were to head to Juventus or Tottenham (or any other big club who reportedly desires The Kid), he would certainly command an exorbitant fee. The oft-quoted €60 million price tag would be among the highest Roma has ever received for a player; even with the inflation of the transfer market, it could do a lot to build the depth Mourinho demands so Roma can face the big boys of Serie A and European football.

Now, this argument for selling Zaniolo goes out the window if you take any of these idiotic player-exchange requests that Juventus are supposedly proposing. Moise Kean, Aaron Ramsey, and Arthur plus cash for Zaniolo? No thank you, Roma doesn’t need that. But if that €60 million can buy you Gonçalo Guedes and leave you €35-40 million to spare... you have to at least ponder it, particularly if Zaniolo’s contract demands are outlandish or he’s simply determined to leave the Stadio Olimpico.

Why Roma Should Keep Him

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You Don’t Sell Low on Superstars

Even with that supposed €60 million fee, there’s no doubt that Roma would be selling low on Zaniolo if they let him go this summer. Although he was instrumental in Roma lifting its first trophy in decades, he had a relatively disappointing season; if his fee is €60 million now, what happens if he rediscovers his form next season, becoming a double-digit scorer and leading Roma to a Champions League spot?

I’m not discounting the idea that Zaniolo could leave Roma at some point; one-club men are an endangered species, and there’s no doubt that even if the Giallorossi extend Zaniolo this summer, the siren song of Real Madrid or Manchester United could call him away from Rome sometime in the next few years. Still — you simply don’t sell low on superstar prospects if you want to squeeze everything you can out of them as a club. Look at Manchester United and Paul Pogba if you want an example of a player who despite endless talent will now likely be let go by a major club twice on a free.

He Could Be the Face of Italy’s Next Generation

Beyond the philosophy that you shouldn’t sell your superstar player at a low point in his value, there’s the whole Azzurri element of what makes Nicolò Zaniolo special as well. With apologies to Nicolo Barella, Giacomo Raspadori, Gianluca Scamacca, and even Lorenzo Pellegrini to a certain extent, there’s no doubt in my mind that out of the current crop of under-27 Italian footballers, Zaniolo is the most likely to become the face of the Azzurri for the next decade. He has the intangibles that can be a difference-maker for club and country, both in terms of personality off the pitch and playing style on it.

Everyone knows that despite their win at the Euros in 2021, Italy’s been on a downward trend over the past several years. Missing two straight World Cups should be (and is) inexcusable, and a huge part of why that’s happened has been the mediocre talent up front in Roberto Mancini’s Italy setup. Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti don’t strike terror into the hearts of world-class defenders, to put it mildly, and up until now, the young prospects like Zaniolo who have the potential to lead the next generation were simply that: prospects, with little chance of breaking into the senior squad’s starting eleven. Now that Italy has missed out on a second World Cup in a row, you have to imagine that the turnover in the Azzurri senior squad will finally happen. With Zaniolo still looking like the most intriguing attacking prospect the Azzurri can field, there’s no doubt that if he can stay on the pitch, The Kid’s star power will only increase over the next several years.

It’s rare for a club like Roma (or any club, for that matter) to uncover a talent who can become the face of a major footballing power for the next decade. When you find a talent like that, you do everything you can to keep him.

He Could Still be Totti’s Spiritual Successor

Similar to the argument that Zaniolo could be the future of the Azzurri, there’s no doubt that Zaniolo is the closest player currently under contract to the Giallorossi to filling the massive shoes Francesco Totti left behind at the Stadio Olimpico, at least in terms of being a pure joy to watch. This season, it was incredibly frustrating to watch Zaniolo because of a variety of factors: referees didn’t give him the time of day, defenders took advantage of that situation, and Zaniolo as a result regularly complained and looked annoyed on the pitch.

Some might take that as a sign that Zaniolo can’t handle the pressure, or that he’s not the same player as he was pre-ACL tears. I’d posit that the real problem last season stemmed from the fact that Zaniolo was defended in Serie A like a superstar, but didn’t receive any of the superstar calls referees are expected to give. I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes next season, for starters, but even if it doesn’t, I think it will be incredibly helpful for Zaniolo to have had this season in the wilderness. It will show him that even though he made it back to the pitch, nothing can be taken for granted in his career. It will hopefully unleash a fire inside him that will give him more consistency on a match-to-match basis. If he can harness that, I have no doubts that he will be able to return to the path towards becoming a legend of Roma; not one on the level of Totti or De Rossi by nature of where he was born, but a legend nevertheless.

The Verdict

Nicolò Zaniolo is of a rare breed. Romanisti have been spoiled by having two players graduate from the academy with at least Zaniolo’s level of talent in Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, and absurdly lucky to have a generational one-club man like Totti find both longevity and world-class ability for so long at the Stadio Olimpico. Despite the relative lack of trophies that came from those two world-class talents, that luck over the past twenty-five years was undoubtedly a blessing; Totti and De Rossi are why I became a Romanista, and why I imagine most non-Romans have become Romanisti too. That blessing has no guarantee of extending into the future, however, and if more Romanisti recognized that, I think they’d understand how critical it is to keep Zaniolo around. He’s the only player I can identify in our setup right now with a decent chance of becoming a De Rossi or Totti-like talent, and he should be respected and valued as such.

Sure, Lorenzo Pellegrini is shaping up to become something special himself, and I’m very intrigued to see what Nicola Zalewski, Edoardo Bove, and Cristian Volpato can become. Zaniolo is different from all four of those players, though, and when a club like Roma, stuck in the tier just below the super-clubs, uncovers a diamond in the rough like him, they need to hold on to him at all costs (or at the very least avoid selling him after a down season).

Hold on to your diamonds, Romanisti, because if you pawn them off, you’ll never get enough money to replace the joy they gave you.