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Reviewing Roma's Defense: Smalling, Karsdorp Led Improved Unit in 2022

Under Mourinho's watchful eye, Roma's backline took huge steps forward in 2021-2022.

AS Roma v Feyenoord - 2022 UEFA Europa Conference League Final Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In addition to his, shall we say, entertaining press conferences and touchline histrionics, José Mourinho is perhaps best known for his ability to create stifling defenses; the kind that can, at times, remove all joy from the game. It doesn't necessarily make for appointment viewing, but it's become Mourinho's calling card over the years, helping The Special One forge his reputation as one of the greatest managers of all time. And throughout his career, Mourinho has had the good fortune of training some pretty marquee defenders, including Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, and Javier Zanetti (among many others), helping many become household names in the process.

While no one will confuse Gianluca Mancini or Chris Smalling for those legendary players, under Mourinho's watch this season, the Giallorossi's defense improved markedly, conceding fewer goals and shots than last season, proving once again that sound tactics and preparation are more important than the names on the back of the shirts. In essence, Roma's defense gave life to the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; Roma's defense may have been short on stars, but they were long on results.

So let's take a look at which parts performed the best during the 2021-2022 season.

Player Reviews & Ratings

For each of Roma’s defenders, we’ll offer a quick look at their highs and lows and then assign each player a numerical grade out of 10. For this exercise, we are including Nicola Zalewski, who, while listed as a forward on the official club roster, spent the bulk of his season in defense.

But we'll start with the spiritual leader of Roma's backline.

Chris Smalling

AS Roma UEFA Conference League Victory Parade Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 39 Appearances
  • 4 Goals, 1 Assist
  • 37 tackles, 36 interceptions

Season Summary

Just as he's done through his first two seasons in the capital, Smalling served as the de facto leader for Roma's backline, steadying the ship with his intuitive, intelligent, and efficient play. Smalling ranked second among Roma’s center backs in tackles per match and interceptions per match, while leading the club in clearances and blocked shots.

Throw in the three goals he scored for good measure, and Smalling was as good as he's ever been for the Giallorossi. Age will surely hit Smalling at some point, but for a veteran defender, you can't ask for much more: he's reliable, resilient, and respected.

Outlook for Next Season

Under contract for one more season, Smalling's days in Rome seem to be numbered, but a short-term deal, similar to what the club is about to hand to his former United teammate Nemanja Matic, feels appropriate for Smalldini, provided he wants to end his playing days in Italy.

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

At this point in his career, you know what you're going to get with Smalling, but the fact that he managed to put last season's injury woes behind him should give you faith that he'll continue to age well as he approaches his mid-30s.

Gianluca Mancini

AS Roma v Feyenoord - 2022 UEFA Europa Conference League Final Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 44 Appearances
  • 1 Goal, 1 Assist
  • 59 tackles, 50 interceptions, 92 clearances

Season Summary

For the fourth consecutive season and the third straight time with Roma, Mancini made at least 30 Serie A starts while going the full 90 in nearly one-third of his appearances. And yeah, he collected yellow cards like they were going extinct, but he improved his tackling success rate by nearly 15% and didn't commit a single shot-conceding error the entire season. Mancini also led all Roma defenders in successful pressures applied, while ranking in the top three in blocks, interceptions, and clearances.

Outlook for Next Season

Having just turned 26-years-old, Mancini is just entering his physical peak, so better days are still ahead for the former Atalanta prospect. While some of the names and faces around him are likely to change next season, Mancini should be a lock for another 30 appearances and 3,000 some-odd minutes in 2022-2023. If he can tame his wild side and figure out how to harness his passing ability, he can easily become one of the better center-backs Italy has to offer.

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

The only genuine knock on Mancini this year was his league-leading 16 yellow cards, but as we mentioned, if he can cut down on those and take Mourinho’s teachings to heart, we're looking at a top 10 defender.

Roger Ibañez

AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 49 Appearances
  • 4 Goals
  • 61 tackles, 95 interceptions, 104 clearances

Season Summary

A somewhat controversial figure among Roma fans, Ibañez isn't without the occasional hiccup, but the now 23-year-old was arguably the club's most productive center-back. Making nearly 50 appearances this season, Ibañez led all Roma defenders in total tackles, interceptions, and clearances, while ranking second in tackling success rate and successful pressures. He wasn't half-bad with the ball at his feet either, ranking 7th on the squad in passes into the final third, and 3rd in key passes (among defenders) while scoring a career-high four goals. Not too shabby for a kid who was only 22 when the season began.

Outlook for Next Season

The subject of some transfer speculation, there's no guarantee Ibañez will call Roma home next season, but if he does, he feels poised for a breakout campaign. He may never be the type of defender who makes the right decision on every single ball, but as we've seen over the past couple of years, Ibañez brings exceptional athleticism to the position, which, when combined with his keen sense of anticipation, makes him a nightmare for the opposition. Ibañez can read, react and run with the best defenders in the league—he just has to learn how to harness all of those tremendous gifts at the same time.

Final Grade: 6.5 out of 10

Yeah, we're cheating with the decimal point, please forgive me. Ibañez was a statistical powerhouse this season, but his ball-watching and positioning got the better of him a few times this season. Iron those out, and he's got star potential.

Marash Kumbulla

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

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 27 Appearances
  • 1 Goal
  • 26 tackles, 18 interceptions, 30 clearances

Season Summary

The youngest member of Roma's center-back corps, Kumbulla spent most of the season on the periphery of Mourinho's rotation, but the 22-year-old still managed to eclipse 1,000 league minutes for the third straight season. It’s difficult to get in much of a groove when you play so inconsistently, but Kumbulla looked far more confident and self-assured in 2022, putting to rest many of the speed and effort-based concerns we had for the young Albanian last season.

Outlook for Next Season

With Roma running in three competitions next season, and with Smalling another year older, there should be ample playing time for Kumbulla. Still only 22, Kumbulla should soak up all Mourinho's lessons like a sponge; this is an invaluable apprenticeship for him, who certainly seems to fit the bill as a savvy and cerebral defender.

Final Grade: 5 out of 10

Kumbulla was a bit player this year, so his grade was always bound to underwhelm, but he's one of the club's most valuable building blocks and seems capable of stealing a start or two from Smalling next year, giving the veteran rest while gaining valuable match experience himself.

Alright, onto the fullbacks!

Rick Karsdorp

AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 49 Appearances
  • 6 assists
  • 41 key passes, 5 goal-creating actions, 79 shot-creating actions

Season Summary

Raise your hand if you ever thought you'd live to see the day Rick Karsdorp logged over 3,700 minutes in a single season... liar!! No one saw this coming, except, perhaps, for Karsdorp himself. But by setting career highs in games played, starts, and minutes, he did precisely that; we can safely say his injury woes are a thing of the past. More than just a minutes-eater, Karsdorp led all Roma defenders in key passes, progressive passes, crosses played, shot-creating actions, and goal-creating actions.

Outlook for Next Season

Roma will want to find a suitable backup for him next season, but if he follows his current projection, we can likely bank on another 30 starts from the 27-year-old, who remains one of the club's most dynamic players. A few more assists and a higher success rate on crosses would be nice but Karsdorp is one of the better full-backs in the league and there's still room for growth!

Final Grade: 7 out of 10

On health alone, we should be jumping for joy but Karsdorp is beginning to look like a legitimate two-way threat for the Giallorossi.

Matías Viña

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 35 Appearances
  • 2 assists
  • 11 key passes, 3 goal-creating actions, 37 shot-creating actions

Season Summary

After losing Leonardo Spinazzola to injury late in the summer, Roma had to scramble to find a suitable replacement for the Italian international and settled on former Nacional and Palmeiras full-back Matías Viña. With no time to doddle, Viña was thrown into the deep end, starting 18 of the club's first 20 league matches but saw his playing time dwindle as the season wore on, largely due to the emergence of Nicola Zalewski, but more on him in a minute. No one will confuse Viña for the second coming of Roberto Carlos, but there were many moments this season when he looked like a solid pro; a guy capable of garnering 2,000 minutes or so each season.

Outlook for Next Season

Now, this is a tough one to predict. With Spinazzola back in action and Zalewski looking like the real deal, Viña may find himself buried on the left full-back/wing-back depth chart next season. If, however, Spinazzola stumbles in his efforts to reclaim his place as the best left-back in the league, or if Zalewski returns to a more attacking role, Viña should see plenty of action next year.

Final Grade: 5 out of 10

Viña can definitely hack it in Serie A—I don’t think there's any doubt about that. But just what are we looking at here: A replacement-level player? A genuine starter? A journeyman?

Nicola Zalewski

AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 24 Appearances
  • 2 assists
  • 11 key passes, 1 goal-creating action, 18 shot-creating actions

Season Summary

Sure, there were players with higher ratings, more tackles, more goals, and flashier highlight reels, but I'm not sure any Roma player (outside of perhaps Pellegrini) had a better year than Zalewski. Nothing (like, literally, nothing) was expected from Zalewski this season, who was buried on the forward depth chart behind the likes of Eldor Shomurodov, Carles Pérez, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Nicolo Zaniolo, among others. But with Spinazzola sidelined for much of the season and Viña struggling to make the job his own, Zalewski was pressed into service as a wing-back and rewarded Mourinho's faith with a string of performances that belied his 19-years.

Outlook for Next Season

Whether he’s deployed in defense or returns to his more natural attacking role, Zalewski's unexpected breakthrough in 2022 has shot him up the club's prospect ranks, to the point where the 19-year-old is already a considerable piece of the puzzle.

Final Grade: 6 out of 10

Big things are ahead for young Zalewski. Expect this grade to soar next season.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

AS Roma v Venezia FC - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Stats (All Competitions)

  • 12 Appearances
  • 5 key passes, 10 shot-creating actions, 12 passes into the final third

Season Summary

Brought aboard as a mid-season addition, Maitland-Niles joined his countryman, Chris Smalling and Tammy Abraham, giving Roma three lions of their own. Intrigued by his athleticism and versatility, Mourinho likely envisioned Maitland-Niles as a malleable piece capable of slotting in at three or four different positions. However, with only 532 minutes on the pitch, that hope was ultimately unfounded. That's not to say we didn't catch a few glimpses of what AMN is capable of, he just never had the chance or simply never seized the moment when it came.

Outlook for Next Season

It's hard to say, but it won't be with Roma. He's still young enough to catch on somewhere, so let’s wish him the best.

Final Grade: 4 out of 10

The final few names on our list didn’t play enough to warrant a full write-up (for drastically different reasons), but we’ll give them a quick shout anyway.

The Other Guys

AS Roma v Feyenoord - 2022 UEFA Europa Conference League Final Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Leonardo Spinazzola: That November return date turned out to be wildly optimistic, but damn if it wasn’t great to see him back out there this spring. Next year will likely be a bit rocky at times, but with sufficient rest, he should be back up to speed in no time.
  • Bryan Reynolds: Played only two Serie A minutes this season before going on loan to Kortrijk in the Belgian 1st Division. I had hope for him when they brought him aboard last season, but it looks like this kid will never get a real shot with Roma.
  • Riccardo Calafiori: Hopefully, he won't follow Reynolds down that forgotten prospect path, but the now 20-year-old Roman saw only 82 minutes with Genoa in the second half this year.
  • Dimitrios Keramitsis: The 17-year-old Greek played one minute against Cagliari on January 16th
  • Davide Santon: I bet you forgot about him, huh? Well, he didn’t play but stick around to our official goodbye to Santon later this week!