When we started this exercise eight years ago, we never imagined having a repeat champion, let alone one player taking the top spot in our U-23 countdown an incredible four years in a row. But Nicolò Zaniolo is simply that good. Blessed with size, speed, agility, and the swagger that only star players possess, it didn't take long for this intriguing footnote from the Radja Nainggolan deal to become Roma's most prized prospect since Daniele De Rossi nearly 20 years earlier.
Since making his debut as our 10th-ranked player in 2018, Zaniolo has scratched and clawed his way back from two ACL tears, suffered the slings and arrows of the Roman media, and became the subject of transfer rumors every single summer. Zaniolo has been dragged into some social media drama over the years, but the young midfielder/forward has seldom, if ever, run afoul of the club or his teammates, so the notion that he's been angling to leave the capital has always felt a bit misguided.
That day may come, of course, but for now, The Kid remains a Roma player, so let's give Zaniolo the U-23 send-off he deserves
Number One: Nicolò Zaniolo
Shades of: Kaka, Frank Lampard with a Red Bull IV drip, a more muscular Diego Milito.
Who is He?
By now, most Roma fans are familiar with Zaniolo's path to Roma, but just in case you're new to the club, here's a recap from last year's countdown:
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.
With his most recent surgery a year in the rearview, Zaniolo returned to the pitch last fall, making 40 appearances (approximately 2,700 minutes) in all competitions, scoring seven goals and providing five assists during the 2021-2022 season.
What Can He Do?
To answer that question, we'll turn once again to last season's profile:
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 wide 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.
The lack of a consistent role makes comparisons difficult, but Zaniolo's fluidity worked to the club's advantage last season. During his first year under José Mourinho, Zaniolo saw time at right-wing, attacking midfielder, forward, and even wing-back. Of course, some of that was out of necessity, but Mourinho could only flex his lineup because of Zaniolo's extraordinary gifts.
Okay, with the prologue out of the way, it's on to more pressing matters.
What Can He Become?
We asked this question each of the past three summers, but entering his fourth professional season, and with his 24th birthday looming next summer, Zaniolo's days as a young player are officially numbered, so let's not mince words here: if he's going to be a genuine star player, it has to start this season. If Zaniolo doesn't break out this year, he may never fulfill his enormous potential.
Another year of promise and intermittent flashes of brilliance simply won't cut it. Zaniolo has to produce this season. No yeah-buts. No wait till next years. No almosts. No half measures. No excuses. No quarter asked, and none given.
The real Zaniolo, the game-breaking freak of nature we all know is laying dormant in there somewhere, must bust loose this season. But what constitutes a break-out season for Zaniolo? What would that look like? And for that matter, what would it feel like?
First of all, he has to remain healthy. We're talking about 30-40 appearances and 3,000 to 3,500 minutes in all competitions. For a 23-year-old with his injury history, that would be astounding. If he can manage to stay on the pitch and harness his considerable talent, 12 to 15 goals and nine to ten assists aren't out of the question.
Suppose that happens, and then we head into the 2023-2024 season and beyond; then what?
At that point, with his ACL tears well and truly behind him and with two years of full-time football under his belt, Zaniolo, with his size, versatility, technical ability, and aggression, would be poised to join the ranks of the elite. At this peak, we're talking a consistent double-double threat, or, if he leaves the finer points of the game behind and morphs into a pure goal scorer, what's to stop this kid—excuse me, The Kid—from becoming a consistent threat to score 20 goals every season?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The footballing world is Nicoló Zaniolo's oyster; he just needs to crack it open and devour it.
Zaniolo Through the Years
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