Nicola Zalewski was ranked eighth in our 2021-2022 Youth Countdown, and the fact that he’s leaped five spots into third after only one year is a testament to just how convincing a year he had during his first proper season with the senior squad. The Tivoli-born Polish international is undoubtedly the most important under-21 player at Roma, and you can certainly argue that he’s got the highest upside of any Roma academy prospect in recent years. Although the return of Leonardo Spinazzola may give Zalewski more competition at left-wing-back than he had last season, and we’re still not 100 percent sure that he will play at left-wing-back for the rest of his career, make no mistake: he’s now a key part of José Mourinho’s rotations, and his star will likely only continue to grow over the next year.
Number Three: Nicola Zalewski
Position: Left wingback/left midfielder/left winger
Shades Of: Philippe Coutinho if he becomes a winger again, A rich man’s Robin Gosens if he stays in a more defensive role
Who Is He?
Nicola Zalewski was born to Polish parents about 20 miles outside Rome in January 2002 and was a member of Roma’s Primavera setup from the U15 side onwards. His first taste of senior football came in the 2020-2021 season, securing two appearances and a near-goal against Manchester United in the Europa League semi-final. The tantalizing promise Zalewski showed under Paulo Fonseca quickly transformed into consistently quality Serie A performances under José Mourinho, as Leonardo Spinazzola’s Achilles tear combined with Matias Viña’s poor form to give the Pole a golden opportunity at left-wing-back.
Zalewski translated that opportunity into 24 appearances for the Giallorossi last term across all competitions. Throughout those appearances, he appeared remarkably comfortable out of position in that left-wing-back role (in his Primavera days, he played more as a left winger). Those performances translated into rewards both at the club level (his contract was renewed last season, keeping him tied to the Giallorossi until 2025) and at the international level (he’s now a fully-capped member of the Polish national team and received a second-straight nomination for the Golden Boy award in July). As Roma near the start of the 2022-2023 season, Zalewski has appeared consistently at left-wing-back in most friendlies, suggesting that although Leonardo Spinazzola is on the mend, Zalewski will likely continue as the starting left-wing-back in Mourinho’s side until the Italian is fully healed.
What Can He Do?
At the Primavera level, Zalewski was known as a forward whose eye for goal and free-kick taking ability were some of the best in the European youth leagues; because he entered Mourinho’s squad in a more defensive position, his style of play has been quite a bit different at the senior level. Compared to other fullbacks, Zalewski was in the 99th percentile for progressive carries, the 98th percentile for pressures and tackles completed, the 95th percentile for dribbles and interceptions, and the 66th percentile for blocks. In short, he put in the work both on the offensive and defensive end last season and all of this as a 19-year-old kid who wasn’t really supposed to be playing as a fullback.
It’s an open question just what kind of player Zalewski becomes this season at the senior level, but with the depth chart once again looking far kinder to him at left-wing-back than as a forward, expect him to continue acting like a mini-Spinny: marauding up the left flank at every opportunity, helping translate defensive victories into offense, and looking to make the “hockey assist” pass to players like Paulo Dybala and Lorenzo Pellegrini once they’re set up to create goals more directly.
What Can He Become?
What a fantastic question. There are many paths Zalewski can take over the next couple seasons, and all of them are exciting. If he continues to play as a left-wing-back with strong attacking ability, there’s no doubt that he can be just as impactful as Leonardo Spinazzola has been for club and country. If he’s allowed to pursue a more attacking role, either behind the striker or as a left winger if Mourinho tweaks his tactics, he’s also shown a tendency to bang in goals and take excellent free kicks, so that could certainly become a part of his game at the senior level as well. Here’s what we said in our season review about Zalewski, what he had already demonstrated, and where he might go next:
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.
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.
In short: watch this space. He may play for the Polish national team, but Nicola Zalewski looks all but assured of becoming Roma’s next Roman-born, Primavera-grad star.