Lorenzo Pellegrini, a born and bred Roman who once even served as a ballboy for the Giallorossi, has had a dream career in many respects. After graduating from the Roma Academy, Pellegrini cut his teeth with Sassuolo, scoring six goals and providing nine assists in 47 league appearances for the Neroverdi, leaving his hometown fans clamoring for his return to the Eternal City.
After returning to Roma in 2017, Pellegrini has seen his standing with the club grow every year, earning the captain's armband in February of 2021. All told, Pellegrini has made 249 appearances for Roma, notching 43 goals and 44 assists in all competitions. Along the way, Pellegrini has made the Europa League Team of the Season twice and was even named the best player in the inaugural Europa Conference League in 2022 after guiding the Giallorossi to the title.
Objectively speaking, Pellegrini has had a successful tenure in the capital, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum this year. Thanks to a spate of injuries and some minor tactical incongruities with José Mourinho's approach, Pellegrini's play has suffered noticeably this year, calling his future with Roma into question.
With two full years left on his deal and a €6.5 million salary, Pellegrini isn't likely to leave Rome anytime soon, but that has done little to quiet the noise. To get a grasp on the situation, we assembled the CdT crew to ask one very simple question: Does Roma have a Lorenzo Pellegrini problem?
There’s no doubt that Lorenzo Pellegrini is struggling this season, but is it a matter of tactics, talent, or something else entirely?
ssciavillo: I think it’s a combination of things, but first and foremost, I think it comes down to health and fitness. Pellegrini has been riddled with injuries the last few seasons, and it’s hard to perform at one’s best and find any consistency when you can’t get a run of matches that isn’t interrupted by a spell on the trainer’s table.
I also think some of it has to do with the arrival of Paulo Dybala last season. When Pellegrini was at his best two seasons ago, he was the main facilitator of the attack in support of Tammy Abraham. Now, when he’s on the field with Dybala, he’s playing more of a mezz’ala than trequartista role because Dybala is the most talented attacking player on the team. I believe Pellegrini has lost some of his freedom of movement in deference to the brilliance of Dybala, and he needs to do a better job of adapting to his role.
Bren: Great points. I hadn’t even considered how Dybala was perhaps limiting Pellegrini’s effectiveness. We’ll touch on this later, but if that is the case, shouldn’t Mourinho have been able to predict this? Shouldn’t he have found a way to get the best out of his captain and star player, Dybala? In that sense, I suppose the answer is tactical. He’s smart enough and savvy enough to scheme a way to maximize the potential of that duo.
Pellegrini is only 27, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill or his talent simply disappeared, but I have to imagine there’s a psychological component here. He doesn’t live in a cave, so I’m sure he’s aware of some of the discourse surrounding the club and his role–that has to be tough to ignore.
But when you think about his backstory, he has a lot to live up to, going from ball boy to prodigy to captain, and a Roman captain at that; that’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone.
JonAS: So it’s obvious then: we get rid of Dybala asap! In all seriousness, I think it’s probably a combination of different factors, like you both said—nasty injury, the pressure of the armband, mental issues, etc. Lorenzo’s first season under Mourinho was a success, so I don’t blame it entirely on José or his tactics. Dybala’s arrival? Meh. Great players should make other good players around them even better; that’s an unwritten rule in football.
But we all expected more of Lorenzo, especially after his stellar 2021-2022 season. I thought he would continue his form and enter the Roman Hall of Fame one day, but last year and this season, he has been a shadow of his former self.
Another possible reason is a change of personnel around him. Maybe he better understood Matic, Mikhi, and Veretout instead of Paredes, Sanches, and Aouar?
Jimmy: I think it’s a little too early to write off Pellegrini’s ability to enter Roma’s Hall of Fame, but I’ll agree with the rest of the gang that health, fitness, and form are the three issues plaguing Roma’s captain. I do think that Romanisti tend to undersell how much tactical changes can impact a player, though — the fact that Bryan Cristante has caught a lot of flak over the years for not being the goalscorer he was at Atalanta, despite not being asked to score goals, is an indicator that there are problems outside of Pellegrini’s control affecting his form as well.
Compare and contrast Pellegrini’s role under Paulo Fonseca vs. José Mourinho. Is Pellegrini not a good fit for Mourinho, or is there a middle ground between those two approaches?
ssciavillo: I believe he’s a better fit for Fonseca’s more attacking style of football, but there is some middle ground to be found. Pellegrini isn’t the most hard-nosed midfielder, but he will put in a decent work rate on his day. However, I think the injury concerns and lack of fitness have taken away from his overall defensive work. There’s a little more tentativeness to really bust it when sprinting back on defense or sticking in a hard challenge.
In the end, Mourinho probably isn’t the best fit for a player like Pellegrini. That being said, two seasons ago, with Mourinho on the bench, he still had one of the best seasons of his career, with nine goals and five assists in the league alone.
Bren: Yeah, that’s what’s been so frustrating about the past 18 months. He was integral for Mourinho during his first year with the team, and now he’s practically being pushed out, which may speak to your earlier point about Dybala. Tactically, he certainly put up bigger numbers under Fonseca because he saw more of the ball and in more advanced positions.
Considering that, it may be that Pellegrini isn’t ideally suited for Mourinho’s tactics. He’s a useful piece but not nearly as effective when playing second fiddle. But maybe he should see more of the ball? Maybe lightening the load on Dybala could help both players.
It’s a good problem to have, but as we’re seeing this season, the solutions have been lacking.
JonAS: Maybe you’re onto something, Bren. Pellegrini’s a useful player for a team like Roma, sure, but perhaps simply not the captain/creative midfielder in your typical Mourinho team. The star we all want him to be. It’s known that Roma fans tend to overestimate Roman-born and bred players. I’m not saying Lorenzo is a bad or average player. But you can’t turn a Toyota (a very reliable car mind you) into a Porsche or Maserati.
The question is: will Lorenzo settle for a smaller role/rotational piece? Step down and donate the bandiera to another guy like Mancini? Or would he ask for a transfer after not feeling appreciated anymore? Then watch him set Serie A on fire at Juventus or Milan.
Jimmy: I don’t think we’ll see a situation where he loses the captaincy, and I don’t think we’ll see him leave Rome. Outside of Edoardo Bove, I think he’s the most likely player to stick around Rome if Mourinho doesn’t reach the Champions League this season. Dybala and Lukaku are gone if we don’t get fourth, as are many others. I agree that giving him the ball more and putting him and Dybala on more of an equal playing field would probably benefit both players, if only because Paulo clearly can’t be the only player expected to provide creativity week in and week out if he’s not always available.
Having your club captain and 3rd highest paid player at such odds with the manager’s approach feels like something that could have been avoided. How much blame should Tiago Pinto bear for this awkward situation? Is there anything he can do to remedy this situation?
ssciavillo: I don’t think there was any other way besides this awkward marriage of sorts. Roma would never pass up an opportunity with one of the best managers of this generation in Mourinho. Pellegrini wasn’t going anywhere when he was growing into the role of captain and Roma’s main playmaker under Fonseca. I don’t think you can blame Pinto much for this because what else could he have done at the time?
In terms of remedying the situation, it comes down to whether Mourinho sticks around. If he leaves at the end of the season, then Roma can lure a more progressive manager like Tiago Motta. If he sticks around, Pellegrini will have to adapt his game a bit.
Bren: Honestly, I think the Motta ship has already sailed. He may be too good for Roma! But, much like you, I’ve always maintained this was a marriage of convenience. Neither party knew the other would be available in the spring of 2021, so they may not have had sufficient time to hash out a long-term plan, at least in that moment.
Again, signing Dybala was unexpected, too. He likely would have remained with Juve if they could have reached a compromise on his salary demands. So perhaps the real villain here is simply the circumstances. Roma never thought they’d have a shot at someone like Mourinho, and suddenly he was there. They would never have been able to get Dybala if his star hadn’t dimmed a bit, and suddenly he was there.
So, in that sense, perhaps they’re guilty of not adapting sufficiently. Having Mourinho and Dybala is great but without a delineated plan of how he’ll jive with the club’s incumbent players, this was bound to happen.
And now we’re staring down the barrel of three consecutive sub-fourth-place seasons, and it sure looks like Mourinho and Pinto’s respective futures may be in the balance come the end of the year, so maybe it’s time they pay the piper for their lack of prescience.
JonAS: Well, Pinto can’t be blamed for Pellegrini’s injury or captaincy. I do think Roma really misses a true DM like Matic, De Rossi, or Emerson. That would make life of the other midfielders like Pellegrini and Cristante much easier. Paredes is a different type of DM/CM.
In an ideal world, Pinto would have tried for a guy like Fabinho, Kante, Hojberg, Anguissa, or Boubacar Kamara last summer instead of gambling on the injury-prone Sanches and Aouar. Pellegrini would benefit a lot from that type of player. Some names on that list may seem unrealistic initially, but then again, who expected Lukaku or Dybala?
Jimmy: I agree with Jonas that Roma really needs a strong DM to make Pellegrini shine again as a player. That’s the missing piece, not Pellegrini’s salary or captaincy, so I can’t blame Tiago Pinto for Pellegrini being treated like a key player for this side — at his best, he clearly is such a key player.
Following that, with Pellegrini signed through 2026 and Mourinho’s future uncertain, how do you see the next six months unfolding?
ssciavillo: The next six months will undoubtedly be interesting with rumors suggesting that Roma could cut bait with bigger-name players like Smalling, Sanches, and Spinazzola as soon as January. But, in terms of Pellegrini specifically, I think it comes down to staying healthy to find the consistency we saw during Mourinho’s first season.
I still think this marriage can work and probably will have to if Roma is going to finish in a Champions League position and make a deep run in the Europa League. I just hope these exit rumors don’t keep swirling and take Pellegrini off his game even more.
Bren: Well, one asset is signed for two more years at a high salary, and the other has only six months remaining. Simply math and economics would suggest that Pellegrini will win this battle, and Mourinho’s career suggests that good things seldom happen after year three anyway.
This may be the sign they needed to move on. Suppose the club finishes out of any European places, which is a distinct possibility. In that case, they’ll have a baked-in excuse to strip down the roster to its essentials and find a manager (and possibly a new GM) who can work hand-in-hand to shape Roma as they see fit. I’m not suggesting that the Pinto-Mourinho tandem is incapable of doing that, but the results on the table haven’t been commensurate with expectations, and maybe its time for Roma, Mourinho, and Pinto to part ways amicably.
JonAS: Sadly, I think Pellegrini’s mediocre season will continue until June. I don’t think he’ll refind his 2022 form any time soon. Or there has to be a real turnover after New Year. A last-minute bombshell from Pinto during the Winter Mercato: a midfield addition that accommodates Lorenzo. Alas, no money, no love.
Whether Mourinho will stay or not is anyone’s guess right now. That depends on the final standings and if Roma reaches the CL next season. But if you’d ask me how to rejuvenate Pellegrini’s career in 2024, then my money’s on a new trainer and a breath of fresh air like Motta, Sampaoli, Flick, or Conte.
Jimmy: As I said before, the players I have confidence in staying in Rome regardless of what happens to Mourinho and Tiago Pinto are Bove, Pellegrini, Bryan Cristante, and Gianluca Mancini. That Italian core, combined with the most promising members of the Primavera squad like Pagano and Pisilli, will stick around for the next year at the very least. Things become a whole lot easier for all involved if Roma gets Champions League football next season, but as a reminder for all of you out there: we’re only three points out of fourth. Calma.
Now that you've heard our say, what do you think: Does Roma have a Lorenzo Pellegrini problem?