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Nicolo Zaniolo: Where Did it All Go Wrong and What's Next for The Former Can't-Miss Kid?

With Roma's best prospect since Daniele De Rossi is now officially a former Roma player, the CdT crew assembles to discuss what went wrong and what's next for the prodigious 23-year-old.

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

You knew it the moment you saw him suit up against Real Madrid in the Champions League way back in September of 2018. There was just something about this kid that you couldn't quite put your finger on. Yeah, he was young, but he didn't look like a typical teenager thrown to the wolves. There was no fear, no hesitation, and no thinking, “does he really belong here?”

Even at 19 years old, Zaniolo had the physical traits to hang with grown men, but there was just something about the way he carried himself on the pitch, his gait, his self-assured strut, and that sneering smile, that made you think it wouldn't be long before he was the teacher rather than the student.

Roma fans weren't necessarily ready to hand him Francesco Totti's number ten shirt, but he was the first kid to make you think, hmm...maybe. And after racking up six goals and two assists in approximately 2,300 minutes in all competitions as a teenager, Zaniolo's path toward superstardom seemed free and clear.

But we all know what happened after that. In the span of nine months between January and September 2020, Zaniolo ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in both his knees, essentially robbing him of two critical developmental years in his still-young career.

Zaniolo fought like hell to return, and apart from the minor sprains and strains that plague all players in this year-round sport, he was always at Roma's disposal. However, for reasons we may never fully comprehend, The Kid became dissatisfied with life in the Eternal City, submitting a transfer request last month, one that was finally fulfilled when Turkish club Galatasaray crawled out of the woodwork to snap up the talented 23-year-old.

And now that he's officially a thing of the past, the Chiesa di Totti crew assembled to dissect Zaniolo's Roma career: the highs, the lows, what might of been and what could still be.

Enjoy, and please give us your takes in the comment section!

Don’t think about it at all: What was your initial reaction when you saw the headlines that Nicolo Zaniolo was sold?

JonAS: Dancing to the music video of Happy by Pharell Williams. Well, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but overall I was happy it happened. Not for the simple fact that Zaniolo was leaving but that it was a good solution for all parties involved. Roma got decent money. Pinto and co. didn’t have to punish Nico and let him rot in the stands until May. Zaniolo wanted out and got his transfer to Turkey, where he can (try to) revive his career. If all goes well, he won’t stay in Istanbul for too long. And Roma gets some nice bonuses while the fans/media can once again focus on the most important thing: football.

Bren: I was shocked and still am. I’ve always been of the mindset (with a few exceptions) that some players are more important to the long-term health of the club than a manager, given the simple rate with which Roma rips through managers. And at only 23 years old, I would have thought Roma would keep the long view in mind and try to hold to him, pacify him or at least let him save face so they could net more money from a sale. But here we are.


BSanti: Meh. At that point, the writing was on the wall that Zaniolo had no future at the club, and the Italian transfer window had been closed for some days, so there was no replacement lined up that could generate some excitement.

Instead, you shrug your shoulders and move on; time to focus on the top-four race.

ssciavillo: When the rumors initially started that he would be sold this mercato I was surprised. However, by the time it happened, I was a bit relieved that we wouldn’t have to go through the drama of him being frozen out for six months and then having to worry about selling him during the summer mercato.

Jimmy: It felt like the writing was on the wall for a while, as much as I didn’t want to admit it. I agree with Brandon, though: we have bigger fish to fry this season than stressing over the Zaniolo sale. Roma is fighting for top four, and Zaniolo was clearly not interested in staying here for that fight. I’ll miss him, but I’m moving on.

Let’s talk about sticker shock. Roma will net roughly €22 million from this sale, a far cry from the figures we saw just last summer. Was there anything they could have done to milk more from this transfer?

JonAS: Nah, I think in the summer, Roma would get roughly the same amount. Don’t forget his past injuries and the fact Nico would have played 0 official minutes in six months. Talent or not, these times, clubs (well, apart from Chelsea) try to make the most of their funds, so they’ll think twice before buying someone fragile or who’s a hothead. Financial Fair Play etc. Of course, prime Zaniolo was worth 50m or so, but what’s done is done. Clubs knew Roma wanted to get rid of Zaniolo asap, so that’s a disadvantage for us in a mercato. Also, a big fat grazie to Fenerbahce for making Galatasaray pony up the dough.

Bren: I think, given his clear preference for a bigger club like Milan or Spurs, he was always going to turn his nose up at the Bournemouths of the world, which really put Roma in a bind after they failed to strike a deal with a more famous club, shall we say. And with time running out and the relationship apparently getting worse, they really had no choice.

Call me a Zaniolo apologist if you must, but I find it hard to believe there wasn’t a way to repair this relationship. With whispers of Mourinho leaving this summer anyway, I don’t know, it just feels like there was a way out of this, at least for Zaniolo and the Friedkins, but perhaps that’s a bit pollyannaish of me.

BSanti: I suspect this was as good a deal as Roma was going to get. Wait until the summer, and in all likelihood, Milan or Spurs would just snag him for a cut-rate fee as Roma cut their losses to get Zaniolo out of the door.

I suppose you could argue that the best option would’ve been to repair the relationship, especially given the time remaining on Zaniolo’s contract, but at some point, the club needed to put their foot down and prove a point. Just a shame Zaniolo was the player in this case.

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

ssciavillo: I think with Zaniolo turning down the Bournemouth offer and his contract only a year away from expiry in the summer, Roma wouldn’t have gotten a whole lot more then. Additional bonuses could push it to €29 million, plus there’s a 20% sell-on fee. So, the hope has to be that he really plays well for Galatasaray, and even if he only hits the €22 million with easy bonuses that Bren referenced, maybe he goes somewhere for €40-50 million, and Roma nets another €8-10 million down the road.

Jimmy: Honestly, no. Most football clubs seem to be in financial hardship in some way or the other right now (even some Premier League clubs), and given Zaniolo’s form, I’m not shocked that the bigger clubs that were interested weren’t interested in purchasing him outright. I wish there had been a way out of this like Bren suggested, but I think he truly burned his bridges with the Friedkins. At least this sale went a bit more cleanly than the sale that was the result of the Mehdi Benatia - Jim Pallotta feud.

There’s no way actually to discern this, but who do you fault for the dissolution of this relationship: Zaniolo? Mourinho? Pinto? The universe itself?

JonAS: Well, let’s say 75% Zaniolo, no? I mean c’mon: he became a celebrity thanks to Roma and a member of the NT, he would play every single minute if he wanted to, the club always supported him during his injuries, Mourinho was a fan at the start, he got various Italian buddies to hang out with like Pellegrini, Mancini, and Cristante. He could have stayed for 5 or even 10 more years if he had just kept his calm and worked hard. All stars aligned for Nico in Rome, so he just had to. I don’t know, do what he does best, and that’s playing football and being a professional. Without all that fuzz, Nico would just return to the first team and guide them to a top 4 this season. But he clearly had enough of Roma and its fanbase. I don’t really blame Pinto or Mourinho; we don’t know how much Zaniolo was a pain in their ass all this time.

Bren: I’m gonna be honest and say I don’t even know what the hell the issue was. A kid with an ego clashed with a manager with an ego. So what? Unless something legitimately unethical or immoral happened behind the scenes, this all just seems so silly.

AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

BSanti: Who knows, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Reports suggest Mourinho and Roma's management were all caught completely unaware by Zaniolo’s transfer request, and it does feel like an ill-advised move on the part of Zaniolo given that he later attempted to backtrack and reconcile with Roma, but there are so many factors that go into these transfers that it’s nearly impossible to pin it on one party.

Regardless, I don’t think any of us would say that we expected Zaniolo to remain with Roma for the entirety of his career. After five years of service, Zaniolo was probably due for a move in the near future.

ssciavillo: I honestly think the biggest blame has to lie with the player and his agent, Claudio Vigorelli. It seems like the relationship with Mourinho was good. He literally played him at every opportunity, even when he was struggling. The timing of the whole request seems ill-timed, which makes me think Vigorelli gave the kid some poor advice.

Jimmy: I agree that it seems silly, but I’d blame the agent and (gulp) the city the most. Steve’s right; the relationship with the manager seemed good, and up to a point, the relationship with the club seemed good. I’m going to chalk this one up to Vigorelli wanting to get the agent fees from Nicolò’s transfer and also for the environment and high expectations that were created for Zaniolo by many around the club.

We’ve seen this story before with players like Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano; big expectations foisted on young players leading to drama and disappointment. Rome is a pressure cooker, and it takes a certain kind of personality to succeed there. I guess at the end of the day, Nicolò just didn’t have what it took.

Apart from the knee injuries, where did it all go wrong for Zaniolo on the pitch? Why didn’t he tap into his enormous potential?

JonAS: He obviously had talent, and I was impressed with his physical attributes, especially after his severe injuries. It’s pretty clear this was a mental problem. His character and these conflicts all reminded me of Cassano, who was also sold in the winter for only 5 million. At least Antonio made the most of his career in Rome. In Zaniolo’s case, I’ll always wonder ‘what if’ though. What if Zaniolo had been a humble and hard-working guy, a la Perrotta, Cassetti, Cristante, or Smalling? Graced with so much talent. Too bad.

Bren: It’s so tough to say because the knee injuries happened so early in his career and in such quick succession that he essentially lost two crucial developmental years in his career. Apart from that, I’d say he was a bit of a gym class hero at times, going for the difficult, highlight-worthy attempt while ignoring the simpler, smarter play. I always imagine he’d iron that out sooner or later, or at the very least morph into a single-minded goalscorer that could actually play up top.

So, it’s equal parts injury and immaturity for me. Throw in some maddening inconsistency, and there you have it.

BSanti: Well, he is only 23, so the jury is still out on whether he can ultimately realize his enormous potential. But yeah, for Roma? There’s something that just didn’t click for the player post ACL injuries.

Netherlands v Italy - UEFA Nations League Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

My guess is that even a few years removed from surgery, there’s still just a small percentage of Zaniolo that has some self-doubt. You can’t question his work ethic, as on the pitch he was consistently one of the hardest workers, but he certainly lacked that fearlessness that defined his early Roma career.

ssciavillo: Like Bren pointed out, two major knee injuries hindered his development in many ways. But, I think the biggest issue is really mental with Zaniolo. And I mean that in the sense of his decision-making on the pitch. He looks to be physically back to his near best. He works his tail off. However, he often holds the ball too long and doesn’t make the right pass. Maybe he was able to get away with using his top-class athleticism for so long that he never really had to worry about it. But if he’s ever truly going to be great, then the decision-making has to improve exponentially.

Jimmy: It’s the injuries to me. I agree that the mental element of his game was lacking, particularly post-ACL tears, but I would pin a lot of that on the idea that he felt so desperate to prove himself post-injury that he ironically didn’t have the right mindset to truly prove himself. I hope he can pull it all together, even if that results in him moving to Milan.

Going along with that, is there any hope he can become the player so many of us thought he could be five years ago?

JonAS: I hope so, but not in Serie A. That means Ibanez, Mancini, and Smalling (if he stays) would get their ass kicked by Nico one day. Let him wreak havoc in Germany, Spain, or England instead. Maybe the next six months in Turkey will already give us an answer to this question.

Bren: I think at this point, the chances of him becoming a star are done and dusted, but I think he can still become a regular rotation piece for a Champions League club. And if he can iron out those inconsistencies and improve his decision-making, he can become a regular starter for a Champions League club. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him become a global star.

AS Roma v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

BSanti: I would not be surprised at all if he joined Juve or Milan and finally realized his enormous potential; that’s just how these things go.

ssciavillo: I think there’s still hope, given his elite athleticism, that he can be a very good player. That being said, I don’t think he’ll be the generational player that everyone thought he could be.

Jimmy: Yeah, I think it could definitely happen. I’ll be kicking myself if it does.

18 months from now, who is Zaniolo, and where is he playing?

JonAS: There are only two possibilities: rotting on the bench of Pordenone Calcio in Serie C or at Real Madrid next to Vinicius and Mbappe in an exciting 4-3-3.

Bren: I think it’s gonna be Milan. I can see him having a nice season or two there, but ultimately, I think he’s going to do a fair bit of bouncing around in his career. Never cratering, as you suggest, but he’s not going to be lining up alongside Erling Haaland anytime soon.

BSanti: Juve or Milan, but given that Juve are the more likely team to miss out on UCL, I’ll go with Milan. I think Zaniolo will bounce back in Turkey, as he’ll be highly motivated to get a team to activate his release clause in the summer.

ssciavillo: Juve, Milan, or the Premier League. If he bounces back in Turkey, then I could see a PL club outbidding the Italian clubs for his services. Plus, his physical style might actually play better in the PL.

Jimmy: He’s in the Premier League for a club like Tottenham or maybe Milan. I hope he finds a place where he can settle down with less of the “Next Totti” expectations on him. He’s a hard worker, and he has the talent.

Statistically speaking, it’s no huge loss, but who will fill the Zaniolo void for Roma this season and beyond?

JonAS: We don't really have another ‘Zaniolo type’ in our roster, but I’m glad SES has been flourishing lately, so that’s a nice upside. Belotti, Solbakken, hell why not Volpato? They can all play in that role more frequently now, but I reckon Mourinho will just run Dybala, Abraham, and Pellegrini into the ground because they’re his favorites.

US Lecce v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Bren: To me this screams Solbakken. If we just need a guy to put his head down and barrel through defenders in the box and then use his size and strength to score goals, then he’s gotta be the guy. But I agree, I think this will be a boon for El Shaarawy and hopefully land him an extension that will see him close out his best days with the club–I just love the guy and never want to see him in another shirt.

BSanti: Speaking it into existence: bring me Isco, baby.

ssciavillo: Honestly, at this point, I’m fine with SES playing more and giving Solbakken a chance to earn minutes. I don’t think Isco pushes the needle enough.

Jimmy: No Isco, please. I’d rather see Solbakken and Volpato get some real time on the pitch. They’re here now, and they’re theoretically used to the formation (or they will be eventually). Bringing in a stop-gap replacement never seems to work out for Roma, so let’s build a long-term solution.

And lastly, give us some closing thoughts. How will Roma fans remember Zaniolo’s tenure with the club? How should they remember it?

JonAS: I think his two goals vs. Porto in the Champions League in 2019 were an example of what Zaniolo was capable of. Or the iconic photo of him pushing and running past Juve players like Moses himself, who split the sea. And, of course, the winning goal in the Conference League final vs. Feyenoord, giving Roma’s first trophy in ages. Enough fond memories of The Kid, but there could have been more. A lot more.

Bren: I just hope we remember the excitement of it all: the unexpected start against Real Madrid, his cocksure attitude, his aggressive runs, and how he made us all think we had our first genuine star of the post-Totti era on his hands. I suspect he’ll be remembered as a petulant child with an inflated ego by many Roma fans, and I think that’s a shame. In the end, we should just remember him as another can’t-miss kid who did just that: he missed.

BSanti: Great question. I think that the answer is one and the same, to be honest. I think only a small portion of Romanisti harbor any ill-will towards Zaniolo, and the majority of Roma fans will remember him exactly as they should - promise left unfulfilled.

As mentioned, the youngster gave Romanisti hope that our beloved club had a superstar in the making on their hands, a player who had unlimited potential that would be a modern-day Achilles for Roma. And were it not for Paris, the God of the ACL, who knows the heights Zaniolo would’ve reached in a Roma shirt.

ssciavillo: I think there will be initial ill-will from some Romanisti about how he exited the club. But in the big picture, I think he’ll be remembered as the can’t miss prospect who was derailed by injuries and some poor decisions. I think that the long-term perception could change, though, if he hits big elsewhere.

Jimmy: Hope is a dangerous thing for a Romanista like me to have, but I have it. I really thought Nicolò could hit the big time in Rome, and the fact that he didn’t is going to disappoint me for quite some time. I think a lot of Romanisti are in the same boat, lamenting the wasted potential more than anything else. I’ll keep the hope that Zalewski or Volpato can become the star we all dreamed Zaniolo might be; Zalewski has certainly established himself as a key member of Mourinho’s squad despite his youth. Still, I think Romanisti will remember Zaniolo as the first player to inspire hope that there was life after Totti since... Totti. It turned out that he wasn’t The Prince That Was Promised, but I hope the hope for that next icon endures. For all their faults, Romanisti deserve a hero.

While it didn't last as long, nor did it end the way we thought, Nicolo Zaniolo will always occupy a unique spot in Roma history. So tell us: How will you remember him?


Who will be Roma's "Next Big Thing"?

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