Roma's struggles at the full-back position have been well-documented in these spaces over the past ten years, so we won't revisit that particular trauma in the wake of yet another disappointing season for the Giallorossi. But what made 2022-2023 particularly frustrating was that, for the first time in many years, the club cobbled together a respectable group of full-backs.
Highlighted by the return of a healthy (or at least healthier) Leonardo Spinazzola, José Mourinho's squad boasted four dynamic full-backs, including Rick Karsdorp, Nicola Zalewski, and Zeki Celik, who joined the club from Lille over the summer. They may not have been able to match the top-shelf talent of some other clubs around the league, but this was the deepest and most talented crew of full-backs we've seen in Roma colors in several years.
But, in keeping with this season's theme, Roma fans were ultimately left frustrated by this quartet, who combined for just three goals and six assists in league play.
There were certainly some bright spots, so let's revisit our predictions from last summer.
Key Player: Leonardo Spinazzola
Spinazzola's return last spring following his Achilles tear in July 2021 was nothing short of miraculous. Even by today's increasingly quick recovery standards, Spinazzola taking the pitch less than a year after rupturing his Achilles tendon turned a few heads. However, that cameo, as encouraging as it was, couldn't hold a candle to the real deal.
With more time to heal and a summer of full training under his belt, Spinazzola was expected to be a difference-maker for José Mourinho and Roma.
What We Said in August
On talent alone, Spinazzola is unquestionably the best of the bunch, and if he proves fully fit, Roma will be incredibly dangerous.
Seriously, imagine Spinazzola sprinting up the flank and linking up with Paulo Dybala (I still can’t believe I get to type that), Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, or even Stephan El Shaaraway, working give-and-goes, overlapping, swapping positions and whipping the ball into Tammy Abraham and perhaps even Andrea Belotti.
Combine that with the steady presence of Nemanja Matic and (potentially) Georgino Wijnaldum in midfield, and Roma’s attack is almost flawless. And Spinazzola—a healthy Spinazzola—is arguably Mourinho’s most potent weapon, bringing a level of dynamism to the position few players can match.
What Actually Happened
While he avoided any major injuries, Spinazzola still succumbed to a variety of muscular problems, missing 12 matches with thigh and hamstring issues. When healthy, Spinazzola managed 39 appearances totaling approximately 2,500 minutes, scoring two goals and providing five assists in all competitions.
Despite those intermittent issues, Spinazzola led all Roma players with 105 progressive carries, 18 more than second-place Nicola Zalewski, while ranking third in successful dribbles, indicating that there's a bit of life left in his 30-year-old legs.
Apart from his aggressive stance on the pitch, Spinazzola chipped in 21 key passes (6th most) and played 36 balls into the final third (5th among defenders) while leading the club in passes and crosses into the penalty area.
It may not have been the all-conquering return to full fitness we envisioned in August, but even in a diminished capacity, Leonardo Spinazzola was pretty effective this season. And with a full year of football under his belt post-surgery, there's reason to believe he'll resemble his former self next season.
Player Under Pressure: Rick Karsdorp
Another player with a lengthy injury history, Karsdorp was coming off back-to-back seasons in which he eclipsed the 3,000-minute mark in all competitions, a monumental achievement given his knee issues. However, with Zeki Celik joining the ranks, Karsdorp had serious competition for the starting right-back role.
In the end, Karsdorp wilted under the pressure, logging only 987 minutes in all competitions before essentially being excommunicated from the team after a falling out with Mourinho, in which the Roma manager questioned Karsdorp's commitment and professionalism.
Karsdorp has another two years remaining on his contract, but we may have seen the last of the Dutchmen in Roma colors.
We definitely put our necks on the line with this one...
A Year From Now, We’ll Say...
This was arguably the strongest unit on the squad, if not the entire league. With Çelik and Zalewski pushing Karsdorp and Spinazzola for playing time, Roma’s four full-backs were crucial to the Giallorossi’s climb up the table.
With Karsdorp's injury woes behind him, Zalewski another year wiser, Spinazzola nearing full health, and Celik added to the mix, our optimism was well-founded. But here we are 38 matches later, and we can definitively say that Roma's full-backs were not, in fact, the strongest unit in the league or even the squad.
Making matters worse, neither Spinazzola nor Karsdorp is certain to return next year, while Celik failed to really impress during his first season with the club. Zalewski, meanwhile, would probably be best served to return to his natural position as a winger.
Still, there are worse fates than running it back with these same quartet, but something tells me we may see a couple of new faces next season.