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Roma’s Midfield Impressed This Season... When Healthy

They weren’t the weakest part of Roma’s squad this season, but the Giallorossi are certainly looking to upgrade their midfield this summer.

AS Roma v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Roma’s midfield was definitely not its biggest problem this season; that unsavory distinction must go to Roma’s forward contingent, who, despite having an incredible amount of talent on paper, left much to be desired. No, Roma’s midfield was actually one of its strongest parts of the squad, with players like Lorenzo Pellegrini, Bryan Cristante, and Nemanja Matić proving their worth while youngsters like Edoardo Bove proved they had what it takes to succeed at a Serie A level for the long term.

The most stinging part of watching Roma’s midfield this season was knowing that the missing piece to take the Giallorossi from a Europa League to a Champions League side was recuperating from a freak accident. Gini Wijnaldum could have transformed this midfield, and his injury before playing one minute of football for Roma immediately put José Mourinho’s side in a defensive position heading into the season, short on depth and in need of solid performances from Primavera players.

We may look back on this season and appreciate the silver lining of Wijnaldum’s injury, that it gave more of a chance for Edoardo Bove to develop; still, what might have been stings, and will likely sting for some time.

The Key Player: Lorenzo Pellegrini

AS Roma v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

What We Said In August

The recent signing of Gini Wijnaldum may have added sheer star power to Roma’s midfield, but make no mistake, Lolo is still the key player in the middle of the pitch for the Giallorossi (and maybe period). Although his form cooled off in the second half of last season, Pellegrini’s nuclear-hot start showed us just how good the 26-year-old Italian international can be, and for Roma to succeed this season, José Mourinho will continue to need that level of play from his captain.

There’s reason to be hopeful about this happening, starting with Roma signing Nemanja Matić and Gini Wijnaldum. By bringing in players who really fit with Mourinho’s tactics, Pellegrini will feel more comfortable trusting the midfield pivot behind him as he acts as the link between midfield and attacking play; it’s a lot easier to trust Wijnaldum, Matić, and Cristante to have things under control than Veretout, Villar, and Cristante.

If things go well, I would go as far as to suggest that Pellegrini will be flirting with a 10-and-10 season right alongside Paulo Dybala; if Roma’s aspirations for a Europa League victory and a top-four finish are fulfilled, it will happen explicitly because of excellent play from the likes of Pellegrini.

How The Season Unfolded

While Lorenzo Pellegrini didn’t come close to a 10-and-10 season in Serie A, his performances across all competitions impressed: the Italian international chipped in eight goals and nine assists in forty-eight appearances this season. The lack of depth behind him certainly meant that his as the season continued, the toll of all those appearances became visible in his form; the Pellegrini that played at the beginning of this season clearly had more tread on his tires than the one that started the Europa League final.

There’s some solace to be taken from that decline in form, though, in the sense that Pellegrini has reportedly been granted an understudy who will be able to spell him consistently next season; Houssem Aouar is no slouch, and in a best-case scenario, may even push Pellegrini to improve to maintain his spot in the starting eleven.

Roma’s lack of depth affected every player who managed to stay healthy this season (Nicola Zalewski is another who clearly wore down over the course of this season), but reinforcements arriving this summer will hopefully ensure that this issue does not plague the Giallorossi next season.

Player Under Pressure: Bryan Cristante


What We Said In August

While nobody on Roma’s squad is likely to be disappointed about signing players like Nemanja Matić and Gini Wijnaldum, there’s no doubt that those signings (and the potential Davide Frattesi signing that is still rumored to be in the works) are going to put more pressure on Bryan Cristante. Compared to the vast majority of Romanisti, I’m a Cristante apologist; he’s clearly one of the most beloved members of the locker room, every manager he’s worked with has made him a key part of their midfield rotation, and he’s shown a willingness to adapt his style of play depending on what his club requires of him.

This is a player who hit double-digit goals while at Atalanta, and while I, for one, would love to see that more attacking version of Cristante again, I think we should all appreciate that Cristante’s lack of goals with Roma isn’t likely because he lost the ability to score; instead, his role has shifted drastically, and playing with the likes of Veretout has made it seem like every fault in the midfield was his and his alone.

Still, at age 27, Cristante is reaching the peak of his career, and you can’t imagine that the Italy international will want to stick around Trigoria if he finds himself riding the pine for most of the next season. That makes the next few months crucial for both him and the club; if Mourinho can rotate Cristante into the starting eleven with regularity, and if Cristante shows that he deserves to be a part of the rotation, I would expect everyone’s favorite Canadian-Italian to stick with the Giallorossi for at least a while longer. If this summer’s signings put him in the dog house, though, then there’s every chance that he won’t be long for the Stadio Olimpico.

How The Season Unfolded

Well, Bryan Cristante haters, how you like me now?

The 28-year-old Italian international had a great season for the Giallorossi; he may have only notched one goal and three assists, but with the vast majority of playmaking responsibility shifting over to Lorenzo Pellegrini and Paulo Dybala this season, there was more expected from Cristante on the defensive side of the ball, and Bryan delivered. Here’s how José Mourinho described Cristante’s contributions to winning after Roma’s match against Real Sociedad:

“When Cristante doesn’t play, we are in trouble, it’s the truth and we shouldn’t hide it. When there’s the possibility of having a rested version of Cristante on the pitch, it’s a double contribution: he was suspended, he didn’t play in the last match, he was fresh and only focused on this match, then there’s his tactical intelligence and his knowledge of the movements on the pitch which we cannot replace.”

Just as Daniele De Rossi has said he would field a team with eleven Bryan Cristantes, José Mourinho has joined Capitano Futuro in praising the world’s most famous Canadian-Italian. Reports are now circulating that suggest that Cristante is one of Mourinho’s few untouchables heading into the summer mercato, with some even suggesting that Bryan has become one of Mourinho’s favorite players he’s ever coached in his career.

That’s high praise from a manager with a history like Mourinho; let’s hope that Bryan is able to continue putting in the hard (yet often unseen and underappreciated) work that enables the likes of Pellegrini and Dybala to succeed.

The X-Factor: Edoardo Bove

Sevilla FC v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Final 2022/23 Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

What We Said In August

Any of Roma’s new midfield signings could justifiably be called an X Factor for the club this season; if Matić and Wijnaldum can rediscover the best of their form under José Mourinho, it automatically pushes the Giallorossi into contention for a top-four finish, and who knows what else. Yet I’m going to tag Edoardo Bove as the biggest X Factor for the midfield this season simply because he has the potential to go from impact sub to next Roman star over the course of the 2022/2023 season.

I don’t say that lightly; of course, Roma’s midfield is packed with players who are stars in their own right, and it will take a whole lot of work for Bove to get consistent minutes, let alone a consistent part of the starting eleven. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why Tiago Pinto has rejected overtures from a wide variety of Serie A clubs for Bove’s services, and there’s a reason why every couple of weeks a rumor drops without fail stating that Bove is a key part of Mourinho’s long-term plans in the midfield.

What we’ve seen from Bove to date has been quite exciting; he’s looked like he’s belonged at the senior level from the first moment he stepped on a Serie A pitch. If he can take the next step this season and transition from exciting prospect to day-in, day-out Serie A midfielder, it will do wonders for Roma’s ability to go deep in multiple competitions while also helping to keep Roma’s wage bill manageable. No pressure, Edoardo, but also: we’re counting on you.

How The Season Unfolded

Slowly but surely, Edoardo Bove has become a rotation piece in José Mourinho’s Roma. Part of that has been out of necessity; as we’ve all said repeatedly, the second half of Roma’s season almost felt like a horror movie, with every injury forcing The Special One to go deeper into Roma’s Primavera to find players who could at the very least imitate the skillset of a Serie A player. With Bove, there’s been no need for imitation. The Italy U-21 international has shown himself to be ready for the bright lights of Italian and European football this season, scoring the deciding goal in Roma’s Europa League semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen and always looking just so assured on the ball, regardless of whether he started a match or was an 80th-minute sub.

Bove’s agent has already confirmed that Tiago Pinto is set to begin negotiations to renew Bove’s contract with the Giallorossi, and that’s a good thing for all involved. Even with the Giallorossi clearly intending on signing several new players this summer to shore up Roma’s depth, Tiago Pinto and José Mourinho know that Primavera players who graduate to senior team minutes will be crucial in filling in the gaps for I Lupi. Let’s hope that Roma’s midfield this fall includes significant minutes for Bove, regardless of who Roma brings in this summer to replace Gini Wijnaldum and bring more midfield depth. Say it very quietly, but if given the right amount of runway, Roma may have found its next Italian national team stalwart.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, my prediction for the midfield overall was spot-on:

Compared to last season, the Giallorossi’s midfield was not the weak spot in the squad. Once the hierarchy of Mourinho’s new-look midfield was established, there were few hitches other than injury concerns, and even when those concerns popped up, Edoardo Bove established himself as a future starter for the Giallorossi through smart and measured play. The only question heading into the ‘23-’24 season is how to split minutes, which is a great problem to have.

There were certainly injury concerns that plagued Roma’s entire side this season, yet it’s fair to single out Roma’s midfield as the place where just a little more health could have been a difference-maker between qualifying for the Europa League and the Champions League. If Gini Wijnaldum had been available for even ⅔ of the season, I doubt Romanisti would have needed to count on winning the Europa League to qualify for Champions League football; in fact, a second or third-place finish isn’t hard to imagine with Wijnaldum providing more balance alongside Lorenzo Pellegrini, Bryan Cristante, Nemanja Matić, and Edoardo Bove.

With the signing of Houssem Aouar essentially confirmed, along with rumors circulating of a return to Rome for Davide Frattesi, it looks as if the Giallorossi will go from strength to strength in the midfield through shrewd dealings in the summer mercato. Let’s just hope that Roma’s key midfielders maintain their ability and availability once the calendar turns to August.