Arriving from Hellas Verona in the summer of 2020 in a complicated deal involving four players that could ultimately cost Roma nearly €30 million, Marash Kumbulla never had the luxury of low expectations. With virtually every big club in Italy chasing his signature, Kumbulla was widely regarded as one of the best young defenders in the league. He even made UEFA's "50 For the Future" list in January 2021.
But talent is not the issue with Kumbulla. He may not be a world-class defender in the making, but the kid has what it takes to be a solid Serie A defender. The problem has been one of injury and opportunity. Buried on the depth chart behind Chris Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, and Roger Ibañez, Kumbulla had never earned more than 14 starts during his three years with the club, reaching a nadir last season when he made only seven league appearances.
Throw in a history of serious injuries, including a torn meniscus that ended his 2020-2021 season early and last spring's torn ACL, and Kumbulla has been fighting an uphill battle for the past two-and-a-half years.
He's likely on the shelf until March or April, while his contract expires in 2025 so that uphill battle shows no sign of abating soon. Still, the kid is undeniably talented, so let's take one last U-23 look at dear old Max.
Number Six: Marash Kumbulla
Shades of: Georgio Chiellini, Leandro Castan
Who is He?
Born in Desenzano del Garda on the shores of Lake Garda in Verona, Kumbulla is a duel Albanian-Italian citizen. After rising through Hellas Verona's youth academy ranks, Kumbulla made his professional debut in the third round of the 2018 Coppa Italia against Catania.
While he would have to wait a year or so to truly ingrain himself with the Mastiffs, he came to life during the 2019-2020 season, earning 25 starts for Ivan Juric's side, parlaying his impressive performance into his mega-money move to Roma.
What Can He Do?
The defender Kumbulla has most often been compared in his young career is LAFC legend Georgio Chiellini, largely due to their similar stature and gait. Much like Chiellini, Kumbulla's calling card is his physicality and technique. Not blessed with overwhelming speed, Kumbulla's best assets are his size, technique, and simple willingness to defend.
Be it on the ground, in the air, or anywhere in between, Kumbulla can thwart attacks with his tackling technique, his surprisingly spry leaping ability, and even the occasional textbook slide tackle. He's kind of like the guy who shows up to a pickup basketball game wearing goggles, beat-up shoes, and cut-off sweatpants and then proceeds to dominate the paint, grabbing every rebound, throwing picture-perfect bounce passes, and orchestrating the halfcourt offense while sweating profusely.
What Can He Become?
This is always the trickiest section of these pieces. And given how little he's played recently and that he's now recovering from his second season-ending knee surgery, the jury remains out on Kumbulla. He's not likely to become the sort of center-back that engenders bidding wars between Manchester City, PSG, and Bayern Munich. Still, if he returns to full health and wins Mourinho's confidence (or whoever manages Roma in 2024-2025), he has every chance to become a lynchpin for the Giallorossi. The kind of defender you can pencil into the lineup every weekend for seven or eight years without batting an eye.
But perhaps more than any other player on this countdown, the pressure is on. Once he's back in action, he basically has one year to save his Roma career.