Typically, our U-23 Countdown gets into first-team players sooner rather than later. Roma’s squads have often trended young because promise is often cheaper than proven talent, yet the José Mourinho Era has simultaneously seen more chances for Primavera youth to shine and more established players making the Olimpico their home. Given that, it’s not too surprising that it’s taken until #2 in our countdown to get to players who are out-and-out key players in Roma’s squad today.
That lack of first-team players in our countdown doesn’t take away anything from the players that are both in the rotation and in our countdown; if anything, it only emphasizes their current ability and future potential. While his development last season happened in fits and spurts, and it’s still unclear what his long-term position is, one thing is certain with Nicola Zalewski: he’s got the talent to succeed at football’s highest level.
Number Two: Nicola Zalewski
Position: Left Wingback, I guess?
Shades of: Giacinto Facchetti, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Leonardo Spinazzola without the injuries (knock on wood)
Who Is He?
Nicola Zalewski is a Tivoli-born Polish international who has been playing for Roma in one way or another since 2011. Born in January 2002, he first played for Roma’s senior team in the 2020-2021 season, facing Manchester United in the Europa League semi-final. What a way to start your senior career, huh?
Since those early chances during the last gasps of Paulo Fonseca’s time in Rome, Zalewski has transformed into one of the crown jewels of Roma’s academy system. At only 21 years old, Zalewski has already made 50 Serie A appearances and 20 appearances in European cup competitions. He’s also become a mainstay of his national team, making 12 appearances since 2021 and becoming one of the Eagles’ youngest squad members for the 2022 World Cup.
While he came into Roma’s senior team hyped as an attacking midfielder or winger, José Mourinho has been playing him as an attacking wing-back, partially because of the squad’s complete lack of depth at that position and partially because of the squad’s strength in the attacking midfield.
What Can He Do?
With the caveat that we’re still not entirely sure what Zalewski’s full-time position will be, he has shown an ability to succeed as an attacking wingback while hinting at his untapped potential as a goalscoring force. In the last 365 days, Zalewski has ranked in the 93rd percentile among wingbacks for progressive carries, the 84th percentile in shots total, the 83rd percentile in interceptions, the 82nd percentile in successful take-ons, and the 75th percentile in shot-creating actions.
In some sense, Zalewski is already a mini-Spinny, an attacking wingback who can maraud up the wing and give opposing defenders headaches. While it was obvious that being one of the few consistently healthy options at left-back last season took its toll on his fitness levels by the end of the 2022-2023 season, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Zalewski was a key part of Roma’s starting eleven last season, and all signs point to that continuing on this season, albeit in that attacking wingback role that he is not necessarily made to fill.
What Can He Become?
While there were times last season when Zalewski appeared out of his depth as an attacking wingback, a lot of that can be attributed to the putrid performances of Roma’s forward corps last season. Zalewski was certainly creating chances; it’s just that those chances often went for naught due to the terrible form of players like Tammy Abraham and Andrea Belotti. As much as I called him a mini-Spinny earlier, in some ways, he’s already at a (non-peak) Spinazzola level. Exhibit A for that argument? The fact that despite Spinazzola’s injury issues last season, left wingback was not in the top three problem areas for Roma’s depth.
Even though he’s found moderate success as a wingback, it’s also true that Zalewski has not spent very much of his career as an attacking wingback, and while I understand why José Mourinho has decided to play Zalewski there, it still gives me Alessandro Florenzi flashbacks. This is a player who has been a number 10 for much of his footballing career; he can play at left wingback, but should he?
In terms of what Zalewski becomes, a lot of it will hinge on what positions he plays over the next two seasons. If he’s shifted back towards an out-and-out winger role, he could become what many thought Stephan El Shaarawy was destined to become; if he stays in a more defensive role, then Peak Spinazzola is probably the best comparison.
The fact that Zalewski is only 21 and already considered a serious part of Roma’s senior squad is a testament to his present ability and future potential. Another indicator of that combination of ability and potential? His status as a shortlisted nominee for the 2022 Golden Boy Award.
He may not have turned into a 100 million player last season, but there’s no reason to think that he can’t continue on his path toward stardom this season at the Stadio Olimpico. The only question is: which part of the field will he make his own?