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If Roma Move on From Dzeko, Could Balotelli be a Fit?

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Super Mario is a free agent, but would he be an upgrade over Dzeko?

Los Angeles Galaxy v Manchester City Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In the past two years, we’ve enjoyed watching Dzeko play arguably the best football of his career, leading us on a previously unfathomable run to the Champions League semi’s through Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, and now Barcelona. But, with the current Roma business model, when fans get starry-eyed, the Roma brain trust gets…money-eyed? At 32 years old, this may be the last transfer window with big money interest for the big guy.

Typically, Roma likes to sell players as they hit their peak and either buy players that are young and unproven or top-level veterans who’ve shown a drop in form. Dzeko was an instance of the latter, but he came in young enough and has improved enough that he has transcended these trends by increasing his value significantly. This creates a conundrum because Roma hates to sit on a player as they lose value. With Defrel and Schick waiting in the wings (the right wing to be more specific) and Balotelli potentially coming in for free, what will Roma do if another big money offer comes in?

As Defrel and Schick haven’t proven themselves to be reliable yet, it would be a big risk to sell Dzeko without bringing in an established number 9, so we will focus on Balotelli who, for now, seems like the most likely replacement (aka cheapest replacement, and you can’t get cheaper than free).

To try to anticipate what could happen this summer, let’s think about the footballing, team dynamic, and business case that Pallotta and Monchi will be considering as they decide whether they should sell Dzeko and bring in Balotelli.

The footballing case

How do Dzeko’s and Balotelli’s performances compare over the past year? After a look at their stats from the past year, it quickly becomes clear that these are two very different strikers:

understat.com

There is a lot to unpack here, but there are three especially interesting differences in (1) the buildup, (2) the final pass, and (3) finishing stats.

Buildup

The xGChain90 statistic is the total expected goals per game that come from a series of play where the player is involved. The big gap between Dzeko and Balotelli reveals that Dzeko holds up play more and gets more touches as the team prods the defense for weaknesses, leading to more opportunities for the striker as well as teammates. Dzeko’s contributions to the build up would lead to roughly 1 more team goal every 3 matches than Balotelli’s would.

But, to an extent, that is comparing apples to oranges because buildup statistics are more team-dependent. If one team has a higher xG90, then naturally players on that team will have a higher cGChain90, regardless of their skill in helping a play develop. More than that, comparing across teams doesn’t account for the fact that Nice and Roma have different tactics and either Balotelli or EDF could adapt. Either way, it does suggest a risk that Roma would lose offensive output with Balotelli at the helm.

Final pass

Does Balotelli match Dzeko’s ability to make an assist? Key passes are passes that lead to shots, and Dzeko has slightly more of those per game (KP90) as well as more assists per game (4 assists, and 0 for Balotelli this season). This again appears to an advantage for Dzeko, but the expected assists per game (xA90) statistics would suggest otherwise.

While Dzekp makes 1.56 final passes before a shot per game, the quality of the opportunities would only lead to a goal every 7 games, and he needs to make roughly 10 key passes before one of them ends up in the back of the net. While Balotelli makes fewer key passes per game, he is roughly equal in expected assists per game, meaning that if his teammates perform as expected, he would get an assist every 8 games. That’s one assist roughly every 9 key passes. Therefore, it could be they are roughly equally capable of making assists, it’s just that Dzeko is in the position to make key passes more often and has more talented finishers around him.

Finishing

The biggest difference between the two is in their finishing. Dzeko is averaging an expected goal rate of 0.57 per game, which means that, based on an analysis of the quantity and quality of his shot position, an average striker would score 0.57 goals per game. He has managed an actual goal average of 0.51 per game, meaning that he is slightly underperforming his expected goals statistic (89.5%). On the other hand, Balotelli has a similar expected goal statistics but is over performing it at 114.5%. If these patterns hold and we replace Dzeko’s foot with Balotelli’s for each shot over the course of Roma’s season, that’s an extra 5.32 goals per season.

What does that mean for the team performance?

As of last month, Roma had the highest expected goals in the league but was underperforming with actual goals. EDF is developing and employing tactics that give chances, but Roma is lagging way behind the other league leaders in conversion rates.

@RowzReport

The bottom line is that Roma’s weakness corresponds well with Balotelli’s strength. Roma needs to be more clinical, and that is what Balotelli does best. Roma could have been a contender for the Scudetto this season if they had just converted their chances as effectively as the other top teams. If Balotelli comes to Rome and takes advantage of the ridiculously high xG90 at Roma, then we could end up replacing one Capocannoniere with another.

As Roma fans, of course we know that Dzeko contributes enormously in ways that are not measured by these statistics. The purpose of statistics is to cut out the biases and irrelevant information and identify precisely what is of interest—in this case, that would be the contribution of players. However, soccer data science just isn’t there yet. We don’t know what would happen if Dzeko was replaced by Balotelli. However, with Pallotta fully on board with the data-driven approach, Roma will likely err on the side of caring about what is measurable than what is not, and, if we focus on what is measurable, Balotelli looks like the kind of striker we need.

The team dynamic case

Possibly the biggest problem with bringing Balotelli in on a free is his reputation for selfish play on the field and disruptive behavior off it. He’s recently been in the headlines for not working hard enough on the pitch, complaining that he didn’t get called up to the Azzurri, and lamenting about the effect racism has had on his career.

He may never be a player who keeps his head down and just focuses on his game, but after reading past the clickbait headlines, his actual statements show a surprising amount of self-awareness of his faults and weaknesses. He did blame some of his troubles on others, but he also qualified it by admitting that “perhaps I did cause some of my own problems and had the wrong attitude at times.” His recent performances and attitude suggest that this self-awareness may be helping him to mature.

But, while hearing these kinds of statements is encouraging, for a footballer, actions are more important than words. If it is true that he’s been benched because of a lack of motivation on the pitch, then he still is not ready to wear the Roma shirt. Whether it is Nainggolan terrorizing the offense and defense alike, Dzeko pressing at every opportunity, or De Rossi pushing the ref’s limits with over-the-top challenges—Roma is a team that errs on the side of too much enthusiasm, too much commitment, and too much passion. We can’t afford the most technical players in the world, but effort is free, and every Roma player is expected to leave it all on the field. A player that isn’t ready to give everything in every single match is a player that will not fit in here.

With that said, EDF had hoped to bring Balotelli to Sassuolo, suggesting (a) that he thinks he could fit Balotelli into his tactical plans and (b) he thinks he could effectively manage him. If he still feels this way, Pallotta and Monchi could also find some possible upsides of bringing Balotelli into the team. Certainly, if Balotelli is maturing enough to step into a leadership position, he could be the perfect person to teach the young Primavera talents to learn to deal with the pressure of Serie A, which would be a boon for a team that prides itself on developing young talent for the first team.

In the end, there are some potential upsides, but Balotelli would bring much more risk than potential reward when it comes to the team dynamic. With Roma finally showing signs of mental strength, bringing in a disruptive influence could set the team back years. Ultimately, it comes down to two things that we just can’t know at this point: (1) How much has he really matured? And (2), how well could EDF manage him? Possibly the most important thing to note is that these aren’t questions about how big of an improvement he would be—these are questions about minimizing the damage that would come with him, and that alone says a lot.

The financial case

Unfortunately, with the cost of stadium and FFP always at our heels, money may be the most important issue. Right now, Dzeko is the highest paid player on the team at a reported 4.5 million euro per year, while Balotelli is earning 3.7 million. If Balotelli makes the switch, it’s likely he would get a pay raise, so it is possible the salaries could be a wash. So, any differences in their respective financial cases would come from transfer fees.

In January, reports suggested Chelsea offered anywhere from 15 to 35 million euro for Dzeko. Given that he is 32, Roma will be deciding between taking this money on the one hand and possibly 2 more productive years on the other. Therefore, rejecting an offer would mean a lot of value lost, especially if the team is only expected to perform marginally better with Dzeko on the pitch. Plus, at 27 years old, if Balotelli continues his current trend of performances, he could potentially be sold in a few years bringing in a second transfer fee. Pallotta will be asking himself, is Dzeko leading the line rather than Balotelli worth more than 30 million euro over 2 years?

Fortunately, we are very lucky to have a number of players truly devoted to the club, and Dzeko is one of them. He is reportedly happy in Rome, having recently bought a house, so he may put the kibosh on any offer that doesn’t include a crazy high salary. Still, if the transfer fee is high enough, Pallotta and Monchi could put pressure on him to accept an offer. Sadly, this is a team where, for players who love Roma and sweat for the badge, playing too well can mean getting shipped out.

What will Roma do?

Football clubs seem to be continually caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, any change always means uncertainty, and there are many more ways that changes can go wrong than go right. On the other hand, staying the same leads to stagnation and eventually the physical decline of players. Teams must change, and they must change effectively to stay relevant.

In the end, we can’t know with certainty what would happen, but bringing in Balotelli to get a cash injection plus with a risky possibility of maintaining or even improving our performance sounds like a very Roma move. We don’t know what is happening behind the scenes or what other factors could come into play, but one thing is certain, we need to enjoy our chance to watch Dzeko in red and yellow because whether we sell him or whether he stays, the 32 year old’s time at Roma will be coming to an end sooner or later.