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Who is the Real Bryan Cristante?

Once compared to Andrea Pirlo but now more of a Frank Lampard.

Atalanta BC v Genoa CFC - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

This article may be a little premature given we’re a long way from an airport scarf photo, but multiple Sky Italia reports (and no denial from either Roma or Atalanta) are a pretty safe bet on Bryan Cristante becoming a Roma player in the near future.

Still, instead of repeatedly hammering home the ordinary and underwhelming nature of Cristante’s arrival, maybe we can clear up some of the doubts and put them in proper perspective. For one, it’s easy to forget it’s been nearly seven years since Cristante first made his Champions League debut. That’s a hell of a lot further back than the CL experience of some leading Roma names in the first team today.

Has He Really Only Had One Good Season?

The short answer is still an undeniable yes. In fact, his season just gone by with Atalanta is arguably the first full season of professional football Cristante has gotten under his belt, period. In the last seven years, the young Italo-Canadian racking up one career-misstep after another near rivals Fernando Alonso’s wasted career in F1. Cristante’s years in the wilderness included a spell warming the bench at Benfica.

“What happened in Portugal? It’s simple,” Cristante explained to the Sardinian papers back in 2016, “a new coach arrived who had other ideas and preferred other players. With the physique I have, it’s important for me to play regularly.”

Unfortunately for Cristante, he suffered the exact same fate at Palermo on his arrival back into Serie A. Once again a coach who signed him was fired shortly after. Years of inaction was not what Cristante pictured when he’d originally packed his bags to leave AC Milan (again for a lack of playing time) and it wouldn’t be until he met up with Gasperini at Atalanta that he’d find a coach - and a team - truly willing to bring him into the first team fold.

Is He EDF’s Wet Dream Midfielder?

Well, yes and no. His season at Atalanta certainly was textbook for what Eusebio Di Francesco looks for in a mezzala, but Cristante originally made his name as a deep lying playmaker and could have taken the easy, Leandro Paredes-ish way out; playing passive football from deep with the occasional beautiful long-ball for the cameras. In fact, that was all set up for him at Milan when he was labelled the heir to Andrea Pirlo. But Cristante had different ideas as he began to mature and is probably now closer to Pirlo’s story only in the false starts both suffered in their early years.

“I know how to find a pass and put my teammates through on goal,” Cristante explained in that same 2016 feature, “but I can play mezzala just as well. If I had to choose, I’d play mezzala.” On his arrival in Bergamo much later, Cristante explained his growing hunger for making runs forward into empty pockets of space vacated by his ex-Milan Primavera teammate Petagna - both together again in Bergamaschi colours.

The two would know when to make room for one another in the box while Atalanta profited greatly through Cristante’s goalscoring exploits. Still, the midfielder wasn’t satisfied and worked to smooth out the weaker parts of his game. “I can improve my acceleration off the mark,” Cristante summed up. His move to Atalanta brought him face to face with his weaknesses rather than papering over them. Greater control over his own physique followed, most notably inside the box for diving headers but also for defending and protecting the ball from deep, which sets his growth apart from Lorenzo Pellegrini’s at Roma in that respect.

Some will say even his strengths will never make a stadium stand up and dream of fantasy football. A player who lives for the game off the ball is never going to pull headlines unless he scores goals. It was a similar situation with Frank Lampard during the Chelsea years. If the England midfield legend didn’t get himself on the scoresheet with his runs into the box over 90 minutes then fans began to question whether Lampard really was meriting the title of... well.... legend. “I see myself ideally suited to the Premier League,” Cristante once said a couple of years ago on himself. But that Premier League never materialised despite the young Italian putting Everton to the sword in the Europa League, in both home and away games of 17/18, for Atalanta.

The versatility Cristante offers in being able to play all positions in midfield probably goes someway toward justifying the 30 million euro risk Roma are taking on him - saving them from having to worry about a backup to DDR and Gonalons if ever the time should come to rotate or think on their feet during mid-game subs.

Can He Repeat His Goalscoring Form?

The average xG goal rating of Cristante’s goals, this past season, was much higher than the average of Nainggolan’s stellar 16/17 goal-glut season (only three of Cristante’s league goals were below 0.10xG when he buried them). In other words, Cristante scored easier goals with regularity - owing to his greater sense of timing and read of the game than we’ve seen from Nainggolan. When you have it between the ears, it should be easier to replicate your form season after season.

The red flag here is that just around half of Cristante’s goals in 17/18 were assisted by Papu Gomez. Most people would be skeptical as to whether Roma has a creative source on the books to rival Gomez from deep in either SES or Perotti on the left flank, let alone elsewhere. And that’s not counting the required movement in the box needed from Dzeko, who must find the personal desire to draw runners with him and make room for the mezzale’s runs, starting from August onwards this coming season rather than waiting until late February to find that gear.

Among all the changing faces of Cristante’s career so far, he has constantly looked to be a team player with increasingly great effect on end product. But great team players need a well-oiled team to function within; just as well that Monchi has the license to get his signings in early this summer before the Trigoria ritiro (no Pinzolo this year) begins.

Finally, with Juventus locking down the Italy backline for yet another generation (they could even field an Azzuri 5-man backline of De Sciglio, Caldara, Rugani, Chiellini and Spinazzola - after he recovers from injury - all while readying Barzagli from the bench and possibly even Perin in goal) it’s just as well that Roma are staking claim to locking down the Nazionale’s engine room with Pellegrini and Cristante.