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Enter The Spinazzola: A Look at Roma’s First Summer Signing

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The Italian full back made headlines against Atletico Madrid, and joins Roma in a reported 29 million euro deal.

Bartoletti-Corriere dello Sport

Making that June 30th deadline ain’t easy. The way inflated transfer fees are spreading across European football has opened up a new debate as to whether the FFP summer fiscal window should be pushed back in line with the August 31st transfer window deadline. But that’s another talk for another day. Today we welcome Roma’s new starting full-back Leonardo Spinazzola, signed in a blockbuster (blockbuster!) 29 million euro player-plus-cash exchange deal.

Before anything, we should get to talking about the guy heading Juventus’ direction.

Luca Pellegrini: The Next Big Thing?

I personally feel little-to-nothing of Luca Pellegrini’s performances in either a Roma or Cagliari shirt. I did feel sickened by the news he was leaving yesterday, which is weird since I like this deal for Roma on the whole. I guess it’s just on principle that Roma are losing an academy graduate (and I personally don’t care if he’s Roman or not—which he is, he’s far more Roman than I’ll ever be—I just care that he graduated from Trigoria).

The club put a lot of work and investment into Pellegrini, and he looked like repaying them with an extremely good physical balance and a nice ball technique. He also evidently has considerable intelligence on the pitch, as the Italy U-20 campaign saw him playing as a box-to-box midfielder for the first time in his career. But there are question marks over whether his character is built to make the most of his talent in Rome.

Genoa CFC v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

I have no doubt Pellegrini has a big chance to go on and be an international starter at Juventus, and realise all his potential. But this is kind of like the “will Manolas be a better player at Napoli?” question. I don’t think anyone doubts Manolas playing alongside Koulibaly in a more stable (ish) environment is going to bring better performances out of Kostas. Just like the odds of Pellegrini making it at Juventus are high by default. That doesn’t mean either of these guys have the character to make it at Roma, where discipline has always been lacking and tends to turn up the volume on any player’s inner asshole if they’re liable to get intoxicated by it.

It’s happened to many talented players with inhibited characters. It even happened to Totti, who was a dick in the locker room to fellow Romans like Gaetano d’Agostino before the club cut ties with Antonio Cassano and Totti had to rethink his whole approach to the game through major injuries. If it can happen to the greatest, it can happen to Luca.

Eusebio Di Francesco was open about the fact that he loved Pellegrini the footballer, but thought him presumptuous. Give me a Christian Panucci anyday of the week over these latter-day Romanita 1.0 heroes.

Besides, we already have Francesco Semeraro coming along at both Roma Primavera and Italy U-18 level; trying to raise both Pellegrini and Semeraro at senior level would have been awkward down the line.

Enter the Spinazzola: Roma’s New Starting Fullback

Italy v Liechtenstein - UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Spinazzola is no Christian Panucci, but I’ve admired the new Roma fullback’s performances ever since 2016-ish at Atalanta, forming a two-man wrecking crew with opposite wing-back Andrea Conti in Gasperini’s resurgent young side of that season. If I remember right, Spinazzola even helped to put the screws to Roma when both sides met in Bergamo. Since then, with what little gametime has been afforded to him, Spinazzola’s stock has only risen on the pitch.

He not only has one of those Ronaldo/Bale-ish physiques that’s awesome on wide players, but the young(ish) Italian fullback was part of the Juventus side that took apart Atletico Madrid’s notoriously tough defence in last season Champions’ League 3-0 second leg victory in Turin. Juventus both opened Atletico up and put a mental beatdown on them; Simeone’s men dropped far too deep and even gave up trying to win the ball, period, in their shellshock. It wouldn’t have been possible without Spinazzola pushing up high on the left-flank and staying high off the ball.

It takes iron will to call and raise Atletico’s full backs on the highest European stage, and not back down for fear of the counter. Juventus played most of that game with just 3 men staying back.

By no coincidence, that game mirrors the kind of possession-based formation Fonseca ideally wants in the Italian capital next season.

We Need More NOS

Roma’s NOS Formation under Paulo Fonseca

“We need a full-back, one of the big ones. No, actually let’s make it two. And Gianluca, we need them by tonight.”

Imagine, if you will, an idyllic world where Rick Karsdorp and Leonardo Spinazzola find form and peak fitness for Roma. This will never happen in reality, because Karsdorp looks like he’s been transfer-listed this summer (congratulations on becoming a father though, Rick). But just come with me on a ride.

Roma’s opponents are on the defence. They scan the middle of the barrel in midfield, they scan out wide. The Giallorossi are everywhere, their opponents outnumbered. But a momentary lapse in concentration on the ball from Roma leads to a turnover in possession. This is the chance for Brescia to hit Roma on the break at 0-0 against the run of play!

... Except this time it’s different. Both Roma fullbacks track back the entire length of the Olimpico pitch in under ten seconds. The Giallorossi outnumber their opponents back in Roma’s own half in the blink of an eye, and steal the ball back. Just like that, they’ve already got the numbers advantage moving up into the opposition half all over again.

An exasperated Brescia midfielder comes to the sidelines for a water break: “It’s no good, coach. They’re everywhere. It’s like they’ve got 12 men out there.”

That’s the dream.

Spinazzola’s highest average sprint speed last season was recorded at 34.68 km/h against Roma at the Olimpico. Not that the speed in itself did much good for his team’s 2-0 Olimpico loss, but that’s even faster than Karsdorp and El Shaarawy’s best. All this potentially backed up by Aleksandar Kolarov from the bench, who’s no slouch himself.

It seems like Gianluca Petrachi took a look at what his new coach wants, and told himself: NOS. We need NOS. Boy, does this squad make Davide Santon’s lack of pace look like an awkward fit.

Italy Training Session Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Spinazzola began his career in hometown Foligno and enjoys the little-known distinction of being the first Folignate native to play for the national team (if that ever comes up in a pub trivia quiz, tell them CdT had your back). After making his Azzurro debut under Ventura, a further seven international caps would follow to the present day. In the meantime, Spinazzola racked up milestones at every level of youth and senior club football.

He was first taken out of Siena’s youth ranks as a striker-turned-winger by Juventus in 2010, transferring to Turin and winning the Viareggio Cup (that cup again) within the Juventus youth ranks in 2012. Spinazzola then went through several loans to wind up at Atalanta in 2014, turning out equally handy at defending as he was with his technique on the ball.

The Italian certainly had the skills and pace to take out 2-3 defenders at a time in the opponents’ half, but it was at his second spell at Atalanta in 2016 where he’d finally meet Gianpiero Gasperini. Gasperini is known to train his players to man-mark all over the pitch at all times, regardless of where the play is happening on the field. If you mentally can’t get with that, then you’re cut from his team. Spinazzola was a regular under Gasperini, and the Italian full-back even scored his first Europa League goal in that campaign.

His Atalanta experience instilled Spinazzola with the kind of will shown in that Atletico Madrid game just gone by. Pushing high up the field, always open and available with the confidence to know he can defend against his opponent all over the flank.

So we’ve signed a 26-year old Italian international fullback in his prime, able to play on both flanks equally well, and holding the mental and physical attributes to play in Fonseca’s side. Not to mention the technique, the good crossing, the milestones and experience in all competitions.

What’s the catch?

A 29 Million Euro FFP-Busting Affair

The risk is two-fold with this Spinazzola signing.

If the widespread reports are true, Roma are only actually paying Juventus 7-8 million euros over three seasons to exchange a raw Pellegrini with a ready-made Spinazzola. So the 29 million euro headline fee won’t actually weigh on the club’s accounts in any noticeable way. It certainly won’t weigh in any panic June 30th sales from here on in.

But it is still a 29 million transfer fee, making Spinazzola the unquestioned starting full-back (whether on the left or the right) for the 2018/19 season. No questions asked. After all, if Spinazzola doesn’t hit form and Roma need to move on from his next summer, which club can Roma convince to take Spinazzola off their hands for over 20 million euros? The answer is absolutely no club at all.

Italy Training Session And Press Conference Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

If you thought Bruno Peres was hard to say goodbye to, this could wind up exactly like that should Spinazzola not fit in Rome. Roma are all in on this guy. They need him to find the kind of consistent playing time he has rarely found in his career to date. Which leads us to the second major gamble of this deal: the Italian’s knee problems.

Originally mis-diagnosed with a “minor” knee issue in late 2017, the full-back would later suffer a full blown ACL tear in 2018 that kept him out for a much longer rehab than Juventus would have wanted on Spinazzola’s return to the Bianconeri. In the year since coming back from that injury, Spinazzola has had the usual muscle fatigue problems that Roma are well used to seeing in their own ACL-recoverees.

It’s noticeable that Spinazzola has cut out the stops and turns on the ball that may have aggravated his knee problems going all the way back to 2014. Now he’s a much more ‘on rails’ player tearing up and down the flanks. I have no problem with efficiency over fanciful skill, even if both combined in one player are even better.

This signing all boils down to whether you believe Spinazzola can stay fit, and whether you just plain like Spinazzola or not. Because he’s planning on you seeing a lot more of him in a Giallorosso shirt for years to come.