Yesterday was a bittersweet day for Roma fans. Fresh off the high of José Mourinho's official introduction to the public, Giallorossi supporters quickly turned their attention to Leonardo Spinazzola and the rest of the Azzurri, who were facing Belgium and their famous golden generation with a spot in the Euro 2020 semifinals on the line. But rather than watching Spinazzola celebrate Italy's 2-1 victory with his teammates, we bore witness to a gut-wrenching sight: Spinazzola being stretchered off the pitch in tears—an all too familiar scene for Roma fans—after suffering an apparent Achilles tendon injury.
It was a bittersweet moment for fans of Roma and the Italian National Team and a crushing blow for Spinazzola, who was following up the best season of his career with a tournament run of a lifetime. He may not have entered Euro 2020 as a name to watch, but thanks to his impressive performances with Italy, Spinazzola's name was quickly linked with some of the biggest clubs in the sport, including PSG, Chelsea, and Real Madrid.
In addition to ending Spinazzola's dream summer, his injury also has immediate consequences for the club he now leaves behind; Roma suddenly has an enormous hole to fill on their roster. By nearly any metric, Spinazzola was one of the club’s best players last season, and as if that weren't hard enough to replace, as a left-back, Spinazzola's position is perhaps the hardest to fill on the open market. Quality players at this position are exceedingly difficult to find under normal circumstances, let alone on the fly in the middle of the summer.
All of which puts Roma GM Tiago Pinto in a bit of a bind. Spinazzola may have been linked with some extraordinary clubs thanks to his performance at Euro 2020, but he was going to be a critical piece for José Mourinho this year, so Roma will now have to scramble to find a suitable (and immediate) replacement for Spinazzola.
It would be great if Roma could just turn on a dime and buy someone like David Alaba but that's not the world we live in, so here are a few select names Roma might consider as an ad hoc replacement for Spinazzola.
But before we turn to the transfer market, let’s assess Roma’s in-house alternatives for filling the sudden Spinazzola void.
We'll start with a kid who is no stranger to a surgeon's scalpel himself: Riccardo Calafiori. After suffering his own spate of knee injuries, the born and bred Roman made his long-awaited debut last year for the Giallorossi, but with only eight appearances in all competitions, Calafiori's debut fell a bit flat. Outside of his outstanding goal in the Europa League against BSC Young Boys, Calafiori didn't have much to write home about in 2020-2021.
However, with Spinazzola out for the foreseeable future, and with Mourinho specifically addressing the role of younger players in his introductory press conference, Spinazzola's loss could be Calafiori's gain.
The young Roman certainly looks the part and now he may have a chance to act the part.
While it's far from ideal, if Roma absolutely had to, they could survive with their former captain playing slightly out of position for six months to a year. Like most full-backs, Florenzi can operate on both flanks under a pinch—and Roma is certainly being squeezed at the moment. We don't know if Florenzi will even return to the club, but if he does remain with Roma, his versatility could suddenly become a tremendously valuable asset for Mourinho.
We're going in descending order of appeal here, but Santon has played both full-back spots during his three-year Roma career and actually got his start as a tender 17-year-old under José Mourinho at Inter Milan. Much like Florenzi, this would be a break glass in case of an emergency situation, and while it would be far from ideal to play an entire season with an out of position full-back, if Roma decides they can't afford to dip into the transfer market, a Florenzi-Santon-Karsdorp-Reynolds quartet could conceivably cover both full-back spots this season.
But what if Roma decided to get a bit more creative?
If experimentation is more your thing, try this on for size: Justin Kluivert as a make-shift left-back. Many a frustrated winger has found success converting to full-back/wing-back, so the idea of Kluivert as Roma's new left-back isn't as crazy as it might sound. Kluivert certainly has the speed, acceleration, and agility to give opposing defenders headaches, and if there's any manager who can make the most of this awkward situation, surely it's Mourinho—a long-time admirer of Kluivert's.
We've been talking about Kluivert for so long, it's easy to forget that he just turned 22-years-old, and while he may yet fulfill his vast potential as an attacking player, necessity being the mother of invention could create a new path to stardom for Kluivert as a lightning-fast left-back.
Calafiori taking a giant leap in only his second professional season would serve Roma well in 2021 and beyond, but in the absence of Calafiori becoming a bonafide starter, Roma may have no choice but to explore the transfer market.
The names on this list aren't the top players at their position, but, based on a combination of age, contractual status, and competition at their current clubs, these overlooked assets could find new life in Rome on a short-term loan.
Layvin Kurzawa (PSG)
Kurzawa, a 28-year-old Frenchman, was on our free-agent wishlist last season but the Fréjus native signed a new contract with PSG last June. However, with only 1,278 Ligue 1 minutes last season, Kurzawa found himself in an awkward job-share with Mitchel Bakker, who edged out Kurzawa by some 400 league minutes last season, so he may leap at the chance to become a starter for the Giallorossi—even for just one season.
With Bakker in tow and Juan Bernat ready to return after missing most of last season recovering from ACL surgery, Kurzawa could be the odd man out at the Parc des Princes. Thanks to his size, skill, and experience, you can drop Kurzawa into any team and any tactical setup and he won't miss a beat. In many ways, Kurzawa is the ideal counterpart for the marauding runs of Rick Karsdorp on the right—he has a similar playing profile to Karsdorp but isn't quite as aggressive, so they could make a suitable pairing for Mourinho.
If a PSG castoff isn't your thing, how do you feel about reunions?
Emerson Palmieri (Chelsea)
Three years after selling Palmieri to Chelsea for a cool €20 million, Spinazzola's injury could give Roma a chance to correct that error. An integral member of Roma's record-setting 2016-2017 team, Palmieri has been chasing that high ever since leaving the capital. Starting with an ACL tear in the spring of 2017, the 26-year-old Palmieri has struggled to recapture his Roma form ever since.
In four seasons with Chelsea, Palmieri has been a shadow of his former self, logging only 2,057 Premiership minutes since landing at Stamford Bridge in the winter of 2018, leading many to question whether or not he has a future with the London-based club. In fact, Palmieri has spent most of the summer seeing his name linked with a return to Serie A, with Inter Milan most often connected to the 26-year-old Italian international.
Signed through June 2022, Chelsea may prefer to sell Palmieri rather than risk losing him for free next summer. However, with a €12 million market value, Palmieri is still an affordable and expedient solution to Roma's unexpected left-back problem.
Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)
Another seldom used Chelsea left-back and another Inter Milan transfer target pops up on our list of Spinazzola replacements. Alonso, a 30-year-old Spanish defender, is no stranger to Serie A, having spent some of his formative years with Fiorentina during the mid-2010s. Trading Firenze for London on a €20 million move in the summer of 2016, Alonso has seen his playing time at Stamford Bridge fluctuate wildly over the past few years, reaching its nadir this past season where he made only 13 league appearances for the Champions League winners.
Chased by Inter and reportedly even Barcelona, Alonso wouldn't be the easiest name to acquire on this list, but given his experience and versatility, he'd make a fine addition for Roma, Spinazzola or no Spinazzola.
Gianluca Frabotta (Juventus)
Already linked to Roma in a proposed swap deal involving Edin Dzeko, Spinazzola's injury may hasten Frabotta's arrival in the Eternal City. At 22-years-old and with only 16 Serie A appearances under his belt, Frabotta would likely suffer through some growing pains under Mourinho, but there is a lot to like about this kid, particularly with the ball at his feet.
Considering the disparity in their respective minutes played, it's a bit difficult to draw a straight line between Frabotta (689 league minutes), Calafiori (66 league minutes), and Spinazzola (2,124 league minutes), but Frabotta was miles ahead of Calafiori while actually nipping Spinazzola's heels in a few areas.
In 15 appearances last season, Frabotta averaged 0.13 assists, 1.98 shot-creating actions, and 0.26 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes while also playing 2.34 balls into the penalty area per 90. While Spinazzola bested him in each of those categories, Frabotta's assist and passes into the penalty area were both within fractions of a point of Spinazzola while completely blowing Calafiori out of the water. So, if nothing else, this kid is capable of setting his teammates up for success.
None of this is to suggest that he'd erase the pain of losing Spinazzola, but if Roma are going to get rid of Dzeko anyway, landing Frabotta would give them an intriguing stop-gap solution, one who could potentially supplant Calafiori in the team's long-term plans to boot.
These are all fine solutions to Roma's Spinazzola problem, but let's get crazy with the last name on our list...
Luca Pellegrini (Juventus)
Two years after swapping Luca Pellegrini for Leonardo Spinazzola, bringing the 22-year-old local boy home would be the most Roma thing Roma could do. We definitely aided the effort—which looks foolish in retrospect—but the Pellegrini-for-Spinazzola trade was greeted with almost universal disapproval. Not only did the club jettison a born and bred Roman, but the man who took his place was (at the time) just another disappointing product of the Juventus hype machine—the axiom that has you believe a Juve player is good because they play for Juve.
Oft-injured and frequently disappointing, Spinazzola was hardly a convincing upgrade over Pellegrini, who, while not exactly the picture of health either, had the tantalizing allure of being Roma's next great Roman. And when you throw in the fact this deal was, in part, designed as a balance sheet correction for both clubs, as well as the fact that Roma nearly doubled Spinazzola's salary, the jeers were practically deafening.
In the two years since this deal, Roma has come out smelling like roses thanks to the divergent paths charted by Pellegrini and Spinazzola since then. But could an injury to the latter lead to a homecoming for the former?
Since exchanging Roma for Juventus, Pellegrini hasn't actually suited up for the Old Lady, spending the past two seasons on loan with Cagliari and Genoa, respectively. While 2020-2021 was a complete waste for Pellegrini, his five assists in 24 appearances as a 20-year-old for Cagliari during the ‘19-’20 season was a pretty promising return for a kid seeing his first serious action in Serie A.
On the surface, Pellegrini is slated to be Alex Sandro's backup this season at Juve, but perhaps Max Allegri would prefer he plays significant minutes for Roma in the short-term before returning to Turin in 2022?
This is probably the least likely option on this list, but from a narrative perspective, it's pure gold.
With his injuries a thing of the past, Leonardo Spinazzola was finally becoming the player many thought he would be when he made his debut for Atalanta back in 2014. Size, pace, creativity, and a killer smile, Spinazzola always had the goods, but it took a trip to Rome to bring out the best in Spinazzola. And while an Achilles rupture isn't as damning as it once was (look at Axel Witsel and Kevin Durant), Spinazzola's coming-out party will be delayed for at least six months, which puts Roma in quite a pickle.
Whether they keep it in-house or explore the transfer market, Roma has to do something to paper over the sudden crack in their starting lineup. With staggering debts limiting what the club can spend on the transfer market, José Mourinho's wishlist was already somewhat subdued, and Spinazzola's unexpected absence could limit their spending power even further.
With Pinto's transfer money already earmarked for midfield, goalkeeper, and striker, the club probably can't afford to invest significantly in a new left-back, so the loan route could be Roma's salvation. Landing someone like Kurzawa or Alonso on loan could be the most efficient and expedient path to replacing Spinazzola, but this new wrinkle in their plans could give Roma the added motivation to indulge in the Dzeko-for-Frabotta swap rumor.
No matter which path they choose, Roma has to act fast. With José Mourinho's pre-season program set to begin, the quicker the Giallorossi can come to a solution, the better.