As we’ve done every summer for the past several years, the CdT crew assembles to discuss the future of the club’s ten brightest U23 talents, and while there’s always controversy when we publish our rankings, and indeed even when we’re making them, the hottest point of contention is very often the comparisons we draw with contemporary players. While these are, by their very nature, speculative, they’re meant to give the reader (and the writer, if I’m being honest) a basis for comparison. Sometimes these comparisons are based on solely on playing style, while others are rooted in physical gifts, specific skills and sometimes just simple intuition.
In the case of Nicolo Zaniolo, the hidden treasure in the Radja Nainggolan deal, it was a bit of everything. My decision to draw Javier Pastore parallels was borne of their similar stature, their playing style and their blend of scoring and creating. We obviously have no idea if Zaniolo will even have a fraction of El Flaco’s career, but at first blush it made sense to me; he’s not as skinny and doesn’t glide quite like Pastore, but he’s lanky, he can manipulate space and, at least in his youth career, has shown that young Pastore amalgam of skills.
Of course, I’m just some dude on the other side of the Atlantic, what do I know?
Zaniolo’s former Inter youth manager, William Vecchi, recently chimed in with a different comparison; two members of England’s erstwhile golden generation, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. “In my opinion, he’s a midfielder with quality and also a runner, like Gerrard or Lampard. He must believe in himself more and be more consistent in training.”
Of course, the very reason Zaniolo, a kid who has yet to make his Serie A debut with Roma, is in the papers was his shock inclusion in Roberto Mancini’s recent Azzurri callups for the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Speaking to this point, Vecchi was shocked but not surprised:
On one hand I’m surprised because a player with no Serie A appearances has been called up to the national team. On the other hand I’m not because it’s Nicolo, who has technical and physical potential. He’s above average compared to other players his age.
I believe Mancini has seen him with the Under-19 team and in Inter’s Primavera side. Now he wants to see him in person.
Given his utter lack of topflight experience, Vecchi has to be considered the expert on all things Zaniolo, so we have no reason to doubt him, but I’m not sure we’ve properly appreciated the weight of this selection. As if completely circumventing the U21 route weren’t enough, Zaniolo is only the fourth player to earn an Azzurri call up before even making his Serie A debut, following in the footsteps of Raffaele Costantino, Massimo Maccarone and most recently Marco Verratti in 2012. That’s no small feat; two out of those three players had, or are having, stellar careers (no offense, Massimo).
So whether he’s another Pastore, Gerrard, Lampard or someone else entirely, in Nicolo Zaniolo Roma appears to have one of the most promising prospects in the nation. Spending a few weeks in Mancini’s camp should only boost the kids confidence and desire, and given Roma’s troubles in attack at the moment, it may not be long before breaks into Roma’s rotation.