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In A Season That Ended With A Whimper, Nicolo Zaniolo Was All Bang, All The Time

Things are very much up in the air at Roma right now, but Zaniolo’s performances this season deserved the acclaim they garnered.

AS Roma v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

I’ve always had a soft spot for players who’ve worn the number 22 for Roma. The most recent example of this was Mattia Destro, who was once an enticing young prospect for Roma and the Azzurri. Over the course of his time at the Olimpico, Destro was touted as the future of Roma, and scored 24 goals in 57 matches to back up that label; securing his services at the age of 21 was seen as a major coup by Walter Sabatini. His exciting Coppa Italia run combined with FIFA 14’s opinion that he had limitless potential intrigued me, and despite his eventual drop in form and sale to Bologna, I’ll always enjoy seeing him when he plays against the Giallorossi.

Now, four years after Destro’s sale, Roma has found another exciting number 22, another young Italian prospect with a lot of buzz who just might be the future of the Giallorossi and the Azzurri. I certainly hope that Zaniolo isn’t a repeat of the Mattia Destro Experience (henceforth defined as a couple exciting seasons followed by a descent into obscurity), but everything we’ve seen so far indicates that Nicolo can go the distance. Still a couple weeks removed from the age of 20, Zaniolo has made two appearances for the Azzurri, scored six goals in club play, and holds the record as the youngest Italian to score a brace in the Champions League. Add in the fact that he’s Serie A’s reigning Young Player of the Year, and it’s apparent that Zaniolo’s first season at the senior level was an astounding success.

However, there are reasons beyond the statistics, national team call-ups, and awards that make Zaniolo the silver lining of Roma’s season. First, the way Zaniolo was acquired, as a makeweight in the Radja Nainggolan transfer to Inter Milan, was undoubtedly Monchi’s best move during his ill-fated time at Roma. Zaniolo was valued at only €4.5 million in that slale/trade/piece of Financial Fair Play trickery, a fee that seems minuscule today. Although Inter can take some solace in the fact that they hold a 15% resell kicker on any future sale, you can bet your last bottle of Rogaine that new Inter manager Antonio Conte wishes Nicolo was wearing black and blue stripes right now. There’s a reason why many Romanisti are hoping that Andrea Pinamonti might be included in the seemingly-inevitable Edin Dzeko transfer; we would all love to get one over on the Nerazzurri two summers in a row.

Second, even if Zaniolo had scored fewer goals or broken fewer records, the way that Zaniolo played the game this season brought hope to the souls of Romanisti everywhere. Simply put, Zaniolo doesn’t play like a 19-year-old; he plays like a player with hundreds of senior appearances under his belt, with his close control, passing, and finishing making him a nightmare to defend. A player can exercise to gain acceleration or top speed; he can spend time in the film room to understand tactics better; he can spend time in the weight room to become a more imposing presence on the field. On the other hand, you can’t learn vision from film, in the weight room, or on a treadmill; the way Zaniolo understands the game bodes well for his future, at Roma or elsewhere.

In hindsight, it’s amusing that Zaniolo’s first start, against Real Madrid of all clubs, was viewed as a signal from Eusebio Di Francesco that more depth was needed in the senior squad. Of course, anyone could tell you that Roma’s squad had its flaws, yet as the season wore on it became clear that Zaniolo was not one of them. If Nicolo plays his cards right next season and shows he can adapt to working with Paulo Fonseca, the €60 million valuation that’s been bandied about by the rumor mill recently may look like peanuts.