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Relegation Poaching: Who Should Roma Target From Sassuolo?

While they may have given themselves some breathing room, Sassuolo is still in danger of relegation. While we'd all love Domenico Berardi, or even Simone Zaza, there is only one realistic name here, a Roman one at that.

Giuseppe Bellini

While our first two installments in the series focused on veteran players capable of providing depth for Roma's multi-competition campaign next year, our latest rendition provides this same benefit in a decidedly more exciting and intriguing package, one previously and now partially owned by Roma, Sassuolo defender Luca Antei.

Antei, as you well know, is a Roma youth product, one seemingly destined for a quick and short trip from the Primavera to the prime time. However, that ascendency was cut down by an ACL injury in the spring of 2012 during his first loan spell at Grossetto, which essentially erased his 2012-2013 season.

Fortunately for the player and the parent club, Antei's injury didn't completely derail his development, nor did it scare off Sassuolo, who, sensing an opportunity to acquire a talented player with relatively little risk, snapped up Antei during the January 2013 transfer window. While Antei only made a handful of appearances for the Neroverdi during their Serie B title run, he made enough of an impression for Sassuolo to exercise their right to purchase 50% of his contract ahead of their maiden Serie A campaign.

And what a campaign it's been...

Analyzing Antei

While he's missed a few matches here and there, Antei has generally been a fixture in the center of Eusebio Di Francesco's defense, slotting in as the right centerback, though he's also made a couple of spot appearances as a right back. At 6'2" and nearly 170lbs, Antei is nearly identical to Leandro Castan, so we shouldn't harbor any visions of Antei solving Roma's right back riddle.

But as a centerback, Antei is second to none.

Through 20 appearances this season, Antei has been absolutely masterful, as his 4.3 tackles and 3.7 interceptions per match are both tops in Serie A, while his 0.6 shots blocked per game places him in the middle of a logjam for sixth in the league. Again, as always, given his team's inability to hold possession, these numbers are bound to be somewhat inflated. However, even when viewed through more nuanced measures, Antei still comes out golden.

As we just saw, in terms of per match numbers, Antei is in an elite neighborhood, but he's only made 20 appearances, but therein lies the beauty of the per 90 minute metric, as it can, to the extent possible, level the statistical playing field by mitigating the effect of sample sizes. Antei's 3.91 interceptions/90m still paces Serie A, while his blocked shot and clearance numbers fall just beyond the top 20. However, combine all these into one stat, known as Defensive Actions, and Antei's 11.20 defensive actions per 90 minutes is 11th in the league. For a 21-year-old coming off knee surgery and on a lousy team, those are astounding returns.

If we're talking straight man-v-man duels, a/k/a tackles and headers, Antei still shines. Luca's 3.18 tackles per 90 minutes is second only to Inter's Jonathan, while his 2.35 headers won per 90 minutes ranks 23, slightly behind Mehdi Benatia. Throw these two statistics together, and Antei's 6.99 duels won per 90 minutes ranks fourth in the league. (numbers are for defenders with at least 20 appearances)

These numbers, though far from conclusive, show that Antei is an extremely active central defender, one with exceptional concentration, focus, and anticipation, particularly for one so young. Really, the only knock on his defensive numbers through his first 20 appearances is his relative lack of efficiency. Antei has won 50% of his tackles and 59% of his headers; while the tackling success is decent enough, you'd like to see his success in headed duels north of 60% and approaching 65%.

While no measure is perfect, and the difference in their respective match minutes is pretty significant, we have to make do with the data at our disposal. With that in mind, the graph below shows how Antei stacks up to Roma's current duo, Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan (stats are per 90 minutes). This isn't to suggest he'd replace either man anytime soon, but it does show that he is already capable of starting in this league:

As you can see, Antei's performance this season stacks up quite well against Roma's current stalwarts, as his numbers exceed both Castan and Benatia in several categories. However, it will be interesting to see how his averages and efficiencies play out over the course of a 3,000 minute season, but Antei has certainly proved that he's capable of starting in Serie A. Given that foundation, Sassuolo and/or Roma may have the makings of a top defender on their hands.

Assimilating Antei

When a club loans out a young prospect like Antei, this is exactly the type of performance for which they hope. Not only has Antei put his injury woes behind him, but he's earned consistent minutes and established himself as an indispensable part of the Sassuolo defense, throwing up league leading statistics in the process.

I'm not arguing that he would displace either Castan or Benatia in the starting lineup, but rather, the experienced he's gained and the growth he's exhibited indicates that the timetable for his return to Roma should be accelerated; as in, he belongs in Roma next season.

Of course, this assumes Roma can navigate the always perilous co-ownership dynamic at season's end, but let's say they see the need and have the financial wherewithal to assume the remainder of Antei's contract, where would he fit in with next season's squad?

Well, the most immediate factors to consider are the presence and respective futures of Rafael Toloi and Alessio Romagnoli because, unlike our previous claim for Nicolas Spolli, the addition of Luca Antei is a long-term consideration. Toloi (23), Antei (22) and Romagnoli (19) are all exceptionally young players, only one of whom, Romagnoli, is contractually bound to Roma next season; so this is certainly a sticky situation, one with ramifications well beyond 2014-2015.

However, when we look to the immediate future, one can presume that, given the extra European matches and the emphasis Roma places on the Coppa Italia, Rudi Garcia will rotate four central defenders in and out of his lineups (depending on the schedule, injuries, form etc), leaving one of these young men out in the rain.

Really, the prospect of adding Antei, or any centerback for that matter, is essentially a debate between Romagnoli's limited experience and Toloi's costly contract option.

While young Alessio has performed admirably in limited duty this year, even showing incredible composure when thrust into action as a left-back, he is still just 19-years-old and might stand to benefit from his own Antei-like loan spell, minus, you know, the horrific knee injury. For Toloi's part, while he's seemed more comfortable and been far more effective the past few weeks, he is far from a finished product and carries just as much Serie A uncertainty as Romagnoli, not to mention his €5.5m buyout.

New additions or not, it's clear as day, beyond Castan and Benatia there lies a lot of uncertainty (thankfully, they're two of the best in the business), which makes the addition of Luca Antei even more sensible. He's more experienced and, let's face it, simply better than Romagnoli or Toloi at this point in time, and he'd be far less expensive than Davide Astori, though these same rankings are incredibly kind to the Cagliari defender, so arguments can certainly be made that he's a worthy investment.

Whatever the case may be, Antei has been, by nearly any measure, one of the league's most active and effective central defenders, one certainly capable of contributing to Roma's title ambitions now and in the future.

Plus, you know, he's an actual Roman, and we all love those.