During the 2018/19 season, Roma unearthed a potential superstar within their ranks. Nicolò Zaniolo had decided to switch from Inter to Roma in a swap-deal with Radja Nainggolan, to play first-team football. It was seen as a smart trade by Monchi, to bring in a talented youth prospect, in exchange for an ageing midfielder who wanted to leave regardless. However, would Zaniolo be able to bring any service of noteworthy quality in the short-term?
He, though, produced quality way above his pre-season expectation. In the first full campaign as a first-team regular, Zaniolo shone, and he won Roma some games single-handed. He managed to prove to Eusebio Di Francesco that he was more capable than his senior teammates, or at least good enough to relinquish some game time from the likes of Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy. He has now shown over two campaigns that he is capable of adapting to new systems, with new tactics in place. Now, under Paulo Fonseca, he has endured some struggles, partly due to being playing out of position. Regardless, he has shown he is still an extremely promising prospect, with a current ability to provide the goods now.
Style of play
The Italian is a skilful forward who tends to progress his team forward through his ability to take the ball past his opponents with pace and finesse. His technique and work-rate are impressive, especially considering other players his age rarely have those two attributes at such a young age, usually wielding one or the other.
Thanks to his work-rate, he is a player who likes to apply pressure high the field, which becomes very helpful against sides who struggle to keep possession. He is always looking for an opportunity to dribble past his man, where he can then produce a layoff to one of his forward teammates. When it comes to Roma’s style of play this season, he seems to fit well on the right side of the pitch, instead of down the centre, or on the left. His forward teammates are always moving into space to create attacking rotations, through one-twos and layoffs.
Roma tend to keep a high amount of possession and they like to control it in the opposition’s half. On top of this, they play a high line which supplements their aggressive pressing quite nicely. Fonseca’s favoured formations are 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 which suits Zaniolo’s strengths very well. They tend to attack down the middle and use inside forwards to complement this style of play, though interplays of short passing.
Passing and build-up
Roma do not focus on play counter-attacking football like they used to. They prefer to play an aggressive and offensive style of football, complimenting their preference to attack at speed. Their desire to play through balls often, they sometimes struggle to maintain possession as they may like to. Roma’s centre-backs tend to play it safe with their passing, while their midfielders are more adventurous with theirs. This results in a team that keeps 53% possession on average, generally flexible to who their opponents are.
When featured as an attacking right-midfielder, Zaniolo is tentative with his attempts to make a burst forward, as he prefers to come close to receive the ball himself. The Italian helps during build-up and is always looking for support so he can perform an interchange, to bewilder the opponent defender. His passing activity is concentrated mostly in contributing to attacking triangles with his teammates, to progress up the field and past a wall of defensive pressure. Either wing he is located at, he is important to Roma’s build-up as they like to play inside-forwards on both sides, to help them attack down the centre of the pitch. That is generally how they managed to distribute the ball to the final third.
Notice Zaniolo (top of the picture), he made a layoff towards Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then continues his run.
He receives the ball back later on in the attacking scenario, where he gets the opportunity to set-up a goal.
He is an important link from the midfield to the attack. His most common positioning is found to be around the halfway line on the right-hand side. Out there he tends to link-up with his teammates, to try and open the passing lanes by dragging the opposition out of position.
Impact on their attacking approach and potential weakness
As mentioned, the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation fits Zaniolo’s abilities quite well. As many young players are, he is fairly limited when it comes to contribution in the final third.
His individual skill can be used to break down a defence, by utilising his ability to take on an opponent with frequent success. He uses his strong technique and pace to get past the defenders and dance around their backs, leaving him an opportunity in front of the goal.
Here, we see Zaniolo being to take-on his opponent. With skill and ingenuity, he feints to the left before chopping to the right, towards goal.
Bursting past his opponent, Zaniolo manages to get the cut-back off in time, for Edin Džeko to finish with ease.
He seems to more of an affiliation with taking shots, though. His first touch and dribbling purely allow him to get into the position to take a shot, but his standout statistic is his ability to score goals. His composure and decision-making at such a young age are two very promising attributes to have, considering many young players tend to succumb to pressure in front of the goal. He has an xG90 of 0.23 which is an impressive figure for a wide forward of any age in Serie A, while his actual G90 of 0.28 sits just slightly above that figure, suggesting he is a competent finisher.
Notice the space that Zaniolo has found himself in. The defender’s focus is upon Justin Kluivert. Zaniolo takes advantage of this by sneaking beyond the defensive line.
Once he receives the ball, he takes time to compose himself before striking the ball. Once he does, he slots the ball in the bottom-left corner, out of the goalkeeper’s reach.
He does, however, struggle when placed on the other side of the field. Due to his preference to take shots with frequency, it is easier for him to cut inside from the right and take shots with the inside of his left boot, his preferred foot. When placed on the left-wing, he is tasked with a slightly different role, which he is not yet comfortable with. If we take another look at his expected goals and actual goals per 90 minutes, when he is played on the left, it does not make for a pretty picture. Whilst his xG90 is 0.26 (an improvement on the overall figure), his G90 is 0.08, a pretty pitiful figure for an attacking midfielder. This can be interpreted to suggest that Zaniolo continues to get into the right spaces (good off-the-ball movement), but he struggles to score from those locations, which may be because he is shooting from his weaker left foot.
Otherwise, his defensive work and passing efforts can be seen as inconsistent at the best of times. As with many young players, he has got an eagerness to impress his coaches and his peers, meaning that he sometimes rushes into tackles, passes, etc. Although he gets fouled often on the ball, he commits fouls off the ball even more so. The timing of his tackles are often blemished, despite his right intentions to go and get the ball back for his team. The same can be said for his passing. He can often pass to a teammate when they are not ready to receive the ball, or he will misplace his pass entirely.
Here, Zaniolo has regained possession through a nicely timed tackle, however, he rushes into his next action.
His through ball is inaccurate and does not have enough power at all, thus, it does not reach his target.
Ultimately, Zaniolo is at a very early stage in his career. At 20 years old, he is getting regular game time at a club aiming for European football. This can only be beneficial for his progress as a footballer. If he continues on the trajectory he is at right now, it would not be a silly remark to suggest he can potentially become a world-class wide forward. His strengths as a young winger are unique for a youthful prospect and his weaknesses are to be expected of someone his age. Currently, he is a serviceable winger in Serie A, which is remarkable at his age. Barring Dejan Kulusevski, Juventus are currently missing a winger with an incredibly high ceiling, so maybe they should be taking a look at Zaniolo as a homegrown option.