Born in Massa, Tuscany, Nicolò Zaniolo grew up in the Fiorentina youth system. After being released by Fiorentina, Inter snapped up the young promising midfielder. Zaniolo was sold to AS Roma in 2018, without ever making a senior appearance for Nerazzurri.
He has quickly become one of the most important players for Roma. Zaniolo’s role in the squad has only grown since Paulo Fonseca was appointed as the new coach in 2019. Before suffering an unfortunate ACL injury, he was going through the best form of his professional career, scoring in 4 consecutive matches against Gladbach, AC Milan, Udinese and Napoli.
This tactical analysis on Zaniolo tries to explain the things he does on the pitch and how he fits into Fonseca’s tactics.
First, we’ll take a look at Zaniolo’s radar chart, which gives us a basic idea of his overall contributions to his side. The radar chart is provided by FootballSlices.
Fonseca generally employs a traditional 4-2-3-1 system, with Zaniolo in the wide-right midfielder role.
Wingers are generally instructed to maintain width in a 4-2-3-1 system. But Zaniolo, in particular, is asked to drift inside and position himself in the right half-space. Roma’s right-backs are usually their width providers. From time to time, Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini exchange positions just to change the dynamic of the attack a little.
Here, you can see Zaniolo drop a little deep to receive the ball in between the lines. It allows right-back Alessandro Florenzi to advance and be used as a crosser.
When he remains wide, Zaniolo is used as a ball progressor. His main role is to advance Roma’s attacks deep into the opponent’s defensive half.
Fonseca’s Roma aren’t exactly known for their intensive pressing. But they’re still very good at it because of how disciplined they are in their positioning and concentration. This helps increase their effectiveness in pressing opponents, despite not having extremely athletic forwards.
When teams build up in their defensive third, Roma usually maintain the same formation (4-2-3-1). The wider players cover the half-spaces, while the striker and the attacking midfielder attempt to block out the middle. Zaniolo is instructed to cover either the centre-back or the full-back, depending on who occupies the space.
When defending in their half, Roma revert to a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, with the wide forward dropping into the midfield to cover the ball-side full-backs who are looking to bomb forward. Zaniolo is instructed to remain close to the left-back. The goal is to stay compact unless the ball somehow reaches wide areas. If this happens, by overloading the flanks themselves, the wide forwards are supposed to go in and disrupt the numerical advantage.
As mentioned above, Zaniolo’s main duties involve progressing the ball into the final third. He acts as a carrier and tries to link the midfield with the attack. He averages 5.1 progressive yards per carries per 90. He’s then tasked to combine with Pellegrini and Florenzi to create openings in the opposition defence.
The single best attribute of Zaniolo’s game is his dribbling. Stats are evident of this. He attempts 5.45 dribbles per 90 and completes 3.36 dribbles per 90, both of which are the highest amount in his team. That’s a success rate of 61.5%, which is ultra-efficient for that amount of high volume. He’s incredible at controlling the ball with his feet and his long feet ensure the ball doesn’t get too far away from him. Combine this with his agility, and you can see why he doesn’t struggle to emerge from tight spaces, even when surrounded by multiple defenders.
Here’s a graph which compares several U-24 players based on their efficiency in dribbling. It takes a look at how many shots these players create alongside successful dribbles.
His 1v1 dribbling skills are so good that they almost cause teams to game-plan against him. Whenever he is isolated against a single defender, the opposition tries to send a help defender to prevent Zaniolo from penetrating through the defence.
His combination dribbling (definition found at spielverlagerung) forces opposition defenders to cover nearby teammates and close down the passing lanes, further opening up a dribbling path for Zaniolo. Thus, it’s possible to see why his dribbling skills don’t just help him be a great player, but also helps Roma be a great team.
Often great dribblers possess the quality of drawing plenty of fouls. Zaniolo is no different. There are various instances where a defender thinks he has the opening to reach the ball and win it back via a tackle but Zaniolo puts himself in between the defender and the ball. He might not look very strong, but he’s surprisingly able to hold off his own against defenders and win free-kicks in important positions for his side.
One weak point here is Zaniolo sometimes gets stuck on the ball. He tends to over-dribble and allows himself to be caught in difficult positions, where he either slows down the attack or even worse, commits a turnover.
When we talk about great dribblers like Messi, Hazard, Neymar or even Mahrez, one of the things we often overlook is their knowledge of knowing when to continue dribbling and when to stop and pass. Zaniolo has the raw skill set which can help him be an elite ball-carrier in the future, but becoming better at balancing his actions on the ball is important for his development.
Passing and Body positioning
When Roma are in the opposition half, they move the ball sideways quickly to create crossing opportunities. This means that there is heavy usage of switches of plays in their attack.
Kolarov often sneaks into advance positions on the flanks where he tries to isolate himself when the attacks are building on the right-hand side. When Zaniolo gets the ball in these scenarios, his job is to catch the defence off guard with these long diagonal passes into space over the top of the defence for Kolarov to attack. Zaniolo’s long passing is key to this aspect of Roma’s attacking philosophy.
Having said that, passing is also one of Zaniolo’s weaknesses. He isn’t good at ball circulation. He struggles to execute in some intricate patterns and doesn’t always take advantage of mistakes made by his opponents.
The way he receives the ball plays a huge role in making it difficult for him to see and execute passes. He seldom screens his surroundings before offering himself as a passing option. Below you can see that as he’s shaping to receive the ball, he doesn’t have a great viewing angle at his closest defender. He is quickly closed down and loses possession.
His hips aren’t aligned properly. You’d want him to be a little more on his toes and be on a half turn so that he can spot a pass before even receiving the ball. Facing his back directly towards the goal doesn’t help either, as this limits his receiving angles. By facing his back towards either the sideline or the corner flag, this could be improved.
Lack of two-footedness costs Zaniolo a lot as well. He very rarely uses his right foot to either control the ball or pass. He only uses it to shift the ball onto his left side, which consumes precious seconds on the ball. Developing his right foot would help him waste less time and make simple passes without having to entirely turn his body in a particular direction.
This is a big reason why it won’t be easy for Zaniolo to convert into a full-time number 10. In that position, the time allowed to be on the ball is even less, and players have to be lightning quick in their decision making. His over-reliance on his left foot and poor vision, unless improved upon, will be a huge hurdle to overcome.
He does fare decently in transition situations. He can pick simple outlet passes and being incredibly fast means he can be a good outlet himself. But things get difficult for him as the complexity increases. As mentioned above, his excellent dribbling skills help him in counter-attacks too. But the quest to maintain a balance between passing and dribbling remains in here as well.
Another area where Zaniolo struggles is crossing. Crosses have almost become a quintessential part of today’s wide players, with more teams using crossing as a primary chance creation tactic than ever before.
Part of this might be down to the fact that he simply doesn’t get himself enough in positions to cross the ball. And even when he does, he can’t seem to put in good crosses. He attempts only 0.85 crosses into penalty area per 90 and completes 0.21 of them, which is not a good look for a wide player in this era.
Being a bit more patient on the ball and getting himself into better areas might help. He needs to create more 1v1 scenarios on the flanks and wait for his teammates to move into the box. This is how Zaniolo compares to some of his age-mates in the crossing department:
|Name||Age||Team||Crosses p90||Crs PPA p90|
CRS PPA = Crosses into Penalty Area
Zaniolo’s left foot is something special. Something is interesting about his shooting technique as well. If you look at the intersection between the axes of his hips and his shooting foot, it almost creates a right angle, indicating a lower back-lift. Normally, players aren’t able to generate enough power in their shot if they have a lower back-lift if the ball is too close to them.
But Zaniolo is an exception. He’s able to generate a lot of force and accuracy in his shot. He’s sometimes able to catch keepers off guard as they’re not expecting a shot since a low back-lift is commonly an indication of a passing attempt.
Zaniolo’s awareness, both positional and spatial, is good. On the attacking end, he’s able to identify pockets of space to drift into and generally chooses a good path on counter-attacks. But there are some moments where he misses out on identifying spaces to attack.
In this case, all the defenders are focusing on the ball and nobody is tracking his movement, but he fails to attack the space in behind the defence and take advantage of the situation. Improvements in small areas such as this can go a long way towards making the difference at the elite level against elite teams.
Although his understanding of offensive spacing can become better, he’s much better on the defensive end. He’s very good at tracking the movements of opposition full-backs, which helps him to stick to them. He stays focused and doesn’t lose sight of his man often. If his man fools him and creates some space, Zaniolo can quickly recover due to his pace.
Here, Zaniolo is aware of his man and constantly has an eye on him to track his movement. As soon as he makes a run into space, Zaniolo follows him and blocks the cross.
This shows us that despite being a good attacker, Zaniolo doesn’t shy away from his defensive duties. This is indicative of his good work ethic and concentration skills. It’s also proof of a good engine, which makes it possible for him to constantly move up and down the pitch without breaking much sweat.
Standing at 1.89m (6’2”) tall, it’s not a surprise that Zaniolo is deployed into penalty areas for both offensive and defensive set-pieces.
However, even after being considerably tall, he fails to take advantage of it. Zaniolo isn’t good at fighting in the air. He attempts 1.61 aerial duels per 90 and wins only 0.35 of them, with a pedestrian success rate of 21.7%.
This is quite mediocre for a player of his height and it also decreases his value on the attacking side. If he becomes relatively competent in this area, he’ll be able to expand on his finishing variety, which currently is extremely one dimensional.
Two clubs have always touted as potential buyers for the young Italian: Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
In the following analysis, we will take a look at how Zaniolo might fit in at each of the clubs.
Only a handful of moves are bigger than the move to the Theatre of Dreams. Man United are still the biggest club in England and are currently in a rebuilding mode under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
If Zaniolo moves there, expect him to be used similar to Daniel James. He’d fit well into their counter-attacking philosophy with his pace. United, at the moment, lack a left-footed attacker. And he can provide a different dynamic to them. A front three of Martial-Rashford-Zaniolo would be difficult to contain for any team. Old Trafford has waited too long their 21st league title and Zaniolo might help them cut the wait short.
New manager Jose Mourinho is yet to undergo a full summer at his new club. The signing of Zaniolo might fast-track the rebuilding process. Much like at United, Zaniolo would probably find himself more on the flanks than anywhere else for Tottenham. He would replace Lucas Moura, who hasn’t been able to impress this season.
Mourinho likes his wide forwards to be extremely industrious. He allows his attackers to have the freedom, as long as they keep track of their defensive duties. It’s not hard to see why Zaniolo would fit into this system and help Spurs become contenders again.
It’s important to note that both of these moves will have Zaniolo play a role which he’s not comfortable in. But he is capable of doing it. There’s a fair bit of development to undergo for the young winger. And fortunately, time is on his side.
As this scout report shows, Nicolò Zaniolo is impressive and one of the best young attackers around. He has got the world’s attention. Despite an injury, there’s no real cap on his ceiling. It only seems like a small bump in the road. A move to a European giant may well be on the cards soon for him. There’s not much to argue about, this kid is good. How his career pans out remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, the future is looking bright for the 20-year-old from Tuscany.