Nicolo Zaniolo: Roma and Italy’s best young midfielder

To be honest, I am not quite sure how to describe him. The next Totti? No! Completely different player. He’s 6ft 3in tall, has the engine of a prime Daniele de Rossi and possesses the eye of a twenty-plus goal a season striker. It’s Nicolo Zaniolo.

Background

An intriguing career path to say the least, Zaniolo grew up in Massa, Tuscany, just a couple of miles from the devilish Tyrrhenian sea. There, as the son of former Genoa forward Igor Zaniolo, the Italian was swiftly picked up by Fiorentina, where he stayed until he was 18, making no senior appearances. As put by former Virtus Entella manager Gianpaolo Castorina, Zaniolo was ‘discarded’ by Fiorentina. Castorina picked up a ‘disappointed’ Italian youth international, one ‘without a role’, one he had to watch for five minutes before deciding to sign (article here).

Nicolo Zaniolo only went on to make seven performances for Entella and will always thank Castorina for picking him up and letting him play…

The headline read: Everton plotting for teenage ace Zaniolo (thisisfutbol.com)

If you dare fast forward a year, you’ll see his name on the back of an AS Roma shirt, stepping out the Santiago Bernabéu. So what changed?

Milan. Inter Milan to be specific. Quite frankly he was too good for the second tier of Italy. Zaniolo moved two-hundred miles to play for the Nerazzurri youth team, and boy was it worth it. His performances in the youth ranks were nothing short of outstanding.

Inter’s mistake

In between domineering performances and an occasional cigarette in the changing room, Radja Nainggolan was garnering interest. Inter Milan craved what he could offer and Roma were more than happy to sell.

Image result for nainggolan cigarette

However, the deal would just not draw to a conclusion. Why? Because neither sides could agree a price? Because Radja was surely going to fail his fitness test? If you look closely at my interpretation of the contract, you’ll see something small, something in the fine print that Inter Milan were really not happy with…

“Ciao!
We would love for you to take Radja off our hands and €38m is all it takes.
I have loved doing business with you,
Grazie,
Monchi
p.s: We are taking Nicolò Zaniolo as part of the deal”

Outrage. I can only imagine an awkward silence as Monchi slid this across the Inter boardroom table. “Not our Nicolò!” Marotta cried. Yet there was nothing Inter could do. They were in too deep, invested too heavily. Roma parted with Radja and gained Zaniolo…

“Jordan Veretout was praying to the phalluses to stop him.”

– Emanuele Atturo, l’Ultimo Uomo (I’ve looked at this and translated it many times but I still don’t understand what he’s saying)

His first team debut. You can see from Emanuele’s typically Italian description of Zaniolò’s Serie A debut (link here) that the ‘box-to-box’ midfielder has been quite unstoppable from minute one.

It always presents a risk, starting a 19-year-old in the Champions League against the reigning champions ON their home turf. Potential to be a real confidence knocker. Despite a 3-0 loss, Zaniolo shone, since becoming an everpresent in the team under Eusebio Di Francesco. His Serie A debut followed and, from the sounds of it, he gave former Aston Villa midfielder Jordan Veretout a right runaround…

Nicolo Zaniolo – Style of Play

Remarkably unflappable and a sweeping left foot, Nicolo Zaniolo usually operates in the centre of the midfield. What I found peculiar was Di Francesco’s decision to play him out on the right against Porto on Tuesday. His large frame would initially rule him out of any wide role but Zaniolo looked adept, more than that in fact.

Image result for zaniolo

He looked good. Very good. Sitting narrow, enabling him to play off Bosnian target man Edin Džeko, the Italian youth international picked up two goals, the second of which a composed first-time finish, after the ball ricocheted off of the post. The net was empty but still: harder than it looks.

Nicolò’s midweek performance earns him the honour of becoming the youngest Italian player to score a brace in the Champions League. Very specific but still a nice honour to have…

Nicolo Zaniolo – Stats 2018/19

SERIE A APPEARANCES – 27

GOALS – 4

ASSISTS – 2

DIVING INTO THE DETAILS

Average Pass Length (15m) – This is an interesting one. Perhaps it’s a part of Di Francesco’s philosophy of moving the ball quickly forward and wide, with little time for neat interchanges; however, it also highlights the comfort at which Zaniolo plays. At 19, he is more than happy to switch the play or attempt a higher risk pass.

Average Take-Ons (2.75 per game) & Average Tackles (Also 2.75 per game) – Whilst the take-ons, similar to the pass length, accentuate the exuberance and confidence of Zaniolo’s game, the tackle statistic is something perhaps more interesting. It could be his large frame doing him justice but almost three is quite a large number, especially for a league that’s so tactically minded, often resulting in few midfield duels. Combined, these stats entertain the idea of a midfield dynamo, someone that can go from box-to-box and make a difference at both ends.

All statistics courtesy of Squawka

This constant association with the Giallorossi legend Francesco Totti has to stop. That’s not who he is. It’s Nicolo Zaniolo, and he’s some player…

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