Forget Nainggolan, Nicolo Zaniolo is AS Roma's future
AS Roma has been visibly active in the transfer market. The Giallorossi has had to deal with the incessant flow of tourist footballers. For every departee, almost three arrive in Rome.
Radja Nainggolan is the latest passenger. Inter Milan used ex-Roma coach Luciano Spalletti as a sweetener in addition to a £24 million outlay. While the contract ink was yet to parch, the Yellow and Reds caused more stir with three new arrivals of their own. Javier Pastore, Davide Santon and Nicolo Zaniolo.
Roma invested every penny recouped from Nainggolan on Pastore. As a consequence, the 29-year-old will face immense pressure to revive the Belgian's exciting memories. From a wide array of hairstyles, perfect hook-tackles to thunderbolt strikes. Judging by the Argentine's time at Paris Saint-Germain, however, it's an impossible mission. Santon isn't up to the task either. Zaniolo, meanwhile, could be.
The Italian midfielder joined from Inter in a deal which sent Nainggolan the other way. Despite perceived talent, it would be unjust banking on an 18-year-old to fill his predecessor's huge boots. After all, the two players are very much dissimilar in both style and physique.
Born in Massa, north of Florence, Zaniolo's career began at Fiorentina. Blessed with exceptional feet, technical ability and predatory eyes, he was heralded to take Serie A by storm. That never happened. His progress was slothful. Exhausted of holding, Viola let him join second-tier Virtus Entella for free in 2016.
Zaniolo sprung to life instantly in Chiavari. Barely six months later, the teenager was cutting his teeth with the first team. He made seven appearances in Serie B, helping Entella finish 11th. His remarkable turnaround attracted top clubs aplenty. Inter was the smartest.
At the San Siro, Zaniolo had to drop down to Milan's Primavera squad. He proved a mismatch for the youngsters. In 35 matches en route to sweeping the double, he struck 14 times while chipping in with 13 assists. His performance was equally good for Italy's Under-19s, hitting four goals in 13 appearances.
It is believed Zaniolo isn't even close to reaching full potential. Standing at 6'3'', he possesses the physical presence absent in most Italian midfielders. Yet at times, he is reckless and clumsy on the ball. There's still plenty of time to improve. His former Inter coach, Stefano Vechi, agrees:
He’s (Zaniolo) not always been able to bring out the potential he has. He must improve, but he’ll become a phenomenal player if he does.
Future of Roma
Nainggolan is irreplaceable. Christened the ninja, he never stops running to keep the team afloat. However, selling him could be a blessing in disguise for Roma.
At 30, Nainggolan's career is reaching its twilight. The same applies to the Giallorossi's entire midfield. Skipper Daniele De Rossi is aged 34. Maxime Gonalons is 29 while Kevin Strootman is just a year younger. Sporting director Monchi is obviously replacing tired legs with fresher ones. Zaniolo is expected to lead the new era.
Beyond the age factor, Nainggolan may not suit Roma's evolving model. This season, Eusebio Di Francesco offered a glimpse of things to come with an eye-catching, entertaining brand. The summer dealings so far point further towards that direction. The Belgium international, or not as is the case in Russia, lost his untouchable status. He even admitted to feeling unimportant. Things could have become worse next campaign. Zaniolo, meanwhile, who is adept anywhere across the middle, is Di Francesco's ideal player.
Make no mistake, Monchi took a huge gamble ousting Nainggolan. But isn't that what makes him the best, giving youth a chance? In Zaniolo, the Giallorossi have discovered the future.