The swap deal last summer that saw Radja Nainggolan move from Roma to Inter, with Nicolo Zaniolo and Davide Santon (along with piles of cash) going the other way, is the type of transaction that will remain fascinating for years to come. Players with the type of stature that Nainggolan has, who move from one Champions League side to another, will generate a certain amount of fanfare.
Only focusing on Nainggolan’s involvement in the deal is intriguing enough, as Roma likely did a good job in timing the transfer given that Nainggolan was 30 years old and was susceptible to the aging process that many players around that age suffer. To this point, Nainggolan has had a decent season with a 0.42 scoring contribution (goals + assists) per 90 rate, but you rather be one year early than one year late with older players (especially someone like Nainggolan with questions surrounding his conditioning).
It’s Nicolo Zaniolo who has made that deal go from a mildly curious transaction, to one that has Roma fans jumping for joy and Inter fans looking over with envy. Fans take notice whenever young players show some signs of breaking out, and Zaniolo is no exception. Young attackers who show enough in their debut season to suggest they already belong against grown men are often positive indicators for their future in themselves (Marcus Rashford in 2015–16 as an example), and given Zaniolo’s decent shot volume + xG contribution, stardom may well be his long term outcome down the line.
However, there are some who aren’t convinced that Zaniolo has star-level upside to his game, specifically that his passing lacks a forward emphasis. These are fair criticisms and they put a strain both individually and on a team context. For the team, it means that you’re having to manoeuvre the squad with an extra constraint to work with. From an individual standpoint, it means that Zaniolo will have to be close to special in other areas to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere.
He can be quite conservative with his pass selection and has a tendency to recycle possession when opportunities arise for him to be more daring and attempt difficult passes. Even for the best attackers, it’s unfair to suggest that they complete these passes with great regularity, but you would hope that at times, at least they would attempt the pass.
With young players in particular, there’s greater leniency in terms of execution on home-run passes, but it’s important that they have the awareness to see these situations. Recycling the ball to a teammate is not the worst thing as a outcome, but you’re leaving potential value on the table by constantly opting for the safe option rather than trying to find something more advantageous. What makes this even weirder is that Zaniolo doesn’t necessarily have bad touch with his passes, so perhaps an optimist would say that with better coaching he could be coaxed into spreading his wings with his passing.
Where else does Zaniolo contribute? While he’s good in other aspects to his game beyond passing, it’s hard to say that he’s elite in any of them. His recognition off-ball is solid for a 19 year old. He can sense space that he can attack into with the hope of gaining the ball for shooting opportunities. The problem is that while he’s got the instincts, he doesn’t have elite speed off-ball to truly wreck teams with his runs and be a dynamic threat. To this point it hasn’t been a problem in Serie A, in part because of the different style of play that the league has, but I’m more hesitant to say that he’d be able to attack space in the same manner in other leagues.
Zaniolo’s dribbling is probably his best asset as a player, but not necessarily in the manner that you would think. His dribbling is quite impressive in congested areas whether he’s closer to the center of the pitch or hugging the touchline. He’s got impressive balance and guile in manoeuvring tight areas to execute dribbling sequences and evading multiple defenders. Given that he’s just over 6 feet tall, he can also use his size in certain situations to hold up play and seal his opponents, along with the ability to not get nudged off the ball as easily as others.
These traits have been valuable to Roma because he’s been able to keep possessions alive in situations where others would be more susceptible to dispossession. Where it’s fair to have some skepticism is that with his lack of elite burst, Zaniolo has a harder time using his dribbling abilities to unlock defenses during 1v1 situations higher up the pitch for shot opportunities in the same manner that players like Jadon Sancho or Leon Bailey (last season) have shown.
Analysis on Zaniolo should be grounded with the knowledge that this is his age 19 season, so in theory, he’s got a handful of years before he reaches the beginning of his prime. It could very well be that the current flaws in his game get ironed out by the time he gets to age 22–23, which would raise his value by an appreciable amount. As well, that in his debut season he’s putting up roughly league average shot metrics should allow for some level of optimism.
Yet it’s hard not to be skeptical of certain parts of Zaniolo’s game in the present. He’s not an overwhelming athlete, which wouldn’t be a major problem if he was a good to great passer, but to this point it’s hard to make that case. If you envision him moving forward as more of a conventional #10, the tunnel vision he exhibits is worrisome. If you envision him as a wide player, his conservative pass selection is slightly less of a concern but you’re still dealing with the worries regarding his athleticism.
While it’s entirely possible that Zaniolo gains greater awareness when in possession through more reps, along with having incremental athletic growth, if that doesn’t happen it will make it hard to see him in a great team as a key figure. Maybe with his size and ability to hold off opponents, there’s the slight chance that he’s able to transition into more of a striker as he gets closer to his prime years, which would change the equation and would make most of these points moot. As a more conventional attacking midfielder/winger, you’d almost have to compensate his lack of passing value by having close to exceptional passers elsewhere if he doesn’t improve, which isn’t impossible but given that Roma aren’t ludicrously flushed with cash, it’d certainly be a hard task.
The good news is that Roma are a long way away from having to worry about how Zaniolo would fit on a title contender, so this is the type of conversation that can wait for another day. Roma’s squad is an odd one: they’ve tried to simultaneously build a quality side that can compete in the present with numerous veteran players (Dzeko/Kolarov/Nzonzi/Florenzi), while covering their bases with young players that can both contribute in the present and have future upside (Kluivert/Schick/Pellegrini/Under). The arrangement hasn’t quite worked out yet, but the young players by and large have ably performed which is encouraging for the future outlook of the club.
It’s not hard to construct an argument that Nicolo Zaniolo is a solid prospect. One could take the optimist viewpoint and believe that with a more innovative coach at the helm, the concerns about his passing would dissipate and make it easier to project future stardom. To some extent, I am sympathetic to this argument given the effects that coaching can have on young attacking talent. Zaniolo is a fun example of thinking about young talents and their ceiling outcomes as a player, but as it stands now, there's reason to be hesitant about the hype that's surrounded his maiden voyage in Serie A.