Alessio Romagnoli and the curse of the technical defender

Alessio Romagnoli and the curse of the technical defender

WHO CAN IDENTIFY a solid antivirus if not the best of hackers? And who can point to the toughest alarm system if not the stealthiest of thieves? In life, as in the beautiful game, adversaries tend to have a spotless knowledge of each other’s workings and mechanisms. Thus, because the burglar’s objective is that of breaking into one’s house, he will, supposedly, have the perfect knowledge of what is an insurmountable wall.

In the same way, in football, one of the objectives of the number 9 is that of evading a defender’s tight marking. Perhaps a nobler goal than that of the hacker or the thief, but with the same consequences, the forward, over time, develops a crystal clear understanding of the archetype of the good defender.

It logically follows that nobody can recognise a high-class centre back better than a real poacher of the 18-yard box. And consequently, in 2004, Sandro Tovalieri didn’t think twice about relocating a nine-year-old Alessio Romagnoli from midfield to defence. A journeyman striker first and a Roma youth sector coach later, Tovalieri immediately recognised that Alessio’s attributes were naturally suited to fulfilling defensive duties.

At the same time, Tovalieri remained highly perceptive of the qualities that made the youngster stand out from the bulk of midfielders also relocated to the back line. In the majority of cases, this kind of rearrangement occurs in players who lack the requisite technical ability or have a clear physical predisposition. With regards to Romagnoli, it was essentially the opposite case. In fact, speaking of Alessio in 2014, Tovalieri described him as “elegant, very technical and capable of breaking the lines.” 

Over the years, many have come to use similar terms when describing Romagnoli, with flattering praise coming from role models such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Siniša Mihajlović, currently a coach but significantly one of the Serie A’s best defenders until only a decade ago. And it was Mihajlović who ultimately set the bar at its highest for the young defender. “He [Romagnoli] reminds me of [Alessandro] Nesta, but is perhaps more technically able.”

A footballing rarity, players able to combine technical virtue with defensive solidity can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Therefore, the range of potential comparisons to make is inevitably very limited: Baresi is untouchable, Thiago Silva is still too young and Leonardo Bonucci is perhaps too close to home. Subsequently, before Mihajlović’s unequivocal statement, the comparison between Nesta and Romagnoli was fundamentally the elephant in the room of Italian football.

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Unavoidable, frustrating and also crushing for many young talents, the burdensome comparison is a common feature in the rise of any promising footballer. The shared passion for Lazio, that same number 13 on the back, a costly move from the capital to AC Milan, even the upbringing under the wing of the same coach, Zdeněk Zeman. The many parallels, mostly casual and immaterial in footballing terms, made it so that Romagnoli was soon labelled as ‘the new Nesta’.

However, in strictly footballing terms, Romagnoli himself did refer to Nesta as one of his main models, indicative of the youngster’s awareness of the set of qualities that he does in fact share with the aforementioned legend; qualities and similarities that extend beyond the trivial long hair and headband combo and into the world of tactics and footballing characteristics.

A thorough comparison of Nesta and Romagnoli, if carried out appropriately and not superficially, can be helpful in revealing the latter’s qualities and limits. And although it is almost blasphemous to make a summary of Nesta’s features, a brief account is necessary to the purpose of this evaluation.

A club legend at both Lazio and AC Milan, with whom he played 261 and 325 games respectively, Nesta imposed himself as one of the most talented defenders that the game has ever seen. With the technical ability necessary to play in almost any position, and the intelligence to virtually read his opponent’s minds, his control of the game was overwhelming.

Although the slide tackle was Nesta’s household trademark, the gesture of the tackle alone does not convey the extent of the player’s ability in executing it. Due to his coordination and tactical awareness, Nesta’s sliding interventions were rarely mistimed and often enabled him to not only conquer the ball, but also to efficiently play it back to his teammates. Similarly, during a one on one confrontation, the Rome-born defender always seemed to have the upper hand, and with the ball at his feet, he was not only reliable but also a potential threat.    

Nesta’s main talent – the faculty to predict his opponent’s moves – effectively represents the greatest difference between him and Romagnoli – perhaps an insuperable one too. And while I am outlining only one factor as the dissimilarity between two players who are, as of right now, almost incomparable, it is a difference that mustn’t be underestimated.

In fact, this cleverness fundamentally catalysed and strengthened every one of Nesta’s characteristics. Due to his spotless understanding of the game, Nesta could coordinate his inch-perfect interventions, dispossess his opponents, and subsequently put his technical means to use.

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And while Romagnoli excels in a number of other fields, he seems to lack in this God-given talent. Needless to say, one’s ability to read the game does develop with experience, but Romagnoli gives the impression that he will rarely be as tightly in control of his challenger as Nesta ever was. This impossibility to anticipate the attacker’s intentions prevents Romagnoli’s technical qualities from shining as bright as Nesta’s.

As opposed to the latter, Romagnoli will always be more likely to mistime a tackle and commit a foul. Perhaps more frequently, he will dispossess his opponent, but won’t be chirurgical enough to retain possession of the ball thereafter. This fundamental difference might be enough to set Romagnoli and Nesta categorically apart for the rest of the Anzio-born defender’s career.

However, as said, the comparison with Nesta is merely a means towards understanding Romagnoli. The two players share one main virtue, that of above-average technical ability, but are essentially different footballers. This said, Romagnoli possesses the sufficient qualities to become just as important, though in distinct fashion. His path to greatness is not synonymous of becoming identical to Nesta.

In considering Romagnoli’s individual qualities, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of his mentors, Sinisa Mihajlović and Vincenzo Montella specifically. Both managers have helped the Italian to develop two key aspects of his game: pragmatism and quick thinking.

Mihajlović’s first merit is that of having believed – very strongly – in the youngster’s qualities. Relentlessly pushing to bring the player to Milan, and subsequently placing the 20-year-old at the heart of the team’s defence, proved to be a vital step in Romagnoli’s career. Had he stayed in Rome, we may now be talking of an entirely different player, or we may even not be talking about him at all. The possibility to lead a team’s backline, and during such a strenuous season, provided Romagnoli with the kind of experience that is not normally reserved for players of his age.

The Serb’s second merit, very much in line with his personality, is that of having taught Romagnoli the value of pragmatism. Gradually shaping him into a wiser defender, Mihajlović ensured Romagnoli’s getaway from one of the dangers of being a technically gifted centre-back: the excessive tendency to play the ball on the ground at every opportunity. As simple as it sounds, Mihajlović, himself a very technical defender back in the day, imparted unto Romagnoli the notion that there is nothing shameful in a clearance – sometimes, it could even be deemed vital.

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And since the arrival at Milan of Vincenzo Montella, this aspect of Romagnoli’s game has been further refined. Yes, it is imperative to know when to clear, but it is equally important to resist under pressure, especially when you have his technical ability. As Montella’s possession-oriented style of play becomes imprinted into the team, Romagnoli is palpably learning to increasingly make the right choice when pressured. Mihajlović gave him the guidance to clear; Montella has stressed the need to think quickly about whether this should be the preferred option. At 21, Romagnoli is already a wiser player than many might ever become.

Helped by these excellent mentors, but also relying on what is effectively his repertoire, Romagnoli is developing into a more than trustworthy defender with the ball at his feet. He has learnt when to adopt a no-nonsense policy, but is more inclined to pass the ball on the ground, contributing to the fluidity of possession. To this dependability, Romagnoli has increasingly added his own element, also with regards to passing play: breaking the lines.

Aided by the inexorable mobility of Milan’s mezzalas – Bonaventura, Pašalić and Suso et al – Romagnoli has been able to exploit his ability to play vertically. As opposed to a conventional defender, who will often attempt a short pass to the central midfielder, Romagnoli frequently looks for wide options and open spaces. This risk-taking attitude is not only beneficial for the team as it breaks up the opposition’s first defensive lines, but is also indicative of Romagnoli’s growing personality – one year ago, the youngster was clearly gifted but didn’t always look confident enough to attempt vertical play.

With regards to this rising consciousness in his own means, Romagnoli has certainly benefitted from the presence of Gabriel Paletta by his side. With his sturdy and practical approach, Paletta provides Romagnoli with some form of insurance, gifting him with the license to take a risk. It has paid dividends both for Romagnoli’s development and for the team’s play. 

For the Italian’s career to continue down the right track, this growth of personality and awareness of his own qualities must not stop. Being a technically gifted defender is a rarity and a pleasure reserved for a very small minority, but at a price, especially in Italy: the comparison with his great predecessor Nesta will never stop. And, most probably, Romagnoli will never be able to totally emulate Nesta –  they will always be more different than one might presume at a first glance.

However, Romagnoli has everything he needs to reach the highest levels of football, by means of individual qualities that even Nesta may have lacked in. In spite of the everlasting burden of the easy but incorrect comparison, Alessio Romagnoli, mentored correctly, will surely succeed.

By Federico Manasse  @FedericoManasse

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