Football is forever evolving. For those willing to ask the pressing questions and be open-minded, you too can reinvent it. Within the laws of the game, there are no limitations. Regularly, we are exposed to varying styles of play, some more attractive and visually pleasing than others. As long as there are eleven men – or women – on the pitch, the possibilities of innovation are endless.
Breaking stereotypes has become the norm in today’s football. Target men of the past are now encouraged to drop into space for a pass and lay off for a teammate. Wide players, considered primary offensive outlets, must now cover their ground defensively. Midfielders constantly break barriers, playing box-to-box or, floating about as a creative playmaker – a trequartista. Player roles are redefined. It’s almost necessary if the goal is fluent, free-flowing football. Even with many visually appealing positional alterations all over the park, there is no denying the ever-growing importance of a playmaking centre-half in 2017. Defensive combatants still hold the responsibility of eliminating threats, but are now being assigned playmaking duties as well.
Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, two of the best defenders of their generation – and history for that matter – earned critical acclaim in the late 90s and 2000s for their physicality and awareness. Brawny and tactically intelligent, they surrendered little space and disrupted play with timely challenges, all while holding minimal risk of a serious booking. Their positional sense permitted them to frequently win possession, dictate tempo with a single touch and be the source of an attacking opportunity. Artists of the game, their Italian renaissance forever remains in calcio lore. Years have passed however since the elegant Azzurri legends hung up their boots, but their impact still remains all over continental Europe.
Boasting a unique blend of physicality, understanding and ball-playing ability, Jerome Boateng’s repertoire slots him into the upper echelon of his kind. His versatility opens up an array of dimensions for Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti to explore. South of Munich, geographically, lies Turin, the stomping grounds for Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci. Widely considered to be Europe’s undisputed top technical ‘difensore’, Bonucci is the archetypal, modern-day playmaking defender all managers desire. Under present boss Massimilano Allegri, the ex-Bari man prospers as the ‘Old Lady’s’ creative cog. Shoulder to shoulder with veterans Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, it’s in the way Bonucci intuitively expands play that makes the Bianconeri line such a frustrating puzzle to solve. Bonucci’s importance in Juventus achieving Champions League glory cannot be stressed enough, which is why Beppe Marotta and Andrea Agnelli balked at Manchester City’s astronomical bid last summer.
Due to the growing demand and scarcity for this breed of defender, it wasn’t long before ‘La Vecchia Signora’s’ league rivals recognized their significance. Two summers’ ago, Adriano Galliani and AC Milan showed signs of committal to a project, spending roughly 90 million euros on fresh faces. In a conscious effort to patch up a dubious defence, Milan went all in, landing AS Roma academy product Alessio Romagnoli on a 25 million euro transfer.
Hailing from Anzio, a city on the coast of Lazio, Romagnoli thrived on loan at Sampdoria the previous year under Siniša Mihajlović. Impressed with his size, strength and composure on the ball, the youngster was a mainstay in the starting eleven, appearing in over 30 league appearances. Once Mihajlović solidified Milan’s managerial role, Romagnoli became his top transfer target. Burdened with big expectations to live up to a large tag, Romagnoli eliminated any initial doubt, impressing in 40 appearances and aiding Milan’s run all the way to Rome for the Coppa Italia final in his debut season.
Thankfully, Milan resisted Antonio Conte and Chelsea’s audacious £35 million bid last summer and held onto the 22-year old. Attempting to role out a possession-based playing style, Vincenzo Montella labeled Romagnoli untouchable. But, in order to carry out his tactics, stability was needed in the back. A guiding figure with solidity and experience, veteran Gabriel Paletta provides security which, in return, equips Romagnoli with the license to be the methodical leader this side so desperately craves. The young Italian’s sophomore season at the San Siro has gone over so smoothly due in large part to the role he’s been designated by “L’Aeroplanino.” By virtue of his expanded roll, Romagnoli’s on-the-ball poise presents Milan’s 18-year old phenom keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma a calming presence to play off. Donnarumma’s work in net for Milan is of paramount importance. Albeit a rapidly evolving and praised keeper, his craft still has its flaws, one of which is in possession. His distribution leaves much to be desired, especially playing to his wide options on the flanks, as seen below:
In this first roll of footage, Romagnoli plays a simple back-pass to Donnarumma who feels the press from Lazio’s Ciro immobile. Rather than electing to take a touch out wide, he rushes his decision and surrenders possession.
Above, Mattia De Sciglio’s throw-in goes back towards Romagnoli in order to restart play. Donnarumma controls, but insists on playing the more difficult channel, Davide Calabria, wide instead of Paletta short, resulting in an errant pass in their half of the pitch.
Here, Manuel Locatelli moves play back towards Donnarumma. Calmly, he takes his first touch onto his weaker left foot, but muffs the pass to an open De Sciglio. Keep this in mind: De Sciglio is alone on the left and with tons of space in front of him should Donnarumma have cleanly dropped in the pass.
These examples clearly show Donnarumma’s deficiencies with his feet, thus proving Romagnoli’s composure is so valuable to what Montella sets out to accomplish. While Donnarumma still needs work in this area of his game, there are glimpses of improvement.
Below, Romagnoli is presented as the first outlet for Donnarumma to play.
Donnarumma v Cagliari video
Above, Romagnoli, and Locatelli link up, executing quick successive passes before play eventually shifts out wide towards De Sciglio. Easily executed back-heels from M’Baye Niang and Giacomo Bonaventura have the Frenchman off to the races.
Romagnoli’s precious ball distribution and confidence as a deep-lying orchestrator radiates onto Donnarumma who, in return, can overcome his fear. With every passing week, their chemistry continues to develop, now together on an international level.
Donnarumma v Holland
Despite very tight, congested spaces, Donnarumma trustingly plays Bonucci and Romagnoli as opposed to launching downfield for a clearance. Many will say, even for the best ball-playing keepers, that these passes are risky. But isn’t that what we want to see, chances being taken up field and exerting confidence? Nevertheless, slowly but surely, Donnarumma’s Achilles heel is becoming a weapon that will undoubtedly expand his game.
Notice there isn’t a single statistic on Romagnoli and his pass completion rate? A strong case can be made about passing data and too much information. Sometimes, we get caught up in numbers and use them as the sole indicator of performance. They certainly help support judging a player’s impact on a match. However, in order fully register Alessio Romagnoli’s importance to Montella, his style of play and young supporting cast around him, escape the digital world for a moment. Watch him orchestrate – week in and week out – as the Rossoneri’s deep-lying defensive protagonista, and see for yourself.
Photo Credit: Daniele Buffa/Image Sport