Tommaso Baldanzi: Could Rome Be the Perfect Home for the “Italian Dybala”?

Roma’s signing of 20-year-old Italian attacking midfielder Tomaso Baldanzi for a reported €10 million fee was a footnote in the most recent transfer window, but seen as a something of a coup in Italy.


Baldanzi is a classic Italian trequartista. A player who wants to play in the lines between midfield and attack. Very similar to a number 10. Think Totti, Cassano, Baggio, Zola, Del Piero.


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This role is accommodated in former Empoli manager Paolo Zanneti’s 4-3-1-2 formation where Baldanzi as the one was able to float between the lines and start counter attacks with his penetrative carrying proving particularly useful for Empoli to escape their own defensive third.


Statistical question marks


A cursory look at Baldanzi’s stats doesn’t really demonstrate that he’s worthy of such a role on a top half team. His expected goal output puts him in the bottom 12% of attacking midfielders/wingers in the top 5 leagues. He is yet to register an assist in a professional game. His progressive passing and dribbling numbers again rank poorly compared to his positional peers. He’s certainly not lighting up any Statsbomb radars or twitter analytics charts.


He’s also been given a reduced role this season partly due to injury and partly due to a managerial change leading to Empoli adopting a more standard 433 formation. A team facing a relegation battle and a struggling to control possession is perhaps not the best place for nurturing a young number 10.


However, if you watch Baldanzi play and put a little bit of context behind his numbers you might start to see the kind of qualities that made Roma spend a significant portion of their pbudget on him.


What does Baldanzi do well that the stats maybe aren’t picking up?


One of Baldanzi’s key skills is his ball striking. Baldanzi can hit powerful shots with little back lift off both feet. This combined with his low center of gravity and excellent ball control allows him to create goals from very little, a skill that has stood out at times in Empoli teams that have struggled to create clearcut opportunities.


Perhaps the best example of this is his brilliant individual goal for Italy U19. Baldanzi seizes on a loose ball and turns sharply onto his supposedly weaker right foot before generating surprising power to leave the goalkeeper with no chance.



Two of his six professional goals have come from outside the penalty area. His recent strike in Empoli’s 1-1 draw with Juventus provided further evidence of his ability to produce the kind of strikes that surprise goalkeepers. A fizzing low drive from distance, again from his weaker right foot, seemed to take goalkeeper Wojcech Scezsney by surprise. The wrong footed Polish international could only watch as the ball settled in the bottom corner of his goal.



It’s this kind of ability that catches the eye with Baldanzi, but it’s difficult to ignore that he has had difficulty finding consistent shooting positions in his short senior career. In over 28 matches worth of Serie A minutes he has only been able to generate around 0.7 shots per 90 minutes from inside the penalty area.


However, like most of the potential limitations flagged by his statistics, how much of this is down to Baldanzi and how much of this is down to the difficulties of playing as an attacking player for a team like Empoli is debateable.


Empoli are the lowest scoring side in Serie A this season and have managed just 16 goals from open play. They failed to score in their first six games this season before Baldanzi finally found the net against Salernitana. It’s hard to put the blame for such a lacklustre attacking side on the shoulders of a 20-year-old still learning his role.


The big leap Baldanzi will need to take at Roma is finding more consistent shooting positions. In a team with more possession and field dominance he has the chance to demonstrate that he can find the positions to effectively use his shooting skills.



In his favour the indications seem to be that he is perhaps a player that can be expected to outscore his xg numbers over the long run. The xg gods can be fickle but his ability to strike with both feet and generate power and accuracy from difficult positions is a little reminiscent of Son Heung-Min, who is statistically the best finisher we have seen in the modern era (yes even better than Messi). It’s a tiny sample, but picking up his 6 Serie A goals off 4 xg is certainly encouraging in this regard.


If Baldanzi is the kind of player who can produce goals at a rate better than you would expect from the positions he gets into then that gives him a little more leeway when it comes to adding value to a team. However, is there scope for him to get into better positions more often?


Again the eye test seems more promising than the data here. Baldanzi has extremely quick feet and is able to use his low center of gravity to turn sharply and suddenly leaving defenders unbalanced.


Surprising athleticism


On paper he doesn’t look like an elite athlete but the way he dribbles with the ball glued to his toe means his agility often comes into play more so than straight-line speed or brute strength. This ensures his small stature become less of a disadvantage. He’s one of those players who seem like they move faster with the ball than without it. 


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He frequently beats players with quick changes of direction and acceleration whilst keeping the ball under control all whilst keeping his head up scanning for passes. This close control dribbling style means he also collects a lot of ricochets from broken challenges and his quick reactions mean he can profit from the confusion they cause.


His shot creating actions from take-ons place him in the top 25% of attacking mids/wingers which is quite impressive considering Empoli’s struggles. He’s also disposed relatively infrequently. Again, due to the team he plays for it’s not often he gets to carry the ball in the final third, so this is an area of his game that should be exciting in a better suited team like Roma where he can receive the ball in areas where he can harm the opposition.


Clever off-the-ball movement


It’s his off-the-ball movement and ability to find space that also catches the eye with Baldanzi. Like the number 10s of previous eras he cleverly drifts into spaces between the attacking and defensive lines to receive passes. With his close control and shooting ability allowing him to exploit any space this makes him a difficult opponent to mark out of matches.


Passing range


What Baldanzi can perhaps improve upon is his creative passing. His current passing range is functional and he is very accurate but he doesn’t really play the kind of defence splitting balls you might expect from a player in his position with his talent. 



Although the kind of chaos he can cause with his ball carrying unsettling defences means an efficient pass to an open teammate is generally a better decision for him than attempting something more creative.


It’s certainly a mature approach to picking his passes but it will be interesting to see how his passing scales against the lower blocks he will encounter on a better team, when he might be forced outside of his comfort zone to breakdown a defence. If he could add to his passing range it would make him an even bigger threat when he finds his pockets to work in and would increase his ceiling considerably. Lorenzo Insigne had a similar progression becoming an excellent passer as his career went on. Baldanzi has the tools to add that to his game.


Death of the 10: does Baldanzi’s role limit his potential?


One issue Baldanzi will encounter is he is the type of player that isn’t typically played by the top club sides anymore. Many teams, as Empoli have done this season, line up in 4-3-3 formations which leave Baldanzi without a natural position in the team. He would need to adapt to playing wide, probably as a right winger, to fit into such a lineup and this is perhaps where his athletic limitations could hinder him. It’s difficult to see a player of his style lining up on the wing at a Liverpool or Bayern Munich and he’s not yet shown the ability to play as an advanced 8 in that kind of setup.


Natural number 10s like Coutinho, Isco, James Rodriguez and Dybala have struggled to find a consistent role at the top of the European game. It bodes well that Roma have managed to create a role for Dybala in their line-up that Baldanzi is a natural understudy for. He’s been labelled the “Italian Dybala” in the past so it seems as good a transfer as he could have made at this stage, especially given the Argentine’s injury struggles.



Similarly to Dybala, Isco has finally found a home at Real Betis and it’s possible that Baldanzi’s ceiling might be shaping the attack at a Europa League and top 4 chasing level rather than a European powerhouse. He has the potential to be highly entertaining to watch and the chief orchestrator of the attack of teams that can afford to accommodate him.


If he can add some passing prowess and show some defensive improvement (think Bernardo Silva) to adapt to different roles on the pitch then maybe he can even go beyond that level. Even if he doesn’t adapt to a position that would offer him a role in a consistent Champions League knockout side, Roma may still have managed to sign Italy’s next great maverick 10 for a very reasonable fee. The Giallorossi may have found the player they build their attack around for years to come.


By: Luke Petty / @pinnacleluke

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto