27. Lorenzo Pellegrini
The giallorosso side of Rome has always had a strong tradition of homegrown midfielders over the last 50 years: from Agostino Di Bartolomei in the 1980s to Daniele De Rossi today, AS Roma’s youth sector has proved time and time again its ability to forge reliable and solid midfielders. Today, there is a player that seems ready to continue this dynasty: his name is Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Born on June 19, 1996, Pellegrini joined Roma’s youth sector in 2005 and was initially used as a striker or as a centre back. It was only when he turned 15 that Vincenzo Montella (Roma’s Giovanissimi coach at the time) realized that a young boy with such sharp football intelligence and impressive technique was destined to become a midfielder. From that day forward, Pellegrini started playing as a central midfielder. After a very impressive display in the UEFA Youth League in 2015, Pellegrini was called up by then-Roma manager Rudi Garcia and made his Serie A debut against Cesena in March.
A few months later, he moved to Sassuolo for €1.25 million, with Roma retaining a €10 million buy-back clause for the next two seasons. Under Sassuolo’s manager Eusebio Di Francesco, now at Roma, Pellegrini proved himself to be one of the Italy’s hottest prospects, drawing the attention of several top clubs. However, multiple reports from the Italian press hinted that Roma would soon trigger their clause and bring Lorenzo back home, where he would also reunite with the manager who launched his career.
Lorenzo’s season had a pretty slow start: still recovering from a serious injury, the midfielder could not get enough playing time until late September when he started against Milan in a pyrotechnic match that ended 4-3 for the Lombard side: Pellegrini provided a very solid performance, registering an assist for Acerbi and a goal after a beautiful one-two with Defrel in the second half. During the following ten games, Pellegrini maintained very high standards, providing three assists and scoring a penalty against Empoli. The Italian offered very convincing performances against top sides such as Roma, Lazio and Atalanta. Against Cagliari, Pellegrini scored with a beautiful right-footed shot to give Sassuolo the lead, but was sent off shortly after for a terrible tackle on Di Gennaro and was forced to miss the following two games. Pellegrini made his return against Pescara, assisting Matri and scoring with a header in an amazing all-around performance. His positive spell continued, with a winning goal against Genoa and an assist for Defrel against Udinese, while also impressing against Chievo and Milan. After a one-match suspension, Pellegrini returned with a vengeance, chalking up impressive performances against Roma, Lazio and especially Sampdoria and Atalanta, where he assisted two and scored one by dispossessing Mattia Caldara and dribbling Berisha to put the ball in the back of the net. Against Napoli, Pellegrini pulled his calf muscle and was forced to miss the remaining four games, making his comeback in the last Serie A game against Torino as a substitute in the last part of the match.
In the Europa League, Pellegrini impressed in his first three matches against Genk and Rapid Wien, assistin one and scoring a free kick against the Austrians. However, he failed to impress against Bilbao and Genk in the last two matches of the group stage as Sassuolo were unable to qualify for the knockout phase.
During the current Under-21 European Championship in Poland, Pellegrini has been widely acclaimed as one of the best players of the Azzurini, showing a solid display against Germany and scoring a stunning overhead kick against Denmark which gave Italy the lead.
Pellegrini has played in three different positions since making his professional debut: as a right/left central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation or as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. One of his main strengths is the ability to use both feet when passing, dribbling or shooting: even though he is naturally right-footed, his left is almost on par with his dominant foot and that allows him to add unpredictability to his play. This comes particularly useful for one the things he does best, attacking the space.
Pellegrini always tries going forward and looking for one-twos with his teammates and finding the space for a shot, and does so with great efficiency. However, his play with the ball at his feet is equally remarkable: Pellegrini’s technique cannot be considered world class, but it is far above average for a box-to-box midfielder. His first touch is usually very clean, and his ambidexterity makes it very difficult for the opposition to counter him in close quarters. His passing repertoire is impressive for someone who is not a natural playmaker, especially his ability to find the strikers from the back with long balls, which has been a trademark of Sassuolo’s attacking play the past season. Pellegrini has also a very good eye for defence-splitting ground passes, and has been one of the best Sassuolo players in terms of key passes and through balls in 2016/2017. Finally, his shooting is worthy of attention: Pellegrini has proved since his youth days that he has a good eye for goal, especially when going from long range with the inside of the boot or the instep. Sometimes, his exuberance results in technical masterpieces like the overhead kick he scored a week ago against Denmark during the Under-21 European Championship.
Pellegrini’s main weakness is probably his bland defensive phase, which is quite a handicap for someone playing in that position. His understanding of the opposition and his ability to break the opponents’ possession is quite poor, and his tackling is not impressive either, as he statistically does just slightly better than players like Ricci or Aquilani (a winger and a regista respectively). This inability to limit the opposition usually results in a lot of fouls on his part.
Another aspect Pellegrini needs to improve on is the use of his body: despite being well-built (1.86 meters for 77 kilograms), he gets dispossessed a lot and did very poor last season in terms of aerial duels, which is puzzling considering he was the second tallest player in Sassuolo’s midfield. Pellegrini is also quite slow, which puts him in a difficult position when he is dispossessed: while he may be able to recover against slower opponents thanks to his decent agility, he struggles a lot against fast strikers or wingers because he is not able to keep the pace over longer distances. Pellegrini is also a little too overconfident in his passing: more often than not he abuses his first-touch play to try a surprising solution, while he may better off holding the ball and looking around for his teammates before making a decision.
To summarize, Lorenzo Pellegrini is a technically gifted box-to-box midfielder whose defensive limits prevent him from being world class. Now at Roma, with Radja Nainggolan in the best form in his career and Kevin Strootman back to his best, it will be tough for him to break into the XI, but he is ready for the challenge. Also, with his mentor Eusebio Di Francesco being in charge and the possibility of training and playing with midfield giants like Daniele De Rossi, it is fair to say that Pellegrini’s career has quite a rosy outlook. If he will be able to improve the weakest aspects of his game, he can become a cornerstone of Roma and possibly the Azzurri for years to come.
Photo: Louie Hendy/@LH_BCFC