For a club that has been near the top of the league for several years — while also producing magic on the European stage — Roma could not have ended the 2018-19 campaign in a much worse fashion.
Stand-in manager Claudio Ranieri did his part after the departure of Eusebio Di Francesco, but their final points tally (66) saw them finish sixth on the table, their worst result dating back to 2012-13. The start of the summer left supporters increasingly disillusioned when rumors of Maurizio Sarri or Antonio Conte being brought in to steady the ship went unsubstantiated.
There is now cautious optimism in the capital, however, after the club brought in Paulo Fonseca, a tactician known for his offensive prowess. Furthermore, Edin Dzeko remained in the Eternal City and new sporting director Gianluca Petrachi secured a solid mixture of young talent and veterans to give Fonseca a base to work with in his first season in Italy as a player or manager.
The team looks quite formidable going forward with 12 goals scored in four games, but there remains plenty of work to do given the same problems at the back rearing their ugly head. New faces may have their say in both defense and attack, but much of what the Giallorossi are able to accomplish this season will ultimately come down to the contributions of five players in their sophomore season at the club.
1. Justin Kluivert
The potential has always been there for the son of former Barcelona and Netherlands great Patrick Kluivert. Yet another player who had heaps of pressure thrown on him after landing in the Italian capital, Justin Kluivert failed to fully settle after joining from Ajax.
The season is quite young, but so far Kluivert appears to be a man on a mission to get his career back on track. Goals in consecutive games, improved link-up play, and defensive contributions to add to his electrifying pace on the flank should have supporters buzzing.
“I’m gaining more and more confidence and I’m playing well with this team,” he told Sky Sport Italia following his side’s 4-0 thrashing of Istanbul Basaksehir. The 20-year-old provides quite the outlet in transition.
2. Javier Pastore
The Argentine dazzled last year early on with a pair of audacious back-heel goals against Atalanta and Frosinone, but his campaign quickly turned sour and never really recovered. Numerous injuries and poor performances when he was match fit prevented Pastore from living up to his transfer fee and high wage bill.
It remains to be seen exactly how often he will start given the play of Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini, but he does possess the creative spark to unlock stubborn defenses in Serie A. So far he has recorded three substitute appearances in Seria A, while putting in a solid stint in his first start of the season in Europa League play.
3. Nicoló Zaniolo
As Serie A followers may well remember, the selling of Radja Nainngolan didn’t go over so well with the Roma faithful. Fast-forward a few months and the deal no longer looked so bad due to the inclusion and subsequent emergence of Nicoló Zanilo, one of Italy’s brightest young talents.
Now in year two at the club on the heels of swirling summer transfer rumors, Zaniolo is set to take his game to new heights and has already shown he is ready to produce in a big way. His performance in the Europa League opener — his first game for the club with an assist and a goal — is further proof he will remain a pivotal component of the squad moving forward.
UEL | 🇮🇹 Nicolò Zaniolo (20) with the best U23 performance of the @EuropaLeague matchday v. Basaksehir ⤵️— Football Wonderkidz (@FootWonderkidz) September 19, 2019
✅ 90 min
⚽️ 1 goal
🅰️ 2 assists
🔑 3 key passes
🎯 93.5% pass comp
🔀 10/11 dribbles won
🔁 11/11 final 3rd passes
2x take-ons completed than anyone else. Exemplary! ⭐️ pic.twitter.com/C96ognOmCq
"A year has passed and I’ve grown a lot, but I still have growing to do as a person and as a player,” Zaniolo said in an interview featured in AS Roma’s Match Program. "The club, the manager and the staff are helping me and I’ll do my best to continue on this path.”
4. Bryan Cristante
Roma have dealt with plenty of questions in the midfield as of late, and general Daniele De Rossi is no longer at the club to singlehandedly will them to results. Fonseca now has a number of young talents at his disposal, and one player who continually refuses to relinquish his role in the middle of the park is Bryan Cristante.
The 24-year-old’s versatility is an asset, but that has often led to uncertainty as to where exactly he belongs on the pitch. I’d venture to say that so far Cristante looks to be the most improved player from the 2018-19 squad. He has shown glimpses of the player he was in his final year at Atalanta, but his composure, passing (89 percent success rate), and overall influence through three full Serie A matches have been top drawer. Production on set pieces with defenders draped all over him only helps his cause.
CRISTANTE GOOOOOOOOOL pic.twitter.com/9iZVxXScmd— RomaPress (@ASRomaPress) September 15, 2019
5. Antonio Mirante
There can be nothing but high praise for the veteran following his heroics at the tail end of last season. The 36-year-old may have joined the Giallorossi with the expectation of seeing limited action, but he was at the ready and more when fellow shot-stopper Robin Olsen failed to live up to expectations.
60% - Antonio #Mirante is the goalkeeper with the highest clean sheet percentage (60%, six on 10 appearances) among the top-5 European Leagues 2018/19 (min. 5 appearances). Wall.#SassuoloRoma pic.twitter.com/PcSbktjFBk— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) May 18, 2019
Spaniard Pau López is now the main man after joining from Real Betis for a hefty fee, but Mirante will undoubtedly be called upon yet again with Europa League and Coppa Italia matches combining for another busy schedule. His proven record between the sticks in his first year in Rome will go a long way in giving Fonseca and the back line confidence against any opposition when López needs a break.