- Tactical Analysis
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- The Series
When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This part of the series looks at the best players to emerge from the academy at AS Roma.
Roma are a proud club. For their supporters the team embodies the spirit of the city of Rome. Fans revel in their side playing in the colours of the city, red and yellow, and having the ancient symbol, Romulus and Remus with the she wolf, on their kit. Another manifestation of this pride is felt when they see a Roman play for the club. And Roma fans have seen plenty of their own wear the famous Giallorossi shirt. From World Cup winner Bruno Conti, who is now head of Roma’s youth sector, to Agostino Di Bartolomei, many of Roma’s best players have been “one of their own”.
In recent years however there has been a shift in the Giallorossi’s transfer policy. At the turn of the millennium, Roma paid huge transfer fees for some of the best players in the world. The likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Hidetoshi Nakata and Antonio Cassano, all cost a small fortune. They also cost some youth players their chance at Roma. Although the Giallorossi do not spend as much money on transfers these days, young Roma players still find it hard to break through into the first team. In what is seen by many as a worrying trend, Roma like many other clubs in Italy today, have a low proportion of players who have come through their academy in their first team squad. That being said, whether their breakthrough has come at the Stadio Olimpico or further afield, Roma have still produced some fantastic young players in recent years.
Note that these are professional footballers whom have played in or after 2000.
Not one of the household names to come out of the Roma academy, but he has proven in recent years to be a useful forward. Born in a small Umbrian town to Nigerian parents, Okaka moved to the Italian capital in 2004 to join Roma’s academy at the tender age of 14. Okaka was part of the class of 2005 at Roma who won the Primavera title, with the striker scoring in both the semi-final and final against Atalanta and Juventus. Just a year later he made history, becoming the youngest player to make their debut in Europe for an Italian side. His first goal for the club came later in the same year against rivals Napoli in the Coppa Italia. However his direct style and physical presence did not suit coach Luciano Spalletti’s manner of play and Okaka soon found himself out on loan. He spent spells at clubs such and Modena and Brescia as well as English side Fulham but Okaka failed to impress. On his return to Roma, he was attacked by a group of fans for apparently refusing to sign autographs. Okaka moved on quickly to Parma but once again could not establish himself.
Sampdoria took a chance on the journeyman and their faith was repaid. His immense strength and power, helped form a great partnership along with Eder and propelled Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side to the Europa League. During his time at Samp he earned and scored his first goal for Italy. A surprising summer move to Anderlecht followed but the Italian forward has adapted well to Belgium football. Seven goal in 13 appearances is testament to his fine start at the Belgian giants. At a press conference before playing for Italy in Belgium, Okaka fittingly described his football career so far as, “It has been like a boxing match, I have made many mistakes and I have had to take a lot of punches, but never been knocked out…”
The Italian winger never played a game for Roma’s first team yet Simone Pepe has achieved tremendous success in his career so far. Pepe was on loan at lower league sides before moving to Sicilian side Palermo in 2003. He helped the Rosanero win Serie B for the first time in the club’s history. However Pepe struggled to establish himself in a fine Palermo squad once they were promoted, which went onto to re-establish itself in Italy’s top tier and provide four players for Italy’s triumphant World Cup campaign in 2006. He thus moved to Udinese and shone. Forming a dynamic forward line along with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale, Pepe earned praise for his fast and hardworking style. His performances at Udinese earned his an Italy call up in 2008. He was part of Italy’s Confederation and World Cup squads in 2009 and 2010. Despite the Azzurri’s poor showing in South Africa, Pepe got his big money move to Juventus. The Roman born winger adapted straight away to new coach Antonio Conte’s style of play, which took Serie A by storm in 2011. Pepe won four Serie A titles and a Coppa Italia during his time in Turin as well as being part of the squad who reached the Champions League final in 2015. Yet when Conte was replaced by Allegri in 2014, Pepe found himself marginalised and lacking first team football. There was no surprise therefore that he left the Bianconeri in the summer and moved to Chievo. Pepe achieved remarkable success at Juve and Conte will tell you just how important the Roma academy graduate was to his remarkable Juve side.
Alessio Cerci was held in high regards when he came through the Roma academy. He made his Serie A debut for his local club, when Fabio Capello brought him on late on at home to Sampdoria. In the next season he was part of the successful Roma team which won the primavera title in 2004-5. After successful loan periods in Serie A, Cerci was ready to make his breakthrough at Roma but he suffered a series of injury set back including an anterior crucial ligament injury which kept him out for an extended period of time. It was therefore only in 2009 when Cerci scored his first goal for the Giallorossi. Yet in the 2009/10 season could not break into Claudio Ranieri’s side, which went onto finish runners up to Jose Mourinho’s Inter in both Serie A and the Coppa Italia.
Out of favour in Rome, Cerci moved to Florence under former Roma coach Cesare Prandelli. At Fiorentina, Cerci came of age. His direct style of play on the right wing, favouring to cut in onto his favourite left foot, Cerci became a vital part of La Viola’s first 11. Interest came from Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City but Cerci turned the move down. However he did leave Florence after falling out with the club and the fans. His antics away from the pitch annoyed many people at Fiorentina, notable when he parked his car in a space reserved for the police. Although considered a step down, Cerci cemented his status as a star in Serie A at Torino. Combining with Ciro Immobile to form a dynamic duo, Cerci helped Torino reached Europe and earned a place in Prandelli’s Italy squad for the World Cup. Despite not impressing in Brazil, Cerci got a big move to Champions League runners up Atletico Madrid. Yet since then his career has plummeted. He made only six appearances for the Spanish and has since joined AC Milan on loan. But at the San Siro he has barely featured and even has looked out of shape at time. Cerci has much work to do if he is to fulfil the potential he showed in his early Roma days.
Bertolacci is another player who never played for Roma’s first team. The 24-year-old instead made his name in the Italian game at Lecce. Over two years he made over 40 appearances at the Puglia side notably scoring a double against Juventus, which were his first goals at senior level. With the arrival of the likes of Miralem Pjanic to bolster the Giallorossi midfield, Bertolacci faced the exit door at Roma. He was subsequently part of the deal which saw Panagiotis Tachtsidis move to Rome and Bertolacci headed north. At Genoa, the Rome born midfielder finally found his feet in Italy’s top tier. In three years at Genoa between 2012 and 2015, Bertolacci made nearly 90 appearances for the first team. His style matured as he developed into a highly effective box to box player, with an eye for a goal. The left footer can also play in slightly further up the pitch behind a forward, where his passing technique and vision can help unlock defences.
While at Genoa, Bertolacci also made his debut for the Italian national side. Fittingly he played his first game for Italy at Genoa’s stadium, the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, in a qualifier against Albania. Bertolacci still has not nailed down a place in Italy’s starting 11 but with five caps to his name, he is certainly in the plans of Antonio Conte. This summer, Bertolacci’s career took a dramatic turn. After Roma bought back Genoa’s 50% stake in the player, the Giallorossi let Bertolacci leave the club for good as they sold him to AC Milan for around €20 million. With a quarter of the quality of Miralem Pjanic, Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi to choose from in the central midfielder, it was always unlikely Bertolacci would get enough time to fulfil his potential at the Olimpico. Yet for Roma to sell a player with such promise was surprising. Bertolacci has struggled with injuries so far at the San Siro but it still could be the case that he may be the one that got away for Roma.
Alessio Romagnoli is the youngest player on this list but what he lacks in experiences and age, he certainly makes up for in potential. Zdenek Zeman is famed in Italy for giving young players at chance, most notably for the young trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Marco Veratti all making their big breaks under the Czech coach at Pescara. It was Zeman who made the surprising decision to call up the 17-year-old Romagnoli to the Roma pre-season training camp on the eve of the 2012/13 season. Although Zeman barely made it half way through the season before being sacked, he gave Romagnoli the opportunity to shine at an incredibly young age. He made his debut against Atalanta in December 2012 and went on to make another two appearances that season. Under new coach Rudi Garcia, Romagnoli’s opportunities grew in the next campaign and the young defender made over 10 starts for the Giallorossi. Then Romagnoli went out on loan for the 2014/15 season to fellow Serie A side Sampdoria. The year in Genoa proved to be pivotal in Romagnoli’s development.
When Romagnoli left for Sampdoria, he was a young defender full of potential. When he returned to Rome in the following summer, he was a proven Serie A centre back. Developing his style under coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, Romagnoli matured into a stylish defender. With many drawing comparison to a certain Alessandro Nesta, Romagnoli has the grace of a tradition Italian defender and is extremely composed and elegant on the ball. Playing 30 times in Serie A, Romagnoli helped guide Sampdoria to European qualification. He also earned himself a spot in the Italy under 21 squad. It seemed Roma had finally found their (cheap) solution to replacing the likes of Marquinhos and Mehdi Benatia, both centre-backs who had left in big money deals to Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. Yet like Bertolacci, Romagnoli was sold to Milan this summer. The transfer fee was and continues to be a cause of debate. €25 million is a huge amount for a 20-year-old with just one full year of Serie A experience. Romagnoli does, however, have undoubted talent. Giallorossi fans will hope that their club have not sacrificed long term advantages for short term gains.
Alberto Aquilani looked destined to become a central figure for both club and country, but he career has never truly taken off and he has become a somewhat of a journey man. Clubs around Europe knew of Aquilani’s talent early in his career, with Chelsea and Arsenal reportedly offering him contracts before he had made his first team debut. His first game for Roma came under Fabio Capello against Torino in May 2002. The following season he was loaned out to Triestina in Serie B. Upon his return, Aquilani forged a close relationship with the club and began a fan favourite. He was nicknamed “Il Principino” (The Little Prince), as a tribute to Roma legend Giuseppe Giannini who was known as Il Principe (The King), with Aquilani remarkably similar to him both in terms of appearance and playing style. He scored vital goals, notably in the derby against Lazio in 2006 which earned Roma’s their 11th straight Serie A win, a club record. Yet just when Aquilani was starting to impose himself on both Roma and Italy, injuries started to take their toll. During the 2008/09 he was ruled out for seven months due to a thigh injury. With his career at a crossroads, Aquilani made a huge decision.
Liverpool bought Aquilani to bring their trophy home but the Italian was barely on the pitch at Anfield. Another set of injuries put pay to his time in England and he was sent on loan back to Italy, His spells at Juventus and AC Milan on loan were mixed but he rediscovered his best form at his next club. Fiorentina took a gamble on Aquilani when they signed the injury prone player, yet the Rome born midfielder repaid their faith. Aquilani got back to his dynamic, box to box style in Florence which had been lacking for the last five years or so. Aquilani was part of a Fiorentina side who, coached by Vincenzo Montella who played with Aquilani at Roma, finished fourth in three consecutive seasons in Serie A and reached the semi-final of the Europa League. Yet when Montella was replaced by Paulo Sousa, Aquilani faced the exit door. The midfielder now plays at Sporting Lisbon, in Sousa’s native Portugal. Aquilani is now 31 and there is a real sense of what might have been for the baby faced midfielder.
Versatility is an asset that every coach graves and in Alessandro Florenzi, Roma have a player who is blessed with this asset. Florenzi made his debut for Roma against Sampdoria in May 2012 and then was sent on loan to Crotone. He thrived getting first team football week in week out and scored 11 from 35 appearances from in central midfield role in Serie B. He made such an impact while on loan that just after returning to Roma he was rewarded with is first call up in the autumn of 2012 by coach Cesare Prandelli. Florenzi was recalled by Zdenek Zeman but it was when Rudi Garcia took over at the club that Florenzi’s Roma career really took off. Florenzi featured in all of Roma’s recording ten consecutive wins at the start of the season went onto to only miss two Serie A games all campaign.
It was in Garcia’s second season where Florenzi shined in an unnatural position. Due to injuries, Florenzi was shifted to right back in the Roma starting line-up. Rather than complaining, Florenzi took the change of role in his side. His energetic style of play is perfectly suited to Garcia’s attacking style of full back and his tactical knowledge has helped him seamlessly adapt to being in the backline. Despite his great ability as both a defender and midfielder, it is a goal he scored in match day one of the Champions League against Barcelona which Florenzi is best known for. From nearly sixty yards and while on the run towards the by-line Florenzi lobbed Marc Andre Ter-Stagen in the Barca goal to send the Olimpico mad. Overnight Florenzi became an internet star and his goal was named as one of the three final nominees for the 2015 FIFA Puskas Award as the best goal during the calendar year. Even without the wonder goal, Florenzi has all the attributes to be a key member of both the Roma and Italy team for many years to come.
Nicknamed Tyson because of his boxer like build, Angelo Peruzzi was one of the best Italian goalkeepers of his generation if not of all time. Although Peruzzi grew up at the Roma academy, he left the side after just 13 appearances after five years at the club. Somewhat surprisingly he left the Giallorossi to join Juventus as competition for Stefano Tacconi in the Bianconeri goal. Peruzzi was not competition for long. He quickly made the number one jersey his own, establishing himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Serie A. In eight years at Juve, Peruzzi made over 200 appearances and won everything he could. Three Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and two Supercoppa completed the domestic treble and Peruzzi also won the UEFA cup and UEFA Supercup. But was winning the Champions League in Rome in 1996 that Peruzzi is most fondly remembered by Juventus fans. Peruzzi saved two penalties in the shootout in the final in Rome as the Old Lady claimed her second European cup. At this time Peruzzi was at the peak of his powers. A dominant goalkeeper, Peruzzi commanded his penalty area and was a super shot-stopper. After leaving Juventus in 1999, Peruzzi had an unexpected poor year at new club Inter. He then moved back to Roma and joined Roma’s arch rivals Lazio. Peruzzi was back home and it showed on the pitch. He went onto become a main stay in the Lazio team playing 192 appearances before his retirement in 2007.
For Italy, Peruzzi also made his mark. He played over 30 times between 1995 and 2005. He perhaps did not earn the caps he deserved, although that was mostly due to the emergence of a certain Gianluigi Buffon. But Peruzzi was part of the Euro 1996 squad and would have played in France 98 had it not been for injury. Peruzzi was often named in the Italy squad but was on the bench more often not that. Yet Peruzzi still has a World Cup winners medal as he was part of the squad under Marcelo Lippi which won in Germany. Despite never making an impact at Roma, Peruzzi is undoubtedly one of the best players the club has ever produced, even if he made his name at two of the club’s fiercest rivals.
It is a dream of all fans to go from the terraces to the pitch. For Daniele De Rossi that dream came true. De Rossi has openly said if he was not playing for Roma he would be with the Ultras in the Cruva Sud cheering the side on. That is why he is so loved in Rome. His passion for the club is showed every week with his determined and aggressive performances on the pitch. De Rossi made his debut for his hometown club in 2001 under Fabio Capello just months after the club win its third scudetto. De Rossi was also part of the golden generation of Italians who won the under 21 Euros in 2004 alongside the likes of Alberto Gilardino and Andrea Barzagli .It was under Luciano Spalletti though when De Rossi really established himself in the Roma starting 11. He was the check and balance for Roma’s attacking style as De Rossi sat in front of his two centre backs. Despite his aggressive nature, he won the Serie A fair play award after he admitted to scoring a goal with his hand when the referee had not seen the incident in the game against Messina. De Rossi was the youngest member of the Italy squad that went to the World Cup in Germany. De Rossi’s tournament was marred by the red card he picked up for elbowing Brian McBride in the 1-1 group stage draw against America. He returned for the final where he scored one of the penalties in the shootout as Italy claimed their fourth World Cup. He was once again in the headlines as he missed a penalty in another shootout this time against Spain as Italy crashed out of Euro 2008.
De Rossi was winning at Roma, claiming back to back Coppa Italias under Spalletti and the midfielder’s form was not going under noticed as he won the Italian player of the year in 2009. The roman man was now widely considered as one of the best central midfielders in the world. His defensive and technical attributes have seen him praised as one of the best Italians midfielders of his generation. As the years have gone on, De Rossi has moved further back and has even played, both for Italy and Roma, as a libero centre back. His maturity and leadership skills have matured since his early days where his temper often got the better of him. He has now played 100 times for Italy and nearly 400 for the Giallorossi. As he enters the final years of his career, De Rossi will be desperate to win the Scudetto which was alluded him for years and years. De Rossi has finished second in Serie A seven times. Despite this gap on his CV, he will always be lauded by the Roma fans for truly being one of their own.
There is only one modern king of Rome and his name is Francesco Totti. That’s what Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard said recently and he is not the only who shares this opinion. There is no Roma players, past or present who is held in the same view. It also started over 20 years ago when Totti made his debut against Brescia in 1993. It took Totti a few years to fully establish himself in the Roma side but when he did he became irreplaceable. His style was developing as he made the number ten role his own. His incredible technique helped create chances for the likes of Marco Delvecchio and Vincenzo Montella. He was also impressing on a national level when he was part of the Italy under21 side that won the 1996 Euros. Under coach Zdenek Zeman, Totti grew in statuRe and became the youngest club captain in the history of Serie A. he was also named as Serie A’s best young player in the 1998/1999. Fabio Capello was the man who oversaw Totti flourish into world star. It was at Euro 2000 where Totti had has big break though. He was in scintillating form, notably scoring both goals in a 2-0 win against Romania, as Italy made the final. In the semi-final he executed a perfect chipped penalty in the shootout against the Netherlands. Despite losing to France in the final, Totti was named in the tournament’s team of the year.
The 2000/01 season was Totti’s best at Roma. He led his hometown to their third scudetto and was central to their title winning form. As part of the golden trio along with Montella and Gabriel Batistuta, Totti fired Roma to top spot and became an icon in Roma. All three scored as they beat Parma on the final day to lift the Serie A crown. Totti continued to lead Roma with great charisma and style. In 2006 Totti feared he would miss the World Cup in Germany due to injury. He made the squad but was not at his best despite scoring the last minute winner against Australia in the last 16. Totti did become a world champion and never played for Italy again. Many outside to Rome point to his Italy career as proof that he is not one of the all-time greats. But to Romanisti he certainly is. His quirky personality showed by that Selfie celebration when he equalised against rivals Lazio. He rejected chances to go to bigger club who guaranteed success year after year, most notably Real Madrid. Each time Totti rejected the advances. He is now Roma’s top goal scorer and have played for the club more than anyone else. Legend is a word used far too often in modern football. But Totti is certainly worthy of the title.
Roma’s academy has had its up and downs. For every player that has come through the system like Totti, there has been one that has been let go and the Giallorossi made to pay like Peruzzi. The recent examples of Bertolacci and Romagnoli point that the latter may well be the common case in years to come in Rome. Roma wonderkid Gianluca Scamacca signed for PSV Eindhoven earlier this year, citing better prospects for career progression. The Giallorossi fans will be fearful that he will be another man who has got away. Yet Roma still have a group of very talented young players at the club. The Primavera side have had success both domestically and on the continent. Players such as Daniele Verde and Nura Abdullahi look set to become the next inline on the conveyor belt of Roma talent. Yet Roma are continuing to loan out players like Verde rather than given them chances in the first team, suggesting their chances of making it in Rome are going to be tough. Regardless Roma will continue to produce superb players. Whether they will shine at Roma, only time will tell.
Written by Richard Hinman