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FEATURE: Alessio Romagnoli, following the footsteps of Alessandro Nesta

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A youth product of AS Roma, Alessio Romagnoli showed flashes early of what is promising to be a spectacular career.

At only 17 years of age, Romagnoli was promoted to the Giallorossi first team under former manager Zdenêk Zeman in 2012. Although Romagnoli got an early start to his senior career, Zeman’s tactical approach to the game does not translate well into developing young defenders. His tactics are simple: score as many goals as possible.

As entertaining as Zeman’s football can be, it often hinders the growth of defenders as they are exposed to a number of counter-attacks game in and game out. Legendary midfielder Andrea Pirlo, when asked about Zeman’s tactics, hit the nail on the head.

“In percentage terms, the people who play at the back make fewer mistakes than those further forward. If not, games would end up 5-4, 6-5 or along those lines. Let’s discount teams coached by Zeman, because we’re talking about the very limits of reality there,” Pirlo said.

The 2013-14 season saw some improvement for Romagnoli under a new Roma manager in Rudi García. He was able to make 13 appearances, playing as both a center back and a left back. Roma was on a mission that season to potentially win Serie A (finishing second to Juventus), however, preferred to play Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castán as opposed to molding Romagnoli into a star.

Romagnoli’s debut senior season wasn’t stellar and the club realized that it wasn’t his time to flourish just yet, so he was sent on loan to Sampdoria the following year. It wasn’t a dry loan, however, as Sampdoria had the option to purchase Romagnoli at the end of the season for a paltry 2 million Euros. The potential was there for Romagnoli, and homegrown defenders are typically hailed as heroes and future captains in the Italian top flight, so Roma made the safe decision and added a counter-option of 750 thousand Euros in Romagnoli’s loan which would allow them to call him back up.

The young Italian center back broke out in his lone season at the Luigi Ferraris, making 30 appearances and was a rock in the center of the defense in a successful season that saw the Blucerchiati finish seventh in the standings and qualify for the UEFA Europa League.

The Capitale club still didn’t seem convinced despite Romagnoli’s showings at Sampdoria, so he was transferred to AC Milan for 25 million Euros in the summer of 2015, following former Sampdoria coach Sinisa Mihajlovic.

The transfer was met with great approval by the Rossoneri faithful, as they believed they had finally found their new defensive star after the departures of Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva in the summer of 2012.

His debut season at Milan was outstanding, impressing over 34 appearances in Serie A and an additional six in Coppa Italia. The season started off slowly for Milan, as has been in the case since the summer 2012 exodus, and Romagnoli experienced his first walk of shame after being sent off versus Genoa in September 2015 after two yellow cards in the first half. This was just a minor road block, as the Italian quickly re-established himself as the club’s primary defensive option in latter matches.

Romagnoli’s arguable best match of the season was in a 5-0 drubbing of Alessandria in the Coppa Italia semi-finals, which saw Milan advance to their first final in the competition since 2003; it was clear that he was bound to become the future of the club’s defense.

Former Juventus and Italy manager Antonio Conte was so impressed with Romagnoli’s development that he made him a transfer target for Chelsea in the summer of 2016. It was reported that the London club made an offer of nearly 40 million Euros, which would’ve made Romagnoli one of the most expensive defenders in football history at the time. Milan, in a time of economic struggles, rejected the offer.

Milan later stated on their official website: “AC Milan has received a significant offer for its player Alessio Romagnoli from Chelsea FC. The player is not for sale, therefore this negotiation will not continue. The club wants to thank Chelsea FC with whom we will continue to have a great working relationship.”

The Italian giants performed adequately in the following season, finishing sixth and making their return to Europe. Romagnoli, however, had his fair share of injuries and struggles. He was also heavily relied upon, as his main partner in defense was Gabriel Paletta. The older Italian veteran shined at times, but was known for his hot-head behavior that resulted in a league-leading five red cards and plenty of suspensions.

Romagnoli shrugged off his downs of the previous season and was determined to create a new era of Milan defense after the arrival of Juventus star Leonardo Bonucci in the summer of 2017. Milan, expected to reach the heights of seasons past, underperformed with Vincenzo Montella at the helm. His tactics led to a very static attack, which left the defense to being constantly under pressure. This was best seen in the team’s early season 4-1 loss to Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico.

MILAN, ITALY – OCTOBER 28: Alessio Romagnoli of AC Milan in action during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Juventus at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 28, 2017 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Primavera manager Gennaro Gattuso was put in charge of the senior squad after Montella’s dismissal in November 2017. Gattuso was known for his passion and ‘grinta’ as a player at the club, and fans expected nothing less in his new role as manager. The looming question, however, was how Gattuso was going to lead Milan out of its crisis after his previous unsuccessful stints as a manager at other clubs.

The results weren’t appealing at first. A draw versus Benevento and losses versus Atalanta and Hellas Verona diminished the hope of many fans. But everything changed on December 27 after Milan’s 1-0 victory over city rivals Inter Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals.

Since that match, Milan has bean unbeaten in their following eight matches, winning five of them. Romagnoli and Bonucci have been a large part of this. They have only allowed Milan to concede four goals in those eight matches, as opposed to the seven league match stretch under Montella from Sep. 10- Oct. 22 which saw Milan concede 12 goals.

Finally, finding a suitable partner in defense has allowed Romagnoli to grow as a player. Not only has he seemed to be a brick wall since the defeat of Inter, but he has also been scoring goals and upped his passing game knowing Bonucci was there to cover him. Being able to get more involved in attacks has visibly increased his confidence as a player.

Milan finally seemed to have figured things out, and Romagnoli’s consistency as a defensive force has translated into results. A tough stretch of games that will include traditional powers like Roma, Lazio, and Inter is coming up, and this will allow Romagnoli to prove himself as not only the future of Milan, but the future of Italy’s defense after Giorgio Chiellini’s international retirement.

Romagnoli just turned 23 last month and is becoming a household name in the world of football.

@ItalianFD

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