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How and to what extent has 21-year-old Alessio Romagnoli grown since last season? Find out in this first episode of “Evolution“.

Amidst Lapadula’s goals, Suso’s serpentines and the breakthrough of Locatelli, a silent leader has arisen at the heart of Milan’s defense: Alessio Romagnoli. The 21 year-old’s notable growth as a player has been legitimized by the recent efficiency of Milan’s back line. However, to fully appreciate Romagnoli’s evolution as an individual, noting the exploit of Milan’s whole defense is insufficient. It is therefore necessary to evaluate each contributing influence in Romagnoli’s ongoing progress. Thus, whilst Alessio brushes last year’s criticisms off his shoulders, follow us in our attempt to unveil the reasons behind his explosion.

Overcoming heavy expectations:

Clinical and systematic analyses of a footballer’s performances often fail to acknowledge the merits and impacts of character development. In Romagnoli’s case, his personality growth has been of paramount importance and mustn’t be overlooked. When Milan splashed out €25 million for him last summer, it didn’t take much for Romagnoli to be burdened with big expectations and inconvenient comparisons. With such a high price tag on his back, Romagnoli was constantly in the spotlight last season, with many skeptics ready to crucify him at every mistake made. Inevitably, this mounting pressure hindered the centre-back’s season, marking him as flimsy and repeatedly highlighting his inexperience. For example, the 8 yellow cards and one red card collected were indicative of Romagnoli’s recklessness, typical of most young defenders but more harshly criticised in his case.

In addition to inflated criticisms and expectations, the lack of a guiding figure at his side and the overall inconsistency of Milan’s defensive department were major contributors to Romagnoli’s turbulent season. Whether it was injury-torn Alex or the even-less-experienced Rodrigo Ely, there was never a dependable defensive companion for Alessio. Needless to say, this year, Gabriel Paletta has provided exactly that. His solidity, his experience in the Serie A and his specific characteristics have all been key for Romagnoli’s emergence. Now provided with a reliable partner, Romagnoli has been able to relax more and to develop as the technical and methodical leader needed by Milan’s defense. With the Italian Argentine doing the dirty work (1.4 fouls per game for him, as opposed to Romagnoli’s 0.3), Romagnoli has been able to thrive in what he’s better at, the less-scruffy aspects of the beautiful game. Hence, the successful and complementary partnership with Paletta has provided Romagnoli with a development-friendly environment, in which he is free to let his noteworthy characteristics stand out. So, which of his qualities has finally surfaced?

 

Technical defenders – a footballing rarity:

Coming from what we could term the “Bonucci School of defenders”, Romagnoli can be described as a technical centre-back, a deep-lying playmaker even. As is becoming increasingly evident this season, Romagnoli is a player who can initiate ball distribution from the back-line. A rarity in football, this is a type of player that any major team wishes to have. Montella’s possession based style of play, as well as Romagnoli’s growing consciousness of his characteristics, are now highlighting Alessio’s unique passing abilities. He has shown, week in and week out, his capability to play the ball vertically and to break the opposition’s first defensive line with precise and ingenious passes.

Romagnoli’s greater involvement in ball distribution is highlighted by his increased number of total passes per game, which has augmented from 44 to 56. His passing accuracy has also improved majorly, from 85% to 89% successful passes overall (highest for a defender in the Serie A). Now, while these stats underline Romagnoli’s preciousness with regards to ball circulation, they also suggest an area needy of improvement. In fact, Romagnoli’s passing accuracy is revealing of his often excessively safe decision-making, which at a first glance might not appear to be an issue. Although for the majority of defenders this would be considered a positive trait, an efficient no-risk policy, for Romagnoli it signifies an underachievement. It is imperative for a defender with his passing ability and ease on the ball to exploit these characteristics to the maximum. It is crucial, for the sake of his evolutionary process, for Romagnoli to not limit himself to simple ball distribution. For instance, Bonucci, one of the best ball-playing defenders worldwide, tries long-balls twice as much as Romagnoli (6.3 per game as opposed to Alessio’s 3). These long balls are not intended as rash clearances but as potential assists, something that someone with Romagnoli’s technique should strive to accomplish.

Hence, Romagnoli has become pivotal for Milan’s ball distribution and for Milan’s transitions from defense to attack. At the same time, as he becomes progressively aware of his potential, Romagnoli will have to take risks in order to become an even major asset than he is at the moment.

 

Does he even lift?

For this evaluation to be fair, Romagnoli’s least impressive trait must also be taken note of. The 21 year-old’s lack of physical strength is what is holding him back the most, in particular with regards to his purely defensive duties. Weighing only 77kg (at 185cm of height) Romagnoli can be described as fairly scraggy, for those not familiar with the metric system. This is often evident when Romagnoli encounters opponents who take advantage of their physical strength, and, in parallel, of his weakness. Although this fault is made less evident by this year’s cooperation with the sturdy Paletta, it’s still something that Romagnoli must work on in order to become a more complete player. Especially given that Romagnoli’s height and structure will always prevent him from being a quick defender, he should compensate by opting for physical strength, which, contrarily to pace, he can develop with time.

 

Hopefully for him and for Italian football, Romagnoli will continue in his gradual but palpable development. If he does, he will undoubtedly become the tassel that all teams seek, a ball playing and technical, while still defensively efficient, player – A real rarity and a footballing treasure.

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