At 19 years old Nicolò Zaniolo recorded his first-team Roma and UEFA Champions League debut at Real Madrid and the Santiago Bernabéu in 2019. While that match ended in a 3-0 thrashing for Roma, Zaniolo has impressed regularly in his role as an attacking midfielder. Typically, a right-sided attacking midfielder Zaniolo is well known for both stretching opposing teams’ defences running in behind. But also possesses the quality to cut inside onto his favoured left for either a shot or well-weighted pass to a teammate.
At his core, Zaniolo is a player who enjoys football the most when the ball it at his feet. In a time where one and two touch passing tactics are dominating world football, he is the polar opposite. Currently, at 20 years old, his style poses him as a unique and dangerous attacker for Roma. Although he picked up a significant knee injury early in 2020, the future is bright for the Roma boy. This scout report and tactical analysis will demonstrate the unique qualities Zaniolo possess which make him such a special attacking talent.
Deception on the ball
When watching Zaniolo play there is no disguising he wants to go forward and wants to do so with the ball at his feet. Possessing a similar left-footed dribbling style to Lionel Messi of Barcelona, Zaniolo’s ability to wrong-foot and off-balance defenders is remarkable. Perhaps his signature skill in wrong-footing defenders occurs when he opens his left up as if he is preparing to pass and sharply cuts down on the ball with the inside of his foot often resulting in defenders lunging to block. From here Zaniolo will skip past the lunging defender and look to engage the next defender in line.
In this sequence vs Serie A powerhouse, Juventus Zaniolo was able to use his deceptive touches to begin the counterattack for Roma. After skipping by the first defender Zaniolo finds himself surrounded by the midfield 3 of Juventus. The 20-year-old, however, doesn’t panic and relies on using his body shape to cleverly manipulate the defenders around him.
After shrugging off a half-hearted tackle from the 2018 French World Cup Winner Blaise Matuidi, Zaniolo opens his left foot up causing Miralem Pjanic to lunge and attempt to cut off a pass to unmarked Edin Dzeko on the right side.
Zaniolo being a clever player anticipating this instead cuts the ball back with the outside of his left foot towards the centre of the field. And having pulled Pjanic out of position he dribbles at speed towards the hole he’s just created with his deceptive dribbling skill.
Resulting in a quality counterattack which leaves the midfield three of Juventus chasing the heels of Zaniolo.
While this sequence may seem small and unassuming, the quality and cleverness of Zaniolo need to be taken into account. The entire situation began with him picking the ball up in his own half surrounded by Juventus defenders. In this position, most young players would be looking for their senior players to help get them out of a tight and uncomfortable position. However, the ability of Zaniolo to use a change in body position and opening up his hips to move defenders requires a thought process and comprehension of football well beyond his 20 years. Combined with the confidence to pull it all off is impressive, and as such, this is something which we have become accustomed to seeing when he has the ball at his feet in tight situations.
Whether the ball is at his feet or not, it is very clear to see Zaniolo most enjoys his football when he released going forward. This is most evident when looking at ball progression through his individual player analysis reports.
When analysing this report, it’s quite clear to see he looks to be the player running in behind more frequently than the player passing the ball in behind. Still, it’s important to note that his quality is still present when he does opt to pass. In 2019/20 he completed 85% of his progressive passes over 20 yards. Demonstrating his impressive passing range going forward, while also highlighting his precision when striking those more difficult long-range passes.
Ultimately it is not uncommon for wide attacking midfielders to constantly be running in behind. Certainly, not for Zaniolo who is utilised most frequently on the right side. He typically searches for space in behind the opposing teams left-backs. His preferred position is sitting just in the half-space beyond the midfield line of the opposing team placing outside backs in a dilemma. Either step higher up the field to mark him 1v1 leaving space for him to run in behind or leave him in the half-space. Therefore, allowing him the opportunity to receive the ball with time and space. Both are situations on the field both he and head coach Paulo Fonseca are more than happy for him to have the ball at his feet.
This is again a simple example of a much more complex situation. The ability of Zaniolo to recognize a left-back who has stepped too high to press the ball is exceptional. Rather than create a straight line Zaniolo stepped inside forcing the Juventus left-back to change his body shape to cut an inside pass off. As a result, these movements create the space for the Roma right-back Alessandro Florenzi to play a first time pass behind the Juventus left-back to a sprinting Zaniolo.
Upon receiving the ball Zaniolo is able to continue forward after cleverly releasing out wide. This causes the left centre back for Juventus to slide across the backline and cover. Next Zaniolo takes a perfectly weighted touch which entices the Juventus centre back into a poorly timed and judged slide tackle.
After cleverly taking a second touch to skate by the defender, Zaniolo is able to continue going forward at pace.
It’s important to remember this sequence was created by two critical movements. The first was for Zaniolo to move inside as the ball was played to Florenzi. And the second was Florenzi’s ability to maintain the width for Roma, and play a first-time pass releasing Zaniolo. This sequence provides us with just one example of how Zaniolo’s eagerness and willingness to go forward combined with his brain creates consistent attacking chances for Roma.
1v1 on the dribble
Quite possibly Zaniolo’s greatest quality is dribbling in 1v1 situations. His skill in tight areas and unpredictability are critical in Roma’s ability to breakdown opposing teams. The best example of his effectiveness and success in 1v1 situations comes from the analysis of offensive duels. These occur when there is a duel for the ball while Zaniolo is in the possession. In the Serie A Zaniolo is one of the youngest and top 10 most successful in those situations.
Here we see that on average Zaniolo encounters just over 17 offensive duels per match and is successful in maintaining position nearly 40% of the time placing him at eighth overall in the Seria A. Not bad for a 20-year old with only 45-matches of first-team football under his belt.
After seeing those numbers, it should come as no surprise that the tactics of Roma look to utilise Zaniolo regularly in 1v1 and other dribbling situations. With his ability on the ball, Roma consistently relies on his ability to draw multiple defenders and create unbalances against their opponents. And one his best individual moves came in 2019 versus Juventus.
Here Zaniolo finds himself again surrounded by the midfield three of Juventus. This time using some brilliant individual skill he is able to “roulette”, “Maradona”, or spin away from all three defenders.
He does so by taking a touch towards the right side of the field pulling Pjanic and Aaron Ramsey away from their third central midfielder Adrien Rabiot. Once having them pulled away Zaniolo is able to pull the ball back and spin into the space Pjanic has just vacated centrally. This sequence results in a shot from Zaniolo which is ultimately blocked however, the individual skill required to slice through the Juventus defence is still quite impressive. His innate ability to recognize how to create space through his dribbling and moving defenders is constantly on display when he takes the field.
His success in dribbling and beating players, however, often creates opportunities for him to find his teammates in favourable positions. This is most commonly seen in instances when he decides to cut inside on his favoured left foot creating space out wide. With this pocket of space opened up Roma utilises pushing their right-back higher up the field in an effort to create numerical advantages going forwards. This situation occurs often for Roma and a great example is seen in the image below.
Zaniolo received the ball and immediately cut inside to be on his favoured left foot. As he dribbles, he attracts the attention of both central midfielders and the left-back of Lazio who is tracking back. Roma’s right back recognized the available space made from Zaniolo’s movement inside and is hoping to receive the ball in behind. With all the attention on Zaniolo, he cleverly disguises his pass by indicating to Dzeko who is central he wants to play him the pass. His cleverness in indicating he wants to play Dzeko is massive as it forces Lazio to shift briefly. Creating an even larger pocket for him to cut the ball back to the Roma right back. This sequence resulted in a brilliant attacking chance coming from the Roma right-backs cut back pass but unfortunately, no player was able to connect with it. Still, Zaniolo’s individual skill in creating the space and playing the pass to create the chance should not be overlooked.
Work in progress
While Zaniolo has certainly shown his individual quality time and time again. However, he is lacking in one particularly important category, and that’s production. Having played a total of 45 Serie A matches in two years he’s managed just 8 goals and 3 assists. Clearly, underachieving for a player of his quality in both of those categories.
Interestingly, upon further investigation he does appear to create some attacking chances in quality areas however, the frequency and accuracy of those aren’t quite up to the standard.
When looking at his statistical report we see on average he is only delivering 2 key passes into the penalty area at about 60%, with the majority coming from the right side of the field. Similarly, he only completed 30% of his crosses which again is far below what would be expected of a player of his quality. Taking these statistics into consideration it seems clear Zaniolo needs to work on both the quantity and quality of chances he is creating. By increasing his accuracy he would at least be able to explain to manager Fonseca and show the problem is with the players finishing and not with his service. At the age of 20, it’s fair to have pieces of his game which need improvement. If he can replicate the quality of his service into the penalty area to the standard of his dribbling it will help develop him into a more complete attacking player.
There is no debate Nicoló Zaniolo is a quality attacking midfielder. This scout report has highlighted his brilliance in being deceptive on the ball, running in behind, and the ability to be dangerous in 1v1 situations. It’s quite clear he has a football brain far beyond the 20-year oldy body in which he occupies, a quality Paulo Fonseca surely appreciates.
Although he sustained an unfortunate knee injury in 2020 was a player on the rise for Roma. Simply, put there are not many players who possess his type of quality with a football at their feet. His ability to unbalance defenders and slither out of tight spaces make him unique and indeed a player worth keeping an eye on for the future. For a 20-year old kid, he has plenty of football ahead of him, and the hope is that this injury won’t significantly impact his continued development.