The much-hyped youth movement at Roma is little more than a sham
AS Roma have invested heavily in younger players over the last few years, but how seriously are they taking that youth movement on the pitch?
While there are many reasons for the decline of Italian football in recent years, the failure of clubs to properly develop and utilize young talent must be near the top of the list. Italian clubs traditionally love players with experience and grit and hustle, and young stars just don’t give you that — or so the belief goes. This accepted wisdom has lead to older rosters, generally slower football, and a lack of quality results in European competitions.
But every so often an Italian club is bought by an outsider, someone whose viewpoint is not hindered by tradition or encumbered by outdated thinking. AS Roma is one such club. Less than three years ago, a group lead by American investment mogul James Pallotta (who is proudly of Italian descent) purchased the club at the tail end of a period of struggle, and looked to find ways to quickly turn the club around while building a sustainable model for future success.
Statements from Pallotta and his various managers have implied heavily that the goal is to make the giallorossi younger and better, by purchasing players who could play at a high level both immediately and down the line. With that, they’d chase for glory both in Serie A and the Champions League, where they made their first group stage appearance in several years this season.
It’s a thought process that makes sense: if you can find young players that can help you win now, they can also help you win several years from now. Younger players with that much upside also tend to have a better resale value on the transfer market, helping with financial sustainability as well, something that’s vital in Italian football, where revenue streams simply aren’t as strong as other top European footballing nations.
There was also a peripheral benefit to Roma moving towards exciting young players. With new American owners came a greater interest in growing their American audience. Preseason tours in the US have certainly helped with that, but maintaining interest while the team is across the Atlantic is also key. For fans just growing in to an appreciation of the sport, having a lineup of younger, talented, athletic, and exciting players helps capture new fans, ones that might not otherwise be interested in a brand of calcio that seems to be stagnating.
So Roma started buying a few younger, talented players who looked likely to make a first-team impact. They also brought a few more up from their academy. The process was widely hailed as a big step forward for the league. If one of Italy’s traditional better teams could have success with youth, maybe more of Serie A’s clubs would copy that line of thought, and the league could start taking steps forward that it hasn’t been able to in some time.
With these plans in place, Roma set about on their theoretical youth movement. Exciting young players were brought in, and results improved! The team finished second last season and are in the same position at nearly the halfway point of this Serie A campaign, but a question is starting to nag at fans: is this really a youth revolution, or is it just young window dressing on the same old story?
In the last year and a half, Roma have acquired six first-team players under the age of 23, seven if you count the pre-arranged buyout of Mattia Destro from Genoa after two seasons on loan. Juan Iturbe and Adem Ljajic headline the group, but each of Salih Ucan, Leandro Paredes, Tin Jedvaj, and Lukasz Skorupski are loaded with talent and deserving of recognition themselves. Those six plus other younger signings like Kevin Strootman and Kostas Manolas made many think that Roma could lead a revolution in the way Italian clubs operate.
When you look at the numbers, though, it’s hard not to pause and wonder whether or not that revolution has actually happened. Of those six under-23 players signed in the last eighteen months, only Ljajic has truly been a regular in the side. He made 20 all-competitions starts last season in addition to 12 substitute appearances, with eleven starts and five subs this season. Iturbe, who was signed this past summer, has started just eight matches for Roma and has been brought on in five others. The rest of the six have eight starts between them, seven of which belong to Skorupski, who’s had to fill in for Morgan De Sanctis at times when the more senior goalkeeper has been injured or in need of a rest.
In that same eighteen month spell, Roma has also sold or set up loan-to-sell deals for seven under-23 players who had been part of the first team, including Marquinhos, Erik Lamela, Nico Lopez, and Dodo. They’ve also brought in five players who were at least 30, most of whom have played far more regular minutes than the younger players who were supposed to help push Roma into the future.
Morgan De Sanctis is 37 and suffers from wildly inconsistent form in goal, but has played 53 matches for Roma and signed a contract extension last week. Maicon is 33, oft-injured, and not near the player he was at the height of his powers with Inter Milan, but has played 40 matches for Roma when he’s been healthy. He recently signed an extension of his own. The broken shell of Ashley Cole was signed just when it looked like Dodo was ready to break out, forcing the youngster out to his loan-to-sell arrangement at Inter. Seydou Keita is 34 and in the twilight of his impressive career, but has started 15 times in midfield this season.
Even looking outside newer signings, age before beauty is a trend with Roma. Last season, just four under-23 players made at least 20 appearances for Roma. Two of those four, Mattia Destro and Alessandro Florenzi, had both been with the team for at least a year prior to last season. Destro lead all Roma players with 13 goals across all competitions, but managed 23 matches despite his experience and success in the side. Part of that was due to a knee injury that cost Destro an early stretch of the season, but even when he was fit and firing he only started three consecutive matches twice all season. The rest of the time he languished on the bench, limited to generally quite short substitute appearances.
This season, only one player under the age of 23, Juan Iturbe, has played at least ten matches, and no others have played even five matches. Meanwhile, five players who are at least 30 have played ten or more matches, and two others have played nine matches. That kind of age skew definitely doesn’t look too young.
Now, all this data so far only looks at the extreme ends of the roster, so let’s look at all the players Roma have been leaning on in their recent league matches. Two weeks ago against Inter, the average age of Roma’s starting XI was 29.7 years old. Before that, with Francisco Totti on the bench against Atalanta and Iturbe in the lineup among other changes, the average was 27. The match before that, against Torino? 29.5 years old.
The other downside to Roma leaning so heavily on older players is a wealth of injuries. Maicon, Totti, De Rossi, De Sanctis, and various other older players have missed stretches in the last couple of years, leaving Roma scrambling at times to fill out a lineup card when those injuries pile up on one another. Further complicating matters is that older players tend to take longer to recover from injuries, and have more muscular-type injuries nag at them for a long time even once they’re back on the pitch.
Now that lack of proper youth integration have cost Roma in a bigger way with the Champions League group stage exit. Roma had a home match against Manchester City in the final round, and though they were level with the English club as well as CSKA Moscow on points, they had the home advantage and several tiebreakers in their favor. City were without their best player, and Roma trotted out what was arguably their strongest starting XI.
Despite a quick start, that starting lineup looked worn out and couldn’t keep up with City on pace or style, and a pair of second-half goals sunk Roma when all they needed was a draw. Even after the first goal, the giallorossi never looked like they could find an equalizer; they got their chances, sure, but shots from bad angles and pure impatience kept them out as it had all match long. Iturbe and Destro did what they could to help things for Roma as substitutes, but inconsistent playing time in recent weeks meant that they simply didn’t have the form to make a significant impact.
This isn’t a youth revolution at Roma, no matter the hype and no matter the flashy transfers. Roma simply aren’t utilizing the young end of their roster like they are their more experienced veterans. This is the same old-fashioned Serie A standard with some fancy shiny distractions to make fans think that they’re being far more progressive than they really are. They’re still a fun and attractive side to watch play, make no mistake of that, but when it comes to how the side is built and used, it’s the same boring old schtick that we’ve grown far too used to seeing.