Roma Season Preview: The Full-Backs

If you’re a long-time member of the Church of Totti, you’ve heard us lament the decrepit state of Roma’s full-back play for most of the past decade. Adopting a growth mindset has been a challenge for me over the years, but with some of the dregs Roma ran out at the full-back positions since our inception in 2012, it was hard to remain chipper.

But those days are dead and buried. Once a source of shame, Roma’s four full-time full-backs (even though one isn’t necessarily a full-back) comprise one of the best units in Serie A. Even without their leader Leonardo Spinazzola for much of last season, Rick Karsdorp and Nicola Zalewski—who was pressed into service after Matías Viña struggled to adapt to life in Italy—delighted Roma fans with the kind of dynamic, two-way play we haven’t seen since, well, I can’t even recall.

Fueled by José Mourinho’s mid-season switch to a 3-4-1-2, Karsdorp and Zalewski played some of their best football of the season, running wild in the attacking third like a toddler at a Toys R Us (It’s coming back!). Chances are Mourinho will return to this formation to begin this season (Maybe, but who really knows?), so expect Karsdorp and Zalewski to enjoy similar free reign early in the season. At the same time, adding Zeki Çelik and a healthy Spinazzola should etch a permanent grin on Mourinho’s face this season.

But it won’t always be smooth sailing for Roma’s full-backs, so let’s look at the names and faces set to thrive and those who are feeling the pressure this season.

  • Leonardo Spinazzola
  • Rick Karsdorp
  • Matías Viña
  • Zeki Celik
  • Riccardo Calafiori
  • Filippo Tripi
  • Nicola Zalewski*

*Technically listed as a forward but should see significant time at full-back.

Key Player: Leonardo Spinazzola

AS Roma Training Session

Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

After a 2020-2021 season that defied superlatives, Spinazzola was on top of the world at the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 last summer. Thanks to a series of dazzling performances for the Azzurri, including two Man of the Match performances and a tournament-best 33.8 km/h sprint speed, Spinazzola was soon courted by the one-percenters of European football: Real Madrid and PSG.

His dream run in England ended after he ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg in Italy’s 2-1 quarter-final win over Belgium on July 2nd. Still, despite that early exit, Spinazzola was named to the Team of the Tournament—an impressive but undoubtedly bittersweet moment for the then 28-year-old.

While there was initial optimism for a fall return, Spinazzola’s return was delayed until May, when he made four appearances (including two starts) for the Giallorossi down the stretch. On talent alone, Spinazzola is unquestionably the best of the bunch, and if he proves fully fit, Roma will be incredibly dangerous.

Seriously, imagine Spinazzola sprinting up the flank and linking up with Paulo Dybala (I still can’t believe I get to type that), Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, or even Stephan El Shaaraway, working give-and-goes, overlapping, swapping positions and whipping the ball into Tammy Abraham and perhaps even Andrea Belotti.

Combine that with the steady presence of Nemanja Matic and (potentially) Georgino Wijnaldum in midfield, and Roma’s attack is almost flawless. And Spinazzola—a healthy Spinazzola—is arguably Mourinho’s most potent weapon, bringing a level of dynamism to the position few players can match.

Player Under Pressure: Rick Karsdorp

AS Roma Training Session

Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Fresh off a career year with the Giallorossi, it may feel strange to see Karsdorp singled out like this, but there is one very good reason Karsdorp should be nervous this season: Mehmet Zeki Çelik. A former transfer market “it kid” himself, Çelik ultimately spurned the advances of the elite clubs in favor of a move to Lille in 2018, a year after Karsdorp signed with Roma.

Due to a series of knee injuries, Karsdorp did not play meaningful minutes for Roma until his third season with the club in 2019-2020. While that’s unfortunate, it gives us decent grounds for comparing the players. In 110 appearances for Roma, Karsdorp has managed one goal and 13 assists, while Çelik, in 142 appearances for Lille, scored eight goals while providing 14 assists.

While we’re talking about a pretty sizable difference in playing time (nearly 4,000 minutes), it proves one thing: the margins between these two players are incredibly thin. And with two years of youth on his side and a less-worrisome injury history, Çelik could very well steal Karsdorp’s starting spot this season.

Of course, that pressure could propel Karsdorp to greater heights, but it’s pressure all the same.

The X-Factor: Nicola Zalewski

Portimonense SC v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly

Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Cruise on over to the official club site, and you’ll see the young Polish player listed as a forward. While this may very well be his ultimate role, in 2022-2023, Zalewski promises to spend most of his time at wing-back. Besides winning Mourinho’s trust last season, Zalewski proved he’s no shrinking violet, responding to his unexpected playing time with a series of impressive performances.

Whether he remains at wing-back or sees minutes further afield, Zalewski can be Roma’s ace in the hole.

A Year From Now, We’ll Say…

This was arguably the strongest unit on the squad, if not the entire league. With Çelik and Zalewski pushing Karsdorp and Spinazzola for playing time, Roma’s four full-backs were crucial to the Giallorossi’s climb up the table.

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