Why I’m Not Sold On Nicolo Zaniolo As A Superstar Midfield Prospect

Let’s get right into it: Nicolo Zaniolo has been brought onto my radar recently with enraptured tweets from Serie A followers and fans slowly bleeding over into the general, smart soccer fan. Then he took up residence in my dome by ripping my heart out in fantasy Champions League when he scored a brace on 2 shots while my seemingly much smarter pick of Lorenzo Pellegrini was denied a goal from his 3 shots on target. So in my fury I tweeted out that Zaniolo is on his way to being overhyped and quickly got into a bit of a classic online scuffle with a few well-followed journalists who were not ready to put brakes on the Zaniolo train.

I’m here to show my work and back up my opinion that he is not a top-tier attacking midfield prospect as of now. First, a few stipulations.

  • Zaniolo is 19, plays for Roma, and has played just 947 minutes, I’m not here to bury him or say he can never be a good player on a big team.
  • He’s getting off a good amount of shots: 1.5 per game from an attacking midfielder is good.
  • 0.28 xG per 90 is good, it’s not great. It’s ~40th best in Serie A.

Those aren’t my caveats, if that’s what he had produced alongside some exciting passing numbers I would have simply stewed over him ripping apart my heart apart in silence…I mean look at this

But he doesn’t. In fact he almost never progresses the ball at all. Without him showing any of this talent I’m not ready to anoint him a legitimate big-club star prospect playing anywhere outside of striker, which is TBD.

Let’s go to The chart:

Yards Gained Per Minute is on the x-axis. This includes only forward carries and completed forward passes with backwards passes not hurting you. This is for all players in Big 4 leagues with less than 50% of their touches out wide and whose average pass begins between 47-52 yards from goal.

  • Only 2 players gain fewer yards per minute than Zaniolo: Juanmi, listed as a forward for Real Sociedad and Leganes striker Guido Carrillo who is so deep because his team plays a massively withdrawn formation.
  • Those are not players you want to be mentioned alongside if you are not playing as a lone striker, which Zaniolo is not. He plays with people beside and in front, options, folks, options.
  • Others around Zaniolo in the yards gained per minute metric: Mikel San Jose (midfield destroyer for Athletic Bilbao), Luca Sangalli (ineffective substitute for Real Sociedad), and maybe his best comparison as far as production from an attacking midfielder: Raul Garcia (again from Bilbao).
  • Just to his right on the chart is Kevin Volland, another interesting comparison. Volland is a striker and puts up significantly more shot/xG production but drops deep for most of his passing. Zaniolo hypothetically has Dzeko ahead and El Shaarawy/Ünder alongside so should not really have the same problems.

  • He’s a very conservative passer.
  • All the way at the bottom you can see Zaniolo here, he’s one of only 3 players in his range who plays it backwards on average. Paulo Dybala is down there also, but gains 3x the yardage per minute in total with a lot more DZ progressions.
  • Looking back at Danger Zone Progressions on the original chart, the y-axis, we don’t find Zaniolo way up there either. He’s slightly below the average line, alongside players like Tom Cairney, Gacinovic from Frankfurt, and Mateo Kovacic.
  • So what we’ve got is a very hot start, a Champions League brace, and some promising visual signs. But he simply does not progress the ball well enough yet to be classified as a Mega Prospect from attacking midfield. Looking at yards gained per ball loss shows it even more starkly:
  • He’s dead last.
  • You might think this can sort of be explained because he doesn’t pass much.
  • It’s true he doesn’t pass much (27.4 per 90).
  • But 1: not sure whether it’s good he’s not involved in the passing game and
  • 2: he’s dead last among this group of players in yards gained per pass attempted as well. So he simply doesn’t progress the ball well even when he touches it.
  • If you play him along with your classic striker, you are now basically relying on 6 players to do all your ball progression from defense to shot. Maybe if you have a midfield of Kroos/Demirbay/Cazorla that is not a problem but almost every team does not have that luxury.

Now, can this change? Can Zaniolo (or anyone) add ball progression to their game? I’m sure it’s not impossible and the fact he is 19 allows for big dreams. Is it easy? I have no idea. I’m currently working (more accurately thinking about working) on a project to see what players have done it and if it’s common to come in the future. For now though, Zaniolo does not show crucial parts of the game for an elite attacking midfield player. You’d rather start with a player at least showing some progression, he is currently well behind.

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