Nicolo Zaniolo refusing to leave Roma for Bournemouth could yet have similar implications for the team to if he had, after suggestions that he could be sent to the stands for the rest of the season.
Roma were beginning to plan for life without Zaniolo when he began showing signs of discontent, but he didn’t want to join the club who had made the best bid. Angry at him for his refusal, there have been claims that Roma could leave Zaniolo out of their remaining squads this season.
If that is to be the case, it will be like he had left all along, meaning the team must adjust.
Prior to his rejection of Bournemouth, Zaniolo had started the bulk of Roma’s games in the 2022-23 season. The attacking midfielder took to the field from the first minute of 12 Serie A matches, two in the Europa League and one in the Coppa Italia.
Hence, fielding a side without him will require some patience as Roma find the right approach. But even before his potential removal from the squad, it was beginning to become clear that the side has been more effective without him on the pitch.
Here, Giallorossi Yorkshire takes a look at the different combinations Jose Mourinho has gone for in attack when Zaniolo has not been among his starting lineup this season.
Only the starting tridents have been considered, but there will have been plenty of other combinations taking substitutions into account as well. That would be too complicated to track back, though (considering that shapes can become more fluid towards the ends of games depending on the score), so here are the five different ways Roma have set up in attack from the start of their 11 matches without Zaniolo in the initial lineup (prior to their clash with Napoli in January) this season.
Pellegrini-Dybala-Abraham (five times)Embed from Getty Images
Before the start of the season, Zaniolo was included in the group known as the Fab Four, who represented an exciting combination for Roma’s attack.
Hence, in his absence, it is not so much of a surprise that the main option Mourinho reverted to was to use the other three members of that highly-rated quartet.
When a shoulder injury ruled Zaniolo out of league games against Juventus, Monza and Udinese in August and September, before he was an unused substitute against Empoli on the next matchday, Roma lined up with Lorenzo Pellegrini and Paulo Dybala supporting main striker Tammy Abraham.
Mourinho used the same combination in January when Zaniolo sat out a win over Fiorentina with a somewhat conspicuous flu.
From these five games, Abraham scored twice and Dybala scored five times, with Roma winning three, drawing one and losing one of the matches.
Pellegrini-Abraham-Belotti (three times)
The only other alternative Roma have started with more than once without Zaniolo has been with Pellegrini playing in support of a strike partnership between Abraham and Andrea Belotti.
Mourinho went down this route when Zaniolo was suspended in the Europa League against Real Betis, when he later came off the bench against Sampdoria, and when he was a half-time substitute against Ludogorets at home, between October and November.
Dybala was not available for any of these matches, which suggests Mourinho may have otherwise gone with his more regular option with the number 21 in favour of Belotti.
But Belotti scored in the Betis game, a 1-1 draw, showing how it can be useful to have two centre-forwards alongside one another. In addition, Pellegrini scored a penalty in the 1-0 win over Sampdoria.
Finally, the 3-1 win over Ludogorets featured a brace by Pellegrini, but both of his goals came after the introduction of Zaniolo from the bench. Coincidentally, it was Roma’s number 22 who assisted both of them and scored the other.
El Shaarawy-Dybala-Abraham (once)
When Zaniolo’s situation with Roma reached breaking point, he asked not to be called up for their game against Spezia in January.
With Pellegrini only fit enough for the bench, Mourinho’s response was to deploy Stephan El Shaarawy along with Dybala as the main supporters behind Abraham.
For El Shaarawy, it was a rare appearance in advanced territory after he had usually been having to adapt as a wing-back in Roma’s 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation.
In one of Roma’s most comfortable attacking displays of the season, all three forwards contributed to their 2-0 win. Dybala assisted one goal each for El Shaarawy and Abraham.
While the off-pitch drama escalated with Zaniolo, it came as a well-timed reminder of how Roma could function without him. It was especially pleasing to see El Shaarawy among the goals, as he scored for the 100th time in his professional career (and 51st for Roma) in a moment when he has been fighting for his own club future too.
Although Abraham has been generally out of form this season too, there has only been one instance of a starting lineup that featured neither him nor Zaniolo.
It came in the Europa League opener away at Ludogorets in September, when Zaniolo was nursing his shoulder injury. On that occasion, Belotti led the line ahead of Dybala and Pellegrini.
In the process, Belotti earned his first start for the club since his summer arrival on a free transfer, linking up with his former Palermo teammate and current Italy colleague respectively.
However, Roma lost that game 2-1, with their only goal coming from substitute Eldor Shomurodov, who had replaced Belotti.
One of the more experimental inclusions in a Roma starting lineup without Zaniolo was when Cristian Volpato played alongside Pellegrini and Abraham for the second match of the former Inter product’s Europa League suspension, against HJK Helsinki in October.
This was an occasion when El Shaarawy played at wing-back, with academy product Volpato featuring further up while Pellegrini also played off the main striker.
Volpato was rewarded with a start against the Finnish underdogs thanks to the potential he had been showing in briefer cameos as an attacking midfielder.
Roma won the game 2-1, with Abraham among the scorers. In fact, all six of the England striker’s goals this season to date actually came when Zaniolo wasn’t on the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
It perhaps illustrates how the Italian has sometimes been guilty of not creating as many chances for teammates as those that he has tried to make for himself. Hence, Abraham is someone who might get more chances without Zaniolo, whoever is in support of him instead. And Roma’s need for an in-form Abraham is arguably greater than their need for an in-form Zaniolo.
Overall, there will be several ways for Roma to evolve without Zaniolo. There is also winter signing Ola Solbakken to add into the mix, while El Shaarawy is establishing himself as an attacking option once more.
With 24 goals from 128 games behind him, Zaniolo has made some contributions to the club’s attack that will live in the memory. But in fairness, his efficiency has been starting to fade, and Mourinho may now get to consider some other combinations to make the difference up front.