2020 has been a year in which everyone has had to adapt in their different walks of life.
On the football pitch, someone who has been getting used to a ‘new normal’ is Bryan Cristante.
Never really a standout player in his first two seasons at Roma, although not for a lack of effort, the midfielder has featured in a different role this year.
His first taste of being the central defender in a back three came in January, but it has been over the last couple of months when he has really honed his skills in the role on a regular basis.
Cristante has already played as a defender more often than he has been a midfielder this season. In fact, he has only started one of Roma’s first 10 Serie A games in midfield. Recently, he has provided ample cover at the back for the injured Chris Smalling.
In the six games Cristante has started as a centre-back so far this season, Roma have kept four clean sheets. They have not suffered without their defensive leader Smalling at the back.
Indeed, Cristante has become a leader himself this year. After being outlined by Paulo Fonseca and Daniele De Rossi as someone who possessed the right mentality in 2019, the former Atalanta midfielder has been elevated to the role of third captain – behind Edin Dzeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini – this season. He has captained the side in all but one of their Europa League group matches.Embed from Getty Images
While he has always had the character to deserve that armband, Cristante first had to establish himself as a key player for Roma. He had not been able to in his first two seasons as a midfielder, despite getting plenty of gametime.
After arriving at the club as an attacking midfielder from Atalanta in 2018, Cristante struggled to recapture the form that had seen Roma make him one of their most expensive signings of all time. Playing in a deeper midfield role, he is yet to score even half the number of goals for the club overall that he did in his last season at Atalanta alone.
Who would have thought that the way to revive Cristante’s career would be not to move him further forwards, but further back?
Fonseca had that idea, first using him as a makeshift centre-back in a Coppa Italia win over Parma in January. His transition was seamless.
The coach knew immediately that he would be able to rely on Cristante in defence on a more regular basis. However, the Milan academy product mainly stayed in midfield for the remainder of last season.
This term, he has found his new home in the middle of the backline. The role allows Cristante to get on the ball from deep and spray long, aerial passes into the channels.
Those types of passes have always been one of the things Cristante has done better at Roma. It has been his shorter-range passing that has sometimes let him down.
Coming from defence, though, he has more time and space to find his range of passing. It allows him to do what he is good at more often.Embed from Getty Images
In the six games he has started as a defender, Cristante has a pass completion rate of 87.05%. As a midfielder, his rate is slightly lower, at 85.19%.
Furthermore, Cristante has been dispossessed more times as a midfielder (4) than he has as a defender (3), despite playing fewer games in the former position. Per 90 minutes, he is dispossessed around half as often when in defence.
Out of possession, he also seems to be more alert when playing in a deeper role. He has been dribbled past an equal number of times in either position (4), which means that happens less on average when he is in defence. As a defender, his rate of being dribbled past is better than Gianluca Mancini, Roger Ibanez and Juan Jesus.
Knowing he is out of his comfort zone, perhaps Cristante has increased his concentration levels to ensure he does not make mistakes. It seems to have worked; he commits fewer fouls on average per game as a defender (1) than as a midfielder (1.25). Mancini, Ibanez, Federico Fazio and Marash Kumbulla all commit fouls more often than him.
There are areas in which Cristante’s stats have been better in midfield; he wins more aerial duels and has more touches per game there on average. But in general, he has looked comfortable in defence, showing enough to suggest it could become his role more regularly.
Overall, the half-Canadian has reached higher standards this year. It may have been strange to see him wearing the captain’s armband at first, but he has earned his role in the leadership group now. That is largely thanks to how he has done in defence.
Hence, it will be interesting to see how Fonseca uses Cristante when players like Smalling and Gianluca Mancini return. The 25-year-old has given his coach no reason to drop him from defence, so perhaps he should stay there.
That will prompt questions of whether Smalling plays or not, but it is worth remembering that the first time Cristante played in defence, the Englishman was also in the lineup. Smalling played on the right of the three with the Italian in the middle.
And given that the current system gives less space for midfielders – especially with Lorenzo Pellegrini being used in a deeper role – Cristante may find that the middle of the back three can be his comfort zone in the long-term.
They say you can’t fit square pegs in round holes, but maybe Cristante has been better suited to a different shape all along.