It was not a vintage team performance from Roma as they got their first win of the season, but one individual stood out above the rest.
When Roma earned a 1-0 win at Udinese thanks to Pedro’s stunning first goal for the club on Saturday night, it was a player at the back who was the best.
The hosts had their fair share of chances, some even more dangerous than Roma could muster. But the rearguard stayed alert – with one player impressing more than most.
Roger Ibanez was a rock at the back, winning battles on the ground and in the air. He timed his challenges to perfection – including one on Kevin Lasagna in the first half where he could have given a penalty away had he slid in at a slightly different angle.
Instead, he took the ball cleanly, helping Roma to protect their clean sheet.
The statistics from the match show how dominant Ibanez was. He made more interceptions, recoveries and tackles than any other player on the pitch.
It was yet another impressive display from the Brazilian, standing out for the way he won the ball back, conquered his opponents in their duels and made vital interventions in the defensive third. Something sounds familiar about those words.
Yes, they could easily have been used to describe Chris Smalling last season. The English centre-back similarly excelled at winning challenges to keep Roma in games even when they weren’t at their best during his loan spell from Manchester United.
He has been Roma’s top target all summer after making a huge impression while on loan. However, the price tag for his permanent signature has proven too expensive.
Now, with Ibanez taking his role in the middle of the back three, Roma must ask how much they actually need Smalling.
It’s a question that many never thought would be asked. Smalling was Roma’s best player in 2019-20 and wants to come back. Signing him should be an easy decision.
But the longer this saga has gone on, the more Roma need to think carefully about it. With Manchester United refusing to budge from their high valuation, would it be cost effective to bring Smalling back when there is a ready made replacement?Embed from Getty Images
Ibanez is showing he can step into Smalling’s shoes and fill the void left by the Englishman. If he plays as he did against Udinese all season – and let’s not forget how good he was against Juventus too – then Roma may only miss Smalling for sentimental reasons, rather than technical ones.
It almost feels like when Roma failed to sign Lucas Digne permanently after his loan from PSG. Emerson Palmieri stepped up from within to make the left-back spot his own, and while he wasn’t quite of the same level as his predecessor, he did well enough for Roma not to have to regret not redeeming Digne.
Now, in a different position, Ibanez can follow a similar path in relation to Smalling. The 21-year-old impressed after debuting post-lockdown last season, and his first full season will be exciting.
Much like Smalling last year, he has started it brightly, and there is no reason to doubt that he can keep it up all year.
If Roma do stick with Ibanez and fail to meet the asking price for Smalling, they will still need to replace the latter’s experience. The back three for the past two games has comprised of 24-year-old Gianluca Mancini, 21-year-old Ibanez and 20-year-old Marash Kumbulla. They are all good, with the latter also settling in well after his summer move, but they need a mature head to guide them.
The latest reports indicate that if Roma don’t sign Smalling, then Federico Fazio could stay. That would be wise; Fazio is still a good defender, who can be a wise backup to the more youthful starters.
But the current back three have shown that they deserve to be some of the first names on the teamsheet. And as the man in the middle, Ibanez will be integral to Roma’s structure.
As the season progresses, he will be hoping to continue his rapid ascent.