“We will surely be the first to be called.”
The words of Igor Zaniolo, father of Roma prodigy Nicolo, gave a clear indication: they expect the midfielder’s contract extension to be considered a priority by the new-look club management.
Ever since Zaniolo began to emerge as a key player for Roma, there has been talk of an improved contract for the youngster. While some of the higher earners in the squad, like Edin Dzeko and Javier Pastore, were under-performing, Zaniolo was becoming one of the first names on the teamsheet, despite being on a lower salary than any other player to make an appearance for Roma last season.
Particularly in the period between his first ever Serie A goal, against Sassuolo in December, and the brace he scored against Porto in the first leg of the Champions League Last 16 tie in February, Zaniolo was contributing more than any of his teammates. It wasn’t long before the transfer rumours started to link the teenager with a move away.
Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were all suggested as potential destinations, but the strongest links of all tipped Zaniolo to move to Juventus – the club he supported as a child. Would he make the same controversial move as the likes of Mirko Vucinic and Miralem Pjanic by trading the capital for Turin?
Immediately, it became clear that Roma needed to put measures in place to stop such a move happening. Fans had grown tired of young talents being sold on too early, going on to flourish elsewhere, particularly at rivals. As a matter of urgency, Zaniolo’s contract had to be improved.
From March onwards, though, everything change. Roma were dumped out of the Champions League, which saw coach Eusebio Di Francesco and, crucially, sporting director Monchi leave their positions. Zaniolo, to some extent, also began to leave his position – being moved out to the right wing, instead of being played as a central midfielder, the role Igor reiterated in his interview with Centro Suono Sport that he feels is the young Italian’s strongest.
A number of circumstances came together to mean that Zaniolo’s renewal was put off. Now, though, with a new sporting director set to be appointed (probably Gianluca Petrachi, although nothing is official yet), the midfielder’s hopes of landing a more lucrative deal can be resumed.
Should he really be the first job for the incoming director though? Surely there are more pressing matters to attend to.
Zaniolo’s form towards the end of the season dropped off – perhaps due to being played in a different role, or due to fatigue. In the first two months of 2019, he contributed four goals and two assists in all competitions. Between March and the end of the season, he only managed to provide one goal.
Claudio Ranieri had a major positive impact in stabilising the club, but perhaps Zaniolo was the one man left behind by the interim coach. His discipline also waned, perhaps because of his frustration. He was booked in his last four games of the season – and, incidentally, has seen yellow in each of the two games he has played for Italy at the U21 Euros so far. Skepticism over Zaniolo’s true ability began to arise.
With that in mind, the attention should turn to a player who, unlike Zaniolo, kept up his form right to the end of the season. Stephan El Shaarawy was Roma’s best player in 2018-19, by a comfortable distance. But whereas Zaniolo’s deal expires in 2023, El Shaarawy has just one year left on his contract – meaning he could soon leave for nothing.
That is a scenario that Roma simply cannot afford to allow. El Shaarawy is growing into one of the most responsible players in the squad, someone who can potentially become a leader. Indeed, he did get to wear the captain’s armband on one occasion last year.
In addition, he is Roma’s most guaranteed source of goals. With doubts over the futures of strikers Dzeko and Patrik Schick, El Shaarawy is the one man who has proven himself to be a reliable goalscorer for the team. Whoever leads the line next season, that support is essential.
Due to his contract situation, though, the winger has been linked with a move away, with Atalanta and Fiorentina just two of the sides interested. It would be a huge mistake for Roma to let him leave, when he has just shown what he can do over a sustained period of time.
Therefore, it is not Zaniolo, but El Shaarawy who should be receiving the first call from the next sporting director. His absence from the team would hurt Roma more than Zaniolo’s. In an ideal world, both would remain in yellow and red next season, but the club’s financial situation may not allow that to be the case.
That financial situation also means it may not be feasible to throw more money at Zaniolo in the hope of keeping him. He needs to prove himself more before feeling entitled to a greater salary – especially given that Roma have other, potentially better, options in his position, like Lorenzo Pellegrini.
The new sporting director must also give more attention to molding the squad to Fonseca’s needs. It’s important that the new coach’s transition into Italian football is made as smooth as possible, and if he needs new players to achieve that, then those signings must take precedence over the renewal of Zaniolo.
His entourage may feel that he deserves better, but the reality is that Zaniolo has a lot of work to do yet before he can really warrant getting the bigger money. He needs to keep learning, keep improving, and most of all, he needs to keep a sense of perspective.