You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. This particular dialogue from the ‘The Dark Knight’ always stuck with me, especially from a football perspective. Having seen many legends of the game come and go and seen their stars fade, part of me always feared there would come a time Francesco Totti, the Roman god, would be questioned for playing and starting.
I grew up watching Totti, saw him since his game in Serie A and I knew I was watching someone special. As I watched more I kept on falling in love. As the years went by, part of me knew no matter how much I believe Er Pupone is immortal, time and age will catch up with him. So as I type this a part of me dies. To make this quick and painless (as much as possible) I’ll just blurt it out: Totti should not be starting.
There Romanistas, I said it. You can hate me. Frankly I hate myself for saying that. Turning on a man who gave us his whole career and dismissed possible trophies, money and stardom for us. But unfortunately, he just doesn’t cut it anymore. I don’t want to hate him, or ruin his legacy so I politely hope he does not start that often or we don’t rely on him anymore so I can’t blame him or hold him responsible.
Playing with Il Capitano is effectively playing with 10 players, his lack of effort (defensive) and physical abilities damages the team. The team can survive if everyone around him is a defensive minded runner and play to his tune in offence. Unfortunately, with a defence peppered with cracks, a keeper who is not top class and De Rossi having the worst season in recent history, Il Capitano’s flaws are becoming increasingly obvious.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think he can contribute. The goals against Lazio and Verona are proof of that but he needs to be an impact player playing no more than 60 minutes in a game and not starting the big games.
This was still somewhat easy. Now comes the hard part. How do you replace the most important man in Rome. So all we need is a false number 9 with impeccable vision, amazing shots, a knack of chipping keepers and that ability to purge Lazio. A quick glance around the footballing world and it becomes obvious Roma will struggle to replace the icon. But I believe the answer is not that far away from home. I would like to present my pretender to the throne of Rome: Adem Ljajic.
Bear with me for a bit before you draw your knives out.
Ljajic started his career as a mercurial winger but over the years has revolved round the pitch often performing best when playing as a second striker to Jovetic. A bit like Il Capitano, Ljajic’s game is not based around his physical attributes – he isn’t the quickest or strongest, it’s his footballing brain that sets him apart. While his passing ability might not be the same as Totti’s but his ability to take on a man and beat him is far superior. Both don’t like to defend, but Ljajic over the course of this season has turned into much more of a team player, willing to sacrifice defensively and able to hold his ground offensively. While Totti is more of a defensive liability and not much of a physical presence upfront, unable to hold off defenders.
We may have determined how Ljajic might be better for the cause but that does not mean he is a replacement. Totti brings a lot in terms of attacking output, he scores goals, spreads the play and finds killer passes that only a handful of men can. But a look into Totti’s heat maps for recent matches show a story that we already know; he likes to roam around and drop to find pockets of space from where he can cause damage, he’s not a Destro who’ll stick in the middle and run the channels.
Below would be a typical Totti heat map. Alot of touches in the middle, a lot of floating around the center circle and final third. For the primary striker to barely have any touches around or in the area is a massive issue.
Even his passing map is similar, a lot of his passes are from a distance to runners behind the defence. For Ljajic, playing on the left side you can see in the passing map (below) that a lot of Totti’s through balls are on the right side. No, there are no personal problems between him and Ljajic, then why do you ask? Simple, Ljajic doesn’t like running behind defenses, he thrives when the ball is passed to his feet or when he is on the ball. Secondly, his pace is not electric enough to pose much of a threat and it renders a lot of Roma’s play redundant and predictable. On the map above, the passes on the left side are short and none of them are even played into a dangerous area. Let me help you visualize the situation, Totti drops in the midfield receives the ball, passes it to Ljajic on the left, moves close to him to receive the pass back. He then tries to play the ball through the middle or switches the play. Drop. Receive. Pass. Receive. Try through ball. Repeat.
What needs to be noted is Ljajic was not supposed to be a starter this season, Gervinho and Iturbe were the pacy wingers meant for Totti’s game to perfectly work. But with Iturbe faltering to impress and Ljajic rising up to the challenge, he made a starting slot his own. To be fair to the Serb, he has been one of the best players this season.Given that both are incompatible to play together, If I keep sentimental value out of it I would choose Ljajic over Totti. But how do you take someone who plays on the left wing to play in the middle.
Well, that’s the funny thing Ljajic might start on the left wing but his heat map tells a completely different story.
Although predominantly focused on the left side, you can see a stark similarity in Totti’s and his heat map. They both are fond of floating around to keep finding space. Though what he does offer is more touches around and in the box, while on the other hand, Totti drops a lot more to the center circle potentially getting in the way of the likes of Pjanic and DDR and offering no presence upfront for the midfielders to pass.
Similarly, his passing is pretty similar to Er Pupone; from the wings he’ll make angular passes to the center trying to set running midfielders or overlapping full backs free. One thing that immediately stands out is his fondness of not losing possession as evidenced by the lack of incomplete passes and number of backward passes as well. Also, another thing thats different is the amount of passes made around the attacking box; Ljajic likes to handle possession in dangerous areas while Totti is slowly and surely dropping near the center circle. Dare I say soon we might have Totti 2.0 playing a Pirlo-esque role.
To be fair to Totti, he has given us a lot and is absolute class; one should write him off at their own peril. But in the matches Il Capitano was injured, Ljajic stepped up and showed that he is a worthy leader. Despite having massive shoes to fill, he has proven to be the player the attack should revolve around.
Sorry Capitano, it’s time you take a rest as you have served us well and none of us want to see you turn into a villain let the pretender have a shot at your crown.
For all we know a nutella obsessed Serbian kid might be the next Caesar in town.