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Can Nicolo Zaniolo be a difference-maker at Aston Villa?

With much talk about Zaniolo’s injury record and how big a role he can play, how much of a role can he play?

Aston Villa Unveil New Signing Nicolo Zaniolo
Nicolò Zaniolo
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

They say it’s not what you know, but who you know. That’s certainly been true for Aston Villa this transfer window.

Unai Emery used his Villareal connection to convince Pau Torres to make the move to the Premier League and now Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, the Aston Villa President of Football Operations affectionately known as ‘Monchi,’ has managed to leverage his personal relationship with 24-year-old Italian attacking-midfielder/winger Nicolò Zaniolo to secure a loan for the Galatasaray man. The deal is reportedly worth €4 million as a loan with an option to buy for €22 million.

Monchi had previously secured Zaniolo in 2018 in a €6.75 million transfer from Inter to Roma when he was running the show for I Lupi. Monchi was subsequently relieved of his duties during that 2018-19 season and returned to Sevilla, while Zaniolo remained at Roma until last season.

Monchi may not have won Roma fans over, but Zaniolo certainly looked like he was going to (at least initially). He was named the Serie A Young Player of the Season in his debut campaign and along the way became the youngest Italian player to score multiple goals in a Champions League game.

Unfortunately, in his sophomore year, he suffered (*sigh*) a right knee ACL tear. He came back in the summer of 2020, but another knee injury forced him to miss the entire 2020-21 season. In an act of redemption, he closed out his time at Roma by scoring the only goal of the 2022 Europa Conference League Final to lead Roma to a 1-0 victory over Feyenoord. He would be transferred to Turkey mid-way through the following season.

So, what should fans expect?

In light of Emi Buendia’s injury, many fans may view Zaniolo as the replacement for the Argentine. However, while Zaniolo may inherit some of Buendia’s minutes, the numbers say that he is an altogether different player.

Let’s start with the most glaring difference – Buendia is five foot six and right-footed; Zaniolo is six foot three and left-footed. That last bit is the most interesting because he is now Villa’s third left-footed winger to go along with Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey.

Villa’s current winger situation has created uncertainty until Jacob Ramsey returns Emery tried playing John McGinn on the left against Newcastle with Diaby coming centrally and Bailey out on the right. It just flat-out didn’t work, not at all. McGinn barely saw the ball and while Diaby was exciting, he’s used to playing the inside-out winger on the right and his delayed reaction to the Newcastle freekick for the 2-1 goal exposed him in an unnatural role. Bailey was lackadaisical (five of 17 successful passes), threatless (no shots, no successful dribbles past a defender), and just a non-factor (colour me shocked) before being pulled at half-time. The Jamaican is on thin ice, and I think Emery’s (and the Villa faithful’s) patience with him is disappearing faster than Usain Bolt in the 100-metre dash.

With that in mind, Villa fans might want to think of Zaniolo as a replacement for Bailey rather than Buendia.

Zaniolo is much more of a direct player than Bailey, always looking to score. In 700 fewer minutes last season, Zaniolo had more league goals (six) than Bailey (four), and he also averages over 3.5 shots per 90 and 1.25 on target per 90 to Bailey’s 2.3 shots and 0.6 on target. One drawback (and we’ve seen this problem with Bailey and Bertrand Traoré) is that he is extremely reliant on a single foot for shooting. Zaniolo hasn’t scored a right-footed goal since the 2018-19 season.

Zaniolo is also a superior passer to Bailey. He has a career 72% pass completion rate: 83% for short (five to 15 yards), 75% on medium (15 to 30 yards), and 68% on 30+ yards. Compare that to Bailey, who is a 67% career passer: 82% short, 68% medium, and 47% long.

Aston Villa Unveil New Signing Nicolo Zaniolo Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

This passing hasn’t led to many assists for Zaniolo, though, partly because he doesn’t cross the ball much. In his entire career, he averages just under two crosses per 90 while Bailey averages nearly six. This perhaps helps explain why Zaniolo has just one assist in league play over the last two seasons. His passing ability is concentrated in the build-up phase of the game and then if he gets into the final third, he likes to drive with the ball into the box and look for a shot instead of heading out wide.

That’s because, for the best part of his career, Zaniolo was a prolific dribbler. He liked to take on fullbacks and was over the 90th percentile for successful take-ons amongst attackers in his two healthiest seasons for Roma. That success rate dropped to the 20th percentile in Serie A last season, likely a contributing factor in Roma selling him in mid-season to Galatasaray. Unfortunately, the stat wizards at Opta do not have the deep-dive numbers from the Turkish league, so it’s hard to tell if he turned that around in his time there. Villa will be hoping for him to return to his early form and using his size to brush aside defenders.

Due to Zaniolo’s extensive injury history and lack of minutes (he hasn’t averaged 60+ minutes per appearance since his first season in Roma before the knee injuries) he is more of a stopgap with potential upside until Ramsey returns. He just hasn’t shown he can carry the minutes workload over a season.

Another concern is that he’s had four red cards (including one in the Europa League) in the last two seasons while not playing a ton of minutes. Let’s hope he can keep that side of him under control and not put the team in any bad situations in key games.

If Zaniolo can provide some goals, link-up play, and adequate defensive coverage until Villa have the ability to line up with Ramsey, McGinn, and Diaby to provide the attacking support for Ollie Watkins, then it’s money well spent. He may never have had a shot at the Premier League if not for the bad luck which befell Villa in week one (and the Monchi connection), but let’s see if he can seize this opportunity to re-ignite his once-promising career.

I’d be cool with seeing him become the first two-time Europa Conference League winner, wouldn’t you? If he wants to score in the final again too, that’s also fine.