Rome is a city steeped in ancient history. The Italian capital is home to many an iconic landmark, not least the imperious Colossuem. It’s here where gladiators would compete against one another much to the adulation of 80,000 onlooking spectators. These brutish warriors would enthral crowds with their skilful mastery of a blade and fearless approach to near-death experiences.
These days, such events have of course been outcast on the grounds of barbarianism, however, society still craves such exhilarating contests. The Stadio Olimpico plays host to the cities modern day entertainment through their football side- A.S. Roma and although the teams eternal God Francesco Totti is heralded as Il Gladiatore, it is another Giallorossi star who has showcased a battle-hardened attitude and a lethal skill set.
Radja Nainggolan has been in the form of his life for Roma since the start of 2017. His consistent, uncompromising tenacity has met a well-balanced mix of added composure that has seen the Belgian catapult himself to the forefront of conversations concerning the world’s best midfielders.
A.S. Roma themselves have also hit a rich vein of form since the turn of the year thanks to a slight tactical tweak. Manager Luciano Spalletti decision to alter his side’s formation after the winter break has paid dividends. Having previously deployed a back four – most commonly in a 4-2-3-1 – Spalletti and his coaches have recently opted for a 3-4-2-1 and the results, particularly on Nainggolan’s game, have been outstanding.
Before arriving in the Lazio region Nainggolan was more of an advanced playmaker. His time at Cagliari showcased the players’ wonderful ability to drive forward with the ball into the final third, finding and creating space and breaking opposition lines. It was his dynamism and versatility that originally caught the eye of Roma when he signed in 2014 but due to a combination of his effectiveness defensively and a plethora of creative individuals already at the club, Nainggolan often found himself playing a deeper-lying position. A role he performed honorably.
That was until Spalletti was appointed in January 2016 for his second spell in charge of the Lupi. Having recognised the impact Nainggolan could have further up the pitch he swiftly reverted the Belgium to an attacking midfielder. Since then the man nicknamed Il Ninja by fans has taken his game from strength to strength and now at 28 years of age, it appears Nainggolan has hit the peak of his powers.
With Roma now playing Nainggolan alongside either Mohamed Salah or Diego Perrotti and the team’s width coming from marauding wing-backs Emerson and Bruno Peres, he has the license to drop deep when under pressure then burst forward on the counter to support lone striker Edin Džeko. It’s this move away from his previously regimented position combined with a freer flowing Roma side that has seen the Belgian take his game to new heights.
The brilliant thing about the Belgian’s game is it is so multifaceted. Whether in or out of possession, attacking or defending, Nainggolan always has something to offer his side. When defending he regularly pulls wide to help the wing-backs when they are caught out of position. The most notable tackle he performs is down the flank, sliding in with the outside of his foot to hook the ball away from his opponent. This not only ensures a turnover of possession, but also allows Roma to retain the ball mount a counter attack. This is evident from the fact he averages 1.6 tackles a game, a highly commendable statistic for an attacking midfielder.
Once in possession Nainggolan is an excellent dribbler. Although only standing at 5ft 9, he uses this to his advantage getting as low as possible to shield the ball from opposing players. He is equally adept at shifting his body weight from side to side in order to throw oncoming players off balance. This ensures he can outmanoeuvre oncoming challenges without having to be overly skilful. This speaks to Nainggolan’s footballing intelligence that he is able to turn a seeming shortcoming like height into an advantage through his low centre of gravity.
After Nainggolan has successfully won the ball and evaded incoming challenges, he is equally as productive dribbling into the final third. In this attacking phase Il Ninja likes to stay wide then burst inside. The intricate movements of Salah and Perrotti often creates space for him to exploit and as seen on so many occasions, he can be deadly when shooting from distance.
Long shots are what makes Nainggolan’s game so spectacular. He epitomised his aptitude for the sensational recently in a fixture at the San Siro against Internazionale. From opening the scoring with a bending effort into the top corner after cutting inside, Nainggolan ran the game. His second strike was a wonderful microcosm of his overall game. Picking up the ball deep inside his own half, he ran a full 70 yards before unleashing a ferocious shot that bested keeper Samir Handanović to double Il Giallorossi’s lead. His scoring exploits haven’t stopped there either. Nainggolan has already racked up 8 goals in 2017, a figure only surpassed by Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuaín and something that saw him feature in WhoScored’s Serie A team of the month for February.
It’s not just shooting that Nainggolan offers however. His creativity has come on leaps and bounds this campaign too. He usually opts for lofted through balls which ultimately prove very effective given Roma’s prowess in the air. With a success rate of 58.6% Roma are the best team in the division at winning aerial duels. Add to that the 29 goals of Džeko and you can start to see why the Romans are also Italy’s top scorers. Nainggolan currently averages 1.5 key passes per 90 minutes, a figure that marks his best return from a single campaign.
Even when out of possession Roma’s star can be just as influential. His proficient reading of the game allows him to maintain the teams shape when defending and cut off any potential passing lanes. In an attacking sense the fact Nainggolan often drops deeper gives Salah and Perrotti greater freedom to roam in the number 10 role and, when he does arrive on the scene, it’s usually timed to perfection. In movements not too dissimilar to Frank Lampard, Il Ninja can arrive on the edge of the penalty area at the most opportunistic of times allowing him to capitalise on any second balls or cut backs.
One thing to note is that Nainggolan always likes to be at the heart of the action. This can be seen from his WhoScored ratings where he achieves a 7.54 as a trequartista, a 7.41 as a pivot, but only a 7.04 in central midfield. Ostensibly unhappy to let the game bypass him, the Belgian much prefers getting stuck in whether that be making a last ditch challenge or scoring a 30-yard screamer.
His manager Spalletti was himself a midfielder throughout his modest playing career and is also not afraid to make big decisions. This was evident when he dropped Totti last February after the fan-favourite spoke to the press about his frustration at a lack of game time. Nainggolan too is a fiery character and many a manager may either tread on eggshells round such a precocious talent or alternatively become embroiled in a monstrous row resulting in factions within the squad. Spalletti seems to have formed a near-perfect relationship with the player, even if he cannot always control his manic attitude.
Nainggolan regularly drinks, smokes and is no stranger to the Roman nightlife however his boss appreciates the midfielder doesn’t do anything in half-measures and has even stated he believes him to be ‘as valuable as Paul Pogba’.
His hectic lifestyle is reflected on the pitch with Nainggolan operating as a constant bundle of energy. He appreciates you must jump at opportunities in life and make the most of what you have. Born and raised in Belgium by a single mother with his twin sister and three half-brothers, Nainggolan is used to hard times. It seems though his upbringing has only acted as a harbinger of motivation when it comes to fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Having been heavily linked to Chelsea and Arsenal last summer, there’s no doubt his rise in form will have potential suitors readying their chequebooks once again come July. Yet with Roma on course to comfortably qualify for the Champions League and Italy being Nainggolan’s home for the past 11 years, it will take something special to uproot the star.