Who is Nicolo Zaniolo and what can Aston Villa expect from their new signing?
Italy forward Nicolo Zaniolo is on the brink of sealing a switch to Aston Villa, with the 25 year-old due in Birmingham for a medical ahead of a loan with an obligation to buy transfer from Turkish Superlig side Galatasaray.
The move for the player was accelerated off the back of Villa’s Argentine midfielder Emi Buendia rupturing his ACL in training last week, which compounded Jacob Ramsey’s injury from the end of last season.
Zaniolo is well known to the club’s President of football operations, Monchi who signed him for Roma back in 2018 and he will have brought him to the attention of manager Unai Emery.
A product of Fiorentina’s youth academy, Zaniolo starred for Inter Milan’s youth team in 2017-18 before his breakthrough in senior football came the following campaign after his transfer to the Italian capital in June 2018.
The 18 year-old was named as Serie A’s Young Player of the Year for his performances domestically, and also became the youngest ever player to score twice in a Champions League match when he netted both goals in Roma’s 2-1 last-16 win over Porto in February 2019.
Despite being touted by some as one of the next great Italian hopes during a generally fallow period for the country both at club and international level, injuries and personal problems overshadowed his time in Rome and he made the move abroad to Turkey and Galatasaray in the winter transfer window of 2023.
Zaniolo played a minor role in the Istanbul giants’ title win last term, scoring twice in six substitute appearances in the second half of the season. The player has also represented his country on 13 occasions, also netting two goals for Roberto Mancini’s azzurri.
Zaniolo’s style and stats
Zaniolo is a player who is comfortable receiving the ball in any area of the attacking third, but tends to do his work higher up, as evidenced by his rank in the top 85 percentile for touches in the attacking penalty area when compared to others in Europe’s top five leagues over the last 12 months.
However, the Tuscan can also be found taking possession in deep areas and driving his team up the field, as shown by his 3.17% of progressive carries over the same period, but he does need to learn when to pass to a teammate – he ranks in the bottom percentiles for both passes attempted and progressive passes.
This is a player who is always looking to take shots on goal and provide space for his teammates – Zaniolo ranks highly for shots per 90 minutes and non-penalty xg per 90 minutes over the same period.
The forward has struggled in terms of goals and assists in recent seasons and has rarely been prolific in providing either throughout his career.
A player can still be hugely influential in a team without delivering hugely in terms of raw output, as Villa’s fans will know from Jack Grealish’s time at the club, who knitted the entire attack together but often didn’t post overly impressive numbers in these categories.
Why is he attractive to Aston Villa and where will he play in Unai Emery’s system?
Flexibility, fluidity but also defensive workrate are three cornerstones of Unai Emery’s teams throughout his career, and his Villa team have had these traits since his arrival in November.
Zaniolo will likely play as one of the advanced attacking midfielders in Emery’s 4-2-2-2 set up, lining up in Emi Buendia’s usual right-sided midfield space in his absence, but he will be given the freedom to drift around in order to conduct attacking moves
If he is played nominally on the right, he will be charged with dovetailing with the right full back and will have to be available for through-balls from one or both of the double-pivot players, in order to create opportunities for a central striker pairing of Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby.
However, Zaniolo has proven himself to be versatile and often played his best football at Roma when deployed just off of a lone striker, so he may well also be used as one of the front two as a rotation option in domestic cup and Europa Conference League matches.
Playing in a Jose Mourinho side for the last few seasons, he has been trusted with helping out defensively and regularly found himself tracking opponents in the opposition half of the pitch just as Buendia, Ramsey and John McGinn did for Villa last term.
Will Zaniolo be a success in England?
As with any transfer, it’s difficult to predict how it will go because of the various factors involved.
The move gives Zaniolo a chance to revitalise and maybe even reinvent a stop-start career, under the guiding hand of a nurturing coach such as Emery in the most watched league in world football.
The big question is whether he can actually stay fit for a long enough period to contribute to Villa’s season.
A groin strain means that he won’t be able to make his debut in Villa’s match against Everton on Sunday, but may be available for their Europa Conference League Playoff round first leg against Hibernian in midweek.
Zaniolo’s level of pure, raw ability is unquestionably high and whenever he has been able to get himself fit for spells following two ACL injuries, the talent that made him a widely-coveted player in the late 2010’s has invariably been on show.