After such an impressive season with Roma last year, rumours were abound about the future of Mehdi Benatia. When the Moroccan agreed to join Bayern Munich, few could blame the centre back for his decision.
On the surface at least, Roma moved to replace him almost immediately, bringing Kostas Manolas in from Olimpiacos for around half the fee Bayern paid them.
In that light at least, the deal makes perfect sense – the money offered for Benatia was too good to turn down and, in securing a replacement so quickly, Rudi Garcia’s team have every chance of picking up where they left off.
Benatia was a key part of Rudi Garcia’s side, often becoming the extra man in the midfield and occasionally the forward line – but equally impeccable in defence. It is not hard to see why he was so in demand, nor why he will be almost impossible to replace. To balance the former Udinese man’s freedom was Brazilian Leandro Castan, who held a deep position to ensure security – often aided by left-back Federico Balzaretti, who was less adventurous than Maicon on the right.
This season, with Ashley Cole likely to start at left-back, it might have proved more difficult to provide cover in that spot if three of the four defensive starters maintained such an attacking ethos as they have shown before.
Manolas is no Benatia, and it remains to be seen if the Greek centre-back is good enough to fit into Garcia’s system immediately. It seems likely that he will be battling with Davide Astori for his place in the centre of the Giallorossi’s defence for the right to play alongside Castan.
Equally, it is not out of the question that Alessio Romagnoli will stake a claim for that spot. Regardless, that depth of coverage could be crucial with the added fixtures the Champions League brings into Roma’s calendar this time around.
The boyhood AEK Athens fan excelled in that competition, recording defensive statistics that rivalled the Moroccan he has joined Roma to replace, averaging 2.14 tackles per game (in Champions League football – such was the Piraeus-based side’s dominance within Greece that it would be meaningless to base comparisons on their domestic campaign) compared to Benatia’s 1.76 in Serie A; while falling only slightly lower than the the Moroccan’s 2.46 aerial duels won per game with 2.29.
While defensively that suggests Manolas would be a more than adequate replacement, it will be the way that Benatia so often helped in instigating the Lupi’s attacks that will be difficult replicate. That said, Manolas has regularly proved himself a threat at set pieces, though his passing was a little less accurate than would be expected in that role – that figure may well be mitigated by the length of pass he was forced to play as the Erythrolefkoi often looked to spring long balls on teams to take advantage of Joel Campbell’s pace.
It may be that the Greek is introduced to the side gradually. Having never played outside is home country, it is reasonable to think he may take some time to settle – Athens and Rome are very different cities – which might allow Astori the opportunity to make the spot his own early in the season. The Cagliari loanee has been playing alongside both Castan and, earlier, Benatia during the pre-season – indeed, against AEK Athens; ironically the last game before Manolas’ arrival, the central pairing was Astori and Daniele De Rossi.
Astori is a known quantity within Serie A and represents an established head for Garcia to turn to. The fact he has often been deployed as a right-back during his career indicates that his coaches have trusted him to get both forward and back, though his numbers remain far less impressive than Benatia in that regard. It would be no surprise to see him get the nod more often than not this season, even if he doesn’t seem a long-term option in that role.
Romagnoli is on the other side of that coin – although he has undoubted promise, at 19, he is probably too young to stake a claim for a regular starting spot, especially in a position thought of as the mainstay of older players.
If Astori is the safe option, the younger Manolas would represent a brave move by Garcia – and a considerable show of faith in the Greek, not unlike that shown by Jurgen Klopp to his countryman Sokratis Papasthopopoulos at Borussia Dortmund. Garcia is certainly willing to take that step and in Manolos has a defender who looks good enough to make it.
Do not be surprised if Roma have an all-foreign back four this season; in Torosidis, Castan, Manolos and Cole, they may have one of the best.