The summer of 2016 has been an interesting period for the English Premier League. Coming off a season where Leicester was the surprise champion, and Chelsea the surprise struggler, there has been an overhaul of ideas. In an effort to keep pace with their national rivals, to say nothing of their European counterparts, most teams at the top have appointed new managers. Manchester City has Pep Guardiola, Manchester United chose Jose Mourinho, Everton tapped up Ronald Koeman, and, most interestingly, Chelsea lured Antonio Conte. Already an established name due to his immense success in resurrecting Juventus, the Italian manager’s performances at Euro 2016 have only led to further excitement.
Perhaps the most obvious effect of these changes is the raft of new players that are linked with the clubs. Like Jurgen Klopp’s German effect at Liverpool the year before, Conte’s appointment has linked every half-decent player in Serie A with the London giants. Within the swirling mass of players lies one serious rumor: Radja Nainggolan. The Belgian midfielder currently plays for Roma, but has reportedly been the subject of serious interest from Conte’s Chelsea. To discover just what he can bring to a midfield that already boasts Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic and Oscar, I decided to analyze his performance in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal between Wales and Belgium.
Nainggolan seems to be a favorite of maligned Belgian manager Marc Wilmots, as he was a trusted first team player throughout the qualification process. However, going into the main competition this summer, Axel Witsel has usurped him as the more important deep-lying central midfielder. This left him with a battle against Moussa Dembélé for the remaining spot. Coming off a phenomenal season with Tottenham where he has rediscovered his best form, Dembélé was considered the obvious choice. However, his injury in the second match against the Republic of Ireland has left Nainggolan without competition or even an adequate replacement on the bench. After struggling against Italy and dominating Hungary, like the rest of his team, how would he fare against Wales, the Belgians’ bogey team according to Gareth Bale?
Lining up in midfield on the right of Witsel, Nainggolan and Belgium were expected to dominate the possession of the match. As such, the Roma midfielder seemed to have been handed an odd set of instructions from his manager. His positioning was often further forward than Witsel, but not far forward enough to help the front four create chances. In defence, he was largely confined to tracking the runs of the Welsh midfielders, primarily Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. However, because of the rarity and rapidity of the Welsh counters, it often meant that he was left stranded in an unhelpful position between the retreating defence and the dispossessed attack. This also meant that when the Belgians tried to play out of defence, he was usually not a helpful outlet. However, he managed to scored an absolute beauty out of nothing, from thirty yards out, and his attitude seemed to change. He was running more, closing down more and making himself available. Sadly, this only lasted a few minutes as his lack of positional awareness meant the game started to pass him by again.
During halftime, there was a report that Wilmots was getting ready to make a change. With the game tied and Belgium dominating, it was predicted that Marouane Fellaini would be coming on. Typically played as an attacking midfielder who can make deep runs into the box, it made sense that he would replace either Nainggolan or Witsel. Confusingly, he replaced Yannick Carrasco, who had been Belgium’s best player along with Eden Hazard. Kevin De Bruyne was shifted wide right, unsurprisingly nullifying his effect, and Fellaini was played at the base of midfield as Nainggolan and Witsel pushed forward. Tactically, it was a baffling decision, but it did give the Chelsea target a chance to impress in a different position. However, the same problems persisted.
Nainggolan’s positioning was atrocious, his pressing was non-existent, and he seemed scared of the ball. He never seemed to be in a position for an easy pass and he never seemed to call for the ball. Even when he was given the ball, he tried to recycle it as fast as possible. He rarely took more than two passes to move it on. In certain situations, that kind of ability would be lauded, but only if it is part of a larger tactic. The rest of the Belgian team were reveling in their dominance and taking their time, so a quick recycling of play was unnecessary. The Welsh weren’t even pressing high up the pitch, which is how Nainggolan found space for his goal, so it wasn’t a reactionary decision either. As the match continued and Belgium fell behind, it was hard to understand why the Roma midfielder was still on the pitch. He did not contribute to either defence or offence, and he was definitely not a leader on the pitch.
In contrast to Nainggolan’s performance was the Man of the Match shift put in by his Welsh counterpart, Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal midfielder was playing in a similar position to the Roma man, but his interpretation of the role could not have been more different. Ramsey was the heartbeat of the Welsh performance as he contributed heavily to both attack and defence. It was his break and assist that created the winning goal, and it is a shame that his rash yellow card for an unnecessary handball ruled him out of the semifinal with Portugal. In the battle of the unnaturally blonde midfielders, Nainggolan came out with his reputation significantly battered.
If it seems unfair to compare Nainggolan’s performance to an oppositional player who was granted license to roam, perhaps it would be better to compare his performance with the other Belgian midfielders. Witsel, while subdued going forward, was still a defensive rock. He was constantly jumping into the tackle or pushing players off the ball. He even managed to get into the box a few times on the counter. This leads to another criticism of Nainggolan. His obvious lack of heading ability meant that he was not an asset on either offensive or defensive set pieces. Frustratingly, his position outside the box for Welsh corners meant that he should have been the outlet for his defence, but, as mentioned repeatedly, he rarely wanted the ball. Even Fellaini, who had started the second half in a deeper position than Nainggolan, was often seen pushing forward as Belgium searched for an equalizer. When the Belgian offence needed to overload the box, Nainggolan was seen loitering yards away from the action.
Of course, it is unfair to blame Nainggolan for all these faults. He was given unsatisfactory orders from Wilmots, who has been accused of wasting Belgium’s Golden Generation through a lack of tactical sensibility. His odd decision to take off Jordan Lukaku for Dries Mertens is proof of such accusations. Additionally, the Belgians played as individuals rather than as team, which would affect the performance of any midfielder. However, at the end of the day, when the Red Devils were looking for someone to take control of the game, Nainggolan failed. The talent is obviously there. His goal and his snap passes indicate significant ability in the midfielder, but the attitude is lacking. This may be an effect of playing for the national team, and perhaps Conte can motivate him. However, as of his showing in Euro 2016, Nainggolan looks nothing more than a water carrier. Undoubtedly a necessary position in football, but perhaps not a player that is worthy of the ambitions of a club like Chelsea.