Those with an eye for detail saw Radja Nainggolan’s development into one of the top box to box midfielders in the world coming two years ago, even before manager Marc Wilmots left him off Belgium’s World Cup roster for the likes of Steven Defour and Mousa Dembele. In a side that included Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, John Chapman called Nainggolan the country’s most interesting player. Once seen as just a defensive midfielder, and only two years after his initial World Cup snub, Nainggolan’s energy is indispensable trait in unlocking Belgium’s vast depth of attacking talent this summer at the European Championships.
Belgium are in the midsts of a golden age of academy developed individual talents, but Nainggolan is an uniquely Serie A midfielder. Chapman noted that he was much more known in Italy than Belgium in 2014. His improvement over the past two seasons throws a unique angle in the debate between academies and unorganized play. From this perspective, Nainggolan is more aligned with the likes of Barcelona’s South American trio in overcoming economic obstacles and developing his own creativity in addition to the requisite fighting spirit. Belgium unveiled a new youth development policy in 2004 based on French soccer. Nainggolan, on the other hand, left for Italy when he was 16 years old. He began the 2013 with Cagliari in Serie B before making his debut with Roma that winter. Then came the infamous World Cup snub, to fine tuning his passing eye in 2015, to now this: the rumored focal point of Antonio Conte’s rebuild at Chelsea.
Serie A modernized the box to box midfielder through a reliance of the 3-5-2 formation. The Premier League is set to take advantage with both Nainggolan and Paul Pogba rumored to be moving abroad. Nainggolan began his career as a holding midfielder, yet this familiar role would limit his most important traits. Nainggolan is at his most destructive retrieving the ball in the opponent’s half. His 219 tackles in the midfield third in the last two seconds rank amongst the highest in Serie A. Only two players won more tackles in that part of the field in this season’s Champions League.
Of course, Nainggolan offers much more than physicality and tackling. A 87% passing accuracy shows an efficient passer, but even more important is his role as a link between defense and attack in the second phase of possession. De Rossi is the quarterback of the Roma side but Nainggolan’s movement pokes holes in opposition defense. This improvement in chances created and dribbling accuracy transformed Nainggolan from a shielder of the back four to creating the third most chances on Roma. Although goals are sparse, he has shown a knack for late runs inside the box expected of box to box midfielders, as well as scoring important goals to knock rivals out of title contention.
His value has risen dramatically as his skills developed. Cagliari loaned Nainggolan to Roma for $3 million. Roma then purchased Nainggolan the following summer for a reported $7 million (the inner workings of that deal remain convoluted). But now, just two years later, with Chelsea lurking, Nainggolan was placed with a $45 million valuation. It is a high price for any club to pay to a 27-year-old player, but his attacking instincts have improved every season. Beyond individual skills, former Roma manager Rudi Garcia called his personality a “force of nature”, highlighting his mentality and desire to win. That toughness alone makes him valuable piece under new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. And with Manchester City reloading this summer, a short learning curve will be essential.
The looming question when Antonio Conte was hired as Chelsea manager focused on whether his 3-5-2 formation he used at Juventus would translate to England, or if he would choose a traditional back four. While the fascination with Conte’s three player backline is overstated, the key features of his midfields remain tempo and power in transitions. Nainggolan would be a nod to the box to box midfielders he used so effectively at Juventus to win Serie A by four, nine, then 17 points in his three seasons at the club.
Chelsea’s midfield in the early 2000s used to be filled with this type of midfielder with the likes of Michael Essien and Michael Ballack. It’s currently an unbalanced position that cost Jose Mourinho his job, hence the link with Nainggolan - and most likely a different midfield entirely when a new season begins in August.
Nainggolan has an important summer ahead in the meantime. Belgium qualified for the European Championships for the first time in 16 years where they open against Italy. Nainggolan’s role will be providing the structure for playmakers Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne to create upon. For a country that is so precise in its player development, going so far as instituting a 4-3-3 formation for youth sides, it will be up to an outsider to turn its vast potential into tangible results.