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Making the case for Radja Nainggolan as an attacking midfielder for Inter Milan

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Under Luciano Spalletti, Radja Nainggolan had great success playing as an attacking midfielder, why not put him there again?

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

As Inter Milan prepare for Champions League competition next season, the club is bolstering its squad with the addition of Radja Nainggolan. The Belgian will cost the Nerazzurri around €24 million plus Davide Santon and Inter youth product Nicolo Zaniolo. Nainggolan will reunite with his former manager in Luciano Spalletti, but importantly, addresses the weakness in the midfield.

Over the past four seasons, Nainggolan has played either as a central midfielder or an attacking midfielder for Roma. Regardless of which role he occupies with Inter, Nainggolan will bring offense from the midfield. Before the loan that brought Rafinha, the squad had trouble generating offense when Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perišić are on their cold streaks.

Put Nainggolan on the Attack and Let Him Loose

Nainggolan is going to have the connection to Rafinha, fairly or unfairly as he’s mainly the replacement for the Brazilian. Thus, comparisons will become inevitable to see if Inter made the right decision. Last season, he appeared in 42 appearances in all competitions for Roma scoring six goals and contributing 11 assists playing in the central role.

However, when he’s in an attack role, Nainggolan’s offensive numbers skyrocket. Two years ago, 37 of his 53 appearances were as an attacking midfielder where he put up 11 goals and five assists. That season, Nainggolan was playing under current Inter manager Luciano Spalletti and if he plans on playing his former Roma player in that same role then expect a spike in his offensive contributions.

Even though Nainggolan can play the central midfield, he’s best suited for playing in an attacking role. After Spalletti left, Eusebio Di Francesco took over as Roma’s manager he decided to play Nainggolan in the central midfield. It meant he’d play further back from the attack and given more responsibilities regarding the setting of tempo and trying to control the game.

A.S. Roma v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

After seeing how Nainggolan’s form under the two different Italian managers, it caused curiosity as to how the midfield performed in their manager’s first season. This graph aligns the total shots and goal conversions for midfielders under Spalletti’s last season with Roma along with Inter in his first season in Serie A competition.

Nainggolan lead all midfielders in total shots (1.7) and goal conversion rate (17%) per 90mins in Spalletti’s last season in the capital city. This past season, Nainggolan averaged the same amount of total shots (1.6) per 90 in 2017/18, but he did see a drop in his goal conversion rate (9%) which explains why he dropped from 11 goals to six.

Using the graph to analyze the production of Nainggolan, it illustrates his output when given the opportunity to focus on attacking. He averaged more total shots than Rafinha and had a better goal conversion rate than Perišić. Offensively, Nainggolan is an adequate replacement for the 25-year-old. He averaged more total shots than Rafinha and had a better goal conversion rate than Perišić.

Although the passion for the club felt genuine, the production is similar as the graph shows. Rafinha’s game involves more passing which is why he averages more total passes and key passes, but overall it doesn’t mean that Inter should break the bank on him and so it was smart to get ahead as they brought in Nainggolan when they knew that Rafinha became too pricey. Nonetheless, now that Nainggolan is apart of the club, Spalletti needs to put him in the attacking midfielder role, which he’s seen him flourish in.

Lack of offense spread throughout the squad is a weakness that needs addressing this summer, and thus far, Inter hit the ground running. Although the club has a budget, they are finding ways to bring impactful players to improve the squad. Also, Nainggolan will come at a cheaper cost granted he’s 30 but remains productive and brings Champions League experience to a relatively inexperienced group.


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