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Radja Nainggolan: The Belgian enforcer

What does the ex-Roma man bring to the table?

Belgium v Saudi Arabia - International Friendly Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

All eyes were on Inter Milan as they played out their first 90 minutes of the campaign against US Sassuolo but it wasn’t the performance everyone was expecting. A woeful performance contributed to a 1-0 loss against a Sassuolo side who were expected to take a point and no more.

Most of the talk revolved around Inter’s new acquisitions and how they would fare after such a successful transfer window. The squad and starting eleven missed a few new signings but the biggest omission was that of Radja Nainggolan.

The first half lacked any fluidity and potency; misplaced passes and poor marking contributed to a lacklustre first half. The second half demanded urgency and quickness and the introduction of Ivan Perišić for the much maligned Dalbert gave Inter the much needed injection of pace but it did little to change the score line and the match finished at 1-0.

The biggest concern came by the way of Inter’s midfield double pivot. The combination of Matías Vecino and Marcelo Brozović looked lackadaisical and careless in possession. Misplaced passes and heavy touches allowed Berardi and co to push onto the Inter defence more often than they would have liked. Two players still seemingly hung over from their World Cup exploits needed to take control of the game to allow Inter’s attacking force to flourish. Both players have incredible ability on the ball and were picked for their creativity and work ethic combined but fell short. Both players won 1 aerial dual each whilst Lautaro Martinez alone won two. The pressing need for Radja Nainggolan was felt.

Serie A has been blessed with a multitude of midfield enforcers and in recent times fans have been blessed to witness the art of Gennaro Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi, two prominent names who played for AC Milan and Roma respectively. Nainggolan is of a similar mold and will bring a raw tenacity and a feisty competitiveness to Inter’s midfield.

Where does this come from?

All this stems from his tough upbringing; Nainggolan was born in Antwerp to a Flemish mother and Indonesian father. His dad ran away when he was just a baby, leaving his mother to fend for him, his twin sister, and three half-brothers. She not only had to deal with the task of bringing up five children all on her own, but she had to do it to a backdrop of an impoverished, tough Antwerp neighbourhood while shuffle three different jobs to pay off the gambling debts left by her abandoned partner.

Lizy and Riana Nainggolan’s (his twin sister) strong spirit and never-say-die attitude is most precious to the combative midfielder. He adorns both their names on his body especially since the passing of his mother in 2010. Radja started his career at Tubantia Borgehout at five years old and eventually caught the eye of Italian agent Alessandro Beltrami – who remains his agent today – who brought him to Italy to play for Serie B side Piacenza where he made his professional debut in May 2006. The Belgian’s performances rewarded him with a permanent move to the first team in the following season but it wasn’t until the 2008/09 season where he participated in 38 of 42 games, scoring three goals, helping the side avoid relegation. He also cemented his position in Belgium’s under 21s squad before earning his first senior cap in 2009.

His performances in Serie B did not go unnoticed and a move to Allegri’s Cagliari in 2010 for € 1.3m followed. In one of his first few appearances he was sent off against Chievo, minutes after coming on. It didn’t take long for the midfield lynchpin to show fans his tenacity and desire to win and became a fan favourite.

SS Lazio v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

In January 2014, Nainggolan secured a move to AS Roma. He was transformed from a pure combative central midfielder into a manic, attack minded, box to box attacking midfielder. Luciano Spalletti was responsible for the turning point in the Belgian’s career which added more goals and an X factor to his game. Another key move from Spalletti was to convince Miralem Pjanić to move deeper allowing Nainggolan to play in behind Edin Džeko. This opened up the floodgates resulting with Nainggolan to end the season with 10 goals to his name.

Which brings me to my fundamental point.

Inter Milan’s midfield will require such a force against Torino next week and his return will only improve the side. Paired with Vecino, Brozović or Gagliardini the Belgian should make his presence felt and playing with a higher tempo, coupled with the high press of the front three, Inter should be catching teams out higher up the field and break quickly on the counter attack.

Radja outshone his new midfield teammates in both the offensive and defensive phases of play in the 2017/2018 season with AS Roma. His 47 key passes eclipsed Brozović’s 40 followed by 20 and 18 by Vecino and Gagliardini. He created 54 chances, 8 more than Brozović’s 46. His dribbling ability is underestimated but with a 74.24% take-on success rate reflects his ability with the ball in a more advanced position beating out Matías Vecino’s 73.08%. Nainggolan has a competitive aerial dual success rate only second to Roberto Gagliardini who wins 68.18% compared to the Belgian’s 52.94%.

The Nerazzurri have secured a wonderfully gifted and tenacious midfielder with a knack of scoring goals. A ferocious and insatiable appetite for success coupled with a vehemently focused attitude on the pitch is a recipe for success and an attribute that Spalletti will hope translates to the rest of the squad in their bid to conquer Italy and Europe. Radja Nainggolan’s personality, attitude and innumerable tattoos make him a unique character that few will love but many will appreciate. The Nerazzurri will need him need to muster all of his experience and guide them through this campaign; he’s battled and conquered colossal situations before, like then, he’ll rise above it all again.

“I have fought for everything I have obtained. Even in kickabouts with my friends I want to win,” he told Rolling Stone.

What do you think? Post your comments below!