- Romania’s long dry spell
- Stanciu, Hagi Junior and Parma’s wingers
- Talented midfield and Inter’s designated No. 1
- Main goal: World Cup 2022
1. Romania’s long dry spell
Football in Romania has been quiet for many years. In the 1990s, big names like Gheorge Hagi (who was under contract with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, among others) and Gheorghe Popescu gave the national team a strong boost. In 1990, 1994 and 1998, they took part in the World Cup, and in 1996 and 2000 in the European Championship. In four out of five tournaments, they even qualified for the round of 16 or quarter-finals, but were narrowly eliminated in each participation (twice on penalties). But the age-related retirement of many elementary players, as well as the dispute between Gheorge Hagi and coach Anghel Iordanescu, caused a break-up of Romania’s golden generation. In the following years, the team was characterised by strong individuals such as Cristian Chivu or the later convicted doping offender and top striker Adrian Mutu – but was less and less able to attract attention until today, despite two more European Championship participations. Now, however, a new generation of top talents is on the way, ready to compete in international tournaments. Let’s talk about those Golden Boys!
2. Stanciu, Hagi Junior and Parma’s wingers
So now, almost 30 years after the first footballing upsurge in the land of Dracula, Romania is on the verge of a similar development as under the leadership of superstar Gheorge Hagi – and this time, too, there is a Hagi! With Ianis Hagi, the son of the national hero, the Tricolorii, as the national team is called in connection with the tricolour flag, has a spectacular and versatile offensive player who is currently under contract with Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers. The 22-year-old is strong on both feet, has excellent technical skills and is particularly dangerous with his dangerous through balls and speed dribbles. Hagi took his first steps as a professional at his youth club Viitorul Constanta under father and head coach Gheorge Hagi, who is not only an honorary citizen of the city of Constanta but also the namesake of the club’s own football academy “Academia Hagi”. Ianis Hagi did not come close to fulfilling the extremely high expectations placed in him during his first spells abroad with Florence and KRC Genk, but in Glasgow, on the other hand, his creative style of play is appreciated. The Rangers activated their buy option of €3.5 million euros the summer of 2020. He has created 0.82 chances/90 minutes and 1.22 assists/90 minutes in the league this season, and is the third-best in set-ups in the Scottish Premiership with 7 assists. But that’s not all, Hagi also has 4 second assists (second most in the league) and 2.74 shots per 90 mins (6 goals).
But Romania is not only Hagi. The Triicolori have invested particularly in the infrastructure of the domestic leagues in recent years, with new stadiums and youth academies being built. The national stadium Arena Națională (55,000 seats) used by FCSB (before insolvency Steaua Bucharest, now under the new name FCSB), the Stadionul Ion Oblemenco (30,000 seats) of Universitatea Craiova, which is modelled on the Marseille Velodrome, and the Cluj Arena (30,000 seats) of traditional club and second division side Universitatea Cluj are particularly impressive. These are three of a total of 10 new stadiums that have been opened since 2010!
In addition, there is now an U21 regulation in the Liga 1. At least two players with a maximum age of 21 must be in the starting eleven of the teams. This step towards a total focus on youth is discussed critically in Romania – the overall level of the league has declined because financially weak teams now have to invest in the youth and there is no money for international top players. It therefore happens from time to time that clubs take advantage of this regulation and substitute young players after a few minutes. But objectively speaking, it is mainly the lack of modernisation and insufficient performance of managers and owners that is the main problem for the missing funds and not the talent focus of the association. But on the whole, the regulation is showing its effect, more and more talents with a lot of potential are using teams like FCSB, Craiova or Constanta as a springboard to the top leagues in Europe.
In 2016, Nicolae Stanciu, arguably Romania’s best player today, led the way for many talented compatriots. At the time, the now 27-year-old joined Belgian top club RSC Anderlecht as a hyped youngster for almost 10 million euros, and came up with a meagre 4 goals and 2 assists in his first season. His numbers did not improve in the next six months, so he was sold to Sparta Prague at a huge loss of value and from there to Al-Ahli Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in January 2019. When Stancius’ career was at a crossroads 6 months later, he was drawn back to Prague, but this time to Slavia. There he has since impressed as an Advanced Playmaker in his central position behind the striker(s), scoring 10 league goals and assisting 4 in 20/21. Stanciu impresses not only with his shooting technique, firing 3.6 shots in 90 mins, but like Hagi with many pre-assists (5 second assists) and 4 through balls/90 mins. He creates 1.37 goal chances per 90 minutes, top value in the Czech league. Slavia’s number 7 is also extremely strong at set-pieces, knocked Hagi’s club from Glasgow out of the Europa League with a great free-kick goal. He is also able to adress 45% of his free-kicks/corner balls successfully.
Both Hagi and Stanciu already describe the Romanian approach excellently – the Triicolori want to actively create the game, gone are the days of defensive walls. Two other players who should and can boost the team’s offensive play in particular are Dennis Man (22 years old) and Valentin Mihăilă (21 years old). The two wingers have both been under contract with Italian first division side Parma Calcio since the summer (Mihăilă; came from Craiova for 8.5 million euros) and winter (Man; came from FCSB for 13 million euros) and are fighting against relegation there. Both Man, who is a right winger, and Mihăilă (left winger) are inside forwards – inverse wingers who move to the centre of the pitch with power and pace and use their strong foot to shoot or to create chances. In the first half of the 20/21 season, Dennis Man had 6+ dribbles/90 min (56% successful) and also generated 1.53 assists/90 min for FCSB. His almost 5 touches in the box/90 min and 1.36 created goal chances also show the offensive power the top scorer of Liga 1 has to offer. The result was 14 goals and 6 assists in only 18 league games – the step into a top league was overdue. His counterpart in Parma, Valentina Mihăilă, showed weaker values than Man despite clearly recognisable talent in his home country. He did not exceed an unsatisfactory 40% success rate in 19/20 in dribbling (1.5 successful dribbles/90 min.). He has also lacked shot accuracy (35%), goal-scoring accuracy and toughness in duels so far, and yet he has already developed considerably despite the much higher league level in Emilia-Romagna. He is involved in more and more offensive actions, has increased the quantity of his dribbles, as well as his crosses (Parma often plays with Target Mans such as Graziano Pelle).
While Valentin Mihăilă only made his international debut last Thursday (25.3.21), his fiercest rival on the left wing already has four. We are talking about Florinel Coman, the next highly talented Romanian, who must and will probably take the next step out of the FCSB comfort zone in the summer. Coman, like Ianis Hagi, arised from Viitorul Constanta’s youth system, but joined the top team from the capital Bucharest back in 2017, followed by his debut in the national dress in 2019. Coman, too, is an inside forward in terms of style of play, has over 3 successful 1vs1 duels/90 min. in the current season, and is also extremely prolific in shooting (4+ shots/90 min.) and duels (27 duels/90 min.).
In this graph, we compared Coman and Mihăilă in the 19/20 season in Liga 1 to find out which of the two players probably has more potential. It is clear to see that Mihăilă has fewer actions in the offensive game, Coman is clearly more dominant with his top team FCSB. Nevertheless, Coman’s creativity in creating chances and dribbling is more pronounced. We are curious to see how this comparison will look when both have managed to establish themselves in top leagues – for Mihăilă’s performances, the step was advantageous (see above), Coman’s performances, on the other hand, have partly collapsed. In 19/20, he scored 12 goals and 9 assists (0.84 scorers per game), but in the current season he has only scored a meagre 0.35 (only 1 goal in 17 league games) – he may also have missed out on a transfer last summer due to FCSB’s high transfer fee demand (20 million euros). In addition, despite his high potential, he has been accused of a lack of work ethic and morale for years.
3. Talented midfield and Inter’s designated No. 1
But the Triicolori are not only highly talented offensively. In the defensive midfield, too, they have a very high quality density of technical, but also combative talents. Three names should be mentioned here in particular: Răzvan Marin (Cagliari Calcio), Alexandru Cicaldau (Universitatea Craiova) and Tudor Baluta (Dynamo Kiev; on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion).
Like so many Romanians, Răzvan Marin moved from youth club Viitorul Constanta to Standard Liege in January 2017 (transfer fee: € 4.8 million). After a few problems at the beginning, he developed into an undisputed regular at the Belgian top club from the 17/18 season onwards, starting 61 out of 70 league games. In 2019, Ajax Amsterdam showed huge interest an signed him for 12.5 million euros – Marin is therefore the third most expensive sale in the club’s history of Standard. He stands out especially for his activity on the pitch, for example, averaged 100 ball actions per 90 mins at Ajax! However, his overall performance and the emergence of Ryan Gravenberch (a similar type of player) from the youth ranks meant that Marin had to leave the dutch side again after just one season and joined Cagliari Calcio on loan for 10 million euros in the summer. There he is set in the central midfield and played 28 league games – 27 from the start! The 24-year-old impresses with an extremely high passing rate of 88% for an box-to-box midfielder, but with an average of 42 passes per 90 minutes he also creates attacked on his own like a playmaker. Also noticeable are more than 3 ball recoveries in the opponent’s half, as well as more than 1.5 shot assists/90 mins!
Alongside him, Alexandru Cicaldau is likely to play an enormously important role in the next few years. The 23-year-old is still under contract with Universitatea Craiova until the summer of 2022 and already wears the meaningful number 10 there, as well as the captain’s armband thanks to various consistent performances! For the Triicolori, it is the number 8, which actually suits his style of play better. Cicaldau is a box-to-box midfieder, in the current season he averaged nearly
4 dribbles and as well as 15 progressive passes (each per 90 min.). In the attacking third, he appears in 9 offensive duels/90 mins, always filling up the space with his expansive runs. Similar to Germany’s Leon Goretzka, these often lead him into the penalty area, which is why he is able to shoot 1.8 times per 90 minutes; he also handles all standards at Universitatea. Last summer, FC Everton showed great interest in the Academia Hagi graduate – Cicaldau is definitely worth the 7 million euros demanded at the time. Last but not least: Tudor Baluta. The 22-year-old Baluta also emerged from Viitorul’s repeatedly mentioned top academy, joined Brighton & Hove Albion from the Premier League back in 2019 and is now with his 3rd loan club Dynamo Kiev after a loan to Viitorul and an unhappy six months at ADO Den Haag. In Den Haag he was hardly a factor under English coach Alan Pardew, the pandemic did the rest – Baluta only made 4 league appearances; in Kiev, however, things look even worse. While the 1.92m giant was only suffering from the coronavirus for a few weeks, a metatarsal contusion from January proved so bad that he had to undergo surgery, and currently has 3 league minutes on the clock. But Baluta is highly talented, especially in positional play and the associated interception of balls (almost 8/90 min. in 18/19) he is elementary for his team. In addition, he won the ball more than 13 times during that period and, as a ball-winning midfielder thanks to 24 forward passes, he is also responsible for initiating quick counter-attacks (+11 passes into the final third).
In addition to the offensive and defensive players presented above, Romania has a goalkeeper in Ionuț Radu (Inter Milan) whose potential is far from maxed out. The 23-year-old moved to Internazionale over seven years ago and has since been loaned out several times to Parma Calcio and Genoa FC, among others, who even signed him permanently with an option to buy in 2019, but Inter pulled out the buy-back option just twelve days later. Radu is expected to become Samir Handanovic’s direct successor in a few years – he is much more skilled with the ball at his feet compared to the Slovenian (91% pass rate in 19/20 for Parma) and therefore fits in perfectly with the playful approach of his national team. In addition, his saves from close range (up to 10 metres goal distance; 69% saved; fourth best value in Serie A) were extremely strong last season – at medium range (10-20 metres), on the other hand, he was bottom of the league with only 51%!
The chart on the left once again shows the depth of talented U25 footballers currently available to Romania. In addition to the presented wingers and in defensive midfielders, central defender Radu Drăgușin (who joined Juventus Turin at the age of 16; currently in Serie C – 71% defensive duels won) and striker Florin Munteanu (from the U19 of AC Florence) should be on your watch list. Munteanu, who has already scored 7 goals in 13 games in the Primavera (fourth best scorer), was not nominated for the U21 European Championship, much to the annoyance of many Romanians – but is nevertheless considered the country’s greatest forward talent.
From the current U21 squad, one should also keep an eye on playmaker Olimpiu Morutan (FCSB) and Octavian Popescu (FCSB), who both stand out with an extremely high number of dribbles (both 7+/90 min.) and a good passing game (80% rate). Technically strong, the new way of the Triicolori.
4. Main goal: World Cup 2022
Romania’s national team missed out on the 2020/2021 European Championships – although the finished second in Nations League Group C4 18/19 behind Serbia and qualified for the EM play-offs. In October 2020, however, they were beaten by Iceland by a narrow 2-1 score – the average age of Mirel Radoi’s squad was 28.73 years at the time, one of the oldest teams in Europe. Experienced players like Ciprian Tatarusanu and Ciprian Deac (signed with Schalke in 2010/11) ended their national team careers after the defeat to initiate a turnaround. Radoi will not field a youth team in the World Cup qualifiers either, but the remaining key players such as Stanciu, Sassuolo’s Vlad Chiricheș or Cluj’s centre-back Andrei Burca will be elementary pillars for a significantly rejuvenated team. In the first qualifying match against North Macedonia, Marin, Man and Coman already started, and a few other talents were subbed in – a good start. We are curious to see how the Triicolori will present themselves, especially in the games against the German team and against their rivals from Iceland. Second place and thus the play-offs for the World Cup in Qatar have been set as a clear goal. For the first time in 24 years, they want to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Gheorge Hagi and stir up a tournament.