Columnist Samuel Bannister takes a look at a pivotal year for one Roma midfielder…
When 2020 began, Gonzalo Villar was playing in the Spanish second division.
Even he might not have been able to imagine the position he would end the year in.
From promising Elche player to an increasingly relied-upon starter for Roma, Villar has enjoyed an extraordinary rise in 2020.
Few Roma fans would have recognised his name when he was linked with the club in January. But since moving to Italy that month for a fee that will reach €5m at most, Villar has impressed at every opportunity.
He arrived at Roma having never played in the top tier in his native Spain – although he had spent time within Valencia’s academy setup. He was about to make a major leap.
A mature individual off the pitch and an intelligent one on it, Villar has taken the challenge in his stride.
When the man from Murcia joined Roma, he found himself at a club with an established hierarchy in midfield. Competition there was needed, hence his signing, but Jordan Veretout and Amadou Diawara had seemingly nailed down the starting roles as their own.
A little under 12 months later, and Villar has surged up the pecking order. He stepped up when Diawara was absent with Covid-19 and has also benefitted from Bryan Cristante shifting into defence.
Villar is not an undisputed starter yet – recent games indicate Paulo Fonseca still prefers Veretout and Lorenzo Pellegrini in the big games – but at his current rate of progress it seems only a matter of time before the Spaniard sees even more action as a member of the starting line-up.
With Pellegrini sometimes moving further forward and impressing there, there can be an extra place in midfield. And nobody is better primed to take it than Villar.
The signs have been positive since the start. He made his debut as a substitute in the 4-2 loss to Sassuolo in February, two days after he joined the club, before coming off the bench in a 2-1 defeat to Atalanta a fortnight later.
Since then, he has made 12 starts for the club. Roma have never lost when he has taken to the field from the first minute.
Villar’s first two games as a substitute lasted a total of 21 minutes between them. But he was then rewarded with his first 90 minutes – and he took his chance to impress.
Villar was one of the best players in Roma’s 4-3 win over Cagliari at the start of March. With Cristante sitting alongside him, he was able to drift forward, showing strength on the ball despite his diminutive frame and helping influence the play with his well-judged passing.
It seemed like a bright new dawn for the midfielder. However, his chances of further development were soon taken out of his hands. The game against Cagliari was the last before sport was suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Villar would not get to play for another four months.
It robbed him of the chance to build momentum, just as he was starting to make a name for himself. But when football returned, Villar made up for lost time.
He had to be patient for opportunities at the end of last season; only one of his remaining substitute appearances lasted longer than half an hour. But he still managed to end the season on a high note.
Villar was among those to take advantage when Roma fielded a rotated line-up against Juventus on the final day of the Serie A season. Once again partnering Cristante, he made his presence known in midfield as Roma claimed a first win at the Juventus stadium.
His first half-a-season had shown promise. Villar had even quickly grown to a competent level of Italian, key for any player making the transition to Serie A and an indication of his character off the pitch.
Villar ended the 2019-20 campaign as the player with the highest pass completion rate for Roma in Serie A, albeit from a limited sample size. It highlighted his quality on the ball, and he has gone on to cement that further.
When the new season commenced in September, Villar quickly built upon his ever-growing reputation.
With Roma participating in the Europa League group stage, the 22-year-old got plenty of opportunities when Fonseca switched around his starting XI. Every time Villar played in Europe, he stood out.
On November 22, he was rewarded with his first Serie A start of the season, contributing to a 3-0 win against Parma. He went on to start four of the remaining six league games before Christmas; the only two they lost in that time were the two in which Villar was not a starter.
With the way he has developed, 2020 has been an incredible year for Villar. Even greater heights could be in store for him in 2021; after recently breaking back into the Spain Under-21 squad, talk of interest from the senior side has even begun.
There are few roles in international football with greater competition than Spain’s midfield, so it would speak volumes if he was selected. Former Roma boss Luis Enrique should be well aware of what Villar is doing at club level – and those in the Italian capital are enjoying every moment of it.
The exciting thing is that Villar still has ample room to keep growing.
He has already surpassed his number of appearances, starts and total minutes from last season, before even reaching the half-way stage of this campaign. He is yet to make a goal or assist for Roma, which would add another element to his game, but the way he is still making his influence felt shows how high his potential is.
For a player who went into 2020 having never played top flight football before, it has been a remarkable year. Now, Villar is increasingly integral to a team fighting to retain their place in the top four.
It has been a difficult year for many, but 2020 has been one that Gonzalo Villar will never forget.