When Edin Dzeko left Manchester City for Roma in 2015, his departure barely caused a ripple in England. Under Manuel Pellegrini he had become a peripheral figure, and the Italian side were only asked to pay £8m, pocket change by modern football standards, for the Bosnian centre-forward.
Now, less than two years later, City's forgotten man is Serie A's joint top-scorer. He has 25 goals in 29 starts, more than Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi, Ciro Immobile and Pablo Dybala. Only Andrea Belotti, the great hope of Italian football and £84m target for Manchester United, can match him. He has 35 in all competitions, a single season club record already. Not bad for a 31-year-old cast aside after falling behind Wilfried Bony in the City pecking order.
For a striker of that vintage to be heading for the best year of his career, at a time when athleticism is valued more than any other, is remarkable. But Dzeko in part puts his success down to his age – or, perhaps more accurately, his experience. Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently spoke about knowing, as an older player, not to 'waste' energy, to be smarter about movement, and Dzeko agrees.
“I'm not a boy anymore,” Dzeko tells The Independent. “I can't run maybe like I could ten years ago...you feel different. I'm older, but I'm much [more] clever, because I have so many games behind me. For some balls that I went like crazy for at 21-years-old, maybe this time I wouldn't go for, because you could get injured. When you're a young boy, you don't think, you just go for it. When you have more experience, you have to play more with your head.”
Being smarter is not the only reason for Dzeko's record, which is even more remarkable given that last season he scored just eight times in Serie A and was broadly regarded as a flop. He credits something as simple as having a full pre-season with his teammates (he arrived from Manchester with the 2015/16 campaign already under way) as a key factor, but also the Roma team is set up to get the best from him. “We're playing very attacking football with some great players,” he says, “so they make it easier for me to score. Because the team is playing for me, I get a lot of good service.”
Building an attack around him represented a fairly significant gamble from head coach Luciano Spalletti, not least because Dzeko is basically the only centre-forward Roma have. Spalletti was very much “all in” on a player who had struggled, to say the least, in his time in Italy, but his faith in the striker was clear. In November, Spalletti said: “If a coach could make a striker, I'd make one like Dzeko. He's the perfect prototype.”
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” says Dzeko. “For every striker it's important to have the confidence of the coach. Even if he sometimes criticises you it's because he wants you to do even better. When you know he has confidence in you it's much easier. You feel that on the pitch.” Dzeko very publicly displayed his irritation at his manager when he was substituted during Roma's recent win over Pescara, but Spalletti said they “hugged and made up” in the dressing room afterwards. Despite the odd tiff, their relationship seems strong.
In many respects Dzeko is a curious player. His goal-scoring record suggests a ruthless finisher, a penalty box killer who will punish any defensive error, but he often gives the impression of being hugely profligate, and still has habit of missing straightforward chances. One against Palermo this season, when he missed an open goal from four yards out, springs to mind, as does a penalty against Udinese that might have missed another set of goalposts stacked atop the existing ones. In Europe's top five leagues, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi take more shots per game, so you'd expect him to score quite a few. He can be profoundly frustrating, and frequently doesn't add a great deal to general play when he's not scoring. City fan Noel Gallagher once described him as “rubbish at football but brilliant at goal scoring.”
But it's the latter part which is important. Goals have, after all, never been a problem. At City he scored 72 in 187 appearances, of which only 115 were starts. “Imagine if I'd played all the games from the beginning, how many goals I'd score,” Dzeko says. He's joking, but there remains a sense of frustration at how his career in Manchester went. “I was in a team with some great, world-class players, so it's not easy to play every game, which I understand,” he says. “But even with that, I could have done more if I had played more. Everything was good for me, I have so many good and positive memories. But I could have done more.”
Given the squad City had it was perhaps impossible for the team to be tailored to his needs in quite the way Roma is, but a little more of Spaletti's faith might have been useful. “I remember one time, I scored four goals against Tottenham, when we won 5-1, and the next game I was on the bench for 90 minutes,” he says. “Aguero scored three goals and we won 3-0. I think Roberto Mancini wanted to rest me for the next game, but in those moments I think you just have to let strikers play. It's a shame – sometimes I was on the bench even if I was playing well.”
For now though, life is relatively sweet, even if the power of Juventus will in all likelihood prevent Dzeko adding the Scudetto to the Bundesliga and Premier League titles he's already won. “It's difficult if you get over 80 points and you're not the champions. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but the only thing we can do is try to be our best, then hope Juve have negative results. It's not easy, but we have to think positive. If we start the season with negative thinking, we'd never win anything.”
And in any case, Dzeko can at least say he's played with Francesco Totti. “It's a shame he's 40 years old,” he says. “I would [have] loved to have played with him five or six years ago, because then I'm sure I would score even more goals than I do now. His ability to see and understand the striker, to play these passes...it's like a present to every striker. It's a privilege to play with him.”