Many fear defending is a dying art, a vocation few want to accept any more. Even in Italy, the home of catenaccio, only a small number of players have emerged in recent years willing to spend 90 minutes suffocating opposition attacks.
Marash Kumbulla, however, spent his first season in Serie A with Verona showing the art form isn’t dead. The 20-year-old became one of the most sought-after defenders in Europe this summer, with Internazionale, Lazio and Tottenham keen on acquiring him before Roma who won the race to sign a player who could be at the heart of their defence for more than a decade.
“When I first became aware about the opportunity to play for AS Roma, it didn’t take long for me to decide,” says Kumbulla. “I knew immediately that it was the right club for me. They showed their interest and I felt very good with that. They showed me the project, the staff and I spoke to the coach. The Roma fans, stadium and history of this great club are amazing, and it was very easy to choose it. Roma, for me, is the ideal place to continue my career.”
It was not easy for Kumbulla to leave Verona, a club he “has practically grown up at” since the age of eight and whom Roma face on Saturday night. Kumbulla has his parents to thank for getting him into this position: they arrived in Italy on a migrant boat from Albania more than 20 years ago, in search of a better life. His dad worked as a bricklayer and has since formed a construction business with Kumbulla’s brothers, and his mother is a chef in the family restaurant.
Like his parents, Kumbulla is extremely hard-working, happy too to show the graft of a bricklayer and the artistic flourish of a chef. Kumbulla is a one-man wall at the back, with concentration levels to match his commitment, loving the graft of defending and one-to-one battles. “Ronaldo has been a very tough opponent, but I’ve tried to limit him with my characteristics and to anticipate him. Dybala and Lukaku are very difficult to face, the first for his speed and the second for his strength.” Those attributes helped Verona defeat Juventus 2-1, an impressive feat against the perennial champions, and finish ninth. “The victory against Juventus is unforgettable because it was on my birthday. I couldn’t have asked for a better present.”
Kumbulla defends the area as if it is his own private land, working harder on the ground than any centre-back in the league to protect the goal. He reads the game superbly and many forwards awaiting the ball have seen it whipped off their feet before they have realised the attack is over. He can also bring it out of defence, which will be a more useful trait at Roma than it was in Verona. “I have taken advantage of playing against the best players in Italy at such a young age. It’s made me grow up faster.”
As Kumbulla’s confidence has grown over the past two seasons, he has tried to instigate attacks more often, something Paulo Fonseca, a former centre-back, will encourage at Roma. “I am able to play in this system, too. I felt very good in the first training session and now is only the time for me to adapt to this style, improving and also knowing the coach’s way of playing and thinking.”
The Albania international is a great admirer of Virgil van Dijk and picks out another player with extensive Premier League experience as an inspiration. “Last year I really liked to watch Chris Smalling play,” he says of the Manchester United defender who was on loan at Roma. “I tried to learn from him.”
It is likely Kumbulla will have to adapt to a new formation. At Verona he played on the left of a back three but Roma operate with two central defenders. Thanks to his athleticism, Kumbulla could often be found heading upfield to take part in attacks and he achieved a minor piece of history in becoming the first defender born this millennium to score in Serie A when he powered home a header against Sampdoria. At 6ft 1in he is strong in the air at both ends of the pitch.
Despite being born and growing up in Italy, Kumbulla has always represented Albania, the country of his parents’ birth, playing for their age-group teams throughout his teenage years. The defender earned his first senior cap as a substitute in a European Championship qualifier last season. “Italy is a country that gave a lot to me and where I love to live, but my heart always told me that my national team is Albania; my whole family is from there and I’m proud of my origins.” The Albania diaspora is aiding an influx of talented youngsters into the international squad, with Internazionale’s Italy-born 17-year-old Ramen Cepele, the Juventus striker Giacomo Vrioni and the Chelsea teenager Armando Broja, who is from Slough, recently called up, offering hope to a nation which has qualified for only one major tournament.
Kumbulla, like his parents, heads to new surroundings in search of self-improvement. Defenders do not always get the glory but Kumbulla does not need trinkets to prove his achievements; he gets his satisfaction from football elsewhere. “My parents are proud of me and I’m happy that they are.”