During AS Roma's wild 4-4 draw against Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday, we saw the continuation of a special, breakout season that's been a joy to behold. Miralem Pjanic has finally started to take the strides forward to stardom that he's always been capable of but was never quite able to grasp, and this match was an excellent example of just how far he's come.
Six years ago, Pjanic was a teenaged wonderkid at French outfit Lyon, and he was having a season to remember. He had 10 goals and 13 assists between Ligue 1 and the Champions League, and he looked like a can't-miss superstar in the making, with the sky as the limit for his potential. His next season saw some injury and sophomore slump issues, but there was still so much time for Pjanic to bloom, so no one was really worried.
Then in 2011, Pjanic moved to Roma -- and everything stalled.
For his first four seasons in Italy, Pjanic never really seemed to improve much. Under a parade of successive managers and the accompanying tactical changes, it was perhaps understandable for him to struggle some, but eventually you expect to see development and improvement. It just wasn't there.
Make no mistake, Pjanic was still good. Very good, even. But he never took that next step towards becoming a great player -- but now, this season, he's taken that step, and it's been paying dividends for Roma.
What's been the key? The last two seasons under Rudi Garcia, Pjanic has shown occasional flashes of his potential, but he was moved around in midfield a bit and given different tactical roles to play that he wasn't always comfortable with. That was an issue for him his whole time in Italy, really -- Pjanic was often asked to do things that weren't always comfortable or came naturally to him. That made him overthink things a lot of the time, and when players at any position in any sport overthink what they're doing, good things rarely come of it.
This season, though, Garcia seems to have figured out how to unlock Pjanic. He's got the Bosnia & Herzegovina midfielder playing just a little bit higher up the pitch and, most importantly, loosened the reigns considerably. Now instead of a specific tactical directive to play under, Pjanic seems to be given a loose framework of things to work with -- target this defender, look to play this teammmate in through this area, things like that -- and otherwise is allowed to figure out how to get the job done himself.
That newfound freedom shows up with how Pjanic goes about his business on the pitch. He has that loose, easy nature of a guy playing on instincts instead of considering his every move, and it's helped dramatically speed up and improve his game.
He's gotten better at free kicks too. Check out this one from Tuesday.
Pjanic already has five goals and five assists in just nine all-competitions matches this season, so he's well on his way to breaking the marks of 10 and 13 from that 2009-10 season at Lyon that still stand as career highs.
With Pjanic's success has come success for Roma, as they stand in second place in Serie A right now, just a point behind the league leaders. They had a brief injury-related stumble in form in September, with just one win during a five-match stretch in the second half of the month, but otherwise they've been nigh-unstoppable thanks in large part to the consistent threat Pjanic represents in their attack -- and his ability to score from free kicks has certainly helped too.
So now that he's finally taken that next step and shown long awaited improvement, what's next? Pjanic isn't a 19 year old kid at Lyon any more, with expectations and hopes and dreams of greatness. He's 25 now, and that "wonderkid" label is long left in his past. The clock is ticking, and it's time for Pjanic to grasp that brass ring and push on, or risk becoming just another guy. The signs this season, both with his improved quality and consistency, are very promising, but now we need to see if Pjanic is ready to take that last step forward in his career and claim a new label: star.
Hopefully he gets there. Seeing a player like Pjanic fulfill their amazing potential would be quite a treat. Most players never do, but Pjanic might just have what it takes to get the job done.