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How Edin Dzeko went from laughing stock to lethal hitman and Chelsea target

COMMENT: Two years ago, Edin Dzeko was a laughing stock. During his debut season in Serie A with Roma the Bosnian, who first became continentally renowned for his ability to score goals, could no longer score.

It wasn't just his inability to find the back of the net that shocked, but the myriad unimaginable ways in which he contrived to miss.

The worst of the lot came against Palermo at the Stadio Olimpico in February 2016. After a minor penalty box scramble, Roma right-back Maicon rolled the ball across the face of goal.

With the goalkeeper eliminated, all Dzeko had to do was tap home into an empty net. He somehow managed to horribly skew a left-footed finish wide of the opposite post.

His teammates were aghast. He leaned against the post, no doubt pleading to football gods for some kind of divine intervention or for the turf to give way and swallow him up. Luciano Spalletti, Roma's coach at that time, rubbed his eyes in disbelief. It was painful viewing.

Other noteworthy misses came against Atalanta where, with the goalkeeper beaten, Dzeko ballooned his finish well over the bar from just outside the six-yard box, and against Real Madrid in that campaign's Champions League second round, where he failed to even threaten the Spanish giants' net despite being through one-on-one.

Such was his propensity for amazing misses, so consistently did he scuff golden opportunities, it almost became the norm. Fans expected him to miss; internet artists created YouTube compilations – although horror shows may be more appropriate noun – showcasing his worst finishes; any chance he had created panic, as opposed to excitement, among Romanisti.

However, over the last 18 months, the tables have been remarkably turned. Last season, Dzeko won the CapocannoniereSerie A's version of the Golden Boot – after top-scoring with an incredible 29 goals in 37 league outings. This season has seen a slight drop-off in goals-per-game, but he remains one of the most consistent finishers in Italy's top flight with 10 from 23 outings.

The improvement led to serious interest from reigning English Premier League champions Chelsea during the January transfer window. However, despite clear intent from both sides, a deal to sign the player could not be agreed and Antonio Conte's squad was instead reinforced, in somewhat underwhelming fashion, by the addition of Olivier Giroud from Arsenal.

Dzeko remains worth pursuing as far as Chelsea – and many other clubs – are concerned. While at 31 years of age he doesn't have time on his side, nor perfectly fit the club's traditional transfer policy, he is among the finest strikers in the world today and would be an upgrade on their current options.

Many reading this will want to know: What on earth changed? How did Dzeko go from misfiring flop to lethal hitman? Answering these questions requires acknowledgement of the finisher's relationship with Spalletti.

The respected Italian coach, who is now in charge of Inter Milan, arrived in Rome for his second spell as Giallorossi head coach midway through the 2015/16 season. Initially, recognising his main striker's struggles, he experimented with a striker-less system led by Mohamed Salah, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy.

That experimentation took some pressure off Dzeko's shoulders before he was restored to lead the line as a lone centre-forward in 2016/17. With Salah providing pace on the right-hand side and one of Perotti or El Shaarawy bringing guile to the left, the tall frontman was able to profit from quality service. He was also boosted by a 4-2-3-1 system in which Radja Nainggolan took markers' attentions away from him with aggressive runs from deep into the channels.

Tactics were important, though Dzeko was also given a vital motivational boost by his manager. "He (Dzeko) can never settle," Spalletti said. "I've told him that if he gets five chances and scores two goals, he can't be satisfied with that."

In a manner similar to Maurizio Sarri's treatment of Gonzalo Higuain in 2015/16 – Sarri said that if the Argentine doesn't win the Ballon d'Or, "he's a d***head", and Higuain responded by breaking a Serie A record for goals scored in a single season – Spalletti coaxed the very best out of Dzeko with his standard-setting, enforcing a self-belief that had previously been glaringly absent.

"[Spalletti was] very important," Dzeko said last summer when asked about his former manager's role in his development. "He taught me new things, how to always attack space. Obviously he was a key person in my success."

This season, the striker has proven he can score without Spalletti by his side. That, along with his two goals at Stamford Bridge – one of which was a stunning volley – in Champions League action, no doubt persuaded Chelsea to make their move for the player in January. And while Giroud will offer them a temporary solution up front, Dzeko is unquestionably the superior attacking outlet of the two.

As well as offering the hold-up play that the Frenchman brings to the frontline, the Roma man makes astute runs and knows how to craft a scoring opportunity for himself. He marries physical strength with underappreciated technical quality, as well as an obvious knack for finding the back of the net from a range of angles and distances.

If Chelsea decide against returning for Dzeko, which they may well do, others would be wise to capitalise. Liverpool, should they want a more traditional No.9, could reunite the player with his old buddy Salah; Bayern Munich, who have also been linked of late, could sign him to rotate with Robert Lewandowski; Borussia Dortmund, if they still need a striker in the summer, could have him lead their line.

At a time when most players are entering decline, Dzeko is arguably enjoying the finest form of his career. If other clubs cannot look past his age, Roma will reap the rewards of their own persistence.

About the author

Blair Newman

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