They say it took the great and glorious Roman Empire 320 years to fall. Unfortunately for Francesco Totti, it seems his ultimate decline could be far more rapid.
Dogged by injuries in the last few campaigns, Totti, at the age of 33, has for the first time, looked extremely vulnerable. Some might even say, a liability. Slow, static and increasingly antagonistic, il bimbo d’oro has offered little in the initial encounters of this season to suggest he is anything other than a waning force.
Now, let it be noted that Totti should be recognised as a phenomenal talent. Season upon season he has maintained, on a near-weekly basis, a level of inspirational performance that the modern game’s more vaunted players (such as Rooney, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho) have produced far less consistently.
However, never before has il Capitano looked so heavy-legged and immobile. As displayed on Saturday night against Inter, his contributions of late seem focused on drawing fouls and looking aggrieved, representing a fundamental problem for Ranieri.
When Totti is on the pitch Roma must play through him, otherwise he is of practically no use. But if Totti plays below par, then the team’s chances against even the weaker sides in Serie A are pretty much lost. The result tends to be the breakdown of promising moves, time and time again, at the feet of a frustratingly ponderous and selfish Totti – a player who seems the last to realise his pace and ability to drift by opponents have long evaporated. We have seen this most dramatically against Calgliari, Bologna and Cesena already this season.
So, what of Roma without the great man? Well, in recent seasons they have frequently been stripped of Totti for lengthy periods due to injury – and this gives us an ideal chance to evaluate the situation. In the last two campaigns his absence either failed to derail long unbeaten streaks or, as per last season, was an irrelevance. It is a proven fact that Roma can play, and play well, without their talisman.
Over the course of 2009/ 10, both Mirko Vucinic and Jeremy Menez, (two unusually gifted players who would clearly enjoy a fraction of the attention garnered by Er Purpone), absolutely flourished without the tactical dead-weight that Totti’s on-pitch presence inspires. The team moves, if not thinks, considerably quicker when they do not have to service the plodding superstar. But when fit, Totti’s reputation and talent demands his reinstatement, choking the team back into second gear.
In fact, we were treated to a pointed illustration of this on Saturday night: it’s impossible to imagine that the 2010 version of Totti could have stormed into the box for the diving header executed by his direct replacement, Vucinic.
In Totti’s defence, Ranieri has not fully embraced the fluid football set-out by Luciano Spalletti, his predecessor. That means Totti is required to carry the ball for longer, rather than flick it on to an overlapping midfielder or shoot from more likely positions. This only serves to highlight his lack of pace and makes little use of his rare vision. The last place an ageing striker wants to find himself is only halfway up the pitch, on the counter-attack.
Unfortunately for Totti, it seems likely Ranieri will change his personnel, long before he abandons the solid tactical style he is known for. At 33, Totti is no old man and still possesses the fantasy in his boots to be a tremendous force. Unless he loses weight and learns to adapt his game at this late stage to Ranieri’s style, he could find himself a bit-part player in the future of i Lupi. A position that the great Romanista would most surely detest.
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