Club Focus – Roma – Looking forwards (and wingwards en passant)

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All eyes were on Marco Motta after his surprise Azzurri call-up, but Romanisti onlookers had to bring their feet back to the ground once it was revealed that the young right-back would not start. The bench, in this case, is only fair – the Italian tradition offers the national starter’s shirt to players with a couple of good seasons on their backs, not a couple of good weeks. Motta has been playing for Roma since late January, and for all of his promising first games, his last few performances also revealed some weaknesses. No need to spoil him now. In the meantime, Daniele De Rossi confirms his status as the most central player in the national team, literally and figuratively, and as one of the few undoubted and indubitable starters from the midfield upwards. Francesco Totti held that role in the attack from 2000 to 2006, and De Rossi seems set to pick up his mantle in another department. Giallorossi icons translate to Azzurri ones.

Francesco Totti declared over the week that he awaits the green light to renew his contract. He stated in the past that he would be willing to reduce his salary. The intention is noble and stands in contrast to that of most of his peers (see, for instance, Alessandro Del Piero’s shenanigans around his contract two years ago), so it is to be hoped he stands true to his word. The club would welcome the financial breath of air, and the change in salary would fairly reflect the decline in the player’s physical conditions. For the rest, Totti’s declarations that the team will continue to fight for the fourth place are the week’s ho-hum.

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The one-week break for the national games is not enough to regain all the players lost to injury, but the team should be able to overpower modest Bologna even running on low fuel. The pause also allows for several reflections on the future. Once we dismiss the inevitable (and, for now, self-serving) mercato rumours, the biggest quandary remains what to do with Coach Luciano Spalletti. For all the concessions that can be made to the man (foremost among these the injury crisis), this season has been dreadful. If we consider that the team’s objectives included the Scudetto and a Champions League final, it is more than a little underwhelming to think that a fourth place would now be cause for celebration. In all likelihood Spalletti will stay, in accordance with the precept that one bad year does not make a bad Coach and upon the awareness that viable alternatives are very difficult to find.

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Yet is it really wise to keep Spalletti? Popular opinion would have it that Roma’s problem this year was lack of depth on the bench, but this is only true of the central defenders. No mercato strategy could have foreseen that midfielders Alberto Aquilani, Claudio Pizarro, Simone Perrotta and Rodrigo Taddei would all decide to pick up injuries at the same time. In reality, Roma’s weaknesses were (and are) of a tactical and psychological nature. As far as the latter goes, Spalletti has proved incapable of instilling his teams with a real fighting spirit from the very day he set foot in the Olimpico. Historically his teams take the lead and then slump completely. When the result is uncertain, Roma become a devastating force, as Lyon and Real Madrid (and Inter in the Coppa Italia) found out over the last two years. When they walk into a match as favourites, even by a narrow margin, they hand over the game to their adversaries on a silver platter (by far the most notable example of this being the Manchester United ties two years ago, where Roma outplayed and defeated the English team in the first game, and as a direct result of this went on to offer the most catastrophic performance in decades). More so than injuries, it was this weakness that really sunk Roma at the beginning of this season. Spalletti has failed to redress this problem not in the last seven months but in the last four years, and everything indicates that he will be taking it with him into 2010 as well.

Tactically speaking, Roma has suffered from the rigidity of the 4-2-3-1. The formation was highly innovative when it was first introduced and credit must be given to Spalletti for the influence it has had on Italian football and beyond. But it was a system which drew its penetrating force from the dynamic positional interchange and interaction between the striker and the offensive midfielders. More specifically, it was a system built around a unique forward, the only one in Europe capable of playing in every position of the pitch while instantly switching roles from lethal finisher to pin-point assist-man to game creator and director, never lessening his performance in the process. It was a system, in brief, built around Francesco Totti, and the unfortunate efforts of la Nazionale (under Roberto Donadoni and Marcello Lippi both) to clone this organism point if nothing else to how stilted it appears when deployed with more traditional strikers. This year, when the Roma captain fell away (injured, as he has been most of the year), the entire system fell with him. Sadly, the form of the Roma captain has been getting worse rather than better, to the extent that seasons must be planned under the assumption that Totti will be missing a great portion of them. And if Totti cannot be relied upon for a season, then the 4-2-3-1 cannot be either. Roma needs a new tactical solution. Is Spalletti the man to provide it?

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In this writer’s opinion, he is not. The 4-3-1-2 that he fell back on in November was a collection of patches more than it was a new suit, and its results have been far from convincing (not to mention that the football it produced was rather ugly). As importantly, Spalletti has shown a worrying tendency of late to return to the 4-2-3-1 – a fact which suggests that his love story with the formation is not done yet. Granted, new and carefully aimed mercato acquisitions alongside (one would hope) a little more luck should ensure that this nightmare of a season will not repeat itself, but this is not enough. A team with Roma’s ambitions cannot afford to present itself into the next year with more of the same, and if current indications are anything to go by, this is exactly what Spalletti is offering.

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Ideally, Roma should go into the next season with a new Coach – an outsider, preferably from Spain, more orthodox in his tactical approach but possessing strong skills in psychological management and – perhaps most importantly – one with a proven record in nurturing young talent. This is one skill that Spalletti truly lacks. Two years ago, Roma were being lauded as the team growing the most and best Italian talents. Today, not a single one of them has made his mark, not even Aquilani, who stood as a ready-made champion for any Coach willing to work with him (the only exception to this may be Matteo Brighi, but he was fielded by necessity and he began his development in the pre-Spalletti era anyway). Today, Roma needs to go back to the basics from a tactical point of view and make the best of the youth it has. Turn to a simple 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 if Julio Baptista starts). Use the mercato to buy one central defender (much needed) and one truly great winger. Then call back the young guns – Alessio Cerci, Vitorino Antunes, Aleandro Rosi – and flank them with the gigantic promise that is Jeremy Menez and the experience of Taddei to have the wings fully covered. Give Aquilani a starter’s shirt, offer regular playing time to Stefano Okaka Chuka and call back Marco Andreolli so he may start gaining some experience as well (maybe even Valerio Virga and Ricardo Faty could find some space). This leaves the team with ample depth and selection in every department, requiring only a Coach with the competence to turn their age into a strength rather than a weakness.

We define this as an ‘ideal’ situation because it is never going to happen – Italian football is very hermetic and if Roma decide to change Coach, they will most likely opt for another Italian before they turn their sights to a foreigner. While this is part of an Italian tradition, that of relying on local resources, which is wonderfully healthy and which ensures constant excellence amid the c
Coaches (something which the British, for instance, could learn a lot from), in this contingency it is slowing the Roma team down. Coaches rumoured to be available next year (especially in exchange for Spalletti, who would do well with any novel team) appear inadequate. The candidate most discussed, Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti, is strong in the psychological department but he is the tactical equivalent of a Neanderthal man – his shortcomings in that sector would far outweigh any benefits he could provide. Alexandre Pato aside, he is no phenomenon with the youngsters either. Roberto Mancini is an outright incompetent (and the object of so much hate in Rome that were he to come over, the only bench he would ever see would be that of the San Gemelli hospital after the tifosi have broken his legs). Claudio Ranieri mostly fits the bill, except that he is almost worse than Spalletti when it comes to trusting youngsters. The only viable candidate seems to be Gian Piero Gasperini, but he is unlikely to move from Genoa next year.

So Spalletti will likely stay, which is not entirely senseless. A decisive advantage that Roma may possess next year could be an absence from the Champions League, a fact which is sad in and of itself but which gives often surprising energy to spare. If Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 is to be given a last chance at the Scudetto, this may be the perfect time. But it would be nice if this last run really were a last run. There are times when someone has to go against the flow to achieve the best results, and this is one of those times. Bringing in a foreign Coach could be a breath of fresh air for Roma and for Serie A in general (as Jose Mourinho has already been). It would be a step requiring great degrees of intelligence and courage. It would be a step worthy of a great team.

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