It was supposed to be Roma’s year. The team which had been the only one to challenge Inter for the Scudetto over the last two years was reinforced and ready to take on the world. The Champions League final was going to be played in Rome, giving the team an extra boost in motivation, and the Coppa Italia virtually belonged to the Giallorossi by tradition. They wanted it all, and they wanted it now.
A very humbling season later, with no access to next year’s Champions League and nothing to take home but a great deal of grief, we can sit and look back in reflection. What went wrong? Well – just about everything. While the greatest part of the blame should be laid at the door of Coach Luciano Spalletti, there were several crippling agents which were out of anyone’s control. Primarily, the fall of the team resulted from the natural entropy of a system which had been hitting its peak for two years in a row and which eventually collapsed under its own hubris. The very factors which held Roma at the top of Serie A for some time became the groundwork for its downfall. Among these we may mention the excessive confidence that resulted from two seasons of consecutive victories, the idiosyncratic nature of a tactical system which was inadaptable to changes in the roster of the squad (Julio Baptista for Amantino Mancini above all others), and the erosion – perhaps inevitable – of the rapport between Coach and changing room. Add a good dose of plain bad luck, from the magnification of the team’s weaknesses and not their strengths all the way to the injury crisis, and the recipe for disaster is complete.
If we wish to analyse Roma’s season, then we may divide it into three main segments. The first is the most important, as it laid the basis for the other two, and it was the most catastrophic. For nine weeks Roma seemed incapable of picking up a victory except on rare, almost casual occasions. This is curious, because the first game against Napoli actually showed some promise. The team started out with some pretty solid football and they earned a well-deserved goal which looked like an omen for very good things – an elegant assist into the box by Daniele De Rossi, beautifully controlled and converted by Alberto Aquilani. The Roman duo was there to conquer. Unfortunately, immediately after the first goal we witnessed a problem which was soon to become Roma’s nemesis – a psychological condition void of fighting spirit and professionalism, meaning that as soon as the team took the lead, they slouched back and left the game in the hands of their adversaries. Napoli promptly took advantage of this, and when the 1-1 came, it seemed as inevitable as rain in November. Roma attempted to lash back – Aquilani again almost converted a header, and we may speculate that much could have been different over the whole season if that one ball had gone in. Starting off with a win may have provided enough mental cohesion to prevent or at least partially embank the tremendous psychic collapse which followed. Who knows.
Roma went on to draw against Palermo, a much weaker team than Napoli, and already voices of protest were being heard. The win against Reggina was convincing (3-0), but it followed a horrendous defeat against Champions League rivals Cluj, possibly the weakest team in their entire group. By the fourth match Roma was facing Genoa, and no-one at that stage had any idea of the force that this team was going to represent throughout the season. They lost, of course, as they kept on losing for more than a month after that. The major teams slaughtered them – Inter won by 4-0, Udinese by 3-0 and Juventus by 2-0. The defence suffered more than any other department from the injury crisis – they were in tatters, and new central defender Simone Loria proved dismal to say the least, so much so that even modest Bologna managed to earn a draw from them. In all of this was the hospital epic of Francesco Totti’s knee as the man kept wanting to come back too early (as, say, in the game against Inter) and only went on to hurt himself more, thereby missing further matches. With Totti on the field, Roma worked. Without him, they fell apart. The over-dependence on the captain was a weakness which had been noted long before this season, but much like the frail psychological condition, the problem was amplified rather than solved. This is where Spalletti’s responsibility comes in – problems which had been nesting in the group for more than two years were ignored and allowed to proliferate when they should have been addressed at once, while no proactive strategies were put in action to improve or strengthen a system which had lost some freshness.
Eventually, finally, Roma picked itself up. The obvious watershed was the derby, with a 1-0 victory which was, all things considered, convincing. But in truth the team had already been showing some signs of vitality in the Champions League game away against Chelsea. Even though the Giallorossi lost 1-0, the squad seemed much more organic than usual and the ‘best team in the world,’ as John Terry’s men were being apostrophised back then, could easily have drawn or even lost that game. This is what happened when they played the return game at the Olimpico, as modest Roma earned their first beautiful victory of the season by vanquishing the Blue dragons by 3-1. It was a gigantic boost of morale and a precious result as it earned them first place in their Champions League group.
Thus began what we may call the second segment of Roma’s season, one which was going to go on for more than three months. This was the supposed ‘renaissance’ of the Giallorossi, and they went on to win seven games in a row and achieve some very convincing results (1-0 against big dog Fiorentina, 3-0 against Lecce, Napoli and Genoa). For a short while, the climb in the rankings was so fast that some people in Rome even dared whisper the word ‘Scudetto.’ And while that may have been no more than a mirage, the fourth place and Champions League access became a very real possibility.
A number of factors contributed to this positive stretch. The first and most obvious of these was the return to consistent form of Francesco Totti, meaning that the team regained their most precious tactical and technical element. Another was the maturation of a number of new players. Jérémy Menez enjoyed a short stretch of fame, although Spalletti would soon forget him on the bench. Baptista proved decisive on several occasions and earned a wealth of unspeakably precious points to his team, a fact which makes it even more bizarre that he should currently be the subject of so much criticism. Yet of all the new starters, none was more prominent than Matteo Brighi, a young and stocky central midfielder whom no-one would have expected to become – albeit briefly – the most crucial player among the Giallorossi. The man was an authentic revelation this season, proving capable of scoring and defending in equal measure and even earning some call-ups for the national team. As one of the few good things to have come out of the injury crisis (especially with an eye towards next year), he provides a perfect alternative to ageing and increasingly unreliable Simone Perrotta.
Aside from the individual players, there were other actors playing a part in the play of Roma’s resurgence. One was luck, which finally turned. Several of the victories in the seven-game streak were really rather fortunate (the last-minute 3-2 win against Cagliari, for instance), and often the adversaries came inch-close to equalising when they were under. Several of the teams Roma faced were quite weak, while others were in the middle of a terrible stretch of form (Napoli, for instance, were already falling to pieces when Roma came and wiped the floor with them). So yes, luck played its part. With that out of the way, the final important cause to be noted is tactics. After banging his head against the shortcomings of the 4-2-3-1 for a month and a half, Spalletti finally decided to change formation, switching to a 4-4-2 with the central midfielders arranged in a 1-2-1 schema. For a good while, this seemed like the right choice. The formation produced some comparatively ugly football, but it seemed effective at churning out results.
The reality of this second segment is that Roma went through a false renaissance. A look at the growth-factors we described above shows that the Giallorossi saw a hiatus from their problems and not their resolution. The over-dependence on Totti was not dissolved, it was simply suspended for as long as the Roman captain was back on the pitch (and as soon as he came off again, the team fell apart, losing 3-0 against Catania). ‘Luck’ as one of the strengths of the team requires no further comment. As for the tactical change of scenario, the new formation was really quite overstated. It had none of the originality or incisiveness of the 4-2-3-1 in its first iterations and the football it produced was slow and predictable. One of the major causes for the downfall of the 4-2-3-1 was the replacement of Amantino Mancini with Julio Baptista (an equally valuable but completely different player), a change which devastated the delicate equilibriums of the original formation. The truth is that Spalletti failed to adapt to the difference, and this steatopygous 4-4-2 was simply the symptom of his failure – lacking a truly fresh strategy, he chose a disposition which seemed to grind its opponents into submission by a physical test of resilience (as in, the team that keeps on running after the ball without losing breath will be the first to score) rather than by actual intelligence. Whatever happens next year, this is not the formation that the Giallorossi want to bring into the new season. Bring in new wingers and exploit Baptista in his favoured roles, instead of bastardising him in a formation which no longer has the legs to stand upon.
The frailty behind Roma’s rebirth gave way to the third, final and longest segment of Roma’s season, which was simply an off-shoot of the first and second. Totti’s conditions started wavering once again and luck finally ran out. Simultaneously, however, positive steps forward were made in terms of improving confidence and morale, and new acquisitions like Marco Motta came in to strengthen the ranks. Some pretty irregular results followed (including the polemical 3-3 draw against Inter), and while the overall atmosphere was not nearly as catastrophic as that of the first part of the season, the team’s technical weaknesses meant that things were still more dire than good. The race for the Coppa Italia stopped towards the quarter-finals at the hands of Inter in a match influenced by some pretty inept refereeing decisions. Eventually the dream of the Champions League dissolved as the team lost in the last 16 to Arsenal – an incredibly tight game, overdrawn to penalties and played almost without stopping to catch one’s breath. It was an impossible dream from the start. While the match against the Gunners could have been won, any progress beyond that would have been impossible (especially given the competition). The final was in Rome, but this was not Roma’s year.
Even so, it came as a very hard blow. Roma’s heart and spirit went knock-out and counting, and crushing defeats were suffered at the hands of Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina. It did not help that a new edition of the injury crisis seemed to rear its head. Some commentators have suggested that this too could have been Spalletti’s fault, as the man’s training is notoriously taxing. We cannot make a definite statement on the subject, but the hypothesis is beginning to look plausible. It is hard to remember a time since Spalletti picked up the reins when Roma were not having injury problems, so if the two things are related, then wake up, Luciano – it’s time to lighten the load.
By the time the race for the fourth place was over, interest in (and within) the team flagged to inertia. Speculations on the possible sale of the club took over with all their tedious immateriality, and the only good thing left to follow was the goal-count of Francesco Totti. (The man broke into the top 10 of the all-time Serie A scorers and now stands ninth alongside Giampiero Boniperti – the achievement is gigantic.) This leaves us where we are now, awakening from this nightmare of a season, and looking towards the summer with hope and perhaps a little bit of dread. There is certainly much to be worked on. This writer has advocated a change of Coach for the next season, but it seems this is not going to happen. The mercato needs to give answers, and the ownership perhaps even more so. We shall discuss more of this in the next and final Club Focus of the season. Until then, let us just be glad it’s over.