The departure of Luis Enrique from Roma may on the surface have seemed a hammer blow to the project underway in the capital. A representative of Barcelona, the club the envy of the football world for its creative uniformity and productive youth academy, and the club on which Roma’s project was publically modelled, Enrique was a symbol as much as a Coach.
General director Franco Baldini spoke of Enrique being exhausted when he revealed the news of the Spaniard’s departure. Perhaps the upgrade in intensity from Barcelona B to the bench of the Stadio Olimpico had much to do with the fatigue Enrique is reportedly feeling, and 14 defeats in 37 matches would push even the hardest-worn Coach to his limits. But as a player Enrique performed the reverse Luis Figo, going from Real Madrid to Barcelona, not a transfer for the faint of heart nor weak of spirit, yet it appears the demands of calcio and maybe the frustration of his methods taking time to settle has done for the 42-year-old.
Part of a project at once ambitious and admirable, Enrique’s tenure may best be viewed as stage one, the laying of the foundations. The intention will have been for Enrique to guide the stages that follow – seen in the reluctant way in which Baldini confirmed the news – but this season cracks have appeared and by virtue of his resignation, Enrique evidently feels he is not the man to repair them. But how and why that damage was done, what caused the dispiriting league form of the Lupi and where the club goes from here are questions that need asking and answering by the people overseeing the venture.
Enrique brought new concepts to Roma, the decision to move Daniele De Rossi to the centre of defence amongst them. Playing a central midfielder in central defence is an idea in vogue among some of football’s more innovative thinkers. Marcelo Bielsa has done so at Athletic Bilbao, using Javi Martinez much as Enrique used De Rossi, with Spain’s national Coach Vicente Del Bosque following Bielsa’s lead. The advantages of a midfielder in defence are manifold, particularly when it comes to a philosophy of playing that centres on building moves patiently from the back, a tenant of the Enrique way. But the impact on the midfield is often overlooked.
By playing De Rossi as a centre-back Enrique was strengthening that area at the expense of another, the central midfield berth vacated by De Rossi. Roma’s midfield too often allowed the opposition free reign of the middle of the pitch, allowing opposing players to pass and move without so much as a gesture of a tackle – Roma hold the dubious honour of making the fewest tackles per game, 19.8, of any Serie A side.
Yet Roma have had the second-most amount of possession in the division, behind champions Juventus, suggesting that of the Barcelona principles the club are attempting to absorb they have taken on the board the eye-catching passing style but not the less-glamorous but equally-important harrying and harassing without the ball. It is not even a case of interceptions rather than tackles ruling the day, as the Giallorossi are in the lower half of that list too.
The Enrique experiment may have come to an abrupt end but the wider project goes on, and now at least Roma have a clearer indication of what works and what does not in the complex world of Italian football. Where the building work goes from here and who is tasked with seeing it through will be another fascinating story to follow.