After 7 games in the last 3 weeks, Roma can pause to catch their breath with another international break coming up. The start of the season was overshadowed by negativity but 7 games in, Roma are 3rd in Serie A and sit top of their Europa League group after a comfortable 4-0 victory against Astra Giurgiu last week. asroma.co.uk looks at the season so far.
Luciano Spalletti has had a tough choice in deciding what to do with both Wojciech Szczesny and Alisson, who are equally capable of starting in goal. At the start of September Alisson claimed that he was “calm” in starting the season on the bench, and the Brazilian number 1 has had to be patient as he has only played in the Europa League for the Giallorossi so far. Taffarel, the Brazil goalkeeping coach, said on Monday that Alisson “isn’t happy, he can’t be content being a back up” and hinted that while “Szczesny is a good goalkeeper and is playing well” added “I’ve heard from lots of people in Rome that [Alisson] has great potential and that he’ll soon win the place that he deserves to have.” The problem for Alisson is that Szczesny has so far been good form for Roma, not giving Spalletti the opportunity to drop him. True, he made a horrific error of judgement in the second leg against Porto as he charged miles out of his goal and was rounded easily by Miguel Layun, but he has also put in some fine performances – none more so than last Sunday against Inter. Perhaps what has given Szczesny the edge in the ballotaggio so far is that the Pole has the advantage of having played with some of the Roma defence before, and while the back 4 in front of him adjust to integrating yet more new signings the coach is playing it safe by keeping a tried and tested pair of hands in goal behind them.
This is where Roma’s most obvious problems have been so far this campaign. The defence has had to be rebuilt yet again following the summer transfer window and Antonio Rudiger‘s injury on international duty, and time after time in the early games of the season the Giallorossi have been exposed in the full back positions. Roma had to tear up their plans and start again when Mario Rui sustained a cruciate ligament injury in pre-season, leaving them with a major problem at left back going into the new campaign. Perplexingly, Emerson Palmieri started the season with the faith of Spalletti, but has failed to repay the coach with inexperienced displays and was sent off with a reckless red card against Porto. That seems to have been a turning point, as since that sending off he has only played 10 minutes (a late substitute appearance against Crotone). That has left Juan Jesus largely filling the left back role, but he – like Emerson – has been guilty of a number of errors, at times costly. “I know more than anyone that I’ve made mistakes,” he wrote on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. He is not afraid to be honest and admit to making errors, having also done so at Inter last year, but with nearly 150 games under his belt for the Nerazzurri things like basic positional sense (such as when he was caught out against Viktoria Plzen) cannot be put down to a lack of experience. Is it a lack of talent? Possibly, but Juan Jesus deserves a fairer crack of the whip than to be written off at this stage. Ultimately, he is more naturally a centre back than a left back, and the atmosphere around the club has not been an easy one for anyone to come into.
Bruno Peres has also been tried out at left back, but has played there as a last resort – his ill-suitedness to the role was most evident against Torino, where he gave away a penalty for a clear foul on Andrea Belotti. At right back though, he has been more comfortable, though not entirely error-free, but his ability to surge forward with the ball or provide extra width has been much needed given the lack of attacking support coming from left back. Peres has in fact taken on and beaten players 20 times so far this season, more than anyone else in the league. While Peres has started every game since signing, Alessandro Florenzi has also been utilised at right back at times as well as further forward. I am a big fan of Florenzi and there’s no doubt that his versatility is a bonus, but – injuries permitting – he needs to stop being used in the back four, where his natural tendency to attack has often left huge gaps behind him. Spalletti ought to take note that Florenzi’s performance against Inter was his best in quite some time, and it’s also worth pointing out that in 2008/09, Spalletti tried out Florenzi (who was in the Primavera at the time) in the Perrotta role during training matches. Whether in the centre or on the wing, it’s further forward where he really needs to be.
In the centre, Kostas Manolas has been the pillar around which the rest of the defence has been built, capped off by a magnificent performance against Inter in which he completely nullified the threat of the dangerous Mauro Icardi. Roma should be incredibly thankful for the Greek’s grinta and technical ability, and while the club have a tendency to rush into contract renewals (putting the case of Francesco Totti last season aside), giving Manolas a new deal should be a priority as he is a key player in the spine of this team. Alongside him, Federico Fazio took a while to win a place in the first team; his start was shaky and he was guilty of some poor defending in the build up to Torino’s opening goal, but overall he is improving and is continuing to find his feet in both Roma’s defence and in Serie A. The big Argentine has come in for more than his fair share of criticism on social media, and while he isn’t a long-term solution he is a capable back up while Rudiger continues his recovery. Let’s not forget that Roma have signed far worse defenders in the not so distance past: Souleymane Diamoutene, anyone? That said, recently Spalletti has had to play Fazio whether he likes it or not, due to Thomas Vermaelen being ruled out with an ongoing pubalgia injury. The Belgian has only managed 2 appearances so far between suspension (a red card on his debut against Porto) and being in the treatment room. Vermaelen injured, who saw that one coming?
Essentially though, what the Roma defence is really missing is consistency; it doesn’t matter who plays in the back 4 if the personnel change week by week. So far this season, Spalletti has picked 7 different starting defences in 11 games, featuring 4 new signings (2 of whom – Peres and Juan Jesus – have covered 2 different roles). Is it really any surprise that they have lacked cohesion and that communication has been an issue so far? Hardly. And despite the issues, WhoScored.com’s best XI for September featured 3 Roma defenders: Florenzi, Fazio and Peres.
Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Leandro Paredes have been the mainstays of the Roma midfield so far. Romanisti know exactly what to expect from De Rossi by now; he has combined some superb performances, particularly earlier on in the Serie A season, with moments where the blood rushes to his head – his red card for a foul on Maxi Pereira against Porto was not only a shocking challenge but an unnecessary one. That De Rossi is still capable of such moments of madness isn’t a surprise (he’s 33, it won’t grow out of him now), but that is the risk that comes with De Rossi, who on his day is still an excellent midfielder. Spalletti said early on that he would need to manage Strootman carefully, given the length of time he has spent out with injuries, but the Dutchman has in fact been an ever-present this season. Not only has his knee (thankfully) held up to the task, but he has put in some imperious performances, dominating and commanding the midfield such as he showed against Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Inter. It’s a cliche to say that Strootman’s return has been like having a new signing, but in truth it has felt that way. Welcome back, Kevin.
Paredes has had to deal with a great deal of expectation following an impressive season with Empoli last year, and at times he has struggled to live up to it – particularly when games have been played at a higher tempo and he has had to think and play more quickly. But when he has had more time, he has shown what quality he has – in the 4-0 win against Crotone, he played 106 passes (4 key passes), while against Astra he made 165 passes with 95% accuracy. There is an untapped creativity in Paredes that Spalletti could utilise more, which could be achieved by playing him further forward instead of Nainggolan (as I’ve mentioned before), but overall it’s been a steady start for the young Argentine.
Radja Nainggolan has been his usual combative self in Roma’s midfield 3, though at times he has been called upon to play in a more advanced position, the ‘Simone Perrotta role’ as it’s often been called. This gives Roma the flexibility to switch easily from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 and vice versa, but Nainggolan’s end product is a question mark over his suitability for this role, as he has so far provided only 1 assist and is yet to score in 10 appearances. Gerson, the young Brazilian signed at great cost from Fluminense earlier in 2016, has occasionally been sighted in the Europa League but so far he hasn’t made much of an impression – certainly not enough to justify his €16.6m transfer fee. He is only 20 years old though so needs to be given time to find his place in Roma’s midfield, arguably the Giallorossi’s strongest position and where they have the most depth.