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.
There’s only one place to start here, and that’s with Francesco Totti. The captain’s role this season was supposed to be primarily as an impact sub, but he has already played 298 minutes this campaign: more than he played in the first 5 months of last season. Even though he celebrated his 40th birthday last month, what an impact he is still able to make. He turned the game against Sampdoria round himself with an assist and a last minute penalty, and in total in the last 13 league games has 6 goals and 5 assists, coupled with a hat-trick of assists in the 4-0 win against Astra. Even though he turned 40 last month, Totti still has the class and ability to win games for Roma. The flip side to that is whether he should still need to – with the wealth of attacking options available to Spalletti, Roma should be able to see off the likes of Samp (who are a poor team this year) without having to rely on Totti. Be that as it may, Edin Dzeko has started to show he can be the Giallorossi’s bomber, with 5 goals in 7 league games thus far. It’s true that he has also spurned numerous chances, some of them easier than those he’s scored, and in fact he has had more shots than anyone else in Europe’s top 5 leagues (40) so far. But he is getting into goalscoring positions (note the run he made to get into the gap between Inter’s defenders for the opening goal on Sunday – it wasn’t as simple a tap-in as it may appear at first glance), and it is his best start to a campaign for 4 seasons.
Dzeko is Roma’s top scorer so far, followed by Diego Perotti on 4 (all of which have been penalties). Perotti hasn’t been quite as explosive as he was last season, but has kept his place in the team (largely operating on the left hand side or as a false 9) ahead of Stephan El Shaarawy, which may be down to the additional defensive cover that he can provide, particularly when playing on the left as the full back positions have been areas opposition teams have sought to exploit. El Shaarawy has had a muted start to the season and has completed 90 minutes just once: the 4-0 win against Crotone, in which he scored his only goal so far and was subsequently put under the spotlight for not celebrating it. “It was an instinctive reaction. I’m very self-critical and I demand a lot of myself,” he explained afterwards. More recently, il Faraone was involved in a serious car crash as he returned home from Trigoria, though thankfully both he and another driver emerged uninjured. Once he has rediscovered some calm both on and off the pitch, we should expect to see him return to the great form he showed last season.
Mohamed Salah has generally picked up from where he left off, though against Inter he was guilty of some Gervinho-esque finishing as he missed two clear opportunities (though he was certainly not alone in missing chances in that game). Roma have really looked to exploit Salah’s pace on the counter this season, as the tendency in many games has been to ease off after taking a lead and hitting the opposition on the break. Whether this is a long-term tactic or simply a way for Spalletti to try and conserve his team’s energy during a busy period of the season remains to be seen, but what’s been noticeable is Salah’s discontent when being substituted. There is sure to be frustration with his own performances in that unhappiness, though for Daniele Lo Monaco to call Salah “the worst player on the pitch” against the Nerazzurri was taking it too far, but Roma’s lack of balance in attack and consequent over-reliance on the Egyptian is also something for Spalletti to think on. After all, it’s no secret that Roma’s attack hasn’t flowed as naturally as it has in the past, often looking slow, laboured and predictable, and that isn’t the fault of any one player in particular but the overall mentality of the team. And when it comes to mentality, there is one player who is struggling most of all to either think or do anything positively: Juan Manuel Iturbe. Iturbe nearly left Roma in the summer only for Spalletti to block the sale, but so far the winger hasn’t done anything to justify the Tuscan’s faith in him. It isn’t for want of trying, indeed at times he is trying too hard, but his confidence and mental fortitude have gone, which is most evident when he has managed to get into a goalscoring position. There surely can’t be anyone left now who thinks that Iturbe has been anything other than a disaster of a signing, but – just like the much-derided Juan Jesus – while he still wears the red and yellow he needs the full support of the Olimpico.
On the whole, Spalletti can be fairly content with the start to the season. Roma are sitting 3rd in the league after 7 games, he has handled the Totti situation well and, while sticking with a core group of players, has been rotating the team sensibly between league and European games. There could have been more rotation, of course, and it would make sense to blood some of the Primavera players where possible, but injuries (most of all in defence) and the necessity to get out of form players’ confidence back have often forced his hand. Injuries and Roma’s lack of depth in certain areas have also led to players being played out of position (again, chiefly in defence), and that is something that Walter Sabatini has to take responsibility for.
Many fans felt that Roma were underprepared going into the season, with little to no cover at full back and only 1 recognised centre forward, and those feelings coupled with the Champions League exit (the financial ramifications of which will be fully felt next summer) and the continuing absence of the Curva Sud because of the security barriers led to a feeling of depression and negativity in the early weeks of the season. It should be said that these sensations aren’t entirely without foundation – Roma have let themselves play at the level of the opposition (Viktoria Plzen) and not held onto winning positions (most notably at Cagliari). The sense of frustration has also deepened at Roma’s profligacy: they have had more shots on target than anyone in Europe except for 4 sides (Real Madrid, Juventus, Lyon and Liverpool) but despite scoring 16 times in Serie A, the overriding feeling is that they aren’t scoring enough of the chances they’re creating. At the same time, although the defeat at Torino was a poor performance from the entire team, the Granata are a force this season under Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Roma were unfortunate to come away with nothing from Florence where Fiorentina not only scored a late goal that should have been disallowed for offside but ought to have conceded a penalty when Edin Dzeko was fouled by Nenad Tomovic.
“We’re running at 60%, there’s room for improvement,” Spalletti said after the Inter win, and on balance that is an accurate summation. Antonio Rudiger is on the verge of a (incredibly quick) return from his cruciate injury, and don’t exclude Spalletti using the German as a right back on occasion. More than anything, what Roma really need is some consistency in personnel and with that will come consistency in performances. “Everything is becoming easier now,” Spalletti explained. “There’s more calmness, less tension, less anxiety in the dressing room.” When Roma’s problems are primarily mental ones, that can only be a good thing.
Roma have another busy fixture schedule when domestic action resumes in 10 days’ time, with two Europa League games and a midweek round in Serie A to contend with before the next international break in early November. There are tough away trips to Napoli and Sassuolo coming up for Spalletti’s team, but the fixture list is otherwise fairly favourable and should allow the Tuscan coach to continue to rotate his squad.
14/10 – Napoli-Roma (Serie A)
20/10 – Roma-Austria Wien (Europa League)
23/10 – Roma-Palermo (Serie A)
26/10 – Sassuolo-Roma (Serie A)
30/10 – Empoli-Roma (Serie A)
3/11 – Austria Wien-Roma (Europa League)
6/11 – Roma-Bologna (Serie A)