In just six days Roma welcomes Catania to the Olimpico, ushering in the new season, replete with new expectations, new anxieties and new controversies. To better prepare you for this, we here at CDT are going to hopefully alleviate your fears and peak your curiosity by taking a look at our beloved Giallorossi position-by-position.
First up, Goalkeepers and Defense.
Roma fans can tend to disagree with one another from time to time, whether or not DeRossi should be sold, can Bojan see over the steering wheel, and just how much higher can Taddei's shorts go without violating public indecency statutes?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, nothing forms a consensus of opinion better than a shitty defense. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at just how porous the Roma defense has been in the past five seasons:
2011-2012: 54 goals allowed, 7th worst
2010-2011: 52 goals allowed, 4th worst
2009-2010: 41 goals allowed, 4th best
2008-2009: 61 goals allowed, 4th worst
2007-2008: 37 goals allowed, 3rd best
Fairly mixed results, the 09-10 and 07-08 seasons saw Roma finish second behind Inter each time, but the rest of the results are pretty bleak. When you look a bit further back, a more general pattern occurs, as the Roman defense starts to look like an all-or-nothing proposition; landing either in the top five stingiest or top five worst defenses, in terms of goals allowed, except for the 2002-2003 season when they finished smack in the middle.
The recent trend, especially the last two seasons, is not encouraging, so let's take a look at the young men tasked with keeping the ball out of the net.
While not quite the revolving door that has been the fullback position, Roma have seen their fair share of goalkeepers the past few seasons, from Doni to Julio Sergio, Gianluca Curci to Bogdan Lobont, Portiere has not been the picture of stability.
First up, the new kid: Tomas Svedkauskas
Purchased from FK Suduva in July of this year, Svedkauskas, 18-years old, stands a touch over 6 feet tall and is a member of the Lithuanian U-19 squad. After spending last season on loan at Fiorentina, Svedkauskas signed on with Roma for a five year hitch. He does not figure to play a large role with Roma any time soon, but keep an eye on him in the years to come.
The (possible) understudy: Bogdan Lobont
Lobont, also 1.85m/6ft, has made 256 career appearances, 17 with Roma, including 7 last season. Lobont, who will turn 35 during the season, figures to remain behind Maarten Stekelenburg in the pecking order, barring any unforeseen circumstances or transfers.
The man between the sticks: Maarten Stekelenburg
Purchased just last summer for €6M from Ajax, many Roma fans, and I'm sure Luis Enrique, thought they were getting the next Edwin van der Sar, as Maarten followed in van der Sar's footsteps at Ajax and with the Dutch National team, guiding the latter to the finals of the 2010 World Cup.
While last season did not go according to plan, Stekelenburg still has plenty of time to prove himself as an ace keeper, as, barely a month from his 30th birthday, he is just entering the prime goalkeeping years. His presumed idol, van der Sar, did not really establish himself as a truly world class keeper until 2005 with Manchester United at age 35. For the sake of Roma's title hopes, now and in the future, let's hope his career trajectory is similar.
Despite those comparisons, Stekelenburg has not escaped the slings and arrows of some Roma fans, as Julio Cesar has been mentioned as a possible replacement throughout the summer. The up tempo pace and high-lined nature of Zeman's defense has led some to question Stekelenburg's suitability for such a system, as it has the potential to expose a keeper to a greater degree of 1v1 scenarios. The argument being, his nearly 6'6'' frame isn't ideal for a keeper who needs to drop to the ground quickly and decisively. The Catch-22, of course, is that what he might lack in agility, he makes up for in simple surface area, covering more ground with his longer limbs. It's an interesting debate, one which I don't really buy into, but his place (for this season at least) appears safe.
However, if he hopes to win over the hearts and minds of the fanbase and build a legacy in Rome, he cannot afford any missteps; needless to say, this is a crucial year for Stekelenburg.
But, as the adage goes, no man is an island, so let's take a look at Stekelenburg's protectors.
While Roma's back four was never a stone wall, they were fortunate to have a solid and feisty central pairing of Juan and Phillipe Mexes for several years. A year gone from Mexes, Luis Enrique pinned his defensive hopes on Nicolas Burdisso and the ever aging legs of Juan. Well, you know the story by now, Nico succumbed to a serious knee injury and only started 8 matches, while Juan only managed 16 starts, leaving the burden on Simon Kjaer and Gabriele Heinze, which didn't work out too well.
Last season's fullbacks fared no better, as the Jose Angel experiment never really took off and Aleandro Rosi wasn't up to snuff. Enrique, seemingly grasping at straws, employed Heinze, Simone Perrotta and even Rodrigo Taddei at fullback.
Needless to say, the defense, in all its parts, was in need of a complete overhaul. So how'd we do?
It goes without saying, but the health of Nicolas Burdisso will be a determining factor in any success Roma has this season. We all know Nico can play like a bat out of hell, but will his surgically repaired knees hold up over the full 38 weeks? There's no questioning his talent or desire, but will he still have the endurance, pace and agility necessary to succeed in Zeman's system?
Joining Burdisso in central defense will be 25-year old Brazilian, Leandro Castan. Fresh off a Copa Libertadores victory with Corinthians, Castan made the switch to Roma on €5M move. At this point, given his age and experience relative to the remaining CBs, he figures to slot in next to Burdisso in the Starting XI. While not blessed with blinding speed or cat like reflexes, Castan is lauded for his positioning and strength on the ball and should pair well with Burdisso, providing extra muscle and intensity to the backline.
The book is incredibly short on this Italy U-17 international, but he has the faith of ZZ and appears to have a shot at making the first team to start the season. Again, how much he is actually pressed into service depends on the health of Burdisso and the performance and acclimation of our next CB...
The former captain of Brazil's U-17 squad should see his move officially secured today (€1.5 up front for the loan, with a €4.5M option to buy). What he lacks in age and experience, he makes up with potential, with some calling him the "Neymar of defense" or more generally as one of, if not the best, defensive prospects in Brazil. If you believe his brother, Marquinhos isn't coming to Roma to learn from the bench, as he told the Brazilian press that his brother will play in the September 2 tilt against Inter. As far as speculative signings of teenaged Brazilian defenders go, this appears to be the cream of the crop. If Zeman's faith and admiration of him is true, how much he plays will simply be a matter of his effort in training and how quickly he can grasp the mental aspects of Serie A.
Walter Sabatini spared us the trauma that comes with basking in the potential of a young South American by signing Italian international and ballet aficionado, Federico Balzaretti from Palermo for the sweet sum of €4.5M. Balzaretti is now on board through 2015. What he brings is simple; experience and success at the highest levels of the Italian game. If he continues his fine form from this summer's Euro's, the left wing of the defense should be in fine shape and if the newly svelte Francesco Totti plays on the left side of the trident, Roma should dominate the left flank, week-in-and-week-out.
Piris, a 23 year old Paraguayan, comes on loan from Uruguayan side Deportivo Maldonado, after spending last season on loan in Brazil at Sao Paulo. Piris, having played in a more traditional defensive role in his native Paraguay, augmented this skill set while playing in the Brazilian Serie A, where defenders are generally more involved in the attack; Pace is definitely Piris's friend. If he can acclimate quickly, look for him to be an active and attacking full back. At this point, there is no real competition for the starting RB spot, so Piris figures to be thrown into the fray early and often.
José Rodolfo Pires Ribeiro Dodô joins Castan and Marquinhos as former Corinthians defenders signed this summer. Dodo, coming off an ACL injury, was released by the Brazilian club and signed to a five year deal by Roma. Dodo originally seemed destined to ply his trade at Old Trafford, coming close to a deal in 2009, fortunately for Roma, we can look forward to seeing plenty of this in the near future. Just how much he plays this term depends on his health, though from the looks of it, he can be a tremendous asset.
Further Reinforcements Necessary?
Given the youth and relative inexperience of Dodo, Piris, Marquinhos and Romagnoli, it's fair to speculate whether or not the BS boys have anything else up their sleeves. Will they dip into Brazil yet again to snare Rhodolfo, the €12M man from Sao Paulo? Will they keep it domestic and go for Davide Astori or Angelo Ogbonna? Can they tempt Salvatore Bocchetti back from Russia? Do they have any shot at Dejan Lovren? Has the Bruno Uvini ship sailed? Was there ever any truth to the Davide Santon connections?
Time is running short; there are only 11 days with which to answer those questions. If Burdisso's health holds firm and Castan adapts quickly, the central defense should be solid but not spectacular. We know what we're getting with one of our fullbacks, while the others lay in the realm of potential.
Despite that uncertainty, you have to love the moves Baldini and Sabatini have made with the defense this summer. Getting a healthy Burdisso back is like a transfer in and of itself, while Balzaretti brings a wealth of experience to the wide positions. The signings of Dodo, Marquinhos, Piris and the emergence of Romagnoli portend a young and nimble defense for the future, capable of winning balls and starting attacks from all corners of the pitch in the blink of an eye. If Roma have a shot a the top three this year, one or more of those young men need to take a step forward and begin to turn their potential into productivity.
In many ways, Roma's defense is a microcosm for the entire squad, teeming with extraordinarily talented youngsters with the potential to wreak havoc up and down the peninsula in the coming years.
I hope you're ready, Serie A, Roma is coming!