Roma's Fullback Problems

Tullio M. Puglia

Roma has had some fantastic players the past 10-12 years, ace midfielders, top notch center backs and, of course, Francesco Totti, but fullback? That's been a different story, but why?

We have a lot of recurring themes in this church, reverence for Francesco Totti, of course, but we've also poured over the ways in which Daniele De Rossi has forged his only legacy apart from our namesake, we've devoted time to the subtle significance of Simone Perrotta, and we've even marveled at the understated elegance of Rodrigo Taddei's shorts.

There is one thing, however, one not so nice thing that we've been forced to discuss, time-and-time again; Roma's deplorable track record at developing, recruiting and obtaining top fullbacks. The cast of characters filling these shoes over the past dozen years has ranged from born and bred Romans, midtable castoffs, calculated gambles, and veterans seeking a second life.

So, with rumors of Aogos and Abners floating around us, let's take a look at how Roma got into this mess in the first place.

The Miscreants

I'm sure we've discussed in these spaces before, but across all sports there is a standard rule: finding and exploiting young talent before it becomes cost prohibitive is job number one. In other words, fostering one's own talent is far better and cheaper than dipping into the transfer market for established stars. Why buy what you can make yourself? It's DIY football style.

So, whether we're talking about Roma's own misguided efforts to develop their own fullbacks, or taking a chance on someone else's castoffs, Roma's attempts at finding a young and/or cost efficient full back hasn't exactly been fruitful. We'll dispense with Antunes (not even worth discussing) and Luca Antei (jury's still out) and focus on Roma's two most wayward youths.

Aleandro Rosi

This one had the makings of a masterpiece. Rosi, a born and bred Roman, would make his debut in the spring of 2005, at the tender age of 18-years old. After making 15 appearances the following season, including the Champions League, the stage seemed set. With his blend of size, creativity, and Roman blood, Rosi was next in line to be lionized.

Despite that seemingly perfect backdrop, the Rosi at Roma story didn't pan out too well. After shuffling through loan spells at Chievo, Livorno and Siena, Rosi seemed to find a place, albeit a tenuous one, under the stewardship of Claudio Ranieri and Luis Enrique. But Rosi's inability to, shall we say, defend, and his refusal to spend another season on loan effectively put the nail in this coffin.

At least in this instance, the Roman standard was too much to bear.

Marco Motta

This one still stings, I gotta admit that.  Motta, the former Italy U-21 captain, was purchased from Udinese in a deal that can only be described as quintessentially Italian (loans, co-ownerships, rebate coupons, extended warranties. You know, standard Serie A fare). Fresh off that January transfer, Motta was a seamless fit into Luciano Spalletti's side, providing an instant defensive upgrade and giving Poobah the size, speed and technique he desperately wanted from his right flank.

Motta had it all. He was a two way player, he had strength, pace, and intelligence...he was the future, and he was Roma's.

But he wasn't the future, he was barely the present. Motta, as it turned out, was very much a Spalletti man. Once Poobah was gone, that was pretty much all she wrote, as Motta never managed to curry the favor of Claudio Ranieri, barely cracking 1,000 minutes during the 2009-2010 season under the Tinkerman.

Losing the faith of his new manager was merely the first domino in Motta's downfall. Once he started suffering setbacks, physical or otherwise, his once peerless façade was suddenly tarnished. His positioning became suspect, his offensive contributions effectively nil, and his promise all but gone.

Despite that ignominious decline, it's hard to pin down exactly why this one failed; he started off like a house on fire, beating out several veterans to find first team action on a Champions League club (that was us, right?), and looking very much like the future of the Roman and Italian defense. However, once his grasp on Ranieri's XI started to slip, his confidence, not to mention his performance, suffered and he was no more.

Motta's tenure in Roma, and really all of Serie A, was so piqued with hyperbole (positive and negative) and intrigue, that it was only fitting his future was decided by a blind auction...like I said, quintessentially Italian.

Solid But Not Spectacular

Where Roma failed with youth, one might argue they succeeded with modestly priced veterans. While the names listed here were all solid options, they were past their collective primes once Roma got ahold of them.

Max Tonetto

Tonetto, who came to Roma in 2006, started his professional career before some of you were probably even alive. All told, Tonetto made nine previous stops prior to arriving in Roma, but it must be said, once he got here, he was surprisingly solid. In his first two seasons alone, he made over 60 appearances, logged over 6,000 minutes, doled out five assists and even scored a goal. But he was 32 years old by the time he got here, and, much like Motta, once Spalletti was caput, that was effectively that for Tonetto's tenure in Roma.

All in all, a solid two year stretch for #22, but, unfortunately for him, one probably best known for that penalty miss against Arsenal that cost Roma a trip to the Champions League quarterfinal.

Marco Cassetti

Everybody's favorite Watford winter training guest was an essential part of the Roma defense for six seasons, playing for everyone from Spalletti, to Montella, to Enrique. Although somewhat younger than Tonetto, at age 29, Cassetti wasn't exactly wet behind the ears when he rolled into Roma, and was nearly a decade into his Serie A career, which started off nine years early for Hellas Verona. All told, #77 made nearly 200 appearances for the Giallorossi, scoring five goals and dishing out eight assists.

He was very much the defensive counterpart to Tonetto, and between the two Roma had a pair of experienced and solid fullbacks, but neither would have been mistaken for Roberto Carlos, or even Gianluca Zambrotta for that matter. They were decent enough options for the moment, but they had met their ceilings by the time they made their way to Rome, and they certainly weren't long term solutions.

But this next guy, oh this next guy. He was pretty good...

Christian Panucci

Really, there is no reason to lump him in with the rest of these reprobates, but Panucci was quite the vagabond during his career and came to Roma following a somewhat unique set of circumstances. After becoming the first Italian to ever play for Real Madrid--forming quite the tandem with Robert Carlos in the process--Panucci made a handful of appearances for Inter before disastrous loan spells at Chelsea and Monaco. His once promising career had seemingly hit the skids.

Sensing an opportunity to seize upon a suddenly overlooked player, Roma threw down nearly €10m to capture Panucci from Inter. And, despite the lack of worldwide acclaim, it was as successful a fullback experiment as Roma has conducted in ages. The man affectionately known as Grand Old Man River--he played ages 29-36 for Roma, after all--made nearly 300 appearances, scored 30 goals, tallied 10 assists and logged nearly 25,000 minutes during his time in the Eternal City.

Although he was a bit past his prime and never included among the world's best at his position at any point during his tenure, Panucci was, by Roman standards, virtually above reproach and has become very much the paragon of Roman fullbacks.

The Others

While John Arne Riise certainly endeared himself to the Roma faithful, his legend probably exceeded his production. At the end of the day, the Ginger Giallorosso made nearly 100 appearances and scored five goals for Roma. But when you do stuff like this, people tend to remember you fondly. And he's certainly become a fan favorite in his post-Roma days, frequently voicing his support for his former teammates.

For the sake of time, we'll keep the mentions of Roma's current tandem, Federico Balzaretti and Maicon, to a minimum. Over the summer we delved into the strange correlation between Balza's form and Roma's performance on the pitch, while the Maicon gamble, due to his recent dip in form, is starting to look a bit risky.

Let's see, who else? There was Paolo Castellini, the fullback experiments with Gabriele Heinze, Simone Perrotta, and Rodrigo Taddei. While the less said about Cicinho, the better.

As you can see, outside of Panucci conjuring up some late career magic and Riise making the fanboys swoon, Roma's cast of fullbacks the past ten years or so hasn't exactly been the object of envy.

Despite the allure of the city and the promise of playing alongside a living legend, Roma has gone the better part of a decade without a top fullback, but why?

A Rare and Expensive Breed

Before we develop any theories or lay any blame as to why Roma hasn't had a standout at fullback over the past ten-to-twelve years, we need to face reality. Fullbacks don't grow on trees, and it certainly isn't raining Philip Lahms outside. It's been a thin and fickle position across the sport in general, so when you get a good one, you hang onto them like grim death.

Depending on how you want to twist it, we can look at the Top 50 most expensive transfers of all-time as a barometer for how infrequently these sorts of players are available. At €35.5 million, the transfer of Dani Alves to Barcelona in 2008 marks the only appearance of a fullback among the world's most expensive footballing transactions. Further cementing his value to the club and his rarity in the global marketplace, Barca summarily slapped a €90m buyout clause on his contract.

But that's it, just the one. On a list littered with attacking midfielders and forwards, there is but one fullback. Again, this is subjective, as we could just as easily say the lack of expensive fullbacks is indicative of their impact on the game, but what is a fantastic fullback if not a luxury? And one doesn't give up luxuries willingly. Look no further than the tight grip kept on the Lahms, the Sergio Ramos' and the Javier Zanetti's of the world.

While Alves' price tag was nothing to sneeze at, the fact remains, when compared to the sums garnered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, it looks relatively paltry. But, and this is a big one, it is still (if I'm not mistaken) more than Roma has ever paid for anyone...ever.

This, conveniently, brings us to our next point.

As we're all too painfully aware, when we talk of Roma, we're dealing with a club restrained by an unspoken and self-imposed salary cap. But they're not a foolish club; they realize that the fealty pledged by their favorite sons comes at a cost, a cost which eats up a significant chunk of that budget, sometimes greater than 30% of their total wage bill. While that is obviously a necessary evil, it limits where they can apply the remaining 70%, which, as we've just discussed, was seldom at the fullback spots.

So, when you factor in the paucity and price of top fullbacks in with Roma's own financial restraints, their course of action becomes evident. Pick up a cheap or worn dart, close your eyes, and hope you hit the mark.

The problem for Roma has been that, outside of Panucci and a few fleeting moments from several others, that mark has often been mediocre. But this season is different, for the first time in many years there is a feeling around the club, a feeling that, thanks to a core of young and exceedingly talented players, sustained success is at last upon Roma.

However, when we look at the first twelve weeks of the season, that success has been, and will continue to be, fueled by attacking talent. All the meat on the Roma bone rests up front with Miralem Pjanic, Kevin Strootman, Mattia Destro, Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic. These are the twenty-somethings that will carry Roma into the future.

How far that group carries Roma into the future may ultimately depend on the quality of fullback supporting them. So, with such a great future at stake, will Roma buck their historical trend and break the bank for a top fullback, or will they continue with their dollar-and-a dream approach?

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