The immediate question, because it damn sure looks like Zdenek Zeman's job is not only on the line, but in the process of being terminated:
Is there any other coach, available right now, who could do better with this collection of players?
Possibly. None come to the top of the head based on tactics or quality (ie. Luis Enrique's system with these cats would fight relegation - it's not a matter of quality, but fit). And it couldn't be worse timing.
The more important question:
Is there any other coach, available right now, who could do better with this collection of players with Roma's current objectives?
That's where it gets dicey, because this is not simply a matter of getting to a specified goal, no. This is about winning while developing youth, and doing so on a radically stripped payroll, because it's now February 1st and they're stuck through the end of the campaign with the pieces they have at hand. Can they win more games by sticking Tachtsidis, Florenzi, Lamela, etc, on the bench? Maybe, but they'd run out of numbers, and I'm not quite sure that's the best boulevard of decision-making when the goal is now, clearly, 2013-14.
The problem is the same problem as last week:
Quality is not measured in talent; it is measured in the capacity to produce and the consistent realization of that production. Erik Lamela has the former in spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts and even jokers; the latter has gone missing since the fall. Florenzi, Tachtsidis, Dodo, et cetera, are the former, offering glimpses, much like Destro and even Piris. The only exception to this amongst the youth is Marquinhos, and he went 0-Superstar in 180 minutes. Despite their incredible ceilings, they are inferior players to some most would consider of far lesser quality because they make critical mistakes, or lack a certain mental gimmick, or whatever. They aren't measured in quality, but talent. There is a difference. This team is, in some respects, defined as such.
There is no one person at fault here. It's not Zeman's fault exclusively, the players, Sabatini or Baldini - it's everyone's fault. Though the bulk of the blame goes to those who constructed this team, then decided during January, when the midfield has been a catastrophe since, oh, June, to keep it status quo.
There is a clear difference between this and last year; last year, the team played well individually within the demands of the system, and that system produced lots of slinging the ball around the midfield, Simon Kjaer as a right wingback half the time, and Gabby Heinze netting more touches than Roman Polanski in a high school cafeteria. They performed to the demands of the system. The system just sucked in the context of calcio.
This year, the system has seen them create an incredible amount of chances and opportunities, but the players have failed to deliver. The percentages of both Mattia Destro and Pablo Osvaldo are poor, and as ever, Mattia is still very young. Roma seemed to be playing remarkably well when Lamela was notching home his chances, but for some reason, he's gone missing in 2013, as Zeman's said, failing to run off the ball. That leaves only Miralem Pjanic, completely out of tactical position in the system - that right wing is really a forward and Miralem is a true midfielder - and Nico Lopez, who displayed during the Coppa just why he hasn't been playing. (He plays remarkably well in open space, such as against poor defending and in youth tournaments, but is way, way out of his depth when running up against the clogged lanes of Zemanlandia.)
And there's no doubt after goal two that Mauro Goicoechea should have a nice, long seat (his glaring weakness has always been his inability to handle cross; turned out to be crippling), but then they attempted to sell on the other option the day before. This makes the entire goalkeeper situation a clusterfuck - note the difference between that and The RomanClusterfuck. (One is good, the other, not so much.) Add in the fact that Dodo should be on loan to Pescara - he was awful, and though Ivan looked horrid in the season's outset, the difference between he and Piris is roughly 100 professional matches - and suddenly you have a massive hole at leftback. No one nets any blame for Balzaretti; it was a good signing gone awry. It happens. And it's hard to shift blame when the previous regime used to back up Max Tonetto with an oxygen canister, some paddles and crutches, anything to get his carcass back onto the pitch because he was all they had. But this is not a good team on paper. There was hope in the summer, hope that the talent would flourish, but that's the thing with talent: talent is never guaranteed, it's merely the potential for realization.
They're stuck on that potential, and the bit parts around the major talent has shown itself to be inadequate.
Yes, Zeman could be more flexible with his tactics, and that's his fault - he gets a chunk of the pie too. (Some mother@#$%in' pie for everyone today.) But this team has been exposed on paper. If they can the coach, then they need to can those above the coach too (I would love to see another DS in the summer, and I've always been cooler on Baldini than most), because the blame runs across the board. But they need to do something quickly, because the Champions League is now three years in the past, and not only will that fail to attract players of the desired quality, but guys like Pjanic, Marquinhos, and even Lamela will begin casting their eye to greener pastures. Flashing a nice new stadium means squat when you're running out a team primed to compete for the final Europa League spot.
The American regime came in and set about shredding payroll. All the armchair experts in the world can disagree, but a lot of people in sport know what the hell they're doing. Contracts aren't handed out by spinning a wheel and flinging a quill and some papyrus at the lucky winner. Most players have earned those paychecks; not everyone is out there stealing money from dunderhead directors of sport. They make more money because they're better athletes, most often via proof of production. Start cutting it down and you're cutting down on quality. Youth is paid less for a reason - not everything is about the talent so readily visible to the eye. There is a reason why guys like Rodrigo Taddei, the least sexy footballer - in terms of playing style, obviously - on the planet, are brought on to winning teams. Either via intangibles, experience, or the mental attributes everyone seems to overlook as "just things," they are better. Positioning is as much a quality as technical dribbling, and some people get paid on that - especially in tactics-centric Serie A.
It's the little things which earn the big paychecks, and those little things amount to victories. When you cut payroll, you're cutting quality, and this club has become a reflection of such. None of this should be any surprise. There is always a chance when you gamble with potential on the cheap, and they're paying the price accordingly when they didn't max out their return.
This is why you buy nice things, damnit.
That's all for now, because we're all just sitting here awaiting the press conference announcing Zeman's departure or, far less likely, confirmation, in the morning.