The internets are full of gushing praise for Francesco Totti at the moment, as they well should be. Beyond any position he may hold on any all-times lists, he played a phenomenal ninety minutes of football yet again, rejected by the post once and offering up what's likely to be one of the highlights of the season, his backheel pirouette pass. The platitudes are due. And yet here I am, with each goal he notches, each position he climbs, unable to extract myself from one haunting curiosity:
Do you think Christian and Chanel No. 5 are at ages where they're finally saying, "Daaaaaaaaaaaaad, stop sucking your thumb! We're not babies anymore! You're embarrassing us!"
The match itself was marvelous - easily, despite the success it follows, Roma's best match under Aurelio Andreazzoli. I do have a solid theory as to what played a substantial role, and no, it's not going to be popular, but we'll get to that later, because while the internet gushes on The Real Papa Francesco, one group is failing to receive the acclaim it deserves: the defense.
This was the first sequence of ninety minutes in which we were offered the chance to see Marquinhos, Castan and Nico Burdisso as a threesome, and they played magnificently. One only needs look at just how easy Maarten Stekelenburg's day was - unless he made it difficult, of course - to gauge their impact. They locked down Amauri, which does actually mean something, owning the air space in the box, and held Parma to four harmless shots on net. It didn't hurt that Taxi was playing perpetual nuisance alongside Daniele De Rossi in front of the back trio.
There was a sequence in the first fifteen minutes (probably right around the fifteen minute mark), immediately after Simone Perrotta clanged goal #2 off the underside of the crossbar, when Parma made it down the other end of the pitch with numbers. Marquinhos had moved over to take the runner - beating the attacker for pace in the process - and Amauri snuck over to the right, with Daniele hanging in midfield, losing him, not realizing that Marquinhos had been pulled to the left. Amauri was in the box with three bodies, but enough for a shooting lane. He didn't handle the pass perfectly, and within milliseconds, Roma had solidified and all space had been closed down. The sequence ended, after a few passes, in a weak shot on net from 20 yards or so by Amauri, which Maarten gobbled up like it was a January plane ticket to London.
This team is not perfect. They, like every other team, will make mistakes. They will give up chances. But if they do, you have to take it and take it perfectly, or else that's all you get. With three proper centerbacks, all of whom have played or will play for an int'l powerhouse, this defense is too solid, the team too situationally adaptable, particularly with the 3-4-1-2 and converted wing/fullbacks on the flanks (even Florenzi played RB), to be sliced up with ease. Roma is, for the first in a very long time, no longer the town bicycle. So teams best take the few chances they're offered and take them well. Roma's got enough talent on the front end to focus numbers on the back and allow the football to sort of evolve organically. It's simple football. Its longevity is now the question; its short-term effectiveness is not.
As for Aurelio, I thought that if Roma won convincingly - and they did, as it could so easily have been 3 or 4 to nil - the job would become his to lose at this point. That doesn't mean it's his job, but a coach of an outstanding pedigree would need to supplant him should Roma continue along this path.
From a grand viewpoint, the fact that it's becoming more and more difficult to replace the coach with each passing week means things are going incredibly well. The season's end? Ninety minutes at a time.
- This isn't going to be popular, but a large reason why Roma played superior football in the first half? No Torosidis. Though Florenzi will never be Totti 2.0, he has more technique than Vasilis and while the other Greek a great asset to the squad, sometimes skill just matters. Look, for instance, at that perfectly threaded ball by Alessandro to Lamela around the half-hour mark. You have two flanks who are runners first, and while they can put a cross into the box, which will serve this Roma better: a player who can run through the middle and thread inch-perfect balls on the floor while playing with excellent tactical awareness, or one who can send in crosses to Totti, Perrotta, and Lamela, while also running like an absolute demon for ninety minutes, but doing so in a predictable arc? Torosidis is a great squad member, but ideally, he's not starting XI material on a weekly basis. On the majority, sitting Florenzi on the flank, particularly when Pjanic returns, will reap greater rewards, especially since Alessandro has sort of revived in 2013.
- Taxi had a fantastic game, his start mildly surprising in the first place, but certainly he earned some more minutes and even might've moved himself beyond Bradley on the depth chart permanently. It helps enormously that he has so much cushion sitting in a four-man midfield with three quality centerbacks behind him. Under Zeman, Taxi had so much responsibility in that regista role with a much smaller safety net. Since Pjanic is out for a bit, this might be the perfect chance to truly develop without the pressure which hampered him for the first five months of the season. The kid does have serious talent.
- Lamela has 13 goals in 24 matches this year. Osvaldo had 11 in 26 last year and 11 in 22 this year.
Given his attraction to red cards, the presence of Destro, and his wages (due for a bump in 2013-14), there's every chance Pablo is sold in the summer. His disciplinary troubles had him on the bubble even when he was performing. On the bench and being outplayed in the box by Simone Perrotta? That's an asset many teams will move, especially if they don't need a Champions League-sized squad.
- Speaking of Perrotta, Sunday was a perfect example as to why he's one of my favorite players of all-time. The ability to find space, to create space, is no less important than technique, finishing, pace, finishing, passing, or finishing. Or finishing. (Yes, he has issues in the box; but that's fine - he works on percentages.) Nothing can make up for the ability to be in the right place at the right time. Pippo Inzaghi made a legend of it. Simone Perrotta won a World Cup on it. And it's the single most important reason why I would sell the farm to keep Destro in Rome for the next ten years. One simply cannot overemphasize positional awareness or the ability to know where the ball is going to be played next. The capacity to do twelve pirouettes and a triple Salchow before putting it on net doesn't mean anything if there are four defender's bodies occupying the space between that controlled seizure and the net.
Somebody get him a contract renewal - even as player-coach.
- One of the, well, bonuses - it shouldn't really be a bonus - which has come with this formation is depth. The players have all remained the same save for the addition of Torosidis, but this formation allows for a more liberal interpretation of each role. Take off Torosidis, a hard-charging, ball-crossing wingback? Fine, put in the complete midfielder with a more well-rounded game who will tuck inside more often, allowing the midfield replacement, Tachtisidis, a chance to get forward at an expanded rate, which arguably suits him better than sitting deep for ninety minutes. In contrast, try sticking Miralem in Taxi's role under Zeman. Complete bedlam would ensue.
Or rework the attacking trio to include no true forwards, though I think Lamela will officially land as a striker one day, and allow the play of the opposition to aid in interpreting their roles.
Under Zeman, the roles were more strictly defined, or at least desired. Under Aurelio, most of the roles above the defense are interchangeable with the pieces at hand. This makes life far easier than some might realize.
- This team does work better with a midfielder instead of a true striker simply based on the improved movement. If Perrotta sits against Palermo, expect Florenzi or another to assume his place - it's now Totti and Erik as the strikers, one would assume, and even then, Destro will likely take the third slot when he's healthy. The movement, man. The movement.
- Burdisso's block around the hour mark might've saved the result. The colors of Rome piggyback a sort of sensitive emotional being, a mental fragility. Drawing even at 1-1 after such a commanding performance is tantamount to walking up to a member of PETA and bitch-slapping them whilst wearing a giant mink. Mostly they'd just sit and cry and die inside. That's how Roma works.
- Ivan Piris is not a centerback. That played a rather important role as well.
- Which means I vote they attempt to nab Simon Kjaer on the cheap(ish) for another run next year if they stick with a three-man back. The guy is too talented not to finally thrive in an actual defense - you know, the one thing he didn't play in during his first stint in Rome.
- So much depends on the coach, but it's entirely reasonable to think Federico Balzaretti played his way out of Rome in the summer as well. The fact that he's now making garbage time cameos for a guy who spent January mimicking camels speaks volumes.
- There are words for Francesco Totti and his 226. A lot of them. But none seem so appropriate as these:
He's Francesco Totti. You expected something else?
The international break commences now, and the best news is that it couldn't come at a worse time.
Let them play.