We went a bit off script with our original previews, but waited to do something a bit more traditional with the transfer window still open before Livorno. So we've gone a bit simpler and, with the fall finally upon us, taken inventory of the each department of the squad - and done so with even the casual fan in mind. You know, because not everyone has a mental illness the sole symptom of which is refreshing RomaNews more than forty times a day. (Aye.)
So here is Rudi's Roma. (For a further look on Rudi himself, see here.)
Manning The Gates
This summer was certainly a busy one in Serie A, between all the transfer hoopla and managerial movements, you may have missed this morsel of news. This year the powers that be added a unique twist to the Italian game, one that should weigh in Roma's favor.
In case you hadn't heard, Serie A clubs are allowed to create their own schedule this year, so the next 36 weeks will be full of bottom feeders, young kids trying to make their mark, and older gentlemen longing for better days gone by.
So, with that in mind, you should expect the full 114 points and a goal differential somewhere in the neighborhood of +70, not to mention a cake walk to the Coppa Italia final.
What's that, you say? This couldn't possibly be true, Italy would never be that dodgy.
Okay, you got me.
So, will the stark light of reality expose Roma's flaws or uncover some sort of recessive resistance to goals?
A Goalkeeper, a Goalkeeper, My Kingdom for a Goalkeeper!
While I'm sure I've used this analogy in this space before, it (unfortunately) still reins true; if Roma has a black hole into which all hope and consistency disappears, surely it's goalkeeper. The latest addition to Roma's menagerie of malaise, Morgan De Sanctis, while solid, doesn't exactly inspire confidence. In fact, it would take a Shakespearean supremacy of the written word to coax anything but ambivalence from Roma's collective conscience at the mere mention of one Morgan De Sanctis.
I mean, what do you say about MDS? He's decent enough, but he's 36 and, at best, he's a white wash on Roma's graffiti stained walls. But guess what? Banksy won't be touching this canvas, so we gotta make do.
Beyond that, the depth chart features Roma's favorite Romanian, some older Brazilian guy, and a Polish kid. So, what does that all mean? Well, quite simply, none of these four will be Roma's top keeper next year.
Move on, there's nothing to see here...
As in, beyond The Gamble and The Moustache, Roma's rear wings are exceedingly thin. However, based on the first two weeks, The Gamble (Douglas Maicon a/k/a Maicon, a/k/a Big Brazilian Doug) was a shrewd one.
Maicon's first two turns through this Serie A season have been fabulous, as he's looked every bit the player he was at Inter, contributing on both ends of the pitch and using his size and surprising touch to his advantage. The question, naturally, is, how long can he maintain that pace? I mean this in the literal and figurative sense; does he have the conditioning to be Italy's best right back for eight more months? Has his preternatural well of talent been desiccated by a decade of professional football, or is there some bloom left on the rose?
As for The ‘Stache, well, we've dissected this numerous times. He needs to be rested, he needs to be consistent, and he needs to improve his crossing. Francesco Totti may be the straw that stirs the drink, but Federico Balzaretti is that last piece of ice; the one that either seals in the perfect flavor, or leaves a weak, watered down disappointment in its wake.
As for the well drinks in the Roman bar, we've got a versatile Greek liqueur, a Brazilian blend not ready for consumption, and Croatian concoction that we can't legally serve to outsiders.
The Central Square
A strength, Holy Moses, we found a strength!
Love him or leave him, Leandro Castan, though not necessarily fleet-a-foot, is an above average central defender, possessing size, strength and tactical awareness. He may never single handedly strangle an opposing attack or catch many opponents from behind, but he'll seldom be trampled over and should be in the right position more often than not.
Besides, let's face it, we've certainly had worse in recent years.
Now, on to the man in the middle, Mehdi Benatia. At nearly €14m, Benatia wasn't cheap, but at age 26 and on a five year deal, Roma stand to benefit from Benatia's best years. He's got size, grit, intelligence and plenty of Serie A experience, all of which Roma will benefit from immensely. And, after only two matches, it as clear as day; he's Roma's best defender, bar none. So, as the season winds on, the only question remaining is whether or not his voice within the club becomes commensurate with his talent.
Beyond those two, the Nicolas Burdisso 2013 Farewell Tour should be a sight to behold. He's not Roman, hell, he's not even Italian, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player outside of Totti or De Rossi who embodies the spirit of this club as much as Nico. But each passing day brings Burdisso closer to his boyhood club, Boca Juniors. So, while he may only have but a few months left, expect hard tackles, looks of incredulity, plenty of passion and plenty of cards.
Let's see, who else...When he's not auditioning for the role of token bad boy in Italy's next (first?) great boy band, Una Direzione, Alessio Romagnoli serves the role of Roman centerback understudy. Why he's not doing this in Sassuolo, or Chievo, or Cesena, or Empoli is beyond me, but he's here, so clearly he's got something going for him, frosted tips be damned. But, for the time being, he figures to be fourth choice behind Benatia, Castan and Burdisso.
The Last World on The Last Line
If you can stomach the loss of Marquinhos, a potential once-in-a-generation centerback, Roma's defense this season should be an improvement over the 2012 version. Sure, Benatia and Castan are a bit too similar, but the latter is solid, while the former is transcendent. While a rested Balzaretti and the instant upgrade that is Maicon gives Garcia's defense a dynamism that Zeman's lacked. So I would expect fewer goals and more offensive production from the rearguard.
As for the keepers, MDS may be 36 and lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, but, unlike last year's stand-ins, De Sanctis can both speak Italian and see over the steering wheel, so that's a win-win right there, while Lobont is a solid, yet spectacularly loved, backup keeper. Essentially, Roma's 2013-2014 goalkeeping crew is what it is: One is okay for a starter, the second is okay for a backup, while the third and fourth are merely taking up space on the bus.
Granted, the glaring philosophical differences between ZZ and RG (that doesn't have the same ring, does it?) should result in far fewer goals allowed, but when all is said and done, expect a stronger and more complete Roma in defense this season.
You know, barring injuries because we can't afford too many nice things.
Daniele De Midfield
Ah, the great Achilles of AS Roma 2012-13. But while Roma's greatest strength may always be the general vicinity around Francesco Totti, this could be Rudi's strongest segment; the area of the team which could see all expectations surpassed. The quality is nice, but what's also lovely is we know the starting midfield, no questions asked: Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic. Healthy and performing near capacity, that's your three. Done.
Back when prospective coaches were being flung around like bills at an A-list strip club, our first(ish) choice here at the church was Walter Mazzarri for several reasons. Near the top of the list was the feeling he could be the man to bring Daniele De Rossi back from the dead. Well, Walter took the train to the San Siro, but if the first two matches are any indication, the man to save DDR might just be in Rome anyway. Rudi's sat DDR right smack between the midfield and defense and asked him to do one thing: win the battle of the midfield. Miralem Pjanic is the midfield maestro, so Daniele only has to patrol the space in front of the defense and bring back the vacuum which owned Serie A during the Spalletti years. Vroom vroom.
Playing just ahead of DDR will be Pjanic and Kevin Strootman, the Dutch Jesuus. Going into the summer it was clear the midfield either needed an overhaul or a new piece - a big, expensive piece - and they got it. Hat tip to Marquinhos for that 17m flung Eindhoven's way. Pjanic is the silky passer; a visionary with incredible technique and a beautiful mind born for the pitch. Daniele is more a true defensive mid with the tackling ability of a world class CB and a little technique on the side. It's imperfect, but think of Strootman as somewhere in between the two; neither brawler nor brainiac, he's a little bit of both but with ample quality. Oh, and he's got a little edge - he'll earn his share of cards -and a big left foot, which is something to note this year: the starting midfield all have tremendous shots from distance. A tremendous asset because it keeps the defense honest and will empty a little bit of space for the men ahead of them when the opposition attempts to steal that extra step out of fear. Everything from the center circle in is fair game.
The odd man out is Alessandro Florenzi, but it appears Rudi is trying to get him higher on the pitch in an advanced wing role. Something says he's in for a seesaw year of utility performances, filling in where necessary through injury, suspension, etc, as Pjanic is teacher's pet - and rightly so - while Strootman and a rejuvenated DDR are simply too good to be anything but first choice.
The bench seems fine for a non-European squad as well, though there is no real replacement for Pjanic anywhere in the side as a midfield conductor; perhaps Adem, but he's hardly a central midfielder, even if he could be pushed back a smidge. Michael Bradley is clearly the vice-DDR and someone who can fill in for Strootman, while also able to bring some solidity late in the match (expect to see a lot off MB-for-attacker subs late with a one goal lead, not unlike Matteo Brighi during the glory years), but the Strootman like-for-like seems to be more in the vein of Marquinho. Well, whereas Kevin can do a lot of everything, Ho can do a little; same general swath across his game, just like eighty notches or so down. Though he is an exceptional runner off the ball and world class at missing goal on shots from outside the box. Everything else is just...decent.
And then there's Rodrigo Taddei who will do, uhh, something. Be awesome. He'll be awesome.
Totti + The Field
If the first choice midfield is set in stone, the attack takes a reverse approach: Totti + The Field. Francesco Totti is, every single year and until proven otherwise over the course of it, Roma's best player. He owns either the LW or CF spot, depending on how Rudi attempts to tackle his tactics both now and when Mattia Destro returns - either offering a true striker or with movement taking the place of convention. Fracesco's played a very withdrawn left-wing playmaker role - a personal favorite in football - and is now far more the passer than Golden Boot winner of the Spalletti days.
Now, things get tricky. The idea right now is a 4-3-3, but don't rule out a 4-2-3-1 cameo at some point - particularly if one of the first choice mids go down. One would imagine Adem Ljajic is the heavy favorite to own one of the wing positions (the right, largely) as his combination of off the ball work and technical wizardry beggar of a comparison to Cassano, and we all know how well that skill set melds with Francesco's, but there's that whole teacher's pet business with Rudi and Gervinho. There's no doubt Gervinho would be elsewhere if another was in the coach's box - he seems a UAE/Qatar type of player - and never underestimate a coach's favorite. His redeemable qualities - pace, running, dribbling - are offset by his infuriating inability to do much of note with said qualities. Perhaps the perfect skill set for a late substitute against tired legs, but time will tell.
The wild card, of course, is Mattia Destro. Phenomenally talented, his lone issue during his debut Roma season was finishing. His complete array of skills and dynamic movement fits perfectly within Rudi's very fluid tridente, but no one knows when he'll be back or in what sort of form. His talent demands a place on the pitch but that doesn't quite mean much, does it? Could score 15-20, or could score 3 and play 10 games.
Now we throw in a makeshift attacker in the form of Florenzi, who is certainly a more natural midfielder, but needs to find a spot on the pitch somehow. His nonstop running and ability to play into space make him a great fit for Rudi's system in theory - he, Ljajic, and Gervinho will be the men to make up for the lack of a true prima punta with their off the ball work in the event of a strikerless formation - but it's finding a place for him which will prove difficult as he's far from an ideal winger.
And all of this is how Rudi will earn his paycheck. The hope is the combination of the midfield and attack will organically, over the next two months, fall into place on its own through training and pitch time, cream rising to the top.
Speaking of, the bench includes one Marco Borriello, the great (and immovable) unloved, who isn't ideal for the team (though neither was Gila) but certainly is an asset, especially considering the importance of the fullbacks in Rudi's system and the need for a body in the box to receive the occasional cross which actually lands near a teammate. There's also Gianluca Caprari, who got so little pitch time in the summer it's kind of surprising he's still in Rome. Three hundred minutes total by January 1? Maybe? He's not without talent, but there are so many capable players ahead of him it seems as though this will be an educational year. (Watch him turn out to be Roma's POTY.) The lone concern is, at the moment, that whole "body in the box" business. The early days have relied heavily upon work done outside the box, and one wouldn't expect them to be able to make a living that way.
This team has promise ahead of the defense. While the midfield depth isn't brilliant and the attack a jumbled mess of names, questions, and possibilities, they'll likely find a way to score goals somehow, even if it's Maicon thundering cross off a defender into the net, with the actual attack finding cohesion through the fall and winter. There is something here that will work well and with consistency, it's just a matter of Rudi finding it quickly. This year offers, after all, an incredibly strong Serie A - good won't be good enough.