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The Death Of Zemanlandia: Last

Oleg Nikishin

I never do this, but upon reading Blogistuta's excellent piece on the crumbling of Zemanlandia - and he is a fan - something tickled a portion of my mind and I needed to build a continuation of it. Need to both agree completely and find some sort of synergy across the past several years. There is a similar thread running through several years; a thread which appears to now be cut.

One line:

"It could have been beautiful, had Roma truly resigned itself to the investment of faith and patience it required. But it never did, nor would it ever: in the same Franco Baldini interview, he claimed to come carrying no revolutions, "only common sense and pragmatism"."

Two line:

"... the runs weren't the same in midfield or attack. The movements indecisive and sporadical, rather than razor-sharp, automatic and punctual."

At not point we were handed a serving of full Zemanlandia, rather the scraps flung from the adult's table just beyond our vision. No one complained for the show, because even pieces of Zemanlandia will provide more excitement than all but a handful in the world. Every week there was at least a bit of vaudeville; sometimes it was just the other team's moment in the spotlight. But the problem with Zemanlandia proved to be the same thing which felled Luis Enrique; the inability of both clubs to do the one thing which Jonathan Wilson, this generation's tactical guru, called the epicenter of football itself.

And it's the one thing which defined Luciano Spalletti's Roma: the manipulation of space.

The ability to dictate where you play the ball, where the space will be to play the ball, where to make the space to play the ball, and most importantly, where to pull the defender. And guess what? It ain't easy.

There is a perfect example of this on the payroll, and it's a gentleman about whom we joke for his beauty, lunchlady hair and a playing style which inexplicably manages more awkwardness than a high school dance. But I will go to the grave stating that Rodrigo Taddei is a far better footballer than ever given credit because he understands the tactical minutiae, the nuance, of the game, and the ability to both close down and open up space for his teammates. He is, while remarkably technically gifted (hello, Aurelio), a high-energy, somewhat chaotic, but slyly gifted brand of individual play. The same came be said for Simone Perrotta, because while Francesco Totti may be the true generational genius, there is a beautiful realization of football academics in Perrotta's ability to make a run here for the sake of the ball, but also make a run there for the sake of pulling the defender, allowing a Mancini or a Vucinic to then "manipulate that space." Some people call them "goals."

And this is why we never saw Nico Lopez play under Zeman. Because while he looked all sorts of amazing in space for Uruguay and in spots for Roma during that Coppa match, in moments of normal play, he looked a lost child in a mall in desperate search for his mommy. He simply had no clue what to do, or how to behave in a crowd. When Erik Lamela stopped making similar runs after returning from Christmas break, almost as though he'd decided to coast through the remainder of the season like he'd already been accepted into university and it was time to briefly live the dream, Roma suffered. Well, Roma failed, really. Those runs, called out by Zeman, could be considered the difference between Zdenek having a job and not. For two years, we have seen players far more comfortable taking a stance of passivity, hanging back for the ball behind the box, a safe spot, rather than creating this mess of controlled chaos demanded of a successful attacking system.

Because when they can't do it, guess who will be? The other guy. That cat from Lombardia whose name you don't know, but he's got ten years going up against kids and knows that for all the talent this child across from him might possess, if he takes two steps in that direction, this kid is fucked.

This team is compiled of Nico Lopez's and Erik Lamela's, which makes it not a team at all; it's a true project. It's not about Erik Lamela the individual; it's about Erik Lamela, the singular representation of a football club's identity at current.

Now, would you ever compare Erik and Rodrigo on paper? Absolutely not. Never. And Erik should be playing for the sake of Roma's future, and with the understanding that the intent is the future, but Rodrigo Taddei is going to create that space. Simone Perrotta is going to find that space. Erik Lamela is going to make that run for the sake of finding the ball and putting it on goal; otherwise, he's standing behind the play waiting for someone to drop him a point-of-reference ball like it's a baton. Another is going to make that run with the knowledge he's doing so for teammate X. A Marco Cassetti is never going to be a shutdown defender, but he's going to be able to take away the avenue earlier in the movement. Player X with some tactical know-how, some experience in the manipulation of both space and defenders is going to find that space. Perhaps that was the idea with Zemanlandia; that volume can supersede quality. That by tossing enough bodies into the box, they didn't have to be good, just there, and percentages would take over.

Yes, Rodrigo is still here, and so too is Simone, but they are on the wrong end of the careers, and neither has the legs they once had (and Olympians to begin with they weren't), which means that yes, perhaps they need to be replaced. But not with a Tachtsidis or a Lamela or a Lopez. They don't need to be replaced with the talent to become more than they were on a video game stat sheet. Rodrigo Taddei needs to be replaced with another Rodrigo Taddei; a high-energy, subtly technically-skilled player who understands to track down the defender by pushing him inside to his help-defender, rather than outside to have his man send in the long cross and isolate Castan versus the forward and then win the game, because that's a skill. Are you going to find that from an 19 year old just out of Rio? Probably not.

This has always been my issue with Michael Bradley. While he runs a lot, and it's nice, he runs with a purpose to the ball, not a purpose to a tactical structure, leaving space which the opposition all too often exploits. The problem is, he does run, and Zeman likes running, and that meant Michael won minutes, but there is a difference between running and running intelligently. Chasing down the defender on the ball is wonderful. Doing so when it's supposed to be Erik Lamela, leaving a clueless Erik to drop back several steps on the wing and the midfield to shift into a two-man sieve? The casual fan will champion it, but that's just really poor football. You need someone who runs, and someone with technical skill, but more importantly, you need people who know what the hell to do with it. Grab all three and you've got Messi.

And that's why football is so damn hard.

Curiously enough, Mattia Destro has this ability naturally, this elite set of skills, despite his young age and questionable decision-making in other areas of his life and offers it weekly, which is why I'm so much a fan of his and think they need to lock him up for years and years. He's going to be truly special once the finishing portion of his game catches up to his natural talents. But this is yet another example of expecting polished production from an unfinished product. (Fabio Borini also had this natural knack for football, which is a reason I was also a fan of his, but Destro has everything else and the ability to create it himself. The two are incomparable, so if you're going to pick one to keep around a few years, it's Destro eleven times out of ten.)

Another perfect example is Jose Angel who, while a major flop at this point in his career, holds something indisputable: natural talent. But recall when he got that red card against Cagliari? It was something like Scared Straight: Italian Referee Edition. He didn't net another card for months, I believe, instead playing a brand of football one would expect of a child, and it was almost as though he was never the same. Now compare that to Cassetti, who would play, over the years, to the point my then-girlfriend would think I was developing some sort of new Tourette's variation: "JESUS @#$%ING CHRIST, CASSETTI. YOU'RE GOING TO GET SENT OFF." (That's not true. I don't yell. But pretend like I do.) Well, sometimes you need to play that way; perhaps Roma even needed him to play that way. More guile, less raw athleticism. Or hell, just less raw anything.

There are two Roma employees who appears to have it all - the physical, the mental, the technical - at such a young age, and those two have been Roma's best players, Totti aside, each of the last two years - Miralem Pjanic last year and Marquinhos at current. Guess what? That's really hard to find, and more likely it's going to come in the form of a veteran who's acquired many of the mental attributes needed to thrive on the type of stage desired by this current Roma. And out of how many players 23 and under they purchased did it hit on? Two. That's all. Two. Because it's incredibly rare, and it's even more rare to find on the relative cheap. (The Pjanic deal was an absolute steal, even more so than Marquinhos; not based on pure numbers, but on the fact that he was a known commodity.)

For the rest, they need time, they need experience, they need patience, and they need pieces around them to fill the voids in their game which they are lacking but with hope, will develop. Panagiotis Tachtsidis is not that piece, and neither is Ivan Piris, nor Florenzi, cetera. Federico Balzaretti seemed that perfect piece, but he's been a flop. Again, it happens.

The Luis Enrique era was one of failure, and it really did appear his brand of football clashed with calcio's idea of defense, but there was one visible problem: the ability of the forward line and runners to break through the opposition's wall was the equivalent of searching for snowflakes in June. They were a team which could play outside the box, living in the middle third, but had no one to make that incisive cut in the box, no one to pull a defender this-a-way while the teammate went that-a-way. The player Pablo Osvaldo has become over the years has acquired these traits, but he's both one man and a few notches down from elite. They were easily countered, and it was fatally flawed.

And in processing the difference between the last years, the Spalletti realization of football and that of recent, brought this: Roma is buying technically, not tactically. They aren't buying pragmatically at all, and this sort of identity turnover may feel one of pragmatism from the overview, but there needs to be a marriage of business off-the-pitch and the football on if one wants to be successful. If what Baldini says about pragmatism is true, then they, simply put, aren't remaining true to their own vision, while expecting the coaches to somehow provide it.

Perhaps this absolves Luis Enrique of more blame than he's received, while also removing Zeman from the firing squad, and placing everyone else in front of it.

There was a beautiful understated nature to Spalletti's football that wasn't conveyed by the spectacular sheen glowing off his mound of genius on the sidelines; it was being offered by the types of players purchased with the idea that a football team is about more than the talent one can find on YouTube, in a youth tournament, or on the beaches of South America. It's about understanding the game and the idea that the whole is indeed worth more than the sum of its parts.

Football is about so much more than a collection of talent. It's about finding the best system of eleven, not the best eleven skill sets for each individual position. But if you're simply going to offer up what a collection of talent, then at least allow them the time to grow and more importantly, fail.

This team doesn't need a coach; it needs a babysitter. And it's beginning to appear as though this new crop of directors might need one too.