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The Project on Pause: What's Next for Roma 2.0?

Roma's new project is on to its third manager, with Zdenek Zeman joining the previously dismissed Luis Enrique in the unemployment line, leaving many to question the direction and validity of the project.

Paolo Bruno

In the wake of Zdenek Zeman's dismissal over the weekend, the whole of Roma is left with many questions, beyond simply who will lead the club and play out the string on the 2012-2013 season, what is truly paramount are the implications this sacking has upon the "project".

Anyone and everyone, from the diehards at CdT to even the most casual of Roma fans, could plainly see that paring costs was the top goal of this project, at least in these nascent days of the Roman turnaround. Before this season even started, Roma netted nearly €30m with the sales of Mirko Vucinic, Jeremy Menez and Fabio Borini, among others, a nearly 20% trimming of the wage budget accomplished before the leaves even began to change color, which eventually fell to approximately €35m. Compare that to Inter's €47.5m, Juve's €49.3m, and Milan's €48m and you start to understand the depths of the cost cutting.

While that's all well and good, once that corn was shucked, Roma was left with a rather scattered roster. You had stalwarts/legends Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi left, but little else beyond young men with more potential than experience. To bridge that gap, they turned to Zeman, who has a reputation for many things, chief among them his ability to squeeze production out of young, inexpensive, or simply overlooked players.

On the surface, it seemed like a sound plan:

Step One: Trim the payroll

Step Two: Roll the dice on young players

Step Three: Instill a manager who can and will groom said youth

Step Four: Season to taste

What these steps amount to is a bastardized version of Moneyball, the new age approach to sports management that focuses on exploiting market inefficiencies, in the form of using non-traditional means to evaluate talent and build teams, being applied to Italian football.

If you follow professional American sports, particularly baseball and/or basketball, sports in which both James Pallotta and Thomas DiBenedetto were involved, the parallels should be obvious. While he might not be able to exploit statistical inefficiencies in Italian soccer, the early days of Pallotta's stewardship are tinged with Moneyball philosophies.

Reducing overhead while increasing revenue is business 101, so that Roma attempted (or are attempting) this should come as no surprise. Making money in professional sports isn't as cut and dry as manufacturing or the service industry, but that seldom stops intrepid owners.

In fact, arguments can be made that garnering profits in football/soccer is downright impossible and perhaps even detrimental to winning. In their 2009 book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, studying both table position and profits in the English Premier League from its inception in 1992 through 2007, found that, not only do the majority of clubs operate in the red, but there is little to no correlation between finishing high in the table and making money. Their data showed that 45% of the time when clubs standings changed, their profits moved the opposite way; higher in the table, thinner in the wallet, or fat in cash, lower in the table. Citing other studies, the authors found that the key to sustained success is finding new revenue streams and that football clubs, much like museums, are, at best, a break-even proposition.

While that is merely one study, one can safely assume that simultaneously making money and fielding a successful team is a tough task. But, as we all know, profit is alluring, leading many wealthy and intelligent men to forge their own path.

Pallotta's preferred methods, from the outside, bear a strong resemblance to the Moneyball approach popularized by Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s. The key to the Moneyball approach, which focuses on making the most out of the least, is to exploit market inefficiencies and turn those living and breathing statistical oversights into productive players.

In baseball and basketball that meant looking for players who provided value outside of traditional metrics, of which there are literally dozens in each of those sports. But as this is a Roma, and by extension soccer/football blog, I'll spare you the exact details, sufficed to say, the approach has worked in the simplest of terms; small market teams achieving some measure of sustained success by exploiting market inefficiencies, which in baseball meant simply using less heralded statistics to find talent that more traditional approaches devalue or simply overlook.

But Roma is anything but a small market, so this should work like gangbusters, right? Save now, foster young and cheap talent, let it blossom, then, Boom! In come the profits and titles.

The problem with applying this to calcio is, despite the best efforts of statisticians, the game simply isn't as objectively measurable as baseball or basketball; it's a lot harder to isolate successful and counterproductive behaviors/actions due to the nature of the game--so the market inefficiencies, should they exist, are harder to uncover.

In our particular scenario, if we are to hazard a guess, the market inefficiency in Italian football appears to be the acquisition and actual deployment of young talent. While every team is constantly seeking and assembling a stockade of young players, they seldom play them on any regular basis, let alone en masse in critical positions, ie. centerback, center forward, regista, etc. like Roma has the past two seasons.

Sure there are isolated cases of young players succeeding early and often in Italy, look at Stevan Jovetic or Stephan El Sharaawy, but they are often surrounded by older, more experienced and expensive players. So if there is indeed a market inefficiency, or simply an overlooked and undervalued loophole that one might exploit, it appears to be fielding a young, talented and relatively cheap team, with few veteran augmentations.

The problem here is twofold: one, because of the lack of quantifiable data in football, particularly those which can isolate and differentiate between effective and ineffective actions, finding diamonds in the rough is incredibly hard; two, everything from the first clause is compounded when you're dealing with the inexperience and inconsistencies of youth.

When you look at the Roman ledger from the past two years and the youth on the pitch, there can be little doubt that, in addition to reducing operating costs, Pallotta's approach has been grounded in not only exploiting young talent, but depending heavily on that talent for your club's mere survival.

To wit:

Erik Lamela: Only 20 years old and basically pegged as, at the very least, the second scoring option.

Marquinhos: 18....18!!! and stuck in the center of defense, though not without his lapses, he's been stellar. So we lucked out on that one

Miralem Pjanic: 22, though ZZ may not have known exactly how to use him, he is unquestionably one of Roma's most talented players and a key component in the transition between build up and attack

Mattia Destro: 21, counted upon by many to provide an equal (and cheaper) source of goals compared to the more experienced PDO. He carries the weight of expectations for Roma and all of Italy.

That's really only the tip of the iceberg and doesn't even factor in Dodo, Ivan Piris, Alessandro Florenzi and even Mauro Goicoechea. With such a drastic and sweeping commitment to youth, you almost have to ask yourself had Totti and DDR not been born and bred Romans, might they have been dispatched too?

The point is they went young and they went cheap, under both Enrique and Zeman, but to date they haven't had the temerity to allow either man to properly instill their respective philosophies and let the kids play.

So, for the men in charge of Roma, the source of the problem isn't necessarily the specific approach, but rather the lack of commitment to that approach which is worrisome.

While Moneyball might not be entirely transferrable to Italian football, the notion of trying to win at the cheapest possible cost does make basic sense, but in Italy, cheap means young and youth requires patience and commitment to the cause. And that's the problem with this particular strand of Moneyball, mining the depths for cheap and overlooked sources of talent can and has worked, but it requires a great deal of perseverance, nurturing, and a commitment to the vision of one's chosen coach. Through two years of the New Roma, these qualities have been severly lacking.

So the question we have to ask is why did they hire and then summarily fire Zeman?

Presumably they liked his track record of achieving success with both the young and overlooked, not to mention (even though we've mentioned it several times on this site) his brand of football is intoxicating, causing many fans to ignore the cracks on the surface.

There is every possibility that Roma's relative frugality is only a short term problem, as the authors of Soccernomics found, success on the pitch (paradoxically) follows the discovery and exploitation of new revenue streams, not the other way around. In other words, it's a speed bump along the road towards the financial windfall they expect from, among other things, Disney deals, more extensive world tours, more lucrative kit manufacturing and sponsorship deals, and especially the new stadium. In Roma, first comes the revenue, then come the victories.

So in the meantime, they should at least give the people something to enjoy, right?

In order to get from point A (frugality) to point C (success), the middle road must be traversed. Point B in that equation would be the growing pains associated with fielding such a young team. But in order to get from A to C, you have to commit to B, knowing the middle road won't be easy, but if you devote the proper resources to the development of that youth, the end of the road, point C, will come quicker and easier.

It's precisely Point B in which Zeman succeeds, developing young talent, and as an added bonus his brand of football is so simultaneously exciting and controversial that the results are almost immaterial. So in that sense, the hiring of Zeman was a convenient mask to the growing pains inherent in Roma 2.0.

So what we're left with is a project on pause. The man at the very top appears to, at the very least, have a vision, but his execution of that vision has been left wanting, leaving Roma in limbo for the second straight year.

I have no doubt Pallotta's vision can work, after all, the youth on this squad is oozing with potential. Locking up this much young talent to long term, team friendly deals was a shrewd move, especially as revenues in the near term are limited due to a lack of European play, an unfavorable lease, still developing foreign markets etc. In an ideal world, the Lamela's, Marquinhos', Pjanic's, Florenzi's, Destro's et. al. will be full-fledged superstars by the time Roma's new digs open; potential meeting profit in a glorious orgy of football and finance.

The problem is that we appear to have gotten ahead of ourselves, pushing the learning curve for what are essentially kids ahead two to three years, resulting in a heap of shattered dreams and one jobless Czech.

The interesting question will be, now that the football and finance aren't exactly in lockstep, what does the future hold? If Roma flounders in the 6th-8th range for the next two seasons, will Pallotta splash the cash on some new names to open the new grounds, or does he stick with Moneyball?

The more immediate problem is who will be calling the shots on the sidelines next season? Often times a strict manager is replaced with a hands off one, the young with the old, the famous with the nameless, the outsider with the insider and so on. The past two hires, Zeman and Enrique, don't really give us any indication, as they were so drastically different in both philosophy and experience. So I suppose it's anyone's guess, but the past two hires each had distinct styles that dictated, to a large measure, the off the field approach, in terms of talent acquisition. While this is true of any manager, these men were extremely dedicated to their particular brand of football, making the players left in their wake specifically suited to specific roles in a specific system. Which is only a problem when you replace managers on a yearly basis.

The man stuck in the unfortunate middle ground, Aurelio Andreazzoli, will be out to make a name for himself while simply trying to survive this untenable situation. However, with the majority of the roster and payroll tied up in young players, the odds that a crew of mercenaries are brought in from the farthest reaches of the globe is unlikely, meaning the next manager must have a way with youth.

Whoever holds the Roman reigns next season will most likely have to deal with a tight payroll and the board's continued attempts to exploit young, cheap talent.

Until that sweet, sweet Champions League cash is filling the coffers and the doors open to that new stadium, this is the Roman way...the Pallotta way