Francesco Totti has graced God's green Earth--or, for the agnostic and/or atheists among us, the oblate rocky spheroid resultant from an initial phase transition, which in turn caused cosmic inflation, which in turn caused a series of polysyllabic scientific terms leading to the accretion of the planet--for 13,820 days. For nearly 8,000 of those days, Totti has had the great fortune of being paid to play football; a fortune which he has repaid to the good people of Rome by treating them to
arguably their nation's greatest sporting career.
However, as Robert Frost cautioned the world in 1923, and what Ponyboy would drive home some 40 years later, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Time withers both gods and clods, its inescapable; at some point, believe it or not, Francesco Totti will no longer be able to conjure his peerless magic on the pitch. But make no mistake, this is not that time.
Even at 37-years-old, Francesco Totti proved that he is still among the games greats, witness the goal he just orchestrated and finished off against Real Madrid at the Cotton Bowl as a prime example. And while his eight league goals last season didn't necessarily garner worldwide acclaim, they were still good enough for third on a club with a remarkable distribution of goals (Mattia Destro was the only one in double figures), and still placed him in a tie for twelfth place in Serie A. So, despite failing to crack double digits, Totti wasn't that far off the club or league lead.
While his 235 career league goals may prove to be his ultimate legacy, Totti's true gift to the game has always been his playmaking. As we saw this past season, 20 years in the Serie A trenches has done little to dull his playmaking senses. Totti's 10 assists were tied with Gervinho for both the club and league lead, while also tying him for fifth across Europe's major leagues. This is even more remarkable when you consider that he played only 1,600 league minutes last season, some 1,200 minutes less than 2012-2013, and among the fewest he's ever played during his illustrious career.
As we all know, assists are a highly dependent stat, but even when we look at key passes, Totti still shined last season. Totti's 54 key passes were ninth in the league and came on far fewer total passes than many of the league's top ten, as many as 1,000 in some instances. Among Serie A's top ten creators, Totti played fewer minutes and attempted less passes than all but one player, Cagliari midfielder Andrea Cossu. In terms of his per 90 minute rates, Totti was fifth in key passes and third in assists. To top it all off, he achieved all this while completing 78.5% of his passes, his highest mark in more than five seasons.
The point being, he may never surpass Silvio Piola's scoring record, but when we measure Totti by what he truly does best, creating, he's still as sharp as anyone in Italian football. But we all love goals, and Totti has scored hundreds of them, so let's take a quick glance at how he fared in that regard.
Given the time he missed this past season, it was only natural to expect his goal haul to slip somewhat, especially compared to 2012-2013 when he flourished under Zeman's up tempo, attack at all costs approach. However, when we examine Totti's 2013-2014 scoring using per match and per 90 minute metrics, he still proved to be pretty effective.
Totti's 0.43 goals per 90 minutes still fell within Serie A's top twenty, and were second to only Mattia Destro on Roma's roster. In a somewhat surprising twist, Totti's rate this past season was actually better than it was under Zeman; indicating that, perhaps, Totti is more potent in short bursts. Furthermore, his 3.62 shots per 90 minutes were 19th in the league, proving that, even as he approaches age 40, he has no problem finding or creating room to threaten an opponent's goal.
Just for shits and giggles, here is how Totti measures up against the rest of Europe's major players. His 2.6 key passes per match were tied for fifth across the major five leagues, level with players like Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez and Rafael van der Vaart. His 10 assists were also good for fifth, putting him on level pegging with Franck Ribéry, Alexis Sanchez and Thomas Müller, among others.
The salient point here is this: at any given point and in any given match, Francesco Totti, even at 37-years-old, is still among the greatest players walking the Earth. The fact that he compiled these numbers in only 1,600 minutes is further evidence to his seemingly supernatural and inexhaustible skills.
Ah, but there's the rub and the reason you're reading this...
Francesco vs Father Time
In Roma's disappointing and gut wrenching 2012-2013 season, Totti achieved a rare feat, throwing up 12 goals and 12 assists, a mark unsurpassed by anyone in Italy. That rare double dozen was doled out over 34 appearances--21 of which Totti played the full 90--and amounted to over 2,800 minutes, his highest mark since his epic 2006-2007 season when he scored over 30 goals in all competitions; perhaps that Zeman was onto something with his training methods after all, huh?
While Totti was no less impressive under Rudi Garcia, those 26 appearances, though magnificent, were 26% less than he made the prior season. Roma's record run through 2013-2014 was abetted by less than 1,700 minutes from Totti, and on only seven occasions did he play the full 90, which goes to show you what an awesome assemblage of talent Walter Sabatini cobbled together over last summer.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand...
Go a little further into Totti's career annals and, in terms of appearances, you'll notice some slight inconsistencies in the second decade of Totti's career. Over the past ten years, Francesco has only eclipsed the 30 match mark in three seasons. Taking it that step further, over those same ten seasons, Totti has made fewer than 25 appearances on five occasions. Of course, much of that began with his ACL injury in 2008, which spawned some minor injuries in subsequent seasons, while this year's maladies were largely confined to his hamstrings.
We mention this not to denigrate Totti, of course, but to raise an issue. It's not so much the correlation between age and injury that should concern you, but it's the deleterious effect aging has on recuperation times, which could lead to less and less Totti as he approaches age 40. Simply put, the minor knocks that may have taken 10 days to heal when he was younger, now might take 20, so the manner in which Rudi Garcia utilizes our most prized asset will wear new wrinkles next season and beyond, until that dark day when the King cedes his thrown to the bearded maniac.
For Totti, the question of retirement is less a question of age than it is about pride:
I grew up kicking a football and I will die doing the same thing...For sure, I will stay in the game - doing something, talking about football. But I'll be the first person to throw in the towel as soon as I start making a fool out of myself
Those words, call them Totti's own premonition, speak to the heart of this issue: Totti will play as long as he can be Totti, which, as the numbers proved, is still the case, albeit it smaller doses.
The problem with forecasting them into the future is simply this: there is literally no precedent for what Francesco Totti has done and what he is still doing. He didn't take the easy way out, grabbing millions of dollars for a retirement tour in a lesser league; week-in-and-week-out, he's in the middle of the fray in one of the world's most competitive and talented leagues, and he's doing this all as the fulcrum of one of Italy's most dynamic attacking teams.
With 561 league appearances and counting, Totti already stands as the most tested attacking player in Serie A history, and should pass Dino Zoff for fourth place all-time early next season, placing him behind only Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti and Gianluca Pagliuca on the all-time appearances list, the latter of whom he should also surpass before his current contract expires.
Forecasting the Future
Even though Francesco Totti has staved off the ravages of time and has proven himself to be one of the league's best players as he approaches his 38th birthday, how much can Roma depend on him this season? Were his 1,600 minutes last season an aberration or a harbinger of things to come? How and where should the club maximize his minutes, domestically or in Europe? Should they not only limit his minutes but also his touches?
We've dealt with a lot of numbers and asked a lot of questions in this piece, but as Roma fans, we know they only tell a portion of the story. Totti's mere presence on the pitch dictates how Roma's offense operates, to say nothing of its efficiency and effectiveness. No player on the club, and perhaps the league, has the same sort of close control, the same vision and the same preternatural feel for attacking football as Francesco Totti.
His movements on and off the ball determine the spacing, shape and pace of Roma's attack, their ability to switch play, their ability to link up in midfield and the final third, their ability to overlap and interchange, and the very nature and location of their shots on goal. We've used this analogy before, but Francesco Totti is the straw that stirs the drink. Hell, he's the drink itself, and the glass.
At some point in the not too distant future, we'll face the unenviable task of describing what Francesco Totti meant to his beloved club. Fortunately, this is not that day. Totti may no longer be a week-in-week-out 90 minute player, but when he is involved, he's as integral and nearly as effective as ever. The challenge for Rudi Garcia is how do you augment his aging skillset, how do you fill the gaps when he is not available?
As we saw last season, even in an attack focused 4-3-3 formation, Roma's offense was missing something when Totti was out; some sort of magic link, the tie that binds all of Garcia's component parts and coalesces them into the dynamic, synchronous, overlapping and interchanging monster we all fell in love with last year.
So how will Garcia help ease the transition into a Post-Totti world?
With the amount of talent at his disposal, the options are seemingly limitless. With a few tweaks in strategy and/or formation, Garcia can utilize Miralem Pjanic in more advanced role, he can slowly but surely expose Leandro Paredes to the Italian game and hope that he truly is a trequartista, or he can finally and fully utilize Adem Ljajic's considerable bag of tricks, affording the Serbian the same sort of tactical freedom granted to Totti.
This isn't an easy task, and it is perhaps the greatest challenge any Roma manager has ever or will ever face, but if Garcia is to wring every last drop of excellence out of Francesco Totti, not to mention keeping Roma at or near the top of the table, he must find a way to simultaneously lean on and wean Roma off Francesco Totti.
An extraordinary task involving an extraordinary player, but did you honestly expect any less?