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Fiddling While Roma Burns

Following a December barrage of external speculation and internal board division, the smoke is finally starting to clear on the immediate future of AS Roma.

Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

The extraordinary crisis that has enveloped the club in 2015 shows absolutely no sign of abating following a frenzied two weeks of inept indecision and poor displays both on the field and off it. Catastrophic performances against Torino, Bate Borisov, Atalanta, Spezia and (despite the win) Genoa, have lead to near universal condemnations against manager Rudi Garcia. The Frenchman has struggled to keep his head above the Roman waters following his spectacular 2013-14 (first) season and a subsequent four-year, 17m Euro contract extension.

Meanwhile, on field disappointments have been compounded by a full-scale supporters revolt that has followed stadium changes that split up the Curva Sud with the installation of a vacant corridor for security and police.

Add to this melodrama, continued delays and bureaucratic bungles that hamper construction on the promised and very much hyped new Stadio della Roma and you can sense President, James Pallotta’s In-Tray is beginning to resemble an Italian family Christmas gathering. (IE Neither orderly, nor in control).


So with such a litany of issues for Pallotta and his board to address, let us first examine the most visible point of the iceberg, Roma’s on field performance.

The arrival of Rudi Garcia to the city of Rome ushered in a period of record dominance on the football field. Lead by the stingiest defence in the league. Roma dominated the Serie A table in 2013 lead by the career best form of Benatia, Strootman, Maicon, Pjanic, De Rossi and Gervinho, while captain, Francesco Totti, bordered on simply unplayable. However a combination of injuries and the increased predictability of Garcia’s style saw Juventus overtake and eventually surpass Roma in the race for the title.

The following season began brightly enough but once again turned dark following a number of player departures and unsuccessful acquisitions during the summer. Further to this, Roma’s fragile ego never recovered from a 7-1 shellacking in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich and the squad limped to another second place finish thanks largely to the weakness of rival Serie A teams rather than any convincing dominance they held over them.

2015-16 was always going to be a make or break year for Rudi Garcia and the Director of Sport, Walter Sabatini, as they attempted to plaster over the previous season’s cracks to have a serious shot at a Scudetto following the obvious on-field weakening of title rivals Juventus.

Alas, despite the acquisitions of Edin Dzeko and Mohammad Salah, Rudi’s Roma have been unable to display any concrete improvements in their play from last year. Positive results against Juventus (2-1) and Barcelona (1-1) at home failed to kickstart the squad into producing the fluent and attractive football demanded by the success starved Roma.

An inexperienced defence has been regularly torn asunder by wily Serie A tacticians and was brutalised by Barcelona in the return match (6-1). To add to this, Garcia’s dogmatic 4-3-3 has simply failed to neutralise the smaller sides in Serie A, who have been quite content to sit back and allow Roma’s defenders to practice back passes to an erratic and disinterested Wojciech Szczęsny.

The players appear overworked and unenthused as they regularly fail to connect the midfield with the attack and Edin Dzeko has managed to look remarkably even more miserable than last season’s anointed goal savior, Seydou Doumbia.

Perhaps the most glaring failure of Rudi’s system is that it simply does not allow for proven strikers to flourish. Mattia Destro, Doumbia and Dzeko all have unanimously failed under the Frenchmen despite carving impressive careers elsewhere.

Roma’s poor results have mirrored their wretched 2015 performances, with losses at home against Atalanta and Serie B opponent Spezia punctuating dour draws with Torino, Bate and Napoli.

The drums for change were beating louder than ever prior to the match at home last weekend to Genoa as the football media began playing pin the (new) manager on Roma. It appeared to every Roma observer that the announcement of Garcia’s sacking was a mere ninety minutes away.

A near empty stadium jeered the home side in frustration as the hopelessly under gunned 17th placed Genoa side managed to blunt Roma’s wing obsessed attack and responded in turn with simple and direct attacking thrusts.

And then just before half-time following yet another misdirected cross from the wings into the box, a fluffed Genoa clearance resulted in the ball skying onto a plate for Alessandro Florenzi who made no mistake in volleying home. It was Roma’s first goal in nearly 300 minutes of play.

No sooner had the ball rippled the net, the young right back turned swiftly on his heels and sprinted towards his beleaguered coach to celebrate his goal.

The puzzling symbolism of the player who in 2015 arguably suffered the most under his manager’s strict tactical rigidity performing such a theatric act of solidarity was not lost on the reduced Roman crowd who switched their cheers into whistles of disapproval.

The second half offered a comparable lack of cutting edge football as Roma took until the 70th minute to register another shot on goal. This was quickly followed by a red card issued to Edin Dzeko for his vociferous protestations towards the referee following his squandering of a decent chance to break his own goal drought.

This brought on a slight tactical shuffle as Salah was sacrificed for the young Nigerian, Sadiq Umar who would fill the striker role.

As Genoa pushed more men forward in an attempt to equalise, some catastrophic marking in defence allowed the young Sadiq a free header at an easily defendable far post cross. The youngster took his chance and buried the ball deep into the net to close out the contest 2-0 to Roma.

Had Sadiq and Florenzi done enough to save Rudi Garcia’s job?

Despite the scoreline the same issues that have plagued Roma for so long remained clear for all to see. The complete isolation of the attack, whether it be Dzeko or either of the wingers and a lack of interplay in the final third make this side predictable and simple to defend against. To add to this there remains the distinct possibility of Roma dropping completely out of the European qualifying positions by seasons end. And of course there remains the small matter of an intimidating date with Real Madrid in February.

The question that remained for Pallotta and Co was whether this performance warranted a sufficient change in fortunes to negate the overwhelming on-field evidence that has been stacking up against Garcia for coming on twelve months.

The answer appears to rest at the heart of modern football; the almighty Euro! (or USD for Jimmy and Co). An early termination of Rudi Garcia’s contract is likely to cost Roma approximately 17 million euros.

Yes, read that again. Rudi Garcia will receive a 17 million euro reward for catastrophic failure thanks to the inexplicably generous contract he penned following his first season at Roma. It is of little wonder that the Frenchmen is maintaining a defiant stand against all those insisting on his resignation.

Coaching Carrousels

The life of a professional football manager is often intermingled with the fate of his peers, predecessors and potential successors. As Rudi’s Roma began to sputter with the grace of a dying diesel engine, other candidates began drawing the attention of both the media and the disgruntled fans.

Ghosts of Calcio’s past including Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello were apparently sounded out before eventually issuing denials. Even the resignation of Chelsea’s infamous Jose Mourinho drew allegations of a Pallotta mercy dash to London to try and lure the Portuguese.

More recent Serie A acquaintances had also attracted the eye with Walter Mazzarri, Antonio Conte and a certain Luciano Spalletti being deemed suitable future managerial candidates.

The most fetching name on this long list to both pundit and fan alike has been without doubt Luciano Spalletti. The Grand Imperial Poobah, as his adoring followers have dubbed him, holds a special relevance in the discussions over the AS Roma manager spot, given the emotional highs he reached during his tenure from 2005-2009. In those years he forged Roma into a lighting rod of excitement despite tiptoeing the most modest of transfer budget wires. Roma’s exploits in the Champions League earned admirers from afar as his pioneering of Francesco Totti as a false nine was soon adopted by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Although Roma were never able to reach the heights of a Scudetto under his watch, they played with a brash enthusiasm where the players sweated for the shirt and each other and in return were adored by packed stadiums and a raucous Curva Sud.

Such nostalgia undoubtedly makes Spalletti the sentimental choice of the fans however his ability to extract the maximum output from a "moneyball" list is surely his most alluring quality to the American management. His time away from Roma has also been fruitful, achieving sustained success with Zenit St Petersberg, where he won the Russian league twice. In fact Luciano’s contract with Zenit effectively expired on December 23, which sent the rumour mill into overdrive that this would be the date for his signing.

The naysayers may point out his inability to reach the summit of Serie A, places him in a weight division; below that of Conte, Capello, Ancelotti and Lippi. However this argument underestimates the emotional attachment to both the city and fans that Spalletti is able to bridge.

Indeed, such an appointment would be a key step in mending the at times poisonous relationship between the American hierarchy from the city and fans.

So with all these obvious ticks in the pros column, why exactly is it James Pallotta has kept the pro Spalletti supporters in such intolerable suspense?

First and foremost the not insignificant sum of cash required to dispose of Rudi Garcia is an almighty point of a contention for a President that insists on running the football club first and foremost like a business.

Yet despite this, reports have surfaced throughout the week inferring the Bostonian businessman was leaning heavily on letting Rudi go, encountering stiff resistance from his DS, Walter Sabatini.

By siding with Garcia in this Cold War against regime change, the Gazzetta Dello Sport alleges that Sabatini has threatened his resignation to the President. Such a move effectively derails Roma’s winter transfer campaign and would plunge any future moves for goalkeepers or fullbacks and central defenders into doubt.

This double bluff therefore contends that with each passing day the likelihood of an announcement of a managerial change grows dimmer.

Further rumours outlining a conference call between Pallotta, Sabatini and Baldisonni has thrown further cold water on a managerial announcement. It is alleged the trio have reached a truce to maintain the coaching status quo over the Christmas break.

Indeed the longer Garcia can survive the more likely the momentum of a future appointment switches from Spalletti to Antonio Conte. The appointment of Conte following his stint with the Italian national team at the European championships would not come cheaply nor would it particularly win over many hearts and minds.

The former Juve player and manager remains high on Chelsea’s list as a 2016 signing which would require a considerable investment in Euros to deter him from the offered Pounds Sterling.

However the most visceral of the issues with an appointment of Conte is unquestionably his links to Juventus and the animosity that was generated against both the club and the Roma fans during his very successful reign. Further to this, Conte preaches a combative brand of football that is at times despicably boring. Such an abrasive relationship with the famously fickle Roma supporter base is unlikely to yield positive results at the conclusion to any honeymoon period.

And it is indeed the relationship with the city and fans that the Roma management is currently struggling with.

Winning Back the Fickle Mob

These decisions or rather indecisions on a new Roma manager will undoubtedly continue to incense the already volatile Roma supporters. A truce between the fans of the Curva Sud and the Italian authorities appears unlikely after the Corriere Dello Sport reported Nicholas D’Angelo, the police superintendent of Rome has absolutely no intention of removing division of the Curva, citing new European regulations.

Any assumption that the disintegration of the Ultras in the Curva would result in a more appealing environment for families and therefore increase ticket sales has turned out to be a comical farce. The silence and glaring absence of the Curva Sud has haunted both the management and team during home matches and presented a visible point of tension that appears to be far from resolved heading into 2016.

This visible loss of face offers sad reminders of the stark contrast between the present day and that of the Olimpico crowd’s passion and devotion during the infamous Champions League match against Bayern Munich last season. The Roma supporters drew praise from around the world for their vocal and constant support of their side despite the annihilation of their team on the field.

Solutions or Submission?

The challenges before Pallotta and his suits for 2016 are clear:

· Fix the standard of football

· Sort out who is going to manage the team from 2016

· Reach a compromise with the fans to bring the Olimpico (including the Curva Sud) back to capacity attendance

· Ensure the team remains strong enough to qualify for Europe next year

· Facilitate the strengthening of the squad in areas of need

· Announce concrete plans and time schedule for the new stadium

So far the decision to stick with Rudi Garcia into 2015 despite the atrocious returns on quality of football and results, is a glaring error of the Pallotta regime to date.

To remedy this, the management has to find a way to satisfy the short-term necessities of European qualification whilst coming up with a more constructive on-field plan for the team’s future. In the meantime there is the no small matter of resolving conflicts with an increasingly antagonistic supporter base.

AS Roma sits in a parlous state at the conclusion of 2015 and failure to address the above concerns is unlikely to see the club unlock any of that irresistible potential that lured the American ownership in the first place. The barbarians are not yet banging on the gates, but it would be wise to douse these spot fires whilst they can still be contained. History offers this club a powerful legacy to live up to. And no one wants their statue to be that of an aloof fiddler.


"Because it’s fucking Rome!" – James Pallotta