To call Roma’s first foray into meaningful football this season odd would be a bit of an understatement. Luciano Spalletti threw several new and unfamiliar starters into his first lineup of the season, in a match that may ultimately prove to be the most important 90 minutes of the season. Through no accord of their own, Roma not only grabbed the always important away goal but managed to stave off Porto’s advances down one man for nearly 50 minutes.
The Champions League playoff opener could not have been any more Roma if all the players snapped their ACLs in unison. And here we are, a couple days later and Roma has yet another critical match in front of them, week one of the 2016-2017 Serie A season.
Roma kicks off the new campaign playing host to the now Antonio Di Natale-less Zebras of Udinese. Udine comes galloping into the capital hoping to upset Roma in the very first fixture of the new season, but given all they have at stake next week against Porto, it’s right to ask what sort of team will Spalletti field on Saturday?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. After his inauspicious debut earlier this week against Porto, one which will see him suspended for the return leg, we can safely assume—for no other reason than a lack of depth—that Vermaelen will play all 90 minutes on Saturday, most likely leaving Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio as Tuesday’s central pairing. Vindictively benching Vermaelen would only put Roma behind the eight ball for Tuesday, so look for Spalletti to provide Vermaelen with a chance to atone.
While the Alisson v. Wojciech Szczesny debate will rage all season long, the real point of contention for Saturday rests in the midfield—not in terms of who deserves to start, because each of Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan were solid earlier in the week—but rather who needs to be rested for the second leg against Porto Tuesday.
In an ironic twist, the only way any of these three gets any significant rest is if Leandro Paredes starts against Udinese. While he can ostensibly start for any of that trio, Strootman seems like the smart bet for some well earned rest, though DDR certainly ran as hard and as far as anyone against Porto. Honestly, if Roma advances into the group stages of the Champions League, finding significant minutes for Paredes isn't really a mystery; he's our fourth best midfielder without a doubt.
But herein lies Roma’s dirty little secret; deplorable midfield depth. Beyond Paredes, what reserve midfielder do you really have faith in? Gerson is incredibly talented, but quite literally untested on this side of the Atlantic, while William Vainqueur remains a Roma player in name only, and indeed looks on his way out.
Flash forward a few months and this may not be as large an issue. The addition of Bruno Peres, coupled with the eventual return of Mario Rui, will enable Spalletti to deploy Alessandro Florenzi in midfield, bringing some much needed speed to that position. However, until that day comes, the reserve midfield cupboard (beyond Paredes) is practically bare, meaning one of the iron curtain (DDR, Strootman and Nainggolan) will be incredibly taxed in the early months.
There is, of course, the chance Spalletti runs out a different formation altogether, which would at least give one of the starting midfielders a day off, but it’s simply too early in the season to predict formations and tactics.
Whatever the case may be, tomorrow presents the always perilous please don’t overlook these guys sort of match that always seems to befuddle Roma. While advancing into the group stages of the Champions League is absolutely priority number one right now, starting off the season by dropping points at home to Udinese isn’t exactly a harbinger of domestic success.
Saturday will be a test of depth and a test of tactics. Are they up for it?
For that matter, are you?