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Roma Season Preview: The Defenders

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Meet the new defense, same as the old defense. Except really, really not.

US Citta di Palermo v Torino FC - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Perhaps the best way to sum up Roma’s defense is that year after year it is shaken, not stirred. Through a combination of transfers, injuries, and contract expirations, Roma’s defense has once again undergone a revolution. With four players loaned in, three loaned out, and two simply let go, there are now only four defenders left from last season, and only one starter in good health. Good defenders are definitely a rare commodity in today’s transfer market, but still, you would think that Roma might be able to hold on to a couple starters for longer than a year.

Whatever the case may be, Roma has a lot of new faces in defense to start off the year, so it’s best to start the hellos and goodbyes now.

Who’s Out?

Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona - Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

One of Roma’s most-tenured defenders, Leandro Castan, has been sent out on loan to Sampdoria Torino. This isn’t your typical departure however, because his loan is being seen by many as a chance to regain the form and playing time that was taken away from him by his 2014 brain surgery. Rumors say that he was moved from Sampdoria to Turin so that he could have guaranteed playing time, so hopefully this isn’t the end of Leandro in Roma colors.

Also gone is Lucas Digne, once touted as the successor to Candela and now of Barcelona. Roma failed to pick up their €16 million option on the 22-year-old, so the Blaugrana swooped in and took Digne from Paris Saint-Germain for €16.5 million. So far he’s done his new kit proud, and Roma’s lack of activity on this front has left many confused. Both Lucas and his agent declared multiple times that they wished to stay in Rome – was the price tag simply too high? We may never know, and that’s certainly a shame.

Maicon Douglas Sisenando has also been shown the door, in this case due to the end of his contract. Maicon had played for Roma for the past three seasons and was well-liked among Romanisti, but at age 35 it was beginning to appear that Father Time had caught up to the attacking full-back. Although nothing’s official as of yet, most reports indicate that he will sign with a Brazilian club soon, and I think I can speak for all of the writers at the Chiesa when I wish him well in his future endeavors.

There’s also been a pretty significant shuffle of bench defenders, with Ervin Zukanovic and Norbert Gyomber sent out on loan to Atalanta and Pescara respectively. Combined they had a total of fifteen appearances for the Capitoline club, and with most of them as substitutes, it’s fair to say that they might not be missed as much as Castan, Digne, or Maicon. One can only hope that Roma will make some type of profit off of these loans – it doesn’t appear either player has a place in the squad.

Who’s In?

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Just as there have been a large number of transfers out, there are quite a few new faces filling out the defense this year. Perhaps the premiere signing of the summer is Bruno Peres, the Brazilian right-back formerly of Torino who just recently touched down at Fiumicino Airport. Peres looks to slot directly into Luciano Spalletti’s starting eleven, hopefully pushing Alessandro Florenzi back into the midfield and providing some long-term stability in a defense that is in dire need of just that.

Thomas Vermaelen also figures to play a rather large role in Roma’s defense this year. Brought in on a year-long loan from Barcelona, Vermaelen had a rather ignominious start to his career with i Lupi, earning a red card in his first match, but it’d be wrong to assume that his entire time with Roma will go just as poorly. He has the makings of at the very least a good member of the center-back rotation, and once Antonio Rüdiger recovers from his ACL tear he will most likely be the first center back off the bench.

Juan Jesus is another addition, both to the center-back corps and to Roma’s Brazilian contingent. Brought in from Inter Milan on Walter Sabatini’s favorite type of move, loan with obligation to buy, Juan (pronounced RRRuan, as he is eager to point out) looks to play both on the left and as a center-back. Although he did have quite a long career at Inter considering his relative youth, he hasn’t reached the heights many thought possible for him at the beginning of his career. Consider this signing as a similar one to Roma’s acquisition of Stephan El Shaarawy this past winter; if he succeeds, Roma looks quite good, but if he fails, it’s no skin off of Walter Sabatini’s nose.

The final center-back addition to Roma’s squad is Federico Fazio, loaned from Tottenham Hotspur with an option to buy for €3.2 million. Fazio looks to be a depth signing, providing a full complement of central defenders for Luciano Spalletti to toy with and eventually develop some semblance of a complete defense. I’ll be completely honest with you: I’m not entirely sure why Fazio was brought in while Norbert Gyomber was sent out on loan. He’s here now, though, so Roma might as well make the most of it and hope for the best.

When he was signed, Mario Rui looked to be a decent replacement for Lucas Digne, at least in terms of minutes played. The former Empoli man was a much cheaper option than Digne could ever be, but his experience in Serie A meant that Romanisti could at least hope that the difference in quality might not be too noticeable. Unfortunately, Mario Rui has seemingly been affected by the long-standing curse over Trigoria, as he suffered an ACL tear less than a month after signing for the Capitoline club. Time will tell how Rui will recover, and if he will ever act as a starting left-back for Roma. Whatever the case may be, get well soon, Mario.

Finally, I should mention Moustapha Seck and Nura Abdullahi, the two young fullbacks who figure to play some role in Roma’s future defense. Neither will likely garner too many minutes this year, but learning alongside the senior members of the squad will undoubtedly help them develop and who knows, maybe they’ll get some minutes in Coppa matches and force their way into the starting eleven! Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.

Who Will Struggle? Who Will Succeed?

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There are so many new members of the defense that it’s honestly rather hard to figure out who will start, let alone who will struggle or succeed. Prior history would indicate that Bruno Peres, Antonio Rüdiger, Kostas Manolas, and Thomas Vermaelen will have success this year, while Juan Jesus and Federico Fazio may have more difficulty in cementing a spot. Naturally, Mario Rui won’t have much of a chance to shine until at least the spring, but hopefully he can push through his injury and make a comeback of some sorts.

Confidence Factor: 5/10

Luciano Spalletti and Walter Sabatini essentially brought in a brand-new defense this year, and time will tell if it’s able to gel. That’s the reason why the confidence factor for Roma’s defense is stuck right between worst and best case scenario; we simply don’t know how this will pan out.

Now, I’m naturally an optimistic person. I think that a defense featuring the best attacking right-back in Serie A (Bruno Peres) and two top center-backs (Manolas and Rüdiger, when healthy) can hang with nearly any offense. Yet every defense needs time to gel, every defense needs to develop a bond, more than any other part of a team. This new-look Roma defense may be the start of something special, or it may be just another iteration of a defense constantly in flux. Whatever the case may be, Roma’s season hinges on the ability of this group to come together and find unity, to make something more than a sum of its parts. But that’s how every underdog story starts, isn’t it?