By and large this was a pretty dull week around the Romasphere. While we had to deal with all the usual transfer rumors, ranging from the banal Godfred Donsah to the potentially sublime Franck Kessie, it was really the standard fare—wake up, go to work/school, read about some B.S. transfer rumors; lather, rinse, repeat. Well, this cycle was suddenly up ended when Roma grabbed Lyon’s Clement Grenier on loan Friday afternoon, throwing the futures of everyone from Radja Nainggolan to Gerson into the air.
While this are matters for another day—likely this coming week, which figures to be chaotic—we mention them simply to set the scene: Sampdoria may not be world beaters, but this is a critically important match and Roma’s attention has been diverted throughout the week. With Juventus having a game in hand, and with Napoli nipping at her heels, Roma has zero room for error. This is a must win, full stop.
Sampdoria v. Roma: January 29, 15:00 CET/9:00 EST. Luigi Ferraris, Genoa.
Before we jump into this one, a quick look back at the reverse fixture from the fall.
September 11, 2016: Roma 3, Sampdoria 2
Roma faced a bit of an unexpected nail biter the first time around. After taking an early lead thanks to Mohamed Salah, things soon took a turn for the worse, as Sampdoria stormed out to a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Fabio Quagliarella and Luis Muriel. However, after Edin Dzeko drew an admittedly soft penalty call, Francesco Totti stepped up to the spot to deliver a Roma victory in the 93rd minute. Given how the league has shaken out since then, this was quite a fortuitous moment—drop two points here, and Roma’s grasp on second is even more tenuous.
Threes The Magic Number
Shout out to Blind Melon, remember them? Don’t do drugs, kids.
Three is indeed a magic number, for mathematicians, Stephen Curry, slices of pizza, sexual encounters and even football. Roma’s magic three refers to the suddenly de rigueur backline of Kostas Manolas, Antonio Rüdiger and the most lauded man in Rome, Federico Fazio. Roma’s ascendency this season seemed to coincide with Spalletti’s permanent shift to the three man backline, which, in addition to altering/improving the frontline, has brought out the best in Roma’s defense, even making Juan Jesus look like viable contributor. No matter the sorcery, Spalletti isn’t one to mess with success, so look for those three to throttle Sampdoria’s attack tomorrow afternoon.
Apart from that, it’s business as usual for Roma: Emerson, Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Bruno Peres manning the midfield, with Radja Nainggolan, Diego Perotti and Edin Dzeko forming the tip of the spear. As always, the only wrinkles rest in Spalletti’s substitution patterns, so let’s do a quick mini-analysis of his top three options. What do they bring to the table, and why isn’t he using them more often?
Option #1: Stephan El Shaarawy
By now you know my opinion, I love this kid. I flexed my editorial might to make him our number one U23 prospect, fending off Jimmy and Kevin’s claims for Leandro Paredes or Gerson. SES is nimble, effective and electric; we’ve seen it several times this season, his ability to change a match in an instant is nearly unparalleled on this squad, so he would seem a safe bet to be the first man off the bench, right?
With Diego Perotti’s on again, off again approach to 2017, Spalletti seems to have resigned El Shaarawy to the understudy role. While I maintain this is a poor use of his talents, he’s really been a victim of circumstance. Given Dzeko’s improvement this season, Spalletti has been hesitant to shy away from the 3-4-2-1, meaning last season’s strikerless El Shaarawy-Perotti-Salah trio has disappeared.
But with his game changing speed, agility and nose for the goal, he needs a larger role. Waste his talents and risk losing them.
Option #2: Leandro Paredes
For all you Lovely Leo fans, avert your eyes. With Grenier aboard, and with the ever present Franck Kessie rumors, Paredes may not be long for Roma. If they’re shortsighted enough to sell Paredes, we’ll have much, much more to say on the matter, but for now let’s focus on Paredes’ current role: that is to say, he doesn’t have one. Leo would seem the obvious choice to give one of Strootman, DDR or Nainggolan a respite, something that should happen every week given DDRs age, Nainggolan’s relentless/exhausting style and Strootman’s injury history, but barring blowouts or Coppa Italia matches, he’s struggled to gain a foothold in meaningful matches.
However, one needn’t look any further than his performance against Udinese to catch a glimpse of the future. Paredes took 94 touches and completed nearly 90% of his passes in that match two weeks ago, and was particularly crisp with the long ball, hitting on 7/8 attempts. At this point, without a defined role and consistent minutes, Leo has done about as well as one can expect, dictating play from deep and delivering key passes whenever possible.
With word that Roma may look to sell Paredes, his list of suitors tells you all you need know. He’s miles ahead of Gerson and a much safer and more versatile bet than Grenier, yet he’s kept at arm's length.
Option #3: Francesco Totti
Totti, more than anyone else in the attack, has been a victim of Dzeko’s success. Last season, when Roma found themselves deadlocked with 20 minutes or so left, they called on Totti, and he did what he’s done for 25 years now: saved their asses. However, with the team hitting on all cylinders, there simply haven’t been that many leads to chase, giving Spalletti fewer reasons to put Totti on in the second half; with a lead to protect, he seems content with putting on Paredes or, quite frankly, no one at all—just kill the clock with the 22 tired legs already out there.
However, as we all know, Totti has still got it. In short 10 to 15 minute bursts, there may be no more influential player in the league, and to see that go to waste has been a shame, particularly with Perotti’s inconsistencies and Dzeko’s intermittent tendency to regress. If this is truly Totti’s last season (which I maintain it’s not), there’s no point in treating him with kid gloves. This is it, drop the hammer and see what this baby can do.
With Roma’s starting XI completely gelled, this is really the only point of contention going forward: how will Spalletti use his bench? With the addition of Grenier and the return of Mario Rui, Spalletti suddenly has about six or seven viable options off the bench, and to date, he hasn’t really settled into a consistent rotation, something that could cause troubles down the stretch.
But, as far as Sunday afternoon is concerned, Roma simply has to reign in Quagliarella and Muriel, something they weren’t able to do in the fall. When Roma has possession, they must be more efficient, as the misses pile up, the chances for dropped points increases exponentially.
Roma should handle Sampdoria with no muss, but the Marassi is never an easy trip.