Thanks to next summer’s in-no-way-illegally-obtained World Cup, Serie A is kicking off a bit early this season. While this is generally the case during a World Cup year, given all the upheaval Roma has experienced over the past several months—Francesco Totti “retiring”, Luciano Spalletti leaving, the Mahrez Saga, etc.—it’s a less than ideal run up to Roma’s first test of the 2017-2018 season.
Making matters worse, the Serie A schedule makers did Roma no favors in throwing up an away fixture to Atalanta to kick off the season. While the Goddesses will struggle to repeat last season’s surprise turn, Roma seldom experiences success in Bergamo, having won only twice in the past five seasons, so it won’t be a walk in the park.
Atalanta v. Roma: August 20th, 18:00 CET/12:00 EDT. Stadio Atleti Azzurri, Bergamo.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick at how Atalanta will line ‘em up tomorrow evening.
Although he was nearly a Roma player last winter, Alejandro Gomez very much remains at the core of everything Gian Piero Gasperini hopes to achieve with Atalanta. Quite simply, Papu was one of the league’s most effective players last season, tallying up a 16 goal and 10 assist campaign. Gomez had some help with the heavy lifting last season, most notably Andrea Patagna and Andrea Conti, who combined for 13 goals and 12 assists in league play, but he is for all intents and purposes their Totti.
While Conti and Roberto Gagliardini are no longer with the squad, the Goddess hasn’t lost all her teeth and should present quite a challenge for Roma 6.0. Led by Gomez and Patagna, Gasperini’s XI should be as lively as last season and has the potential to make Roma’s suddenly shaky backline look even worse.
Atalanta won’t make anyone forget about Juventus or Napoli, but in terms of opening week opponents, Roma might as well be facing the Monstars, but, you know, the soccer version.
Di Francesco’s Debut
While Roma was rather busy in the early part of the summer, no move was as noteworthy as the signing of new manager Eusebio Di Francesco. Roma’s former workman midfielder is considered by many a rising star in Italy’s coaching ranks, having guided Sassuolo to promotion and subsequently their first-ever European appearance, but is tackling an entirely different animal in Roma.
On the surface, it’s a story made for Hollywood—a mild mannered manager returning to the scenes of his greatest glory, hoping to take the next step in his promising managerial career—but the first act of that script hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned.
While Roma fared quite well early in the transfer market, their dogged pursuit of Riyad Mahrez, a man deemed a must have by Roma’s administration, was anything but smooth. Having been spurned several times over, EDF now heads into his first match as Roma manager without a crucial tactical component, a dynamic, playmaking right winger.
In his stead, EDF will most likely jam Gregoire Defrel’s square peg into a round hole. By his own admission Defrel is best suited for a central role, but given a lack of other options, he is Roma’s de facto right winger for the foreseeable future, a situation which has shone an unflattering spotlight on EDF’s tactics, a point to which he spoke earlier today:
I don’t like talking about the specifics of my line-up. We must prepare for the game in a certain way and discuss it in terms of a unit that moves as one. The collective is the key, not the individual... I think it’s absurd for you to already be asking me about problems with the 4-3-3 formation, as tactics are not about static numbers. Why should I change everything due to 30 minutes in Vigo?
He’s referring to Roma’s undressing at the hand of Spanish side Celta Vigo, who railroaded Roma 4-1 in a friendly last week, throttling EDFs side in the first 30 minutes or so of the match. While he’s correct in his assertion that 30 minutes does not make a man nor a season, he’s failing to take the fanbases collective psyche into account; it wasn’t that long ago that Rudi Garcia’s blind adherence to the 4-3-3 derailed the club, so people are understandably a bit jumpy out the surface parallels between the two men.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality. For a multitude of reasons, many of which are beyond his control, Di Francesco’s margin for error is already razor thin. With so many beloved figures ushered out the door, if EDF fails to make an impact in the first few weeks of the season, he may find himself fighting an uphill battle before the leaves hit the ground. There is no more ‘oh it’s okay, we’ve got Totti’, or ‘no worries, Luciano will sort this out’ It’s all on EDF. Everything.
In terms of his first lineup, the safe money is on a 4-3-3 (duh) with Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas, Bruno Peres and Aleksandar Kolarov at the back, Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman in the middle, with Gregoire Defrel, Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti at the vanguard, and, of course, Alisson Becker in net.
On the surface, DDR, Nainggolan and Strootman, Roma’s Brinks truck of a midfield, should be more than capable of containing Atalanta’s attack, but as we’ve seen this summer, if the levees break, the back four has had a whale of a time stopping the deluge.
Once again, it’s completely unfair to everyone involved, but tomorrow’s match will set the tone for the entire season and arguably EDFs entire tenure with Roma. Come out flat, waste chances and get stretched at the back and the pitchforks will appear—it’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not smart, but it’s Roma.
But when you sign up to manage Roma, this is what you get. Cowering, quibbling and making excuses will put you back in the bread line toot sweet.