In the final installment of our three-part look at Monchi’s first year on the job, we pour over his first managerial appointment, Eusebio Di Francesco.
A New Coach
With Spalletti Spalitting for Inter, Monchi and Pallotta’s most consequential decision of the summer was finding his replacement. Knowing that they would be selling a number of first-team players and replacing them on the cheap, hiring EDF may have been the boldest decision they made last summer.
There was certainly a lot going for him. EDF had worked magic at Sassuolo, taking them from Serie B all the way to the Europa League for the first time in their history. He also bled yellow and red as a member of the 2000-2001 Scudetto winning Roma side, but, after 8 coaches in 8 years and facing a very difficult, transitional season, Monchi and Pallotta were no doubt tempted to go with a seasoned and proven veteran on the touchline. More than that, with ambitions in Europe, EDF’s only European experience had been crashing out at the bottom of the Europa League group in 2016. Not exactly impressive.
It is difficult to separate out the impact of the coach from the players, but it is clear that their decision to take a risk on EDF has paid off. Our attack suffered from losing Salah, but we still managed to meet expectations in the league by qualifying for the Champions League. Plus, we more than surpassed expectations in the Champions League by topping the group of death and falling just one goal short of reaching the final. Not many coaches have managed this kind of success with Roma, and we can only hope that he stays and continues to produce these kinds of results. If he can do this with a team in transition, just imagine what he can do once some of this year’s Champions League money is reinvested into the team.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
It is easy to get lost in the details of each decision, but, ultimately, judging a teams transfer strategy is more than summing up each individual decision. Teams live and die by the effectiveness of their identities and their philosophies. Every move in the transfer market changes a team’s overall ability but also how well it fits a particular identity or philosophy. Every time Milan brings in a top Italian player, they become more Milan. Every time Inter brings in a top foreign player, they become more Inter. Every time Juventus pays off a ref...well...you get the idea.
Pallotta seems set on instilling a new philosophy at Roma. Some philosophies are based on the nationality of the players, like Milan and Inter. Some are based on tactical anecdotes, like Pep saying that opponents can’t score if they don’t have the ball. But, Pallotta has admitted to not knowing much about football tactics, and fortunately he doesn’t seem to care about forcing some arbitrary preference for the demographics of players onto the team (although, he is on the board of directors for a basketball team and Roma players do keep getting taller...hmmm). Instead, he is instilling a philosophy of data-driven decision making, and, last summer, he finally went all in on the approach—hiring both a director of football and a coach that are fully on-board with the direction.
These other demographic or tactical philosophies may be limiting at best and downright detrimental at worst. By excluding players based on their nationality, the talent pool available to the team gets an arbitrary, Thanos-style reduction in size. By picking a tactical philosophy like Manchester City, the team becomes wedded to an idea that may be temporarily advantageous if you happen to have the best manager in the world at your disposal, but, like with all tactical systems, it will eventually be cracked by a new system and become outdated. On the other hand, a data-driven strategy has the advantage of naturally correcting as tactics and teams around them change. Because as they change, so does the data.
Nevertheless, this approach is clearly still far from perfect. For every Kolarov, there is a Defrel. They are building something new, so there will be mistakes and setbacks. The key to long-term success is not getting it right immediately but learning from errors and responding accordingly. Regardless, this has been one of the most exciting years to be a Roma fan in a long time, and I can’t help but wonder if it is at least partially because this new philosophy is already succeeding. It will take another year or two to really take shape, but if it does work as Pallotta and Monchi expect, Monchi could be regularly finding more Ünders and Kolarovs for years to come.