For the past seven years, and really much of the past two decades save for a brief run from Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan sides, the entire league has been playing catch up with the Old Lady. Through a combination of shrewd talent scouting, capitalizing on free transfers, spending big when necessary and, umm, getting some “help” from the league, Juventus is in the midst of a rather unprecedented run of Serie A success, a run that looks to continue unabated now that they’ve laid out €100 million for Cristiano Ronaldo, and may follow that up with Marcelo.
Juventus didn’t need any additional help to be the odds on favorites for an eighth straight title, but by landing Ronaldo, not to mention the accompanying financial windfall, Juve now look damn near unbeatable. Juventus getting Ronaldo would be like if Bill Gates inherited Apple after Steve Jobs died; an unnecessary excess.
So, in this brave new world, how is a plucky little club like Roma supposed to compete? Even under the best of circumstances, Roma seldom finished within single digits of Juventus on the table, so how on Earth are they suppose to put up a respectable fight in the face of such overwhelming odds?
Two years ago, I laid out a quick, three point plan for Roma to replicate the Juventus model. It was admittedly glib, but in essence Roma simply needed to cultivate young talent (that’s been a mixed bag), keep their own players (the less said about that the better) and beat lesser opponents, which still remains a thorn in Roma’s side.
I’m not here to rehash that plan, because in some ways it’ll always be true, but I thought we’d narrow it down a bit and look at a few key players or concepts that could enable Roma to keep pace with Juventus, and even Napoli for that matter.
#1: A Step Forward for Patrik Schick
While we’re at it let’s put an emphasis on forward there, too. While Roma was able to spread the payments out over several years, their potential €42 million investment in Schick set a new club transfer record. With only two goals and approximately 1,100 minutes action, Schick’s debut season in Rome was a colossal disappointment. While some of this was beyond his control—Edin Dzeko is still Roma’s best bet at center forward—even the most pessimistic among us probably envisioned just a few more goals.
Still, there’s something magical about Schick; for a man his size to move so swiftly and so nimbly in tight spaces almost defies nature. He hasn’t even remotely put “it” all together yet, but you can tell he’s going to be something really, really special once he does. Remember, Schick was a heartbeat away (no pun intended) from being a Juve player himself before failing his medical examination, so the talent was obvious to anyone who watched his debut season with Sampdoria.
Roma’s offense took a giant step backwards last season, scoring 29 fewer goals than 2016-2017, and one look at Monchi’s summer shopping spree tells you all you need to know about the club’s offseason ambitions; put some bite back in the attack. So whether he plays out wide or gets more minutes in the middle, increased output from Schick will go a long, long way towards helping Roma remain in the upper reaches of the table.
#2: Ünder and Kluivert Need to Click Quickly
One of my favorite mini-movements in recent Roma history was during the winter of 2016. While Stephan El Shaarawy and Diego Perotti were ostensibly purchased to satiate Rudi Garcia’s addiction to wingers, it was Luciano Spalletti who ultimately reaped the rewards, pairing those new additions with Mohamed Salah to resurrect Roma’s moribund season. This nouveau false nine approach, with Perotti playing the Francesco Totti role, quickly revived Roma’s dormant attack, as opponents couldn’t key in Spalletti’s intermingled and overlapping attack.
Now, I’m not saying Roma should switch back to that (though it’d be dope), but Cengiz Ünder and Justin Kluivert have the athleticism and technical ability to wreak havoc on the wings, creating a cacophony of calcio creativity around Dzeko or Schick. Ünder already proved to be one of the league’s most effective wing players throughout the spring, and if he can avoid the sophomore slump, and if Kluivert can hit the ground running, there may not be a more dynamic pair of wingers in the league, and that includes Juventus...maybe, I don’t know, just let me have this!
Point being, when you can’t spend €100 million (or even €35 million for that matter) on the transfer market, you HAVE TO hit it big with young players. As we just mentioned, if Ünder continues his ascension and Kluivert quickly adapts to Italian football, Roma will have a pair of playmaking wingers who just so happen to have a pair of keen scoring eyes. Combine their talents with Perotti’s playmaking and El Shaarawy’s explosiveness, and Roma are looking pretty good on the wings.
#3: Improved Midfield Play
Now, this isn’t to say that Roma’s midfield was particularly poor last season, just that they were lacking in consistency and creativity, particularly the latter. Roma didn’t have a single player rank in the top 20 most creative players, with Lorenzo Pellegrini’s 1.6 key passes landing 27th in the league. True, Radja Nainggolan’s 1.9 key passes per match was 16th in the league last season, but he’s, uh, not here anymore, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Furthermore, if we look at the league’s top 50 players, based on Squawka’s performance score rating, we don’t see a single Roma midfielder.
Point being, Roma had the tendency to get bogged down last year, particularly during that winter swoon; there was simply no creative spark in the middle of the field, heaping further onus on Diego Perotti to create from the wings and putting further weight on the seemingly dozens of crosses the club would pump in to Edin Dzeko on a weekly basis.
Now, I wish I could tell you Roma solved this problem in one fell swoop by signing Kevin De Bruyne, Mesut Ozil or one of the world’s other great creators, but we don’t exist in that reality. The truth is a bit murkier; Roma’s midfield won’t be led out of the wilderness by any one pioneering player.
The natural assumption is that Pastore will shine as Roma’s prime playmaker, but the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t approached Nainggolan’s 1.9 key passes per match since the 2015-2016 season, so we can’t simply assume he’ll turn back the clock several years.
Rather than relying solely on El Flaco, the increased depth and diversity of Roma’s midfield should yield better results. In addition to Pastore, the presence of new signee Bryan Cristante and an increased role for Lorenzo Pellegrini, Monchi appears to be taking a collective approach to improving Roma’s midfield, focusing on players who can do a bit of everything rather than having tightly defined roles and/or skill sets.
Lest this dampen your spirits, Eusebio Di Francesco does have an enormous amount of talent at his disposal. Pastore isn’t a kid anymore, but as Francesco Totti proved, the ability to pick out a pass ages remarkably well, so don’t be shocked if El Flaco ends up with seven or eight assists. Furthermore, the actual goal scoring capacity of the midfield should improve dramatically with Cristante, who banged home a dozen for Atalanta last season.
While none of those names are likely to overthrow De Bruyne or Ozil among the game’s best creative players, when combined with Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Maxime Gonalons, they give Roma the deepest midfield she’s had in years.
Now, we’ve made it this far and haven’t even discussed Ante Coric yet, and for good reason; he’s the great unknown. If you’ve watched any of Roma’s summer training, you’ve no doubt seen glimpses of the touch and poise that led to the “Next Luka Modric” moniker, but until we see him in actual game action, we can’t say where he’ll slot into EDF’s rotation. He could just as easily make a name for himself in September as he could dwell on the bench until February; we just don’t know.
But keep an eye on Pellegrini, he’s the jewel in this crown and he’s still just 22-years-old; if he can take the leap this year, Roma’s midfield should follow suit.
#4: Keep Alisson
Hey, we can dream, right?