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Roma’s Year Zero Character Showing Despite Cracks

There’s real quality in this Roma side, and now’s not the time to be moaning about referees,

AS Roma v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Weekends like the one gone by are familiar to Roma fans. People attracted to chaos come alive, sensing an opportunity to have a moan to try to stir up the crowd. They confront no one, misdirect their anger and drag bystanders into whatever drama is going on with them. This weekend, the bystander was referee Davide Massa; a man who you’d never think was promoted by the Roma press as being a “win” for Roma prior to yesterday’s kickoff, given some of the vitriol towards him after the final whistle.

Unfortunately for Massa, years of overseeing favourable results for Roma in crunch matches counts for little in a footballing city found wanting for character. All because Massa had done a very poor job of managing one single game with Roma’s name on it. And now the Roman press are digging up another time Massa “did Roma wrong” - only they had to go all the way back to 2013 to find it. Because that’s Roma for you. The club and city has always lacked the broad shoulders needed to carry the weight of its own self-imposed expectations. At that point, the easy thing to do is look for someone else to blame.

Yet while nearly all of Massa’s key decisions in the game were 100% correct, the way in which he strung those decisions together left his performance open to valid criticism.

Not least of all when Massa told Cagliari players (according to several second-hand accounts) he hadn’t whistled for a foul against Roma striker Nikola Kalinic in the dying moments of the game. That put the emphasis on Massa to either uphold his original no-foul decision and let Roma’s disallowed goal stand, or to go to the VAR screens and acknowledge he was part of overturning a “clear and obvious” error in his original decision. But Massa choose neither and, instead, let VAR take responsibility for him. Then all the pressure Roma have been under, for far longer than this Cagliari match, began to boil over.

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

A screaming Fonseca unloading his feelings an inch from Massa’s face. Fitness coach Nuno Romano completely playing up to the crowd with theatrics. Roma’s sporting director Gianluca Petrachi treating us to yet another monologue after the final whistle. It can’t be decisions on the field that lead to grown men losing their rag like this, can it?

As Roberto Pruzzo summed up on the radio yesterday morning: “The Roma reaction was over the top.” While every other Roman opinion was shaking their head at Romano’s antics: “You don’t need to go out of your way to try and please the crowd like that.”

We go on about Italian and Roman stereotypes of “passion” meaning losing your head like a brat on the pitch, but passion isn’t feeling sorry for yourself. It’s often the people who’ve put years of sweat and blood into everyday Italy who’ll be the first to tell you when you need to relax yourself and show some real passion when it counts.

Every opinion on Roma radio accepted that the referee made the correct key decisions throughout the match, with only the first-half foul called on Amadou Diawara’s perfect tackle on the edge of Roma’s area the glaring error on Massa’s copybook. No one was impressed with Petrachi gone into theatrics after the game, and unfortunately Nuno Romano looks like he’s copping himself a hefty ban that helps no one.

Sooner or later, you’ve got to get your energy focused back on what’s in your hands to change. What exactly can this Roma side change? There’s the vicious cycle from last season looming in the background:

  1. Turnovers of position from Roma in areas where you least want to lose the ball
  2. Roma’s opponent gets a chance on goal immediately from those turnovers
  3. The crowd (whether home or away) starts to get revved up against Roma
  4. Roma’s mental weakness gets fueled by all of this until they stop performing on the pitch and throw away the approach they’d planned before the game.

If those four steps sound familiar, it’s because I stole that summary from analyst Benedetto Greco on Facebook after the Wolfsberger game mid-week. But it’s also because it works as a summary of Rudi Garcia or Eusebio Di Francesco’s second seasons in Rome. Surprisingly, however, this Roma squad looks like it’s assembled a decent amount of character underneath all the theatrics:

Paulo Fonseca

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

Roma’s head coach Paulo Fonseca, unlike counterpart Petrachi, manages to be very good at his job without doubling up as a thief of oxygen to everyone else in the room. Fonseca took the red card at the end of yesterday’s game, and all of the responsibility to go with it. You can live with that as a Roma fan.

A well-timed sending off lets people know you’re not just sitting back, ready to be walked all over. While owning up to your actions in the aftermath puts a line under it to move onto the next chapter. Fonseca did it exactly that and, crucially, put the spotlight back on the progress his Roma players have made in dominating possession recently.

Unfortunately he wasn’t helped by Petrachi, and the club would be better off if the sporting director either gives up public speaking, or figures out what he really wants to say and then just spits it out. No one’s got time for these monologues, other than the media who’ll always be attracted to melodrama. Just when Roma need the sporting director to lay low and not give the FIGC anymore ammo against the way he bailed out on Torino, the guy goes in for another bit of Greek theatre.

But where Petrachi does get credit is on the bottom line. The bread and butter of his job at Roma is making cracking signings. Not least of all...

Gianluca Mancini

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

You’ve got to wonder how the transfer market ever let Roma get their hands on Mancini for 13+2 million. Of course, there could be another 8 million euros in bonuses to be paid Atalanta’s way on top but, on this evidence, you’d gladly pay it. I think it was our own Steven who sang Mancini’s praises the most during Italy’s U-21 campaign this summer. He was spot on.

I could watch Mancini’s passing against Lecce several times over (I already have). Not only does the Italian make the vertical passes needed, through the middle of the pitch from the backline, but also gets over the halfway line and make incisive passes from out wide into the opponent’s final third, when the opportunity calls for it. And it doesn’t just stop at possession when it comes to Mancini. Off the ball, he’s arguably just as good.

The Italian is both aggression and desire personified when it comes to the art of defending. Sure, he’s made a few positional errors that come with the territory when you’re young and getting used to new surroundings. But ultimately, you’d bet on Mancini coming out on top, in an aerial or physical duel, every time.

And who was it at the end of the final whistle against Cagliari calmly getting his Roma teammates to pack it in? Mancini.

Chris Smalling

AS Roma v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For aggression and desire, you could say the same for Chris Smalling twice over. Smalling doesn’t bring the same range of forward passing with his game as Mancini, but he brings the experience and body language to settle the rest of the team down into following his lead. He’s a good foil for the younger Mancini, but inevitably works well in a partnership with Federico Fazio, too.

Fazio still remains my favourite defender and is back to top form. That was inevitable with competition like Mancini and Smalling around to keep Il Commandante honest.

Bryan Cristante

AS Roma v Atalanta - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Though I still believe Cristante is mis-cast in deep midfield, moved away from the role he was signed for further up front, he’s a force to be reckoned with all the same. The kind that makes teammates want to keep going and not throw in the towel.

Cristante still has some adjustments to make in terms of channeling all his energy into unquestionable results, but something tells me this guy will have a long career in Rome despite the criticism that comes his way. And not just for lack of offers elsewhere. Far from it.

Amadou Diawara

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Diawara is one of those talents where, if you praise his game, you come off looking like you’re intellectually masturbating over tactics or minor details. And so be it. Putting it bluntly, Diawara’s technical quality on the ball leaves most Roma players in this squad in the dust.

If there’s one moment that sums up Diawara’s effectiveness on the football pitch, it was receiving the ball on the left side of Lecce’s final third a week ago (one moment of the many dozens times he did this).

On this particular occasion, the ball was passed back to Diawara from Kolarov. Diawara - standing on his right foot - chose to control and pirouette the ball with his hind left foot while rotating his body all in one fluid motion, then immediately passed the ball into Justin Kluivert on the right side of Lecce’s box. All this without Diawara looking down at the ball, or even looking over in Kluivert’s direction. In less than a couple of seconds, Roma’s play was spread from flank to flank and Lecce were off balance.

The moment led to nothing as Kluivert was dispossessed, so we’re not singling out these moments for the sake of praise itself. It’s an example of how Diawara is so good at masking what he’s going to do with the ball that opponents simply don’t feel confident in closing Roma’s playmaker down as he’s receiving it. Nor are they ever ready to defend against how Diawara moves the ball around the pitch for Roma, for just those 2-3 seconds that Diawara gets them off balance. If the Roma players up front (and in general) could be those couple of seconds quicker in speed of thought and execution... well that’s the difference between 1st and 6th place at this level.

Once you’ve got that in place, you’ve got no need for jumping in front of the cameras having a moan about referees. Then you know genuine quality in the team will get you through. Quality of the likes of Diawara.

So far, opponents have largely chosen to stand off Diawara. And it’s true that Diawara, in turn, should have found greater accuracy on his long-ball passes to punish them for that extra space afforded to him. That greater passing accuracy was likely coming with greater match fitness for Diawara, but that’s now lost as he spends a minimum of six weeks on the injury table. If not longer. In my book, he can’t come back soon enough.

Justin Kluivert

AS Roma v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Kluivert gets a lot of flak (including from me) for his erratic attacking play, but one area where his mentality is beyond reproach is defending. The battle and spirit Kluivert shows in winning the ball back has been good from the first day he arrived, and lately it’s gone up to being exemplary.

In the last game, Kluivert was not only tracking back to recover his own losses of position but also his teammates’ errors. Whether it was Cristante or Spinazzola, the one Roma player guaranteed to track back and win the ball down the entire length of Roma’s right side was the Dutch wonderkid.

Aleksandar Kolarov

AS Roma v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s a piece coming up where we ask if Aleksandar Kolarov isn’t the greatest left-back to have ever worn a Roma shirt. That’s where Kolarov has elevated the conversation to nowadays.

The Serb has racked up some phenomenal records in a little over two seasons in the Italian capital, and continues to keep Roma’s creativity motoring along - sometimes all by himself when needed.

Edin Dzeko

AS Roma v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Having just seen out the match against Cagliari by playing on with a broken cheekbone, there’s no questioning the desire of Roma’s vice captain.

Dzeko is closing in on a century of goals for Roma this season and would be only the 7th player in the club’s history to achieve that feat. This season also marks the longest Dzeko has ever stayed at a single club throughout his entire career.

His link-up play from the front remains world class, regularly making teammates around him look that much better than they do without Dzeko on the field. Unfortunately the latest is that Dzeko has been ordered to spend 15 days without any training whatsoever, in strict rest and recovery after his surgery. That means Roma have no choice but try get their act together in attack with Dzeko for the next 1-3 games.

James Pallotta is raising yet more capital funds from Roma investors, for the second time in less than six months, to cover this year’s losses. That tells you everything you need to know about the club’s sporting targets this 2019/20 season. They’re not meeting up to discuss the finer points of finishing 6th, 7th or mid-table.

The aim is fourth or above, no mistake about that much - the club has no choice in the matter. Fail to get Champions League football at the end of this season and Roma - as we’ve known it for the last decade - will have to go under a serious facelift. And that kind of pressure alone explains why some cracks have started to show publicly this past weekend.

Everyone knows that Roma aren’t really upset or frustrated with the likes of Davide Massa. They’re upset because they’ve got a president like Pallotta who’s given Petrachi a daft job, with daft deadlines to get results. The president has asked the coaching staff, for yet another season, to go out there and produce Bollinger football with only Pallotta’s Amazon gift vouchers for help in building this side. Not an envious task by any means.

But with this group of players and this coach so far - none of whom were necessarily first choice on Roma’s list when the business of ‘Year Zero’ first began - the capital club have a better chance than maybe even they themselves believe, in my view. The signs are there.

.... Unless injuries just continue to mess it all up. There’s always that.