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Roma Decade in Review: Luis Enrique and The Revolution That Almost Was

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Eight years ago, in a time of dramatic change for the club, no move was as bold as hiring Luis Enrique.

Valencia v Roma - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Given that Roma are in the midst of another potential takeover, it seems like an appropriate time to turn our collective consciousness back to the last great era of change in the capital of the world. No one would ever question the Sensi’s love for Roma, but they weren't exactly financial wizards, so it came as little shock when the Sensi family was forced to relinquish control of their beloved club in the summer of 2010. As part of a debt settlement arrangement, the club entered a hazy period in which Franco ceded control of the club to his daughter Rosella, who was, in effect, a caretaker for Unicredit until they could find a new owner for the club.

That's a bit of an oversimplification, but after nearly 20 years under Franco Sensi, Roma were suddenly cast into the unknown and foreign hands of Thomas Di Benedetto and later James Pallotta. And, as is so often the case when a new owner takes control, sweeping changes were afoot.

Before we knew it, Roma had a new sporting director, new stadium designs, a wave of new players making their way to the capital in the summer of 2011 and eventually even a new club crest. Rather than making superficial changes, Pallotta and company seemed intent on a systemic, grass-roots rebuild of AS Roma.

Part and parcel of that remaking of Roma was the focus on young attacking talent. Between Miralem Pjanic, Erik Lamela and even Bojan, Roma's 2011 transfer campaign was all about intrigue and upside. But revolutions aren't built on willing bodies alone, you need someone leading the charge, a leader with practical day-to-day management skills and a vision for what comes after the flood.

It's hard to remember now, but 2011 was smack in the middle of the Reign of La Roja, an era in which Spain had captured three consecutive major titles—the 2008 Euros, the 2010 World Cup and the 2010 Euros—and Barcelona was dominating the world of club football, winning multiple league and European titles.

There was no avoiding it. Whether you were a fan or an actual professional in the sport, you couldn't escape the intoxicating spell of Tiki-taka, the Spanish approach to ground-based, possession-focused football. It wasn't always the most intense or entertaining brand of football, but it was effective—remarkably effective.

Considering how successful that approach was, and how desperately Roma wanted to replicate it with a youth-oriented design, it almost seemed like fate when they chose Luis Enrique to guide their new experiment. Enrique wasn't the engineer of the Spanish footballing machine, but he was as schooled as anyone in its successful operation, guiding the Barcelona B team back to the Segunda for the first time in over a decade.

Roma needed a young manager with fresh and inventive ideas, one who was skilled at getting the best out of young and prodigious talent, and one who wouldn't wilt under the Roman spotlight. Enrique had played for some of the biggest clubs in the world and was fresh off a successful stint managing arguably the world’s finest youth system, so he was the perfect candidate for Roma at the perfect moment.

You don't need me to tell you what happened next. Best laid plans and all that.

Enrique's first season in charge started off strong, as Roma defeated Bologna in round one of the 2011-2012 season, but a defeat to Cagliari the next week was only the third time in 18 years Roma lost their home opener.

Despite that somewhat dour moment, Enrique's first few months at the helm went well enough, as he amassed 31 points through the first half of the season, good enough for sixth place, but the second half of the schedule wasn't quite as kind to the Spaniard: Roma were bounced from the Europa League by Bratislava—including the questionable decision to sub off Francesco Totti for Stefano Okaka Chuka—and Enrique struggled to maintain the same pace in the second half, dropping points to Bologna, Cagliari, Siena and Atalanta.

Those dropped points came back to bite Roma in the ass, as they finished in seventh place on 56 points, two points behind Inter Milan for Italy's final Europa League spot. Roma's grand revolution had resulted in fewer points and a lower spot on the table compared to the prior year.

Still, despite that subtle slip and his somewhat hostile relationship with the local media and a vocal set of fans who wanted him out, considering the amount of turnover and the dramatic tactical change, a lateral move in Enrique's first year in charge wasn't necessarily a cause for concern.

Enrique did make tangible progress in one area: his ability to develop young talent. While the club had a number of veterans playing significant roles (Totti, De Rossi, Juan, PDO), Enrique conjured a combined 23 goals and 15 assists out of Bojan, Pjanic, Lamela and Fabio Borini.

There were certainly bumps in the road, but the foundation for the Enrique Era was well placed. However, after finishing seventh and failing to guide the club to Europe, Enrique decided to leave the final two years of his contract on the table.

It was an abrupt and untimely end to what was originally conceived as a top-down, multi-year remaking of Roma in Enrique's image. However, a strange thing has happened in the ensuing eight years since he resigned: Enrique has emerged as both a symptom and cause of all that has plagued Roma since then.

Consider exactly what Roma were trying to achieve. They were the only foreign-owned club in the league guided by the only non-Italian manager in Serie A, one who was attempting implement an entirely foreign footballing concept (both literally and figuratively) into arguably the most volatile environment in the country. Enrique was simultaneously attempting to integrate a swath of young, imported talent while trying to placate/get the best out of an aging Francesco Totti, a situation that would doom a few of his successors.

While Enrique made his name working with youth, Roma's purchases that summer were either too young (Lamela, Pjanic), too combustible (PDO) or to blah (Gago, Heinze) to really make Roma anything other than a midtable team. Meanwhile, Daniele De Rossi was the only member of the first team in the prime of his career. So the club really put a lot of stock in Enrique's ability to make a five star meal out of four-star ingredients, many of which weren't yet ripe.

In that sense, Enrique was dealing with the same pressures and same shortcomings as nearly every manager who preceded him, but Enrique's sudden departure scuppered the Roma project in its infancy, partially setting the stage for all the failures and turnover that followed.

We've made light of the “project” throughout the years, but if we're being honest it was a solid and well-rounded organizational plan meant to transform Roma into a stable and successful club. We've seen the business and media part of that plan make Roma one of the leaders in its field, but the footballing aspect of that, the engine that drives everything forward and the very thing that was supposed to make Roma a mega-club, was pinned on Luis Enrique's radical makeover of Roma.

The club committed three-years to Enrique, equipping him with several young building blocks and locking down De Rossi as the highest paid player in the league. So there was every reason to believe their faith in Enrique was earnest, that they were willing to give him two years or so to get things rolling, so when he resigned, all their best laid plans blew up in an instant, resulting in the ill-advised return of Zdenek Zeman, which then beget six more managerial changes.

We're dealing with human beings here, so Enrique's resignation and Roma's subsequent struggles are likely more correlation than cause, but one can't help but wonder what if. With another year under his belt, would Enrique's Tiki-taka have taken Italy by storm? Could Roma really have revolutionized the game itself?

Considering everything Roma were trying to achieve, and how they were trying to achieve it, Enrique was the perfect play—his ingenuity and inventiveness were the perfect complement to the scope and ambition of Roma's grand project.

So while those what ifs will remain unanswered, you can’t fault Roma for trying. It didn't work, but starting off a new decade and new project with Luis Enrique was the right move.