Last year, during our coverage of AS Roma's inaugural year in Serie A Femminile, you probably grew tired of hearing us make reference to it being, you know, the club's first year in existence, but it was unavoidable. And from that vantage point, everything Roma accomplished was noteworthy. They ramshackled a squad together featuring an Englishwoman, a Jamaican, a Jamaican from Connecticut, several Italians, an Italian girl from New Jersey, and eight Romans, and while they struggled out the gate, it didn't take long for them to find their stride.
In the end, this squad of disparate parts finished in a distant fourth place behind Juventus, Fiorentina and AC Milan but did, for several months in the winter/spring, look like one of the league's best sides, and certainly one to reckon with in the future.
While the spread of transfer rumors in the women's game pales in comparison to the men's, the splendor of the Women's World Cup, and in particular the near-magical run by Italy, brought a new level of attention to female footballers the world over.
Still, despite that new found notoriety, the transfer game carried on in the background, dominated largely by the newly minted (or soon to be) Real Madrid women's team, who launched an all out financial assault on the game's best players. And while they made a play for a few of Italy's best and brightest (most notably Fiorentina's Alia Guagni, who is Firenze through and through so they were always barking up the wrong tree), by and large the Azzurre stars remained faithful to their homeland.
And, as luck would have it, Roma landed one of the best of the lot, midfielder Manuela Giugliano, and with her addition the Giallorosse are primed to join the conversation among the title contenders.
However, that is but one of many plot lines we'll be following when the season kicks off on September 15th. To catch a glimpse of what lies a head, Dallagente and I decided to discuss the big topics/issues facing Betty Bavagnoli's crew this season.
#1: With Italy advancing in the World Cup, Juve and Fiorentina playing to a packed house last spring, and some of the country’s best players drawing offers from abroad, the attention to Serie A Femminile may never have been greater, so what do you expect from the league as a whole this year?
Bren: I think the league is at an odd point quite frankly. The attention seems greater to us simply because Roma were new to it last year, but when you look at the sold out Juve-Fiorentina match at Allianz last year and the performance of the Azzurre this summer, people are definitely more aware of the players and the league. As fans, we should worry that, due to Italy’s comparative lack of development, Serie A risks losing their top players, thereby diluting the talent of the league, a spectre we nearly saw when Alia Guagni was tempted by Real Madrid this summer.
But that odd point can also work the other way. If the exposure to the league remains high and if the powers that be can leverage the popularity of the Azzurre players, things should continue to trend upward and the league should draw interest at home and abroad. In this sense, Roma’s summer is an example of this potential trend. Last year the club was predominantly Italian, but except for Manuela Giugliano, most of their marquee signings (Andressa, Hegerberg, Thestrup, Thomas) came from abroad this summer, pointing to an improving reputation among the game’s best players. I don’t think we’re at the point where they’re going to compete with Spain or France, but we’re getting there, particularly if the Azzurre stars stick around and boost the competitive credibility of the league as a whole.
dallagente: I definitely agree with you that the foreign signings from higher-level leagues will help to raise the bar in Serie A this coming season. If they can push the Italian players to that next level, hopefully that will translate into good performances from Juventus and Fiorentina in the Champions League, and a strong showing from Italy through the Euro qualifiers.
As for Serie A itself, well there’s still that roadblock to overcome of making sure all league clubs are backed professionally 100%. The FIGC has repeated their view, this summer, that all clubs league-wide must meet a certain standard before they’re willing to recognise women’s calcio as a professional sport. Until that happens, the most Serie A players can directly earn from their clubs is around 50,000 euros a year. That’s for the top-level Serie A stars in the top-table clubs. In France, Amandine Henry can make half a million a year from her Lyon playing contract and then millions on top in sponsorships. Ditto Alex Morgan in the States. While Serie A’s leading lights Sara Gama and Manuela Giugliano have to look on knowing they can make, at most, a tenth of that. So I think Gama, Girelli, Guagni and others chosing to sign on for another year in the peninsula is a statement of intent to push together, collectively, towards pro status. But to go back to the foreign signings, I hope that goes a long way to raising the levels on the pitch. The kind of football Andressa is used to playing in Spain is that much faster than what we’ve gotten used to seeing in Serie A so far.
#2: Roma made a handful of moves this summer to round out last season’s fourth place team, which signing(s) will have the greatest impact and why?
Bren: Given her sheer talent, the obvious answer is Giugliano. On Twitter after the signing, I pronounced it to be the most significant signing the organization has made since Batistuta nearly 20 years ago, and I stand by that. Not only is she a burgeoning world class talent, she is exactly what Roma needed, so in terms of timing, fit and talent, it’s a perfect fit.
Outside of that, I think Andrine Hegerberg is going to have a massive impact this year. Her versatility, composure, intelligence and talent will add a new layer to Roma’s midfield, allowing Giada Greggi and Giugliano more room to take risks. I don’t think she starts the season in the starting XI, but I will not be shocked if she steals Vanessa Bernauer’s job before too long.
Dallagente: I would love to come up with a different answer, but it’s so obviously Giugliano. I wanted to write a long-form feature on her signing, but time has been limited for me on long-form stuff lately. If that never happens, please check out her goal on her senior Italy debut against Georgia by Youtube’ing “Manuela Giugliano - Intervista in Contropiede”, it’s about 1:45 into the vid. Or her goals and assists in the World Cup U-17s in Costa Rica. She has the best strike of the ball in women’s football. And she could have dined out on that alone, and called it a career, but the best part is she’s been moving deeper into midfield and showing more and more tactical intelligence on how to make her teammates around her look better too.
Look, they did not make Bernauer step aside and hand the #10 shirt to Giugliano for nothing.
Other than that, pre-season fitness tests have suggested Hegerberg and Thestrup are the top athletes in this new Roma squad. For Hegerberg, she’ll be looking to redeem her career after she’s been languishing on the D1 benches with PSG and told she was not good enough. But that’s D1 and this is Serie A.
All the above being said, I’m a firm believer in Andressa. She has performed on every stage put in front of her, at the highest level. To sign her was a coup on the same level as Giugliano.
#3: What was the club’s most glaring weakness last year and how will Roma address it this season?
Bren: While Giugliano is an incredible addition, she is joining a pretty talented midfield already, but what worried me so much last year was the lack of a secondary scoring option to Serturini (which we’ll touch on in a minute). Whether it was Martina Piemonte, Luisa Pugnali or Maria Zecca, Roma simply couldn’t find a counter weight to Serturini in attack. Agnese Bonfantini isn’t a consistent goal scoring threat yet, so for large swaths of the season last year it was simply Serturini or bust.
In that sense, simply bringing in Amalie Thestrup, Lindsey Thomas and Andressa addresses this issue, we just have to wait and see how it all shakes out in terms of who asserts themselves at center forward. It would have been amazing if Roma were able to persuade Valentina Giacinti to come to town, but the collection of forwards they did sign does make Roma deeper and more dangerous up front.
Dallagente: I guess I felt differently to you last season, Bren, in that I thought Roma’s midfield was lacking without Greggi. At least for the kind of attacking football Bavagnoli wants to play. It was often down to Greggi’s ability to resist being robbed of the ball on the halfway line that helped Roma break through the opponent’s defensive lines. Without Greggi, I feel like Roma would have been there for the taking as far as hitting the Giallorosse with a high-press. So the midfield did worry me, and I’m happy they’ve addressed that this summer.
#4: Flip that around now, what is Roma’s greatest strength heading into the 2019-2020 season?
Dallagente: It’s the midfield again. With a potentially first-choice trio of Giugliano, Greggi and Hegerberg backed by Bernauer and the prodigy Severini… you can form a great midfield unit out of those options by trial and error if not anything else.
It’s true the attack was found wanting last season, but with Giugliano providing the ammo from midfield alongside Greggi, goals will come. Opponents won’t know whether to try and close down Roma on the ball (ill-advised when you’ve got a player like Greggi who will beat you every time) or stand off them (not a good idea with Giugliano’s eye for an assist). Meanwhile the young Severini already has the kind of physique that can potentially dominate Serie A midfields for the next decade or more. Roma have so much continuity there.
Bren: Yup, can’t disagree with you, rotating Bernauer, Greggi, Giguliano and Hegerberg gives the club one of the best midfields in the league. I think if Kaja Erzen can take the next step forward, pairing her with Elisa Bartoli would give Roma two dangerous fullbacks. All in all, Roma addressed their shortcomings quite well, but you’re correct, the midfield is the bee’s knees.
#5: Roma were largely dependent on Annamaria Serturini for goals last year but added two new forwards as well as retaining Agnese Bonfantini, so who will pace the club in scoring this year?
Dallagente: I have an idea in my head that Bavagnoli will go with a Christmas Tree formation this season, with the Roma midfield pulling defences apart as we just talked about, making plenty of spaces for the forwards to run into. I have a hunch Bonfantini and Andressa will be used on either flank to pull defenders wide for the most part, leaving Serturini through the middle. So I’m backing Serturini to top-score again, unless she’s ousted out the team by Thestrup, Zecca or Thomas as prima punta. We have so many new forwards that Bavagnoli could come up with anything. But I’ll go with the first choice front three being Andressa-Serturini-Bonfantini with Serturini leading the line and the goals.
Bren: Yeah, perhaps a poorly worded question on my part because Serturini is one of the best young goal scorers Italy has to offer, but I like the idea of Andressa-Serturini-Bonfantini playing simultaneously and keeping defenses off-kilter. I suppose a better what to phrase the quesiton was, will anyone help her! If Roma can manage maybe 30 goals between the three of them, the attack will be substantially better than it was last season.
#6: Aside from adding Kaja Erzen at fullback, the defense remains largely unchanged, does that concern you at all?
Dallagente: I’m probably less concerned than most about the defence, but then I’m getting a reputation for not putting much stock in defenders in the first place. How much of a difference can they really make? If the midfield does it’s job, the defenders look geniuses. If the midfield isn’t up to par, then at best a defender looks like a good ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ athlete and the pressure will eventually get to that defender anyway.
Defensively, a lot of people didn’t rate Swaby but I thought she showed improvements as the season went on last year. Herself and Di Criscio would be my starting pair, flanked by Bartoli and Erzen to make for a very offensive team. Then the rest of the squad is just about which young talent at the back - looking at Corrado and Pettenuzzo in particular - can make that step up to being a full-time Serie A performer.
Bren: Well the concern stems from the fact they conceded 30 goals last year, and while that was the 5th fewest in the league, much like everything with this squad we have to consider it in the context of the Juve-Fiorentina-Milan trio ahead of them, so in that regard the lack of additions was surprising to me, but it does suggest that they have a lot of faith in Swaby, who came to the team midway through last year but garnered a lot of minutes down the stretch, as well as the 17-year-old Corrado, who should garner the minutes behind Swaby and Di Criscio.
#7: Give us one or two position battles to keep an eye on this season.
Dallagente: Emma Severini vs Andrine Hegerberg. One is seen as a generational talent in Italian football, while the other is a seasoned journeywoman looking to re-start her career in Italy. The odds favour Hegerberg but you never know. I’m also keeping an eye out for Camelia Caesar vs Rosalia Pipitone in goal.
Caesar gets along like a house on fire with the entire squad so far, this pre-season, and has a very similar disposition to Giugliano in that her energy raises the morale of the team naturally. So I’m sure she’ll push Pipitone hard for the starting spot in goal.
Bren: I think the third midfielder alongside Giugliano and Greggi is one that will burn all season long, Hegerber and Bernauer are both experienced vets who are going to want to cement their status ASAP, so I think that will be the most intense positional battle. Keeper will be interesting, too; Pipitone is solid but didn’t do anything spectacular last season, but if she remains mistake-free I think she’ll be alright.
#8: Okay, prediction time: where does Roma finish the season?
Dallagente: I see no reason why they can’t make their minimum target: a top-two finish and Champions League qualification. Both Juventus and Fiorentina have, on paper, better rearguards than Roma but as far as first 11 vs first 11, I’m not sure I’d trade the Roma starting lineup for any other in the league in all honesty. It’s been an impressive summer transfer campaign.
Bren: I don’t think we’re at the Scudetto yet, maybe if we managed to get Giacinti this summer or somehow lured Alia Guagni from Fiorentina (nearly all her Azzurree IG posts are with Bartoli, Giugliano and Serturini), but if everyone stays healthy and someone helps Serturini score goals, I think second is imminently possible.
Roma begin their sophomore campaign playing host to two-time defending scoring champ Valentina Giacinti and AC Milan on the 15th. Be sure to follow along with us all season as we track Roma's assault on the top of the table.
Paulo Fonseca may be facing Roma: Year Zero in his job, but Betty Bavagnoli's Year Two could end up with some gleaming results.