As most of our long-time readers know, the first sport that really and truly captured my imagination, my heart, and my soul was baseball; one of the first true American inventions (jazz and the Taco Bell party pack being the others). Part of what makes baseball so enchanting are the stories, the collective traditions and the sheer history of a sport that dates back to at least the mid 19th century.
But what about the actual dimensions of the game? Imagine if the bases were 75 feet or 100 feet apart rather than 90 feet? Or what if the pitcher's mound were six inches closer or a foot further away? What about the ball? Why is it that exact size? Why are the seams patterned the way they are?
Just think about how different this great American pasttime would look if those seemingly arbitrary decisions were altered even slightly?
I only mention this because we can apply that same line of reasoning to the beautiful game. Take, for instance, the time of match. Why 90 minutes instead of 75? Why not 100? Why not two 60 minute halves? Or three 30 minute periods? Why not have unlimited or reusable subs like basketball or hockey?
If you shorten or lengthen the game, chop it up into quarters or periods, then the entire spirit and essence of the game would change inexorably. But for whatever reason, 90 minutes just works; it’s simultaneously long enough and short enough to be a legitimate battle of wills while still allowing for moments of unexpected chaos and bliss.
And that perfect structure worked to Roma's advantage yesterday. Were a football match only 60 minutes, we'd be reading Paulo Fonseca's Roma obituary today instead of lauding him for his man-management skills in the final quarter hour of this match.
However, before we heap praise upon Fonseca, let's dispense with the negatives. Though, to be fair, we'll have to hit most of these with an AstroTurf asterisk; Roma struggled to adapt to the pitch in the first hour of the match, so this won't be the most egregious sinners list we've ever compiled.
I still have hope for Karsdorp. He has all the physical traits required from a modern full-back, except for one crucial one: durability. Plagued by a series of minor strains and the ocassional catastrophic ligament tear, Karsdorp has struggled to stay on the pitch, both in Rome and Feyenoord. So when Roma opted to keep him around this season (which, knowing what we know now, may only have happened once Florenzi rejected Fonseca's overtures to stay), we took it as a sign of good faith; perhaps the injuries were behind him at last.
And after playing 73 minutes in Roma's opening round match against Verona, Karsdorp once again found himself on the trainer's table with muscular problems. But when word broke that Karsdorp was getting the start against Young Boys, we had hope. Would this be the match where Karsdorp finally comes good?
With no one standing in his way, Karsdorp could potentially steal the starting right wing-back spot from Bruno Peres, but in only 45 minutes yesterday, Karsdorp was pretty ineffective, taking only 27 touches, drawing two fouls...annnndddd that was about it.
Not an egregious performance by any means, but definitely a wasted opportunity for a guy whose career constantly looks on the precipice.
Take nearly everything we just said about Karsdorp (minus the injuries) and apply it to Mayoral, Roma's new 23-year-old forward. Mayoral wasn't bad in the strictest sense, but in his first start for his new club, he did very little to buoy our spirits. In 58 minutes, Mayoral took 30 touches and did sweet f.a. with them: zero shots, zero dribbles, zero key passes and practically zero signs of life.
He did, however, lose possession 12 times. Think about that for a second. He only took 30 touches and lost the ball a dozen times—that's 40% of his touches! No attack on earth can survive when the man leading the line coughs the ball up at that rate.
As far as club debuts go, Mayoral's was a stinker but he'll undoubtedly have better days in a Roma shirt.
We'll move onto the sunny side of the egg now...
With Gianluca Mancini being diagnosed with COVID-19 and Chris Smalling dealing with some minor knee issues, Roma should count their lucky stars they landed Kumbulla late in the transfer window because the 20-year-old Albanian looks like a star in the making.
In 90 minutes yesterday, Max was arguably the best player on the pitch, taking 64 touches, winning four aerials, clearing three balls, intercepting three more, completing 85% of his passes (including two of four long balls) and, of course, scoring his first Roma goal on an emphatic match winning header.
We've been fretting about which young player (Mancini, Ibañez or Kumbulla) will lose time to Smalling, but the youngest of the lot may soon be the best of the lot.
Talk about a tale of two halves. For the first 45 minutes, with Peres awkwardly filling in for Leonardo Spinazzola at left wing-back, he looked sluggish, disinterested and just plain bad; this was the Peres that found himself toiling away in Brazil's lower leagues, not the rejuvenated Peres we saw in the restart this summer.
But once the match flipped to the second half and Fonseca reinserted Spinazzola on the left, pushing Peres back to his natural RWB spot, he looked far more comfortable and infinitely more effective.
In addition to scoring the second half equalizer, Peres completed 86% of his passes on 64 touches, pulled off two successful dribbles, drew two fouls, completed two tackles, one interception and two clearances while also hitting on two of two long balls.
In the battle for the starting RWB spot, Peres scored a K.O. over Karsdorp.
Speaking of Roma's suddenly thin defensive core, Captain Caveman may be staking a claim for some minutes behind the Pau Patrol going forward. In 90 minutes yesterday, Fazio played with vintage poise and professionalism, winning seven aerials, five interceptions, five clearances and one successful tackle. He also hit on an astounding six of eleven long balls, suggesting that he's more than a gargoyle come to life back there.
Sprinkling in a healthy and effective Fazio gives Fonseca practically limitless possibilities in defense: with Fazio at his disposal, he'll be able to weather the current injury/illness issues and could potentially even use Mancini in midfield again knowing that he can plug Fazio into the back three.
Roma tried like hell to get rid of him this summer, but Fazio once again proved his worth yesterday in Bern.
We'll end this one more or less where we began: with the dapper looking man in the blue trench coat. With a critical fixture against AC Milan set for Monday, Fonseca made the correct call starting so many of his reserves, making nine changes from the lineup he fielded against Benevento. Not only did his regulars need rest ahead of such an important match, kids like Villar, Mayoral and Carles Pérez just need to play; full stop.
So, while we can't fault him for that, Roma's tactics looked completely stale in the first 45 minutes, not registering a shot on goal until Pérez's individual effort in the 41st minute. With his neck on the line, Fonseca didn't hesitate, making a series of changes early in the second half that completely altered the look, shape and feel of this match.
Bringing on Spinazzola enabled Fonseca to push Peres back to the right, while including Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan solved his club's playmaking woes, and it worked like gangbusters: Dzeko setup Peres for the equalizer while Mkhitaryan assisted on Kumbulla's match winner.
It wasn't a stroke of genius (just common sense) but, with Milan looming on Monday, it was still a bold call to lean on so many regulars in the second half. One gets the feeling that Fonseca will be fighting for his job all season long, but he made all the right calls at precisely the right moments yesterday so expect the calls for his head to subside for a few days.
That's it for now. What do you think? Did we get it right?