clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Where Did It All Go Wrong for Luciano Spalletti? Part I: 1997 to 2008

New, comments

Luciano Spalletti sold his football short to the benefit of no one, least of all his club. This is Part 1 of an Italian cautionary tale.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-UDINESE-ROMA Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

The question lingers in my mind to this day: Was Roma’s 2009-2010 season owed more to Claudio Ranieri or Luciano Spalletti? Though Roma pushed treble-winning Inter at the very finish line, part of the miracle was that Roma had even caught up to Inter in the first place.

Roma’s stuttering start to that 09-10 season meant the Giallorossi labored through the opening eleven rounds, before a matchday 12 performance against titans Inter Milan gave Ranieri’s Roma the belief it really needed. But the footnote of that season—aside from the game blown against Sampdoria—will always be that it hadn’t started with Ranieri at the helm.

It took only two opening games, including a home defeat against a budget Juventus, for Luciano Spalletti to walk out on four years on the club. He was nailed on to become the only manager sitting on Roma bench uninterrupted for that long, so it was surreal to see him resign from a club notorious for firing coaches like they are forever going out of fashion.

The previous season showed signs that momentum under Spalletti—built since 2005—was already being lost. He’d given it the full summer of 2009 to break through the glass ceiling over his head, but it had became clear to players, captain, and coach that Spalletti had not, and could not, get the team to give a damn about defending.

“It’s been five years that I’ve been talking about balance,” Spalletti reportedly ranted at Trigoria, “and instead we’re looking for the next back-heel, the next goal, the next headline. If we don’t win the ball, we don’t win football matches!”

Relying on the numbers advantage in midfield could only take Roma so far. And so the man from Monterspertoli grew thoroughly fed-up with the very “innovations” for which his false-nine Roma were celebrated, by fans like myself at the time.

Luciano Spalletti now saw himself as a victim of his own reductive success. How on earth did we get here?

Even though this is a long background into how Roma broke down, and temporarily picked itself back up in the 2009-10 season, it’s likely fueled by the fact that I was one of the biggest fans and believers of Spalletti’s Maggica years during his first spell in charge of Roma.

Since then, I’ve been nothing but bitterly disappointed by the polemics, the half-truths and the unbelievable lost opportunities brought about by a man who not only sold himself out, but sold the years of the club’s rebuild along with it. I hope, by the end of the second part of our feature even if the first part mostly background, that this turns out as a balanced account of just how much Roma paid the price for Spalletti hunting increasingly reductive, short-term results that set the club back years.

This despite the fact that Spalletti is unquestionably owed tons of credit for the way he altered the course of football history, thanks to his innovative use of Franceso Totti on the pitch.


1997 to 2005: From Heartbreak to Cynicism

By the spring of 2005, the jig was truly up for the Sensi family’s glory years at Roma. Then-sporting director Franco Baldini broke character to cut a sour interview on Italian prime-time talk-show Parla Con Me; if Roma wanted to keep building their coffin behind the scenes against Baldini’s wishes, then Baldini’s way of coping was to be the one to hammering the nail in public.

Show-host Serena Dandini worked hard to take the edge off the interview for the entire two hours sat across from Baldini, as he let out all his grievances about what he felt was never-ending cronyism in Italian football and, most of all, Roma’s part in giving into it.

It’d only be another 12 months before Franco Baldini was proven spectacularly right about the first part, but Calciopoli was uncomfortable for everyone, and likely a moment where even Baldini didn’t want to be right.

England v Kazakhstan - FIFA2010 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

As far as Baldini’s working relationship with the club itself, the brick that brought down the colosseum was Roma president Rosella Sensi, Rome mayor (well-known journalist and Juventus fan—yes he wore all three hats at the same time) Walter Vetroni, and Juventus management all meeting up at Campidoglio—the mayor’s office—to sell Roma midfield-general Emerson to Juventus in 2005.

In Baldini’s mind, he had a deal ready with Real Madrid for far more money. In Roma’s view, Emerson was only interested in joining ex-Roma coach Fabio Capello up north, and the Sensis reportedly had ulterior motives outside of football for wanting to calm the waters with Juve’s Moggi anyway.

Either way, it came to the same end result: Roma sold Emerson to Juventus for what most saw as a ‘cut-price’ offer. Emerson was not only crucial to Roma at the time, but had even been lauded by Capello—to the entire Roma squad on Capello’s very last day walking out of Trigoria—as “the man everyone in the dressing room should follow” over Totti. There was a sense that all the model pros were bailing out of Rome, and all that was left was Roma placing their hands in the fate of mavericks Totti and Cassano struggling through their double-act.

It was the typically Italian cloak-and-dagger way to compromise, making anything that’d later come under James Pallotta’s presidency look far more direct in comparison.

Baldini himself had previously refused to join friend Capello up north. Even though Baldini wasn’t welcome to Moggi’s Juve, he already knew that Juventus director Luca di Montezemolo was willing to offer Baldini the inside line to usurp Moggi as successor, after Juventus were left reeling from the power vacuum of back-to-back Agnellis passing away.

Baldini declined the offer all the same, holding onto the sunk costs he’s dreamt up in Rome and believing the club would come good as Italy’s biggest power, provided they kept their conscience clear. But Baldini hadn’t counted on backing himself into no-win situation like this one - his ideals, perhaps stubbornness, had him locked into a Cold War with the Sensis.

Gone were all the star signings that had led Roma to the 2001 title, and so too Baldini left for a brief hiatus from football altogether. Roma now needed in management who’d lived through similar cost-cutting heartbreak; someone who had the grit to follow the new Sensi party-line and persevere.

By all rights, that man should have been Cesare Prandelli. He was the coach to nurture talent at the turn of the millennium, through Arrigo Sacchi’s swansong attempt to rebuild a talent factory at Parma. Thanks to Prandelli, Parma and Italy would funnel through international-caliber youth for years to come, and Roma now wanted some of that action in the capital.

It earned Prandelli the Roma hot-bench in the summer of 2004. But fate intervened and asked Prandelli to persevere through personal matters outside of football, so he abruptly resigned to take care of his family.

AS Roma’s new coach Cesare Prandelli sho Photo credit should read PAOLO COCCO/AFP via Getty Images

And so, months later, the best substitute Roma could find to the Prandelli blueprint was Luciano Spalletti.

The coach from Tuscany had shown signs, like Prandelli, of being able to mature talent from the ground up; Spalletti had built Empoli from Serie C to Serie A life through back-to-back promotions, with his beautiful football of the era pushing Empoli fans to go as far as hanging a tifo banner outside the training ground: ‘Sacchi + Zeman = Spalletti.’

There’s no higher form of praise inside Italian football even today: Sacchi’s legend is unmatched in terms of his personal demands on the mental side of the game, just as Zeman enjoys the same cult status on the physical side. Mind and body apparently aligned in the late nineties for the second coming, in the form of Luciano Spalletti.

It would have been nice if Roma had signed Spalletti with the intent of nurturing one another’s soul, but top-level football rarely has the patience for such alchemy. Both club and coach had far more gritty reasons for wedding one another in the mid-oughts. Sensi’s Roma wanted the version of Spalletti than had already begun to bury his idealist self at Empoli.

In Tuscany, Spalletti had to live through the heartbreak of Empoli’s management rewarding him with their first Serie A season by selling off not just the leading talents he’d bedded into the professional game, but selling off the entire squad—including selling defender Filippo Dal Moro to Zeman’s Roma at the time.

Italian Soccer - Serie A - Roma v Venezia Photo by David Rawcliffe/EMPICS via Getty Images

Spalletti’s response to that 1997 setback was to persevere. His public reasoning may have echoed as music in Rosella Sensi’s ears much later:

“My father told me that you have to know how to make do in life, and I’ve always thought that I don’t need to eat more than a steak a day. So I couldn’t give a damn what they do with the cow.”

Spalletti began the long process of putting himself over as the Brad Gilbert of football. Luciano wasn’t quite ready to “win ugly” in the 00s—that would come later in the 2010s—but he now wanted to shut down any notions of striving for perfection.

Moving on to coach Venezia and then Udinese, Spalletti put himself over as the voice of realismo. Whenever he felt the fans clutching for their license to dream, Spalletti would pull the rug out and insist that everything comes at a price. The price of nurturing talent at the training ground was now different, too.

Every now and then, Spalletti had the good fortune to meet with like-minds; players like David Pizarro who appreciated the mental side of the game and could help deliver the numbers advantage in midfield like Spalletti craved. That was all that was needed for Spalletti to then convince other players to carry out limited, or specialist, roles, in support of his star player.

At Udinese, young talent Sulley Muntari no longer had to worry about the weight of African football’s expectations on him. Spalletti convinced Muntari that he only needed to worry about being the best enforcer to back up Pizarro. Do just that one job alone, and the team will prosper as a result. Soon, Spalletti held the results on paper in his hand, to dramatic effect.

Despite being fired and rehired by Udinese, he essentially took the Friuli club from battling relegation to achieving a historic Champions League qualification by May 2005. That was a first for Udinese in the Champions League era and they weren’t only doing this through results, but eye-catching football that controlled the tempo through the middle of the park.

Soccer - Italian Serie A - Roma v Udinese - Olimpico Stadium Photo by Adam Davy - PA Images via Getty Images

As long as the Friuliani had Pizarro to control time and space from midfield, the football was daring and entertaining. The Chilean play-maker could release Iaquinta and Di Natale up front, or Jankulovski on the flank. Options were limited but effective, and just varied enough to look like a recall of the magic days under Alberto Zaccheroni in the late nineties.

But these players would inevitably move onto bigger clubs. And it was exactly in spite of this fact that, while Udinese fans had begun to dream, Spalletti felt the cue to pull the rug on his act once more. Several phone calls came flooding in from Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo that May, many of them sent straight to voicemail by Spalletti.

“No matter what,” Spalletti announced to the press, “I feel that my cycle at Udinese is done. I cannot guarantee fourth-place finishes every year.”

The reality is there was little sign of anyone asking that of Spalletti. Like Gian Piero Gasperini much later at Atalanta, Udinese looked like they were simply riding the wave of pride restored for the club through the European qualifications of Zaccheroni and Spalletti for over a half decade. The club were becoming quite a talent factory, but realistically Spalletti had long abandoned the idea of nurturing talent into full, 360-degree football players.

Serie A: Milan v Udinese Photo by New Press/Getty Images

Spalletti only need to satisfy himself with one or two great, experienced ball players; give him that and he could convince the rest of the team to sacrifice themselves around protecting those experienced minds of the pitch. That was the life Spalletti was used to by now. Taking the chance to do anything more than that would inevitably lead to his team getting dismantled anyway. So why bother for anything more than small pockets of perfection?

“My future? Officially, no one has contacted me,” Spalletti teased in that same press conference. But unofficially, we know one club needed a coach who could live with their cost-cutting measures in that summer of 2005.

Roma had an ace in the pocket to convince Spalletti: their star play-maker was their captain, and Totti was guaranteed never to be sold off to a bigger club for as long as Spalletti could mold a team around Totti. Roma had already let Capello, Baldini and others walk out of the club, but not Totti. Not even when Real Madrid had previously come calling, and Totti would never want to hear anything of a move to Juventus.

So with a lifelong club servant to act as the conduit for Spalletti’s desire to dominate midfield, what could possibly go wrong? Spalletti’s journey as Il Specialista in Rome could begin.

It also emerged, much later on in 2012, that Spalletti had truly gone down the dark path of mitigating risks by any means necessary, in his latter days of Udine. He was caught in a taped phone conversation with the refereeing delegate, ahead of Udinese’s Champions League-deciding league game at the end of the 04-05 season.

Udinese v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Spalletti’s taped voice asked for assurances that Udinese would be given a “fair” chance, and voiced his satisfaction that he knew the referee and linesmen appointed to the game.

His defense would likely be that he wasn’t the only one making these kind of phone calls to the referees’ association at the time (a legacy of the Italian football decision—decades earlier—to scrap the lottery draw of referee appointments for fixtures), so how it could be any more criminal that he was now going out of his own way to do the same?

But, as his own luck would have it, Spalletti wouldn’t need a defense. By the time the full extent of the Calciopoli tapes emerged in 2012, the statute of limitations had already passed and Luciano walked scot-free from getting thrown out of the Italian game.

2006 to 2008: Roma’s Rise to Italy’s Second Team

Roma V Inter Milan Photo by New Press/Getty Images

Spalletti’s first year in charge of Roma was satisfying for all, but not without road bumps along the way. If Totti was clearly on the same page as the coach, Totti’s best mate Antonio Cassano couldn’t have been more unhappy.

Years later, Cassano would openly claim in his autobiography that he confronted Spalletti on the training ground with barbs such as:

“It’s not as if you’re training those deadbeats you had at Udinese. This isn’t your home, this is my house!”

Unsurprisingly, Spalletti’s first season in Rome would be Cassano’s last. And even I can say it’s legitimately tragic that all three men couldn’t get along.

Both Cassano and Totti had devoted their time at Roma together to the very synchronicity that Spalletti craved in his relentless 11 vs 11 weekly training matches. Spalletti was uncompromising in the search for a team that could play a memoria with one another, while Cassano and Totti had already found mnemonic perfection on game day. But the rotten truth was those moments where shared between them alone, and Roma’s results absolutely stank because of it.

While 2004-05’s eighth-placed league finish for Roma may look very similar to the unspectacular 8th place finish a couple of seasons earlier, the fact is Roma were three points from relegation by the time they’d appointed Luciano Spalletti to stop the rot. These were absolutely not the results that Roma had imagined, when spending mega-millions on Cassano try and create a dynasty from their title success in 2001.

AS Roma’s captain Francesco Totti (R) an Photo credit should read PAOLO COCCO/AFP via Getty Images

To top it off, Cassano’s own influence on Totti’s character was just the exclamation mark on Cassano’s ill-thought Roma career. Cassano had actually stepped in as acting-captain in those final relegation-survival matches of the 04-05 season, after Francesco Totti’s own discipline problems had gotten himself slapped with a 5-match ban just when Roma needed a leader the most.

Cassano-Totti was chaos and vanity to the Nth degree; the high-school bullying of the two towards the dressing room got so out of hand that promising talents like Gaetano d’Agostino were caught phoning up Moggi’s superagency—in the very same Calciopoli tapes—begging for a move out of Rome to get away the locker room cliques. When Spalletti tried to step in and give everyone clearly-defined roles on the team, Cassano was not having it.

Cassano began hanging his expiring contract over Roma management’s heads in Spalletti’s first ever pre-season training camp. He wasn’t thrilled that Spalletti had given the team three months to absorb a tactical bible that the coach had handed out to all the players to learn in their own time.

But Roma’s disgruntled striker hadn’t counted on Spalletti’s greatest innovation coming mid-way through the season; it was one that would change the face of continental football for the rest of that decade, a change that both Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola would copy in the Premier League and La Liga, and it all began on one fine December day of Roma ‘making do’ at the Marassi.

Facing an injury crisis up front—and Cassano’s indiscipline on the sidelines—for Roma’s trip to Sampdoria in December of 2005, Spalletti was left with the idea of breaking in a 16-year old Stefano Okaka up front for what would have been Okaka’s Serie A debut. But luckily for everyone (none more so than the teenage Okaka himself), Spalletti decided against it.

Instead, Spalletti devised a 4-6-0 formation, with Totti listed officially as Roma’s lone striker up front. In reality, Totti was told to keep playing in the hole, and use his judgement on when to pull even deeper than that towards midfield. With Roma’s five midfielders pushing up to attack simultaneously, Roma’s new “false nine” had the effect of flooding the midfield and attack with the numbers advantage for the Lupi—sometimes both within the same breath, thanks to Totti’s genius.

On the day itself, Roma took the lead through Totti’s 18th minute opener on the way to a 1-1 draw in a notoriously difficult stadium. It was Roma making do, but it was also truly innovative. Sure, we’d seen sides like the 1950s Hungary play with a withdrawn forward before, but this was the first time a club had dared to do it in the increasing pace of the modern game.

The false nine play also brought the best out of players like Simone Perrotta, now playing an incursore role; i.e. timing when to overlap Totti’s hold-up play, and make runs into the box to get on the end of Totti’s passing. Wide men like Mancini and Rodrigo Taddei also began to look more dangerous, with Mancini’s transformation all the more remarkable.

Having initially been signed as an all-round wing back by Fabio Capello years before, Mancini found the confidence under Spalletti’s tactics to transform himself into the Brazilian forward who’d hypnotize Lyon’s Anthony Reveillere with countless step-overs on the way to burying an unforgettable Champions League goal.

The Maggica was back in Rome, and it truly looked like Spalletti’s men were hunting in wolf-packs befitting of the club’s imagery.

All the while, Cassano was watching his final leverage being pulled out from under him by Spalletti. Roma’s board had enough of putting up with Cassano’s antics, and didn’t hesitate to sell him just a few weeks later in January 2006. It was their last chance to cash out on Cassano before he became a free agent, so he was sold for the paltry sum of five million euros to Real Madrid. Yet another huge financial loss that Roma would have to dig themselves out from much later.

Curiously, Roma sporting director Daniele Prade was even caught trying to split the money of the sale between him and Moggi’s agency, just to put the emphasis on how much it was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere in Rome behind the scenes before Calciopoli would hit in full force six months later. Another epic intervention would befall Rome just one month after Cassano’s departure. Coming full circle against his former club Empoli, Spalletti watched helplessly as Totti suffered a major, career-threatening injury mid-game that brought about the most drastic change in Totti’s outlook towards his own career.

Now shorn of his best-mate Cassano, Totti decided to go without his hair and cut that short during rehab, too. Roma’s captain had to drag himself back from the pit of self-doubt—something that has rarely ever knock on Totti’s door in his lifetime—and now found himself buoyed by the unwavering belief of Italy coach Marcello Lippi that Totti could come back in time for the World Cup 2006.

It was truly a complement that Lippi felt the country needed Totti during its darkest hour; all of Franco Baldini’s warnings about foul play in the domestic game came to a head as Moggi was publicly and finally thrown under the bus by authorities, for arrogantly bragging on tape—left, right and center—about how many different ways he had the Italian domestic game all sewn up.

For what little they could restore pride to Italy’s reputation, Totti lined up with several Juventus stars to deliver the best that the nation had to offer collectively in that World Cup victory of 2006.

With the most assists of any player in that tournament, Er Pupone himself had a new, sober mentality as leader and decisive play-maker that would only benefit Spalletti and Roma’s stay near the top of the Italian table.

FIFA World Cup - Italy v Australia Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images

What’s even more remarkable is that, just like the Totonero betting scandal that brought the house down on Italian football in the 1980s, Roma were one of the few big clubs that hadn’t outright done anything to break the rules through 2006’s Calciopoli bringing the curtain down on the glory years of Serie A.

No one knows whether this is because Roma is truly a paragon of virtue (the club hasn’t been above match-fixing and inappropriate behavior towards refs at other times in history) or if the Sensis were just asleep at the wheel.

The Sensis had too many problems outside of football to be trying to win titles, by hook or by crook, in the game itself. When they’d hired Spalletti, the idea was to sell off the club’s best talent little by little, and pay back the mounting debt. But, crucially: do it in a way where the club’s performance and continuity didn’t have to suffer on the pitch. By the beginning of the 2006-07 season, both Spalletti and Roma found themselves in an ever better position than either had dreamed from the outset.

Now Roma were Italy’s second club. Juventus were relegated, Milan’s reputation took a massive hit and points deduction, and all but one of the rest of Italy’s ‘Seven Sisters’ of the 1980s and 1990s had their own regrets coming home to roost in the 2000s. It was just Inter Milan left at the top of the pile, while Spalletti’s Roma could cruise in their slipstream. But what truly gave Roma fans hope were the impudence of their Coppa Italia victories over Roberto Mancini’s Inter juggernaut.

AS Roma Captain Francesco Totti celebrat... Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

Even in the lead up to those trophies, Luciano Spalletti had dared himself to dream by pushing Roma’s board to sign his favoured deputy David Pizarro from none other than Inter Milan. Now Spalletti had not just one but two trusted playmakers at opposite ends of the team shape, in Pizarro and Totti.

(Unfortunately, Inter Milan would land a huge blow just 12 months later, signing Roma’s best defender Cristian Chivu on a free transfer.)

2006-07 concluded with Inter Milan ending their own long wait for a league title won on the football pitch, and not in the Lega boardroom, while Spalletti’s Roma finished that season licking their wounds from 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Manchester United in the Champions League.

The flaws of Spalletti’s football were exposed ruthlessly by Sir Alex Ferguson in United’s second-leg comeback: if you managed to take Roma’s chief creators Totti and Pizarro out of the game, Roma’s morale quickly sunk along with them. It was like pulling the plug out of the bath; there was strategy to settle the team when things weren’t going to plan.

Spalletti’s Roma were the very innovators of CdT catchphrases like Roma Happened: negative emotional spirals that turned into full-on blackouts imprinted on the final scoreline.

Spalletti himself was no strategist. He could think up a tactic or two for each player, yet left himself little choice but to cast those players aside when they simply didn’t get it.

Roma broke the champagne on Spalletti’s arrival in 2005 by rewarding him with signings he’d asked for, like Shabani Nonda. The fact no one cares what happened to Nonda ever since (a player who’d looked like a hell of a star in the making at Monaco) is testament to Spalletti’s inability to close the gap between ideas-in-the-making like Nonda, and the pinnacle of his reality that was almost entirely dictated by Totti and Pizarro.

AS Roma’s captain Francesco Totti celebr Photo credit should read PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

Spalletti’s only method of training was to keep playing those same 11 vs 11 matches for as many times as recovery would allow, briefly allowing himself—in the peak years of 2006, 2007 and 2008—to hope that the Roma first-team would break out into perfect movement around Totti’s influence; the kind of perfection that Spalletti had long since forbidden himself from voicing out loud, in all the years that he’d carried himself to this moment.

Roma and Spalletti were at the tipping point.

Totti and Spalletti were considered friends, even brothers; two who now dared, once again, for bigger results at the pinnacle of Serie A thanks to one another’s presence. If the Roma players themselves couldn’t find the moves on some matchdays where it went wrong, then Spalletti’s over-protectiveness of them came out like a garbled mess in press conferences. It even sort of worked.

At the very least, Spalletti was now the sideshow to distract the media from any attacks come Roma’s way. Prior to this, whenever the pressure was on, a younger and less-grounded Totti had often been accused of buckling under pressure in the big Roma matches, and Spalletti knew only accusations of being a tactician overly-reliant on his star player. Now Totti was into his thirties and had settled on becoming Spalletti’s chief rifinitore up front. Totti got to play to his strengths, and have his flaws covered by guys like Simone Perrotta. Spalletti enjoyed no such protection on the sidelines.

After all, what use is a so-called tactician, if really it’s just the talent of player that decides the match on the day? This is only one of many contradictions around Spalletti’s self-made realismo mythology (yet far from the biggest, and neither is it a unique critcism of talent-reliant coaches like the Spallettis and Allegris of the world.)

Yet all the barbs around Roma’s flaws did not stop the Giallorossi from clinching a surprise trophy in the Coppa Italia final of 2007—one where Roberto Mancini’s Inter were drunk off league-title success, and Spalletti’s Roma were just looking for a way to recover from their European shame.

This was the third consecutive Coppa final between Roma and Inter in as many years, with Roma finally beating the Nerazzurri in spectacular fashion. A cocktail of set pieces in the first leg meant that Roma ruthlessly beat Inter’s walking statues to the punch, time and time again at the Olimpico. Barely anyone could believe the 6-2 beating on the day, and Roma did enough in the second league to end their 16-year Coppa Italia ‘curse’ by raising the trophy.

2007-08 saw Roma repeat the trick: another second-placed finish and another Coppa final victory of Mancini’s Inter. This time, Roberto Mancini had already talked himself out of the Inter job in typically-barbed post-match press conferences towards his own board, after a knockout away to Liverpool in the Champions League.

Inter Milan’s coach Roberto Mancini foll Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

By the time May came around, Inter had done enough to seal another league title but many felt that Spalletti’s Roma played the most inspired football on the peninsula. The muted Coppa Italia 2008 victory was seen, in Rome, as the confirmation that Roma would go on to topple Inter in the league. Roberto Mancini then finished off the formality of vacating the Inter bench, just five days later.

All the momentum was in the Giallorosso corner: they had continuity of the likes rarely seen in the capital, they had two huge creative influences on the pitch and willing workhorses like Daniele De Rossi as support-actors, all the while Inter Milan looked like banging their head against the wall of pressure for European success.

AS Roma’s Francesco Totti holds the Ital Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

What could possibly go wrong for Luciano Spalletti? Answer: Jose Mourinho.

In a thoroughly modern coach like Mourinho, Spalletti came up against the one man who could take the wind out of Spalletti’s sails like no other. Inter’s new manager was the challenge for Spalletti to either once again risk becoming a comprehensive football manager, or settle for the modern game passing him by with his ‘specialist’ box of tricks.

No longer could Roma keep cutting corners by just instructing senior players to do one or two basic tasks in getting the ball to Totti. Roma should have used the power vacuum in Calciopoli to start really training players into making decisions for themselves on the pitch, readying talent to perform a number of roles as needed, through a real football strategy.

Most of all, Roma needed a coach who could motivate attacking players into seeing the need to defend. Ball-players into seeing the need to win the ball back, and ball-winning players into finding the confidence to do more on the ball.

Could Spalletti come up with an actual football philosophy? Could he revamp his training sessions into something more stimulating, that went beyond just doing practice 11 vs 11s and hoping the first-team clicked into place on the defensive end? Don’t bet on it.

Mourinho both everything Spalletti was and was not. Mourinho was a strategist and, unfortunately on the surface at least, Mourinho was also a sh*t-tester at every club he’d walked into.

That was the Portuguese coach’s favorite short-term solution to create a siege mentality around his men; casting out any players who couldn’t give Mourinho what he wanted, and using this as binding agent for the rest of the group to come together. Fatally, Spalletti began to mimic this same surface approach in his own Roma tenure.

“[It was the beginning of] Spalletti going to Rosella Sensi to ask for punitive sales,” Totti would write in his own autobiography - Il Capitano - years later. In short, it was the beginning of the long knives beyond drawn after dark in the capital, and Roma trying to mimic what they thought ‘big’ football clubs do, without actually putting in the hard and long yards to do it.


In Part 2, we’ll look at Spalletti’s Roma losing momentum in 2008 and Ranieri’s key changes to restore Roma’s confidence by the autumn of 2009.