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Where Did It All Go Wrong for Luciano Spalletti? Part II: 2008-2017

Is it harder to find peace in the decisions we make? Or the decisions we willingly put in our brother’s hands?

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-ROMA-CHIEVO Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

Part 1 of our Luciano Spalletti feature walked through a lot of background setting, and I’d hoped to be more streamlined about where it came apart for Luciano Spalletti’s Roma by the end. But yeah... that didn’t happen.

Instead, this morphed into my changing view of football from a teenager to my last days as a young adult. Now I just want to get it all off of my chest and move on. Roma in the Sensi-Totti-Spalletti years held some garbage that I bought into. Corner-cutting measures that buried more than a few talents before they’d begun to blossom into careers.

Some of Spalletti’s return—the dead-cat bounce of the Sensi-Spalletti-Totti era making one last curtain call in 2016-17—shares many of the same ingredients of flattering to deceive, so we inevitably mixed them in here. Then we’ll finish it off by leaping back in time, to look at what “tinkering” Claudio Ranieri did to revive the 2009-2010 to a race at the finish line for the Scudetto.

But first, let’s trace our steps back to the pinnacle of Spalletti’s 4-6-0 Roma that truly did give us some of the most spellbinding, even if short-lived, football seen on the peninsula around Totti’s fulcrum. These were the final days of Spalletti and Totti trying to be their fellow brother’s keeper.

Spalletti’s 4-6-0 Roma from December 2005 to September 2009

We’ve tried for an impressive of the average team shape during the 4-6-0 era: Attacking midfielders Mancini, Taddei and Perrotta were always ready to overlap Totti, whenever the captain held up the ball in the hole or turned to put them through on goal. A further advantage, whenever Totti was tightly marked or double-teamed, was that Mancini and Taddei were no mugs in possessions themselves. They could beat their man any day.

Rodrigo Taddei would never go on to set the backpages alight for any football writers at the time—he grew into more of a utility man as time passed—but I will always remember him as the inventor of the Aurelio.

Even if it ever transpires that someone invented the move before him, it’s Taddei’s move in my book. Everyone else owes him royalties. Elsewhere, Simone Perrotta was less technical on the ball. Nor did he did need to be.

Like a Bryan Cristante (the Atalanta version) or Frank Lampard of his time, Perrotta was a worker who’d time his runs off the ball to get in the box in the spaces left open by Totti dragging defenders with him. Behind them, a young Daniele De Rossi was still a player-in-the-making around this era.

DDR could play box-to-box, and people like me believed he would go onto become a hell of an attacking midfielder. Back in those days, he still had an accurate, thunderbolt of a shot in his locker from range; how times change. Those attacking five were often joined by the runs of attack-minded (even if ageing) Max Tonetto up the left flank.

At default match mentality, Roma were ready to commit a minimum of six players in attack as standard; Spalletti’s first Roma side were one of the most adventurous in Serie A, without a doubt. Thank goodness, then, that Spalletti could rely on a defensively-minded right-back like Christian Panucci to try and balance it out.

Panucci held a pedigree that was second-to-none in football: He’d played with both Milan clubs, Real Madrid and Chelsea before settling down in Rome. The Italian defender could easily double-up as a center-back, both moving in from the right when required or simply starting at center-half to replace Mexes or Juan.

When all three of those defenders played on the field together, they would generally shift inwards from right to left to cover counter-attacks, while David Pizarro lacked the pace to do anything other than stay back and watch over the play. The first era of Spalletti football wasn’t too set in Italian ways here, but you can still see the hint of a typically-Italian ‘asymmetric’ or ‘tilt’ formation. Despite this, Spalletti’s Roma was a daring Italian side at the turn of the millennium: Spalletti himself only ever believed in zonal play (owed to his Tuscan football heritage), while Roma were known for bombing forward, committing numbers to attack and sometimes getting carried away with the match atmosphere to their eventual undoing.

As we know, game day reflects habits picked up on the training ground. And that’s exactly where things fell apart, owing to a few habits that have dogged not just Luciano Spalletti but Roma over recent times.

Living and Dying by Totti’s Sword

AS Roma’s captain Francesco Totti reacts Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

When you make your football so dependent on just a couple of key players on the pitch, it’ll be the life and death of your career on the sidelines.

It’s one thing for players like Ludovic Giuly to have said “it isn’t clear what Spalletti wants”, while the Frenchman was still playing for Roma, but when your captain and star player is echoing the sentiment...the jig is up. And that’s exactly what happened by the time Ranieri had replaced Spalletti in the capital.

Francesco Totti could only re-affirm that, as far as the dressing room was concerned (even if it wasn’t a sentiment shared by Rosella Sensi’s fury at the time), the departed coach Spalletti had done the right thing by calling it quits.

“He couldn’t make himself understood by us anymore,” Totti said in a Gazzetta interview during the 09-10 season, “and by then there were a few problems in the group. His resignation was unavoidable. Given the results we’ve gotten with Ranieri, I’d say it was worth the change.”

Many times over Totti’s era, we saw the club were so dependent on him that his decision was effectively final. Even if Totti himself would recoil from the weight of that responsibility; a weight that was unfair to put on any one single player.

Outdated Training Methods for Isolated Roles

“I prefer to repeat the match-day situations on a training pitch, eleven on eleven, just like they’d happen on Sunday. A Formula One driver would never sit in his armchair with just a steering wheel in his hand, no. It’s precisely that reason why he does so many test laps, putting his car on the track for hours just like in the Grand Prix.” - Luciano Spalletti speaking on his arrival in Rome.

“I’m touchy on this, but Spalletti annoyed me a little. He was one of those who truly believed I was a player who needed to be pushed [to perform].” - Francesco Totti in 2009 on Spalletti’s departure.

AS Roma’s midfielder Simone Perrotta (L) Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images
  • Results going to pot at the business end of the season.
  • Wins turning to draws and draws turning to losses just before the final whistle.
  • Players getting frustrated over decisions not going their way, boiling over into red cards.

That’s a Spalletti team, lacking grit when the game needs it the most. Football likes to call grit or resilience by a different term: winning mentality.

Mourinho’s Inter had it almost immediately in 2008, even if it took a few false steps along the way. By 2009, the Inter coach looked settled upon 11-15 players who would truly die for one another on the field. Spalletti could only look on in envy—his 2008-09 Roma side trundled to a sixth-place finish.

Claudio Villa Archive

Coaches like Spalletti only grow more frustrated at the suggestion they fundamentally coaching mental frailty into their sides. Back when Mourinho ahead of the curve, the Inter coach was part of the modern wave caught onto the need to stay ahead of the Self-Esteem Generation of the 1990s, the legacy of which most of us have grown up under today: We’ve been raised to want identity, to want recognition for the work we put in and, most of all, to want freedom.

Some would say we’ve been spoiled.

Creative freedom is often mistaken for the mere rebellion of “doing what you want” regardless of consequences but, if we’re being honest, the freedom we often desire is to feel like we are self-made; that we have a key responsibility in shaping the events of our lives, and the lives of loved ones in our immediate circle. Football-wise, that means having a key say in our team on the pitch.

In modern day football training, that happens through tailored-training sessions that we now take for granted whenever we see them on a Youtube channel. 3 vs 3s, 4 vs 3 overloads—all mini-scenarios that push the player to build their decision-making skills for the benefit of the team’s strategy over the course of a season (or many seasons).

It’s designed for players to feel their decisions on the pitch matter, even if they accept and find comfort in the security of knowing the coach has the final say on matchday. Luckily, we’ve already had full-on discussions at CdT about what goes into training the perfect footballer, so I don’t need to risk sounding like a vague philosopher for much longer.

Coaches like Paulo Fonseca or Jose Mourinho have brought personalized training schedules, to train for mental strength, married to technique and physique as a holistic sum. More than that, the workload of the team changes for every week of the season, where appropriate, sometimes breaking down the tasks assigned to each player over the course of 3-match spells at a time.

A recent example of this: Roma began playing with a 4-2-2-2 formation against Cagliari for the first time in the 2019-20 season, with both Gonzalo Villar and Bryan Cristante moving to cut off Cagliari’s two central midfielders from their teammates. By no coincidence, Roma’s next opponents, Sevilla, played with similar weaknesses to Cagliari. That’s the most recent example of how Paulo Fonseca is willing to break down the season into small jobs for each player, making Villar and Cristante feel key to the result—while both get to build on their all round game.

UEFA Europa League”KAA Gent v AS Roma”

Villar, a former Lega Segunda player that Fonseca personally called to come in January 2020. And Cristante with hurdles of his own to overcome. That’s a holistic view of build a football club from the ground up. Something that Italian football desperately needs to put it’s pride aside and get to doing.

Not just now, but yesterday.

It’s taken Italian football a long time to accept that the old ways of just doing non-specific drills, a countryside run to keep the fitness ticking over, and a tactical session where you sit and listen to the coach tell you how to play “one way” for the entire season is...just plain boring. Boring does not stimulate player development or work rate. And while 11 vs 11 training matches will always have their place, no team was as obsessed with repeat 11 vs 11s as Spalletti’s first Roma - in the hopeless search for that perfect movement around Totti.

Luciano Spalletti’s realismo is Roma’s example of that old-school pupil-learns-from-the-teacher-or-else mentality. It’s a typified by comments from Ludovic Giuly, a man who’d won everything there was to win in the sport by the time he’d signed for Spalletti, reflecting on his Roma experience:

“I was in a state of shock for months at the beginning, because every Roma player was just repeating the same things and I felt like I was nearly incapable of playing football. It felt like I was living in a videogame that would reset itself every morning.”

Giuly lated told Liberation:

“Spalletti would never listen to me when I explained that I preferred not to train two hours ahead of the match itself. I had difficulty in Italy. It was at least one hour a day spent on tactical traning alone, and physical traning on top from Monday to Wednesday. I could never understand why clubs would train a 20-year old player in the same way as a 34-year old.”

Luciano Spalletti was already done with taking the risk of trusting players with decisions, outside of Francesco Totti and David Pizarro. Even a Champions League winner like Giuly didn’t get the benefit of knowing his own game. And when even Spalleti’s key players like Totti started to be honest about the fact they didn’t get where the coach was coming from, Spalletti’s last rebuke to Totti was that the players just weren’t working hard enough to understand him - instead of the other way around.

New Signings Not Seeing Where They Fit

“Spalletti was too forceful. He didn’t know how to put you at ease, and he couldn’t accept whoever wanted to talk through his ideas. For that reason above all, we had problems.” - Ludovic Giuly to Sky’s I Signori Del Calcio.

AS Roma’s French midfielder Ludovic Giul Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

No doubt some may say that Ludovic Giuly was simply a complainer in Rome. But the fact he couldn’t see himself fitting in Giallorossi colors is significant, because he was signed at Spalletti’s request.

On the list of names feeling alienated by the demands of the very same coach who’d call them to come play in Rome, he was far from alone, consider: Shabani Nonda. Samuel Kuffour. Mirko Vucinic. Marco Andreolli. Cicinho. Julio Baptista. All duds, right? Except Vucinic, whose most consistent days were found under Ranieri.

And yet, they were all names that either showed great promise, or had won titles, elsewhere before Roma. All signed at the request of Spalletti. All broken after they’d leave the capital.

They learned that, aside from being given a tactical book to learn at home, you either understood what was expected of you or you were out. Not a resourceful way to manage a club that’s already skint on money as it is. Let’s be clear, though: the turnover was not as big as Roma had been used to witnessing in the 1990s or 2010s.

Spalletti’s first spell on the Roma bench was comparatively settled compared to what came before and after him. But the odd part was that the players being churned in and out were specifically at the request of Spalletti himself, on both ends. Spalletti also left himself with no forward—neither the Tavanos nor the Baptistas of the world—that could understand what was needed to step into the frontline in the absence of Totti.

And that boils down to Spalletti’s limiting his options on how to get his ideas across and his coaching, or lack thereof.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-ROMA-INTERMILAN Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Many people will claim it’s impossible to mimic the intensity of a competitive game in 11 vs. 11 training matches, though Spalletti would briefly come close to this—in a stroke of luck and circumstance—on his return to Roma in 2015.

He would find a near-empty Olimpico stadium on matchdays, after Roma’s season-ticket holders stayed away from home games for the entire season. That was less to do with bringing the matchday to Trigoria, and more to do with bringing the training match to library atmospheres at the Olimpico. By no coincidence, it lead to Roma going on a record-breaking league points tally for 2016-17. At both times that Spalletti has been on the Roma bench, favourable circumstances have given the club itself had ample margin for error.

But both times, instead of using that margin to build in a true squad of interchangeable players, it would be wasted on the excesses of a precious few. Monchi’s plan of 22 first-team players for Roma, we suspect, will always be a pipe-dream (and an expensive one, at that!) But even under the days of Daniele Frade-Luciano Spalletti, building a team of 15 match-ready talents should have been more than achievable.

It would have taken more effort and belief on the training pitch, before we ever looked for excuses about empty pockets on the transfer market.

Making A Name Out of Reducing Your Players’ Value

Soccer - Serie A - AS Roma vs. Cagliari Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images

Rarely (if ever) does a player go on to have as much success after Spalletti than they enjoyed under him. Sounds like a good thing, right?

I’m sure Spalletti fans would even consider it a point of pride; a sign that the coach was the best thing that ever happened to them. But I compare it to when I’m signing up for a boxing gym.

Do I want to learn from a gym that trains me to grow hopelessly dependent on them, shelling out money to them just to feel good doing exercises that benefit me less and less over time? Am I learning to become an all-round better athlete at my level? Could I take my skills across town, or across cities and find the discipline to train myself when I don’t have the money to pay a gym for that month?

Or am I just wasting away my physique on useless routines handed down to me from a gym full of sharks? How much has that gym really molded me into a man?

AS Bari v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

I’ve never been a gifted athlete or boxer in my time, not even close. But I still want to know I can trust people around me to give me to tools to build on what I have. Like it or not, take a long, hard look at Roma over the last couple of decades and it isn’t pretty.

A.S. Roma is the kind of gym that would take young talent, throw it into the sparring ring in hopeless mismatches, then absolve itself all of responsibility once that talent leaves the ring bruised and scarred from the blackouts.

And just when that talent can’t pick itself up again without help, the very same gym group will cast that young man (or woman) out of the group, dismissing them as “sh*t”, “hopeless”, “brainless” and with surreal expectations that the next young buck through the door should dream of nothing better than to “prove themselves in a Roma shirt.”

Well, unsurprisingly, a lot of world talent does not share that dream.

When you treat players like Spalletti’s Roma did, you get a reputation around agents and potential transfer targets. In Spalletti’s first ever stint on the Roma bench, this was especially hollow. It was a time we really need to show we learned from both Calciopoli’s greed, and that we were no longer chasing glamour over team-sport.

Inter Milan Rumenian defender Cristian C Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Whever Italian football fans look down on the Premier League’s success today, you could hardly find a more sour grape going around. Italian football, from the time of Maradona driving wages sky-high at Napoli to the 2006 curtain call, was the definition of trying to buy success.

Italian clubs’ logic was to spend well over 80% of their entire budget on player salaries’ alone (this was well above any other league), signing the biggest stars from everywhere else in the continent. And when it all went wrong by 2006? Some in Italian football hid behind the nationalist sentiment of blaming foreign players. The very same foreign stars who’d raised the play and profile of the league.

Foreign players were not only to blame for staying, but now they were to blame for leaving, too. Far be it for Italian clubs to hold themselves responsible for their own choices, deciding to forego the expense of investing into the training ground.

At the Trigoria training ground, we needed a coaching staff that actually gave a damn about more than the points, scorelines and long-winded excuses in front of the TV cameras, whenever the points and goals turned out never to be enough.

Instead, we got Luciano Spalletti. And look at the leading talents we put in a holding pattern under his football.

Phillipe Mexes. He was signed before Spalletti arrived, but Mexes’ formation years were in Spalletti’s hands. Leaving on a bitter free transfer to Milan by the end, and one of Auxerre’s golden generation of talent when he first arrived, Mexes barely looked like any better of player in all his time at Trigoria—no batter than you’d expect of a defender accumulating years of match experience.

His defensive partner, Cristian Chivu, saw the writing on the wall, spending only two more seasons at Roma after Capello’s departure before leaving for Inter in 2007.

Spalletti-discipline Amantino Mancini did the same, leaving for Inter in 2008.

Only Inter Milan had anything like the money to take the risk of signing Roma players who may or may not learn how to do more than wait on Francesco Totti to decide a game for them, in a stagnant Italian domestic transfer market.

It’s no surprise that Roma was only able to attract Premier League money for an outstanding, generational-potential like Alberto Aquilani in 2009. Unless you count loss-making deals like Mido.

Inter Milan’s Brasilian midfielder Amant Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Then jump forward to more recent times. Look at Mohamed Salah in 2016-17. Supposedly, Spalletti had the idea to move Salah closer to goal than under the days of Rudi Garcia. Spalletti reasoned that Salah should do less running from deep to have more energy for better decisions in the final third.

The idea was sound, but in practice it was only backed up by Nainggolan (“the new Perrotta”) behind him. The same old shit that would cut Nainggolan’s career at top-level short, too.

How many yards could Nainggolan cover before Roma inevitably ran out of gas in tame knockouts to Lazio and Lyon through all competitions? Salah wouldn’t even wait that long to find out.

He’d already made his mind up, by January 2017, that Jurgen Klopp’s men were doing a better job attacking and defending as a collective team, keeping every player’s workrate down as needed. By then, Roma were left trying to negotiate their way up from a 22+3 million euro Liverpool bid - and Salah’s request to be let go - to the disappointing transfer in summer 2017.

This was a clear vote of no-confidence in Spalletti’s reductive football, and probably one that Spalletti never recovered from before he decided to walk out the club for a second time.

Look at Diego Perrotti, a supposed star-player of Spalletti’s revolution in 2016-17. The same player confessed, by the winter of 2017 to Il Romanista that if Spalletti had stayed on for another season then Perotti would have left: “[Eusebio] Di Francesco asks that I win the ball back a lot and play between the lines, things that I almost never did before. I didn’t have continuity under Spalletti and if he had stayed I almost certainly would have left. I wouldn’t say I blame Spalletti, these are just choices [that every coach] makes.”

And the less said about Spalletti’s apology to Alisson, in January 2018, for deciding Alisson was bench material behind Szczesny at Roma, the better off we’ll be.

AS Roma v Liverpool FC Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

In fairness, Alisson did have a weakness for mid-range shots in a mixed 2016 Copa America showing, but Spalletti wouldn’t know how to use sweeper keepers in his game anyway. It was thanks to Eusebio Di Francesco’s spreading the play at the back that Alisson came into his own in the capital.

By the time Roma were pulling off wins against Shakhtar Donetsk and Barcelona without Alisson having to make more than two saves over both home legs, Roma had found the balance around the back-line to raise Alisson’s value beyond the stratosphere.

We’re not saying that Roma should aspire to sell players, but any decent football club should build well-rounded players who can aspire to walk into any team. The club, player and collective talent pool all benefit from the result.

Eusebio Di Francesco and Paulo Fonseca have delivered a different kind of Roma season-record, from 2017 onward: Giallorossi sides that lead Serie A for most individual scorers in the team. In other words, collective football.

Missing the Point of Your Opponent’s Success

“Spalletti talks before the game, during the game, after the game. He’s prime time. He’s everyone’s friend [in the media]. I’m not made that way.” - Jose Mourinho at Inter in 2009.

Bayern Muenchen v Inter Milan - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

One of the worst parts of being a former Spalletti fan was watching the Tuscan re-model himself into nothing but a caricature of Jose Mourinho. If Spalletti couldn’t find the time to revamp his coaching methods at grassroots level, he’d try the shortcut of re-styling his man-management into sh*t-testing his own key players, like Mourinho did with Inter outcasts.

Yet the move has drastically backfired whenever Spalletti tried his hand at it. More specifically with club captains—at Zenit ostracizing Denisov, at Roma ostracizing Totti, and at Inter Milan ostracizing Icardi.

It was particularly embarassing for Spalletti at Roma, when his 2016-17 then had to rely on Totti coming off the bench to bail them out several times. Time and again, Luciano was shown he could have taken a deeper introspection into his career to come back with fresh, genuinely well-formed ideas appropriate to team-building.

Hopefully, Spalletti sitting out on his Inter money right now will allow the coach to do exactly that and come back better for it.

Failing to Share the Workload Across All Competitions

AS Roma’s Brazilian forward Julio Cesar Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images

Spalletti had spent years training his players to earn results by doing less. By 2008-09, he was banging his head against a wall trying to get them to care about deciding when it was right to do more.

Any player would turn around at that point and ask: Why should I?

The less and less the coach was asking of their game—besides Totti and Pizarro—the more Roma were supposedly getting points and goals on the board. That was supposed to be the map to victory.

It’s also the inevitable last-line of defence, the last-standing argument for Spalletti-believers today: the fact he delivered wins. Points. Goals. Results. And that remains a fact.

He did deliver record-breaking numbers domestically. But what’s the point when you don’t win at the end of the season? When your title rivals know they can take you out the race by simply turning up for a draw in head-to-heads? Ditto the Champions League, where the real money-run is. The fact Mourinho felt comfortable to lay out a strategy for Inter to take on all three competitions in one 2009-10 season was telling enough as it is.

Bayern Muenchen v Inter Milan - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

In a 2017 BT Sport interview with Rio FerdinandOld Trafford UncoveredJose Mourinho re-iterated: “I brought my work ethic to every club I managed. [I brought it] to Inter, in a moment where the top rivalry was Inter, Milan and Juventus. The top 3 of Italian football.”

For all the time Roma had borrowed as Italy’s “second team” in the Calciopoli era, Mourinho looked at Roma’s work ethic under Spalletti and didn’t even remember them as a direct rival.

These were problems of Roma’s own making: Inter Milan knew it was enough not to lose points in head-to-head games, and Roma would inevitably fall flat on its own steam, over the course of a 38-game competition. And it all goes back to the “B-team” and squad players asking why they should care. Spalletti simply wasn’t a coach to put in the work on the entire squad’s motivation.

If you want that player to feel like he has a stake in the team’s fate, make sure they get a regular touch of the ball. Better yet, build that player into one that knows how to use time and space to move themselves into positions where, every now and then, they can be decisive in grabbing a goal. You will need that when your key player start breaking down under the workload, and the sheer weight of responsibility.

Today, coaches are expected—more than ever—to show before they tell, to all 25 minds in the pre-season locker room.

Show me where you’ll make my game look good, for me to do more of the work you’re asking. That is where someone like Paulo Fonseca is proving excellent in persuading through his football. You can pack out a midfield with numbers in your formation, but that doesn’t mean you share the same conviction, or even the same philosophy.

Football Europa League Roma-Kaa Gent Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

I definitely do see the parallels in how Paulo Fonseca and Spalletti wind up dominating midfield, but Fonseca’s numbers in midfield are a sympton of his wider philosophy to dominate possession - with all 11 players taking their cue from the ball and their nearest teammates - be it hunting for time and space in midfield, attack or defence.

Spalletti’s dominance of midfield was the root of his Roma team in the 2000s - taking their cue around the simple opportunity to “pass it to Totti.” And that’s all there was to their direction.

And yet Roma were not wanting direction back when 2008 and 2009 was falling apart; Spalletti’s increasing micro-management was already getting on their nerves at the time. What they lacked was motivation, including an increasingly worn out Totti.

And that is where Claudio Ranieri stepped in for a season of pride, in 2009-2010.

The Ranieri Restoration and Motivating Roma to Defend

“It wasn’t exactly obvious what [Spalletti] wanted from us. As soon as Semak [replaced Spalletti as Zenit coach], all the players understood more clearly what to do in defence as well as attack.” - Aleksandr Ryazantsev, Zenit player

Parma FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

We’ve jumped back and forth through time, only to wind up back on that Trigoria pitch where Spalletti first started losing patience with his Roma side in 2009: “It’s been five years that I’ve been talking about balance! 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!”

Spalletti had become a victim of his own ambulance-chasing at the top of Serie A. Why couldn’t he motivate his players to help out in defense? Hopefully we’ve made the answer obvious in all the sections above. But it’s not as if Claudio Ranieri is the most modern, collective-style coach either.

Luckily for Roma, by September 2009, Ranieri didn’t need to be.

Ranieri’s 4-3-2-1 Roma in 2009-2010

Critics of Claudio Ranieri’s career will point out that we’ve just spent over 10,000 words on Luciano Spalletti, all to explain Claudio Ranieri’s (first) time on the Roma bench. It’s a valid criticism.

A true Roma icon that Ranieri is—his sporting achievements and character speak better for Roman sport than anyone—he’s still made his best moments from giving balance to the groundwork laid by others before him.

Spalletti’s final days saw opponents already standing in the positions ready to pick off passes between Totti and his men. Coupled with Roma’s lack of desire to track back or win the ball back early, that led to a 6th place finish—Roma just barely scraping Europa League football—in Spalletti’s last full season, during his first spell at the club. His successor Ranieri knew he didn’t have to waste much focus on trying to tinker a functional attack, spending his time almost exclusively getting Roma to defend.

Ranieri only demanded more variation of Totti (by then playing barely over 20 games a season) up front, asking that Totti spend as much time pushing up off the ball to attack the goal, as the captain had gotten used to pulling back into midfield.

Roma’s Ricardo Faty (R) vies with Udines Photo credit should read Anteprima/AFP via Getty Images

“At first,” Totti recalled later, “me and Ranieri didn’t get along well. He told me ‘even the bruisers in Serie A know how to read your game.’ It was only later that I begun to understand what he meant.”

Ranieri stuck with a 4-2-3-1 shape for the most part, sometimes changing to an outright 4-4-2. His Roma asked Simone Perrotta to pull out wide, playing off the weak side of opponents who were ready to crowd the midfield, in anticipation of Spalletti’s old tactics.

All Perrotta had to do was drift off of the crowd, waiting for a long pass that would set him off down acres of space on the left wing moving into goal. And if he needed support? Perrotta had Mirko Vucinic deliberately posted out wide ahead of Perotta most games, with Vucinic ready to create double-teams or simply run into goal, to get on the end of a long pass, himself.

But it was also the fact both men were brought closer together on the pitch, in all phases of the game, that showed both Perrotta and Vucinic they could rely on one another to defend from the front together. Totti’s own lack of tracking back was a non-issue, now that De Rossi and Pizarro were defending deep. And then there was the greater use of Jeremy Menez from the middle.

Juventus coach Claudio Ranieri gives ins Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

Starting from a position where he’d typically be too advanced for midfielders to pick him up, and too deep for full-backs to do the same, Menez had space to use his pace to run with the ball, and run onto it too. It delivered mixed results overall, but a more effective use of Menez’s pace to balance out the demands on the team.

When Menez couldn’t bring his A-game, there was always one of Matteo Brighi, Rodrigo Taddei or even Julio Baptista to fill in midfield.

Meanwhile, the backline held three new members - including Julio Sergio in goal - over the regulars that had begun to relax under Luciano Spalletti. It was enough for Roma to recover form a disastrous beginning to that 2009-10 season and nearly enough to win the title. We could rake over the coals of the lost opportunities in that season, but it’s remarkable that Roma even closed to gap to Inter - who held a marathon lead over the Giallorossi in the first half of the season.

Now I have to ask myself: Isn’t this a bit too much from me? Spilled milk over a coach that delivered so many wins? Not to mention the points and goals. Maybe I should look upon Luciano’s time and be grateful. Especially since, just this very week in April 2020, Wayne Rooney compared Jurgen Klopp’s dominant Liverpool team—leading their league by a massive 25 points at the time of writing—to “Totti’s Roma.”

“It pains me to admit it,” Rooney continued, “but Liverpool are the best attacking unit in world football at the moment.”

There’s the lasting impression of the Spalletti’s mid-2000s attack, a unit that made people dream. Though there’s no doubt Spalletti would be annoyed to hear today’s players remember it as Totti’s false nine.

But we know that the points and goals tally were never enough, not even for Spalletti himself. At what point did that ever give the coach or club the push to buck up their ideas? The same chip grew on everyone’s shoulder: No trophies, other than a couple of Coppa Italias when Inter were caught off guard, and a Super Coppa.

AS Roma v UC Sampdoria - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

And then the were excuses from Roma fans like myself at the time. Juventus have the inside track. The referee is against us. Why always us? (the answer to that question is far less rhetorical than we wanted to believe. It always starts at home.)

Then the real kick in the gut came as it was betrayed by Spalletti’s own increasingly cynical, percentage football through the 2010s. Then Spalletti’s last line of defense morphed into: Yeah the football is bad now. But at least we have the wins.

Why did the wagons circle back on themselves? Because we know what those wins cost us as a club, in the meantime.

The burnt youth talent, the discarded “B-team” players, the Champions League winners that couldn’t integrate into Rome, pandering for fans as Italy’s “unlucky losers” of the league. And then look at what sheltered mess Francesco Totti’s coping with his own life after football has turned out to be. Unfortunately, it looks like Totti is willing to hold onto the Sensi’s favorite sales tactic of Italian Catholic guilt: Look at what I gave up for you all.

When no one asked the Sensis or Totti to give up any more than the men and women who’d come before them.

Never-mind the fact there’s no reason, as an adult, not to pick up the phone between Spalletti, Totti and Franco Baldini to directly settle their differences in private. Instead of dragging out a public grudge that forces new generations of Roma fans to “pick sides” in a bunch of handbags; a spat that wants to split the club’s history and stature into useless factions.

We are all on the same side in the end. Sometimes it is just harder to come to peace with the decisions we made, and the decisions we willingly let others take out of our hands. Be it on the training pitch, in the tactics room, or writing the narrative from the sidelines.

Was the melodrama really all worth it? Maybe it was, with the balancing, grounded influence of Ranieri for one moment in 2009-10.

That was the season that gave testimony to what’s now often written as - in the feature articles around Rome’s press today - as La Stagione D’Orgoglio. The season of pride. The only motivation left to fuel Ranieri’s band of veterans.