Several years ago, when discussing the what ifs and what might have beens about Antonio Cassano's Roma career, we spoke about the power of regret, about how the unrelenting sense of what if or what might have been can just as easily crush you as it can push you along a newer, more fulfilling path. But that only applies when the what if is under your control. In that same piece, we also spoke about the paradoxical nature of sports, how the very vehicle meant to provide relief from this existential torment often gets conflated with our own hopes, desires, and regrets, adding to your anxiety rather than taking away from it.
Every so often, these phenomena collide, and that maelstrom of doubt and regret gets tangled up with events or decisions that are completely and utterly out of your control: A missed free-kick, a boxer's trainer throwing in the towel, a late inning pitching change. All decisions made by people to whom we have no earthly bond, but the outcome of which resonates deeply and personally and leaves us with that same sense of what if. Those decisions, for better or worse, can sometimes affect our happiness and sense of well-being.
It's crazy, but the very fact that sport can have such a personal impact is precisely why we love it so much (and probably why we're missing it so much right now) but what the hell am I getting at?
A few years ago, we asked a couple of what if questions about our beloved Roma: What if Francesco Totti left for Madrid? and What if the Sensi Family never sold Roma? Two questions that likely entered the minds of many Roma fans over the past 10 to 15 years, but I thought we'd take that same revisionist approach to a more recent moment in Roma histoy and ask...
What if Roma Kept the 2016-2017 Team Together?
You remember this squad, the one Luciano Spalletti steered to a second place finish while setting a club record for points and goals scored. The very same one that was summarily dismantled over the next two to three summers.
Just in case you forgot, here's what Roma was packing that year.
Goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny, Alisson Becker, Bogdan Lobont
Defense: Federico Fazio, Emerson Palmieri, Juan Jesus, Kostas Manolas, Mario Rui, Antonio Rüdiger, Thomas Vermaelen, Alessandro Florenzi, Bruno Peres
Midfield: Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman, Leandro Paredes, Radja Nainggolan, Gerson, Clement Grenier
Forwards: Francesco Totti, Mohamed Salah, Stephan El Shaarawy, Diego Perotti, Juan Iturbe, Edin Dzeko
Contrary to popular belief, Luciano Spalletti used a variety of looks during this season, ranging from his patented 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3- and even a few experiments with a three-man back-line, but for the most part his A-Team was as follows:
I mean, come on! Look at that lineup! Woj was arguably the best keeper in the league that season, Manolas and Fazio were an ideal pairing in many respects, Dzeko was the league's leading scorer, Salah did the double-double, Perotti put up eight goals and six assists, and look at that midfield—Strootman, De Rossi and Nainggolan were arguably the toughest, if not most talented, midfield in the league.
Outside of that impressive XI, this was arguably the deepest Roma team we've seen over the past ten years, even after the catastrophic injuries suffered by Florenzi and Rui. Coming off the bench, Spalletti was able to use Juan Jesus all over the back four, Stephan El Shaarawy would trade places with Perotti, Leandro Paredes would swap in for any of the midfield three and even Bruno Peres was made useful, notching 30 appearances in four different positions.
This team was fast, agile, strong and technically sound.
Led by Edin Dzeko's 29 goal outburst, Roma racked up 90 goals on their colleagues that season, the second best mark in the league after Napoli's 94 goal explosion. Including Dzeko's capocannoniere total, Roma had five players score at least eight goals in the league that year, including Salah (15), El Shaarawy (8), Perotti (8) and Nainggolan, who threw up an 11 and 5 season as Roma's de fact #10. Roma's actual #10, Francesco Totti, played only 364 minutes that year—perhaps the only sour note of that season, but Nainggolan was a revelation as a bruising/non-traditional play-maker.
Serie A was a bit odd that season, as the top three sides (Juve, Roma, Napoli) were separated by only five points, while the fourth place side (Atalanta) were 14 points off the top-three pace. Normally, at least in the midst of this Juve-centric decade, we see a clearer gap at the top and a tighter bunching between second and fourth place, but the odd grouping that year is likely due to clubs like Lazio and Atalanta just starting the climb up their respective bell curves.
With such a strong squad and a tighter than ever title race, what the hell kept Roma from winning the Scudetto that year?
With a 28-3-7 (W-D-L) record, Roma had the third fewest defeats in the league, while no club drew fewer matches than Roma that season. The seven losses are obviously the biggest culprit, two of which came against Juve and Napoli, so no crime there, but if we want to drill it down to a few single matches, here are a few candidates:
- Round 2: Draw at home against Cagliari (2-2)
- Round 4: Loss away to Fiorentina (1-0)
- Round 11: Draw away to Empoli (0-0)
- Round 22: Loss away to Sampdoria (3-2)
You'll notice a theme there—road matches. Despite losses at the Olimpico to Napoli and Lazio (Roma were the home team), Spalletti did a remarkable job defending the Olimpico, guiding his side to 49 of 57 possible points. But on the road...yeesh. Roma dropped points in seven road matches that season, including the clunkers listed above. Notch a goal against Empoli and protect their 2-1 lead against Sampdoria after the 66th minute and, Boom, there's your Scudetto.
Always the bridesmaid but never the bride; that's Roma's lot in life it seems. Despite all that, the club reached new heights as it approached its 90th birthday.
Things were looking up. Roma had a budding world-class talent in Salah, the league leading goal scorer in Dzeko, explosive athleticism in El Shaarawy, savvy leadership from De Rossi and a handful of diverse and interchangeable defensive pieces, not to mention the best keeper in the world sitting on their bench.
What Happened Next?
I'm going to throw two seemingly random and disconnected dates at you: June 22, 2017 and August 3, 2017. The first, while also being the second day of summer that year, was the day on which Roma sold Mohamed Salah to Liverpool for €42 million. The second was the day Neymar moved to PSG for €222 million.
With Roma facing their usual FFP demands, the club was forced to sell Salah prior to the always daunting June 30th deadline, missing the spoils of the Neymar Effect by little more than six weeks. God only knows how much more Salah would have fetched if Roma had the luxury of waiting.
But they didn't, and that was only the first of several shoes to drop. Following the sale of Salah, Roma parted with Antonio Rüdiger, selling him to Chelsea for €35 million; a move that precipitated one of the most cringe-worthy player reveal videos ever. Next to make way was Leandro Paredes, who Roma shipped off to Zenit St. Petersburg for €23 million. The club capped off this summer of exodus by returning and/or not renewing Wojciech Szczesny's loan with Arsenal, with Woj eventually finding a place at Juve.
Roma would cobble together a competitive roster for the following season, bringing in Aleksandar Kolarov, Maxime Gonalons, Cengiz Ünder, Patrik Schick and Gregoire Defrel to fill out Eusebio Di Francesco's 4-3-3.
That season will be remembered for Roma's miraculous run in the Champions League, but, as far as the league table was concerned, it was a dramatic step backwards: 10 fewer points and an astounding drop-off of nearly 30 goals.
The purge of our ‘16-’17 heroes didn’t stop there either. In January of 2018, Emerson Palmieri, freshly recovered from ACL tear, was sold to Chelsea for €20 million, while Alisson made way later that summer, joining Salah in Liverpool for a whopping €72.5 million. Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman would see their Roma careers cut short in the summer of 2018 as well.
In the span of 14 months, Roma would cut their record-breaking team off at the knees, spinning off two world-class players to the most detestable team on the planet and selling two more footballing freaks to Chelsea.
These moves look even worse a few years down the line—Salah and Alisson would win the Champions League in ‘18-'19, with Salah getting Ballon d’Or buzz and Alisson winning the first-ever Yashin Award for the top keeper in the world—while Monchi would make a mess out of Roma's roster in the years that followed.
With their almost laughable economic advantages, Juventus have had the league on lock-down for the past ten years (and show no signs of slowing down), so whether you're Roma, Napoli or Inter Milan, when you have a chance to shine, you better well take it.
Roma came awfully close during the ‘16- '17 season and despite coming up a handful of points short, seemed primed to take the Old Lady's place at the table.
Of course, that hasn't happened. Roma are on their third manager since Spalletti left town in 2017 and are in the midst of a change in ownership as well.
Still, we have to ask...
What Might Have Been?
Now comes the interesting (and tough) part—forecasting what might have been. This thought experiment necessarily revolves around what those departed players might have contributed going forward, so for the sake of this exercise lets assume Salah, Alisson, Rudiger, Palmieri, Paredes, Strootman and Nainggolan all remained with Roma through at least the 2018-2019 season, and that the club could have healed their rift with Spalletti in the summer of 2017, keeping the squad and trainer together for another run or two.
Despite their precipitous drop in offensive production and points on the table, Roma still managed a third place finish in the 2017-2018 season, though it was a distant one—14 points adrift of second place Napoli and 18 points behind the eventual champs, Juventus. The Old Lady also took the honors in the 2018-2019 season, reaching and/or exceeding 90 points on both occasions.
So, the question we really have to ask is would keeping those names and adding another year or two of continuity with Spalletti have enabled Roma to cross that 90 point threshold?
While Roma's defensive record under EDF in ‘17-’18 (28 goals conceded) was better than Spalletti's mark the prior season (38 goals conceded), each performance ranked second best in the league, but Spalletti's team held a +52 goal differential (second best) while EDF only managed a +33 (fifth best), so the rankings don't necessarily tell the entire story.
However, if we assume that Alisson would have enjoyed the same performance under Spalletti as he did under EDF (and there's no reason to doubt that, Alisson is that great), then I see no reason not expect commensurate results with Alisson, Florenzi, Emerson, Rüdiger and Manolas at the rearguard. And remember, Rüdiger was played out of position nearly that entire season thanks to Florenzi's injury, so this fictional team would arguably have had the most athletic central pairing in the league. Sprinkle in Fazio and even Bruno Peres and you have a group capable of maintaining the league's second best defensive record.
With respect to the midfield, Spalletti's ability to cycle between De Rossi, Strootman and Leandro Paredes in front of the defense gave the Giallorossi an incredibly tough, smart, tenacious and talented crew capable of protecting the back-line and providing service to the Nainggolan, Dzeko and Salah. And who knows, maybe he would have made something out of Gerson, too.
While the defense and midfield were among the best units in Serie A, the real point of curiosity here is what another season or two of that attack could have done to the league table. And the real meat of that discussion is the heights to which Mohamed Salah could have climbed during his third season with Roma. That ‘16-'17 team was deep and well-rounded, but in terms of individual talent Salah was a cut above the rest, so whatever fictional universe we create has to revolve around him.
As far as I know, there is no real mathematical way to translate stats from one league to another (to say nothing of year-to-year), so unfortunately we can't really determine the extent to which Salah's growth in 2017-2018 (jumping from 15 goals with Roma to 32 with Liverpool) would have remained the same had he stayed with Roma, but, in terms of key attacking stats (shots, goals and assists), Salah showed growth in each of the prior three seasons—from a low of 6/3/1.8 (goals/assists/shots per game) during his one season with Fiorentina to a 15/11/2.6 in the 2016-2017 season with Roma.
Additionally, between his two seasons in Rome, Salah's goals + assists per 90 increased by 44%, while those same figures saw a 37% jump between his final season with Roma and first with Liverpool. So, while we can't give you an exact number, it's safe to say that Salah would have improved on his 15 goals and 11 assists during our two ensuing fictional seasons.
But Salah's impact extended well beyond his goal scoring prowess; he was also one of the club's most effective play-makers, particularly when he teamed up with Dzeko. Following his 29 goal binge during 2016-2017, Dzeko's production saw a sharp decline once Salah was sold to Liverpool, falling from 29 league goals down to 16; a 44% drop in production.
During Roma's record breaking season, Dzeko and Salah were the top offensive duo in the league, with Salah setting up seven of Dzeko's goals, and if I had access to more in-depth stats, I'm sure Salah set-up an inordinate number of Dzeko's shots as well; point being, Salah was instrumental in Dzeko's career year and once he left, Dzeko's production fell off dramatically—not a causal relationship, but it's certainly an interesting correlation.
However, as we all know, Dzeko is so much more than a goal-scorer. Under Spalletti's fluid 4-2-3-1, Dzeko was arguably the league's MVP during the 2016-2017 season, serving as the pivot around which Spalletti's offense turned. In addition to his 29 goals, Dzeko was involved in three of the league's top 25 scoring combos: Getting seven goals from Salah, three from Nainggolan and providing three assists to Diego Perotti. All told, Dzeko had nine league assists that season.
Whether you call it a coincidence or not, Dzeko was at his best under Spalletti due in large part to the presence of Salah, El Shaarawy, an effective Diego Perotti, and Nainggolan as the number ten. The collective speed and creativity of that quartet was the perfect foil for Dzeko's bag of skills.
Okay, let's distill this down to the salient points. This squad wasn't designed specifically for Spalletti, but once he took over for Rudi Garcia in January of 2016, it became pretty apparent; those two dozen men were ideally suited for Spalletti's style of play. With two further seasons of football together, Roma's efficiency and effectiveness could have gone through the roof.
- Alisson's superior reflexes, shot stopping and distribution in goal
- Rüdiger and Manolas providing enough speed and agility to press high or drop deeper and enough size and strength to body-up opposing forwards in the box
- Florenzi, Emerson and Peres’ collective speed and skill on the ball at the full-back spots
- Strootman, De Rossi, and Paredes sweeping the X and Y axes in front of defense, allowing Rüdiger and Manolas to press higher as needed, and giving the full-backs enough security to push even further up the flanks
- Nainggolan creating/scoring from the hole...and disrupting counter attacks before they even begin
- Salah, El Shaarawy and Perotti running into the box, feeding and feeding off of Dzeko
- Salah and El Shaarawy's ability to create their own chances on virtually any defender in the league
- Dzeko benefiting from and contributing to the work of Salah, SES etc.
Starting with Alisson's sweeping and distribution at the back, this is a side that could move from defense to attack in the blink of an eye. This team would have had two truly world-class players (Salah and Alisson), the league's reigning capocannoniere (Dzeko), the most unique and tenacious #10 in the league and arguably a top-ten midfielder in the world at that time (Nainggolan), an impenetrable double pivot (DDR and Strootman) and two crafty and creative wingers Spalletti could rotate at will (SES and Perotti), a trio of swift full-backs (Florenzi, Emerson and Peres) and a pair of intriguing young midfielders (Paredes and Gerson).
With this side falling five points short of the title in 2016-2017, there was still a good chance they would have invested €5 million on Aleksandar Kolarov, and they may have even brought Lorenzo Pellegrini back into the fold. And, good lord, can you imagine what this team would have accomplished if Spalletti got his wish and acquired Alejandro Gomez? Fuckin’ hell...you're telling me that's not a 90 point team in ‘17-’18?
Looking at that season, Roma only took four points from the teams above them on the table (Napoli and Juventus) but all four of those matches were tight affairs:
- Roma 0, Napoli 1 (home)
- Juventus 1, Roma 0 (away)
- Napoli 2, Roma 4 (away)
- Roma 0, Juventus 0 (home)
Full marks to EDF for keeping those fixtures close, but it's no stretch to imagine that Salah could have made a difference in any of those three non-wins. Let's say they drew Napoli in that first fixture and defeated Juventus in that round 37 match-up, that's four points right there.
Moreover, call it a lack of finishing or missing that killer instinct, but Roma's rate of draws almost tripled under EDF in '17-’18, with Roma dropping points to clubs like Sampdoria (9th place), Genoa (12th place), Chievo (13th place) and Bologna (16th place). I'm not suggesting our fictional Roma team would have gone undefeated in the league, but that's eight points lost right there, bringing our total to 12. Throw in an unexpected loss to Sampdoria, a 2-0 loss to Fiorentina at home, and a derby draw in round 32 and suddenly you have a legitimate race between Roma and Juventus at the top of the table.
This team was talented enough, deep enough, and possessed enough individual difference makers to upset the league order.
But...ugh. They never even had the opporutinty to prove it.
This was a fun exercise driven by my love of that particular squad, but no matter the season, no matter the manager and no matter the squad, it takes a herculean effort to unseat Juventus. We don't truly know if our fictional Roma side could have toppled them in 2017-2018 (or even '18-'19, which was a complete train-wreck), but they had a chance, and given Juve's comical advantages on and off the pitch, that's all any of the other 19 clubs can really ask for...a chance.
And Roma had precisely that; a chance at something special, and they squandered it. Given everything that has happened to the club since then—more sales, more injuries, a sixth place finish, the impending sale of the club—you can't help but wonder what if.
And even if they fell short, at least they would have tried. An honest and wholehearted attempt, even if it bore no fruit, is better than asking what if.
But you can't help but wonder...What if, just for once, Roma went for it...like, really went for it?