Saturday's 4-3 victory over Spezia was a wild ending to the first half of the 2020-2021 season. Through 19 matches, AS Roma have settled into third place, tucked gently in-between second-place Inter Milan and fourth-place Atalanta. With only nine points separating league-leading AC Milan and sixth-place Napoli, Serie A promises to deliver some of the most intense football on the continent through the spring.
Through the first 19 weeks of play, Roma has delighted fans with goal-scoring binges, sublime link-up play, intriguing young talents and boasts a legitimate MVP candidate in Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But Roma has also frustrated us with a porous defense, shaky goalkeeping, and two administrative errors that cost Roma one point on the table and two people's jobs.
Despite all the controversy, Roma are two points ahead of last season's points pace and figure to be in the Champions League hunt until the final final whistle blows on May 23rd against Spezia.
To get you caught up on the first 50% of the schedule, we assembled the empire to pour over the ins and outs of Roma's first half. For reference, here is our season preview, which was split into two parts: Roma-centric and league-wide.
Please note: many of these responses were written before Roma's matches with Spezia last week and all the ensuing drama, as well as the late week transfer developments of Stephan El Shaarawy and Bryan Reynolds.
At the beginning of the year, we asked what excited and worried you most about Roma’s season. Have your concerns and excitements been validated so far? Were you too optimistic or too pessimistic?
JonAS: I didn’t participate in that specific questionnaire but did read some, uh, interesting things from you guys. Bren said ‘he’s excited to see what Ünder and Kluivert can do’. Ouch. Jimmy hoped Pau would redeem himself. Yikes. And dallagente picked Diawara as the one to watch. Riiiiiiight.
Thank God I didn’t make a fool of myself back then (still, love you all). Surely I would’ve answered Zaniolo and since he’s been injured from the very start of the season, I myself would look like a fool as well. Once again it seems you can’t predict things in the Romaverse. That’s what makes it all so exciting, no?
Bren: Yeah, sorry. I forgot your Belgian Boy Scouts retreat was that weekend! Well, I still maintain that I was right: if Ünder and Kluivert lived up to their potential and/or found a home in Fonseca’s new setup, Roma would be quite dangerous. But neither of them are exactly setting the world afire with their new clubs, so I guess was a tad too optimistic.
What’s even more troubling is that no one has even really stepped up and assumed those roles to any great effect. Pedro is too old to be counted on consistently while Carles Pérez has all but disappeared from Fonseca’s plans.
ssciavillo: I had said the thing that excites me most was to see if we could pick up where we left off in the summer restart, which we did see. Roma was firing on all cylinders early on—not losing on the pitch until matchday 9 against Napoli. However, what’s been concerning is how they haven’t truly built on the summer’s success by beating any of the big sides. That needs to change.
I was most worried about Zaniolo’s injury. While it seemed like early on Roma could survive without him with players like Mkhitaryan flying out of the gate. However, as we’ve begun to see there are times where Roma sorely misses Zaniolo’s physical dribbling style. This still remains a concern for me.
Jimmy: I’m going to say I went two for three on what I was excited for coming into this season; when he’s played, I think Calafiori has looked quite good, and Bryan Cristante has become a pretty great utility man. Pau, though... Yikes, let’s forget I had hope for him. As for my worries? I don’t think Roma has missed Aleksandar Kolarov that much, but the energy Nicolo Zaniolo brings to the pitch hasn’t been replicated, despite the excellent season Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s been having. I just hope Zaniolo has that same energy after his second recovery period.
dallagente: Jonas you’re right, I was a bust on Diawara. And I’ve also been burned by holding out hope on Pau Lopez, who’s career is the worst thing to happen to Roma since Iturbe was here. On a good note, I was worried about us getting outdone on the flanks. Sometimes that has happened, like against Napoli. But overall I’d say Karsdorp and Spinazzola have done well and Bruno Peres is still in the mix.
Give us two to three reasons Roma fans should be optimistic for the second half of the season.
JonAS: I only need one: it looks like every team in the top six is rather unpredictable and prone to errors nowadays. We all know Roma’s weak points. Inter fell in Sampdoria. Juve got beaten 0-3 at home against Fiorentina. Napoli lost at home to Spezia. Atalanta failed to score vs Genoa at Bergamo. Milan just got smacked by Atalanta. They all had their occasional hiccups. Inter and Milan look the most consistent sides but after those two, it’s an open battle for the remaining CL places. Anyone can end in the top 4, even Sassuolo. So I give Roma just as many chances as the others IF they can get their heads out of their asses and grow a pair of balls during games against the big boys.
Bren: Well, even with their inability to beat bigger clubs, they’ve taken almost two points per match and are right in the middle of the top four fight, so things haven’t been that bad at all. Unfortunately, as of writing this, Roma haven’t signed any new players, so we can’t point to the transfer market as a reason for optimism yet.
Having said that, I’m excited to see what Borja Mayoral could do in a larger role in the second half; if he does what his supporters believe he can do, he can transform Roma’s attack. I’d also love to see Calafiori actually get some minutes in the second half; having an option outside of Spinazzola could really help.
Excited might not be the best word, but Roma has enough weapons to remain in the top four provided that Fonseca can make better in-match adjustments.
ssciavillo: Well to start, so far this season Roma is beating all of the teams it is supposed to beat from mid-table on down. There haven’t been any clunkers like we’ve seen in the past against teams like Chievo and SPAL. That in some ways makes up for the poor results against top sides. So, in the second half if they can again run the table against places 9-20 then just a couple of wins and a couple of draws against places 1-8 should be enough to finish top 4.
Secondly, I have to agree with bren on Mayoral and some of the other youngsters. I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of players like Mayoral, Villar, Ibañez, and Kumbulla. Meanwhile, Pellegrini and Mancini have shown improvements this year. And that wildcard of Calafiori is still there. If that group continues to develop it will only make Roma stronger in the second half. Plus, the adversity of matches like the derby defeat will hopefully build up their mental fortitude to go along with the physical and tactical growth.
As for number three, I’ll go with Roma’s biggest wildcard: Zaniolo. While I don’t expect him to come back 100% out of the gate, if he can provide some strong 15-20 cameos late in the match like he did during his first return in the summer then he becomes Roma’s Weapon X that other teams will have to worry about late in matches.
Jimmy: Roma is fighting for a spot in the top four, and despite the recent turbulence around the club, that is where people expected Roma to be when the season started. I think everyone else did a great job of summing up the reasons for optimism already, so I’ll just emphasize what Steven and Bren said about the potential of the younger players in the squad. Gonzalo Villar alone really excites me for the future, and even though I’m not the biggest fan of Ibañez, I’ll admit he’s quite the talent.
dallagente: Roma does all the fundamentals right. They’re the second-best team in the league for creating goal chances, and one of the top five teams for keeping danger away from their goal. The problem with those two stats is perverse in that, although Roma creates plenty of chances, the team has a problem finishing them. And though Roma doesn’t give away many chances, when they do, they only ever give away wide-open chances.
Both those things point to a weak team on a mental level. Which is something you can improve on, the more matches you play as a team and the more you prove to yourself you can react to opponents coming back at you. Roma just did exactly that winning 4-3 against Spezia this weekend. Wins like that are currency in the mental bank. And as for the finishing problem? Roma have the most prolific signing (so far) in the club’s Serie A history sitting on the bench.
In fact, only hometown boy Francesco Totti scored at a better minutes per goal ratio (in 2015/16 when he was bailing out Spalletti once again) than Borja Mayoral is doing in the league this season. And there’s the return of Stephan El Shaarawy, who was in nearly in double-double form when he last played in a Roma jersey. As for the defensive balance, you have Amadou Diawara ready to play. Use him.
Give us two to three reasons Roma fans should be pessimistic for the second half of the season.
JonAS: I might as well copy/paste my previous answer because it works in both ways. There are simply too many teams fighting for a top 4 spot. Milan and Napoli are doing surprisingly well while Juventus has been mediocre under Pirlo but you know they’ll be in the running until the very end. Gasperini’s Atalanta simply freaks me out while Inter’s team is one of their best in recent years. Lazio or Sassuolo can be a pain in the ass for us too. So I fear Roma might leave empty-handed. We’ll need some serious reinforcements this Winter and Zaniolo to come back ASAP to help us out.
Bren: Yeah, good points there, Jonas. I’ll say my biggest fear is Roma’s collection of 30+-year-olds suddenly starting to feel their age. Roma have been incredibly reliant on Mkhitaryan, Pedro, and Chris Smalling, and, with the exception of Micki, they’ve had their ups and downs. And with no clear understudies, or at least Fonseca’s shaky faith in them at this point, Roma may run themselves ragged and fall out of the race by April.
ssciavillo: I have to agree with bren that the age of some of our most important players could become a factor in a long season that’s been compressed. Also, Fonseca’s inability to shake things up tactically when Roma has struggled in big matches is also worrying. Lastly, keeper is still a bit of an unknown. Pau Lopez has played well of late, but if things spiral out of control for him again then we could be in trouble.
Jimmy: I think that we’re already seeing the older key cogs in the side lose energy as the season progresses. It’s easy to forget that Pedro had a hot start to the season and now he’s basically a net zero on the pitch; I worry that Edin and Mkhitaryan might reach that point sooner rather than later too. Second, you have to worry about what form of Zaniolo will be returning to the fold: will he be the superstar he was pre-ACL tears, or is he going to become just another what if?
dallagente: Roma still don’t really know how to mark out the ball. There’s a lot of chaos between defence and midfield when it comes to preventative marking, and rarely do enough Roma players ever get back when their team loses the ball (I'm looking at you Karsdorp).
You can’t outscore your opponents forever. I think the league still generally shows that the best defences rise to the top. After one and a half seasons of Roma still not understanding fully how Fonseca is asking them to defend, you’ve got to ask if that doesn’t call for a change to something more conservative. Because right now any club in the top half of the table could be 1st or 10th in the matter of 3 matchdays.
The story of the first 19 matches continues to be Roma’s struggles against the bigger clubs. What gives, why have Roma struggled against these clubs? Are there any lessons from the smaller matches they can apply to the big-ticket games?
JonAS: It’s purely a mental problem, they’re simply more confident vs Bologna or Cagliari then against bigger teams. So I’d call The Mentalist to sort this out. Or Jean-Claude Van Damme to kick some sense in Fonseca’s head when he’s put up against an Italian coach who outsmarts him every single time. Avoiding brain farts like Ibanez vs Lazio would help too.
By the way, did you know JCVD is Belgian?
Bren: A national treasure, no doubt. I’m not 100% certain “what gives” other than the seemingly ever-present Roma inferiority complex. It could just simply be that these teams are more talented and better coached than Roma, and what can we really do about that? I think the biggest issue against that crew has been the club’s inability to string together 90 consistent minutes; just look at the 2nd half collapse against Atalanta or even Inter, Roma led both of those matches at half-time but were exposed and/or outwitted in the second half.
ssciavillo: I honestly thought we were done playing the mental midget role with the way the team fought hard and didn’t fold under adversity against Juve and Milan early on. But the three big losses since then have me worried again. Roma is again letting things snowball and get out of hand in key matches. For every hard-fought draw against Inter, Juve, and Milan there is a beat down at the hands of Napoli, Atalanta, and Lazio.
Additionally, I think Fonseca has to do a better job of setting up his teams for success in the second half of matches. Roma is usually the team that looks strong early until other managers have a chance to adjust at the break. Too often I feel like other managers outfox Fonseca in the second half.
Jimmy: The Roman inferiority complex (which, by the way, is 100% supported by the Roman media) has not been totally excised from the club. I’ll give Fonseca credit and say he’s done better than many other managers when it comes to actually defeating the minnows (incredible embarrassing Spezia Coppa loss notwithstanding). I think the only way to really fix this mental problem is to, well, win against the big clubs more consistently. If that feels like a cop-out answer, that’s because it is, but there’s not going to be a “magic fix” to finally make Roma play like the big club she so desperately wants to be.
dallagente: I agree with you guys, it’s purely mental. In some of those games, we’ve seen Roma do what they never do otherwise, which is defend with 5 or 6 men back standing in a flat line, which is just begging for something bad to happen. And it does.
I agree with Jimmy and I said it earlier: the best way out of this is more match experience, seeing that you can react to opponents reacting to you. The more this Roma side can see the Inters or Milans’ in-game adjustments coming ahead of time, the more Roma will know how to react to stay in the game. They’ve had the first half of the season to see how opponents can undo them. So let’s hope the muscle memory has set in this winter, without any lingering trauma.
Back in the summer, we also asked which Roma player was under the most pressure this season. How has that player fared so far, and would you change your answer for the second half?
JonAS: Back then I would’ve answered Pellegrini since he’s now the only Roman in the starting lineup, fan favorite and he can’t use age as an excuse anymore. I think Lorenzo had a more than decent half of the season, especially in a more advanced role closer up front. People need to accept he’s not in the same category/class as Totti or De Rossi, but more than capable of being a vital piece for this club for years to come.
However, I’d change my answer now and pick Dzeko. He really needs to change gear and drag Roma through hard times. It’s gonna be a long tough battle for top 4 and we’ll need his goals. Lots of them. No pressure, Edin.
Bren: Well, I actually went with Fonseca, and I’m sticking with that answer. He has the club in the top four after the first half of the season, so I’d say he’s handled the pressure quite well. The only question we have to ask in the second half is what’s the barometer for his success? We’re at roughly the same points pace as last year, so let’s say Roma improves by three to four points but comes in fifth, then what?
If I had to pick a player under the most pressure over the next four months, I’d say Dzeko. His position, whether now or next season, will come under increasing scrutiny.
ssciavillo: Like bren, I also went with Fonseca and am sticking to it. I think more than ever Fonseca needs a top 4 finish to keep his job and possibly even a couple of big wins considering the struggles in that area so far. I like Fonseca and the work he’s done with the side. I’d be keen on keeping him, but he needs to convince with a few marquee wins to win over the Friekdins in my opinion. They didn’t hire him, so this season could be his audition for all intents and purposes.
In terms of a player, besides Dzeko, I’d peg Carles Perez and Pau Lopez. Villar and Ibañez both have thrived since arriving last winter, while Pérez hasn’t shown much growth. With Kluivert and Ünder potentially back from loan next season and Zaniolo coming back from injury, Pérez could be on his way if he doesn’t start to perform. Meanwhile, Lopez has seemingly gotten a second chance I goal. Now he needs to prove that he should still be the starter next season.
Jimmy: I went with Fonseca too, and given the hot seat he’s currently sitting in post-Coppa and post-Derby Della Capitale, that looks like it was the smart choice, for the same reasons Steven said above. It’s CL or bust for the Portuguese manager, and although I think he’ll pull it off, anything less than that and he probably gets the sack.
I’ll pick Carles Perez as the player under the most pressure for the second half of the season. It feels like a while ago, but when Roma signed him from Barcelona, he looked like he might be able to replicate at least some of the pizzazz of Zaniolo; hell, him performing well is at least partially why Cengiz Under is in England. The fact that there are rumors linking him to a loan to the minnows shows how far he’s fallen, but I still think if he pulls through and becomes a key part of the forward rotation, he can come good and stay in Rome for the long haul. A lot of pressure is on him to come good quickly, though.
dallagente: Well I’m the only one that actually answered with a player back in the summer. And that was Lorenzo Pellegrini.
And so far, what’s not to like? well a couple of things, but Pellegrini has been fantastic and it’s good to see him in scoring form in a Roma jersey. It’s not right to call him a utility player (even though Fonseca admits he still doesn’t know where Pellegrini’s natural role in a team is) and it’s not right to call him a Rolls Royce either. he’s something in between, and I’m good with that. He’s like what Massimo Ambrosini turned out to be for Milan, and I was a fan of Ambrosini’s class by the time he had matured as a player.
Most fans would cite Mkhitaryan as the first-half MVP, but are there any marginalized or struggling players who could play a pivotal role in Roma’s second half? Or, for that matter, which players need to improve on their first-half performances?
JonAS: Kumbulla. I have a feeling he’ll eventually earn his spot on the team and from then on just boss the defence until round 38. That way, it will keep Ibanez and Mancini focused and motivated.
Bren: Hmm, yeah that’s not a bad call, Jonas. But I’m going to say Mayoral. I think at some point that Fonseca will wise up and give him some real minutes. If nothing else, he’s proven that he can work in tight spaces and think and move quickly, traits that make him a great complement for Mkhitaryan.
I’d also love to see something...anything...from Amadou Diawara. I have no idea what’s going on with him and Fonseca at the moment, but he was everyone’s darling and now he’s rotting on the bench.
ssciavillo: I’m going to circle back to last question and again say Lopez. We’ve seen the two extremes of how much a keeper can influence top 4 qualification with Alisson and Olsen. Lopez doesn’t have to be Alisson good, but he can’t be Olsen bad if Roma are going to be in the Champions League next season.
Jimmy: Well, Carles Perez is my answer here, for the same reasons I said above. If he can become a consistent contributor, Roma are a whole lot more likely to reach the top four.
dallagente: It has to be Mayoral. Though I’d be as happy as anyone to see a Diawara comeback making Roma more defensively balanced.
Okay, prediction time again: will Roma finish in the top four? If not, is that curtains for Fonseca?
JonAS: Right now, although it saddens me to say it, I predict a fifth place at best. Milan and Inter are simply out of our league this season while Napoli and Atalanta are regaining their best form. Then there’s the always dangerous Juve with Ronaldo. And if you saw how Lazio manslaughtered us in the derby, well they’re not too far behind us as well.
Friedkin will no doubt fire Fonseca when that happens and we’re back to Year Zero in Summer 2021. Please, let him make a move for Spalletti 3.0.
Bren: Gosh, so much of this depends on if Roma does anything during the January transfer window. I think the pieces of a top-four team are in place, but the margins are razor-thin. Roma needs help in attack and at full-back and without those, and with so many key players being over 30, I think it could come down to the last days.
I do think they ultimately squeak it out, in which case it’d be hard to justify sacking him. But, even if they finish fifth by a point or a technicality, I think he’s out.
ssciavillo: I’m going to be optimistic and say yes Roma does finish top 4. It won’t be easy but we’ve seen the inconsistencies from everyone in the league this season. Roma just has to continue taking care of business against the bottom 12 and then get a couple wins against its direct competition. That’s something I think they’ll do. I can’t see another winless stretch against so many teams. Fonseca will figure it out and get Roma to finish 4th. If he does that then he’ll be here next season.
Jimmy: I like the optimism here, guys! I’m going to say Roma squeaks into the top four, beating out the competition by a point or two. The margin between success and failure is going to be so thin that it might not result in Fonseca getting an extension, but at least the return to the Champions League will make sure the club is in better financial straits for whoever The Friedkin Group chooses to lead the Giallorossi next season.
dallagente: I’m going to annoy you guys with a non-answer. I don’t know. When it boils down to it, I just don’t think these players are good enough right now. They can get better but it may not be in time for the end of this season. I want to believe, but with Pau Lopez in the team I just sit back and enjoy the goalfests without even thinking about the consequences.
Well, you heard our takes. Now it's your turn: are you satisfied with Roma's performance through 19 matches? Will they finish the season in the top four?