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Seven Questions After Seven Serie A Matches

Now is not the time for any definitive judgements, but with Roma's hot start, we can discuss our shifting expectations for Mourinho's first year in the capital.

AS Roma v Empoli FC - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

While it's still far too early in the season to draw any definitive conclusions about Roma's Mourinho Makeover, with no fixtures on the docket for the next two weeks, we can at the very least discuss our shifting expectations. The Giallorossi stumbled twice this season, a pair of 3-2 defeats to Hellas Verona and later Lazio, but with 15 points and a +8 goal differential through seven Serie A matches—not to mention an unblemished record in the Europa Conference League—Mourinho has i Lupi playing some fantastic football at the moment.

We'll save the more clear-cut analyses for a later date, but in the absence of any matches, we assembled the crew to discuss some early-season issues and our sliding expectations for The Special One's first season in Rome.

Enjoy, and please give us your two cents in the comments.

Okay, now that we’re seven league matches into Mourinho’s tenure, have your immediate expectations changed? Why or why not?

Football Serie A Lazio-Roma Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Bren: I believe I had Roma pegged as a 5th/6th place contender, but my expectations have definitely increased. Given everything we’ve seen from the club so far, particularly in attack, I think they are legitimate Champions League contenders—to qualify that is, not win the whole thing.

A lot of that has to do with the emergence of Lorenzo Pellegrini and Tammy Abraham. Unlike the past few seasons, I think we can honestly say that the club has multiple go-to guys; players they can turn to for a shot/goal/key pass when it matters most. There are still some defensive issues, but I’m confident they can iron those out with more time on the pitch and some key winter additions.

The feel around this team, however one defines that, is measurably better than at any point under Fonseca. Making the top four this year, even if it’s by the skin of their teeth, would be a tremendous first step.

JonAS: Not really. I said top 4 and a return to the CL should always be the target and Roma’s on the right track. I didn’t expect Napoli and Fiorentina to be this good, but we already have a nice albeit little bonus on Atalanta, Lazio, and Juve. Milan and Inter aren’t far ahead so all’s good. For now.

At the moment I’m quite optimistic, Abraham and Rui are nice surprises and Pellegrini is playing out of his mind. Zaniolo will soon return to his best form while Mikhi is still class and Veretout hasn’t forgotten how to score a goal. Ibanez looks like he will take the next step under Mourinho. And Spinazzola will come back sooner than expected as well.

The only thing that worries me is our defense vs bigger, more dangerous opponents. We only faced Lazio and there’s a crucial part coming up with Juve and Napoli. I might be less happy if you contact me again in one month.

Jimmy Miotto: I was expecting a Champions League spot for next season, and so far that seems like a spot-on goal for Mourinho’s first season with the club. Sure, there are some areas where depth is obviously needed (I’m getting quite tired of seeing Rick Karsdorp at right-back), but this is a more cohesive side than we’ve seen since the Radja/DDR/Strootman era. Add in the fact that all the new signings save Matías Viña have impressed (particularly Tammy Abraham), and I think that if anything third or second place might even be possible this season.

ssciavillo: Much like Jimmy and Jonas I felt that too 4 should always be the objective and as of now Roma are on track to achieve that goal. So, I’d say my expectations for the team remain the same. I do think there’s a chance they could shoot higher if the offense continues to click and becomes even more dangerous as Zaniolo has started to find his groove a bit. At the same time, the last few weeks of October will tell us a lot about this team and how it mentally approaches big matches after the derby loss. If Roma can get another 8-10 points before the end of the month then I’d feel really good about the chances of returning to the Champions League.

BSanti: I’m with Bren in terms of my expectations increasing. Prior to the season, I thought we had a chance to make top four, something we would battle until the end to achieve, but with a likely fifth-place finish in store for us. Now, my expectations are a comfortable top four finish. That’s almost entirely dependent on getting wins against the other heavy hitters in the league, but I saw enough from the squad in the Lazio game that I am confident we’ll get a few wins against that level of opposition.

We’re only a few months into the Mourinho era, but what’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between The Special One and his more immediate predecessors like Fonseca or EDF?

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

Bren: On the pitch, I don’t think he’s doing anything particularly revolutionary. Remember, Fonseca used nearly an identical system when he first arrived in Rome but there is one subtle difference between Fonseca and Mourinho: their usage of Pellegrini. While he chalked up 9 assists under Fonseca (during the ‘19-’20 season), he scored only one goal while averaging 2.42 shots per 90. With four goals in six league matches and 3.89 shots per 90 minutes, Mourinho is turning Roma’s best player into an incredibly dynamic asset.

Sometimes the margins between coaches are simply the manner in which they use the club’s best players. By making Pellegrini a more direct threat, Mourinho has subtly changed the club’s approach while his win-at-all-costs mentality seems to have lifted the spirits of everyone involved with the club. That’s not a slight to Fonseca or EDF, it’s just one of the benefits of hiring a guy with Mourinho’s legacy and mystique, so to speak.

JonAS: Yeah, I also recognize José’s win-at-all-costs mentality, even if it’s ugly. I just think Mourinho gets more out of these players and can demand more of them compared to Fonseca or EDF who, with all due respect, don’t have the same reputation or ooze the same class as Mourinho.

Just look at Pellegrini, Mancini, or Abraham who simply enjoys playing football right now. The team seems more tight and solid, more united. It’s the famous ‘us vs the world’ approach from Mourinho.

Then again, we clearly see a starting XI now. Mourinho has about 13-14 favorites, the rest will have a tough time breaking that wall. Some guys like Kumbulla, Mayoral, or Villar almost feel excluded from Roma.

Jimmy Miotto: I agree with Bren that tactically speaking, there aren’t too many differences between FonsecaBall and MourinhoBall so far, save the star turn by Lorenzo Pellegrini. The biggest thing I’ve noticed so far goes beyond what JonAS says about the “win-at-all-costs mentality”, though: it’s the fact that Roma seem to have evolved beyond having a glass jaw, both inside one match and on a match-to-match basis.

Losing to Lazio the way they did in the Derby Della Capitale might have resulted in weeks of poor form for prior incarnations of Roma; this time, Roma responded to the hard-fought 3-2 loss by winning their next two matches. Part of that is probably down to the fact that Zorya Luhansk and Empoli aren’t the toughest customers in the world of football, but even still, I’m impressed by how Mourinho has pushed this side towards “being a goldfish”, to paraphrase Ted Lasso. The sheer number of times Roma have been able to win a match after going a goal down has been nice, too, and is again indicative of something that goes a bit further than “win at all costs.”

ssciavillo: Great points by Bren and Jonas. I think tactically nothing revolutionary has happened besides the freeing of Pellegrini to really thrive and there is a win at all costs mentality. However, in terms of the biggest change, I feel the same as Jimmy. Roma responds to adversity in a much more positive way so far this season.

Every time they get a gut punch in a match by conceding they seem to go right back down the pitch and create a quality chance. Even the Lazio match when they were down by two, Roma responded and made a match out of it. There seems to be a lot more fight in this team than we’ve seen in past seasons. A lot of that starts at the top with Mourinho, but I also think it has a lot to do with the makeup of the roster. A player like Abraham seems a lot hungrier than a guy like Dzeko and having a fighter like Zaniolo back also helps. This is a younger hungry team that doesn’t seem to mind a good dogfight.

BSanti: Yea, you guys hit all the major points on this one. The general mentality shift and bounce-back ability from the squad following a loss, or on a micro-level, after conceding and going behind, is extremely refreshing following the EDF and Fonseca experiences. We touched on this a bit in the latest podcast episode, but I’m not sure that Roma win, or at least not as comfortably, against Zorya following the deflating Lazio result in seasons past. I think another underrated aspect of this mentality change is just how noticeable it is, really seems night-and-day to previous iterations of the squad.

Through the first seven matches (plus the ECL fixtures), which player has impressed you the most so far and why?

AS Roma v Empoli Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Bren: Pellegrini aside, I have to go with Tammy Abraham. Not being an ardent EPL follower, I wasn’t entirely familiar with him, but I’m continually amazed at how well-rounded he is. In some ways, he plays exactly like Dzeko but substitutes long limbs and impeccable balance for broad shoulders and brawn, but he’s more direct, more clinical and more efficient thus far—at least compared to Dzeko’s last moments in a Roma shirt.

I also have to give a small shout to Riccardo Calafiori. I know the minutes have been scant, but I think I finally understand why people were so geeked on this kid; he has every physical tool one needs to succeed in modern football, and he’s a lefty to boot.

JonAS: Well, there’s really no other answer than Pellegrini right? The difference is just too big. More than ever Lorenzo looks, feels, plays like a true leader and the beating heart of the team. I mean c’mon, seven goals in ten games? Just extended his contract until 2026? No buyout clause anymore? The future is his. I even forgive him for his red card vs Udinese.

Jimmy Miotto: Lorenzo Pellegrini is the only suitable answer to this question. Seven goals in all competitions is frankly an insane output for him compared to his prior seasons, and having two assists on top of that is excellent too. It certainly seems as if Mourinho has unlocked him in a way that can turn him into a superstar for club and country for the long haul. Pellegrini’s probably going to have poor form here and there throughout the season, because that happens to every player, but the fact that he’s had this sustained level of form to start the season indicates that the captain’s band isn’t weighing heavily on him at all. In fact, it might have been just what he needed to slowly but surely be mentioned alongside Totti and De Rossi.

ssciavillo: Pellegrini is the obvious answer because he has just taken his game to another stratosphere. That being said, I think we knew the potential was there for him to be a top-quality midfielder for Roma.

So, in terms of surprise, I have to go with Tammy Abraham. I never expected him to be such a dynamic striker. He’s so much more than the goal poacher I was expecting. He can use his pace to get behind the defense, use his height to win aerial duels, dribble past defenders, play open teammates in on goal, and has a great attitude. He’s got the skills to live up to his big price tag and then some. I love what I’ve seen from him so far. Just imagine how much better he’ll be when he starts putting those shots in that have hit the woodwork.

BSanti: I’d also have to go with Abraham on this one. Pellegrini is Roma’s MVP so far this season, no doubt, but Pellegrini has generally been trending upward and has been at the club for several seasons already, so it’s not a huge surprise that he finally took that next step.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact Abraham would have already, considering for him it’s a new league, in a new country, with a new language, but he has certainly hit the ground running. A lot had been made about how this club was going to replace Dzeko once he left, and as Bren hinted at, we may have found the perfect replacement for Dzeko when you consider his ability, work rate, and age. Any chance we can get that buy-back clause removed already?

Flip it around: Which player has worried you the most/which player needs to improve over the next seven weeks to keep Roma on track?

AS Roma v Empoli Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Bren: Hmm, that’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t think any Roma player has been poor, per se. Having said that, I still have some reservations about Eldor Shomurodov. He’s definitely a physical specimen, so I can see why Roma took a flier on him, but I remain skeptical for the same reasons I was over the summer: his track record in top leagues is pretty shallow.

No disrespect to his performance with his national team, and I understand that it might take longer for a kid from Uzbekistan to get noticed, but nothing in his career to date suggests that he’s “the man” so I’ll be curious to see how and where Mourinho uses him. So far, it’s been nearly a 50/50 split with El Shaarawy for minutes on the left flank, while his spot appearances as the lone striker haven’t been anything to write home about. There are plenty of reasons to get excited about him—he’s an incredible athlete—but we have to remember how raw he is.

JonAS: There are obvious names like Villar, Diawara, Mayoral or Perez but they have played very little so that won’t be fair. I can understand the choice for Shomurodov but I’ll go for Karsdorp. I’m prepared to give Vina some slack because he’s new from South America and Spinazzola is working on his comeback. Calafiori is raw but clearly talented enough to fill in. However, we’re very, very thin at right back.

Mourinho is no admirer of Reynolds while Santon is a ghost by now. We only have Karsdorp who has been ok for most of the time. But sadly that doesn’t suffice and especially not if we face the likes of Inter, Napoli or Milan. We need Karsdorp to bring his A-game soon and we need to pray he stays fit.

I’m certain Abraham, Zaniolo, Pellegrini and co will make sure we’ll score or create enough chances. Karsdorp just needs to hold down the fort until at least Winter, then Pinto can try to bring in a vice RB and loan out Reynolds.

Jimmy Miotto: I have to agree with JonAS here, Rick Karsdorp is quickly becoming one of the worst players who’s consistently in the starting eleven for the Giallorossi. That’s a higher bar than it has been in prior seasons because of how in-form much of the side is, but for a club with long-term aspirations of belonging in the top four every season, Karsdorp’s play just hasn’t measured up. I’m still hopeful that Bryan Reynolds can come good; he’s quite young, has the physical qualifications necessary to succeed, and seems like a determined player who is aware of where he needs to improve. Nevertheless, the number one priority for me going into the winter mercato will most definitely be another right-back, particularly if Ebrima Darboe can continue showing us that he can slot into Mourinho’s midfield smoothly.

BSanti: I’m going to go with Bryan Cristante on this one. A lot has been made about Mourinho’s mistrust in his midfield options apart from Veretout, Cristante, and Darboe, and with an inability to bring in a defensive-midfielder until January, the onus falls on the aforementioned trio to get the job done until then. Although Veretout has his own issues in the role, I’m naming Cristante here based on the accumulation of yellow cards thus far, which I think has been evidence of his early struggles in the position. Of course, I’d back Cristante to figure it out, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on until January.

ssciavillo: I have a hard time saying Cristante has been the biggest disappointment considering he’s playing in a less than ideal role yet again. And considering how little Villar and Diawara have played it’s hard to say they’ve been disappointing on the pitch. So, I’ll have to go with Karsdorp. I thought this year would be the year he would take the next step offensively, especially without Spinazzola seeing so much of the ball on the opposite flank. But, it hasn’t happened so far and Matias Viña has routinely had more touches on the left. With that in mind, I’ll have to go with Rick.

We’ve seen plenty of peaks and valleys from Nicolo Zaniolo so far, so how would you rate Roma’s handling of his return after nearly two years?

AS Roma v Empoli FC - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Bren: At this point, Zaniolo’s recovery is likely more mental than it is physical. The knees have been repaired—and plenty of players have gone on to have solid careers with multiple injuries—so it’s really just a matter of restoring his confidence. Brandon and I spoke about this a few weeks ago, but there is a give and take between getting him up to 100% match fitness and potentially sapping his confidence. If you want him to get minutes just for the sake of it but he struggles and begins to doubt himself, then what?

It’s a delicate dance, and Mourinho is managing it well so far, but I’m of the mindset that an occasional break will benefit him mentally and physically. At the end of the year, I think Zaniolo should fall somewhere in the 2,500-minute mark in all comps; enough to be effective but not so much that you risk running him ragged at this early stage in his recovery.

JonAS: Yeah, I’m quite happy about how things are going for Zaniolo. Patience is a virtue, there’s plenty of time. It’s important we don’t bring out the pitchforks and give Nico more than enough time to regain confidence. I’m glad José doesn’t bench him too often because sitting on the bench doesn’t help either.

He needs to smell the grass, feel the ball (a football mind you, not the ones he grabbed after the derby loss). Like Bren said, it’s a mental issue but I think once Zaniolo is 100% back, he’ll be a vital part of Mourinho’s plans. I feel José is the right man at the right place at the right time for Zaniolo’s career. Just like for Lorenzo Pellegrini.

Jimmy Miotto: Zaniolo is playing just the right amount, and people who are worried about his form to start the season (or demanding that Carles Perez get more starts) need to take several chill pills. We’ve seen him perform admirably against Lazio and Empoli, and with every match he’s looked more comfortable playing at a Serie A level again. Any player coming back from as long of a layoff as Nicoló had needs to get minutes under their belt before they can really be back to their old self; the goals will come for Zaniolo, and when they do a lot of the whinging about him getting starts will subside.

BSanti:I agree with Jimmy that Zaniolo is playing just the right amount, and the evidence is on display given his performances in the last few matches. I think one of the worst things Mourinho could have done in getting Zaniolo back to form would have been to bench him when things weren’t exactly clicking for the youngster, that could’ve been an absolute killer to his confidence, so credit to Mourinho for allowing him to play through it and find his form. Going forward, I think Zaniolo should be given a rest in the Conference League and every now and then against the minnows of Serie A, but aside from that, the best thing for Zaniolo is probably to continue to play as much as possible and further put his injuries behind him.

ssciavillo: I have to agree that Roma has managed his minutes well so far. I think for the time being he should feature in most league matches while getting the Conference League matches off to keep him playing consistently without overdoing it. We’re starting to see him get back to his old form and it looks like he’s feeling good as he’s been more aggressive in recent matches. That to me is a sign his body is responding well and in turn, he’s mentally in a good place.

What in the world is going on at right-back? Make a case for Mourinho to trust Bryan Reynolds as Karsdorp’s understudy.

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Fabrizio Corradetti/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Bren: I am completely flummoxed by this transfer. I understand that Roma may have given him certain assurances about remaining with the club, which may have given them the advantage over Juventus on the transfer market, but to date, he’s been done a great disservice by the club. You won’t find many 6’3” full-backs built like him, so I totally understand why he’s such an intriguing prospect, but he needs to play. And if Mourinho doesn’t even trust him in these early Conference League matches, when will he?

At this point, I think everyone would be best served by a loan to a lower-table Serie A club, or maybe some random team in another league with a manager similar to Mourinho; somewhere he can play under a similar tactical setup.

But broadly speaking, I think we should all be worried about depth at this position. They can’t run Karsdorp out there 90 minutes every single match and not expect some sort of breakdown. Either Mourinho needs to trust Reynolds, or they need to get rid of him. Running Karsdorp into the ground or using Roger Ibañez at the position is a recipe for disaster.

JonAS: Hey, he’s American. And if you can’t trust an American these days, who can you trust? Right, José?

If Karsdorp goes down, I can honestly see Mourinho going for a three-men-defense instead. Or even bringing back Santon from the dead. And to be fair, I rather want Davide than Bryan at his point at right back.

Jimmy Miotto: Hey JonAS, it wasn’t Americans who got shown up by the Pandora Papers recently, was it? (Just kidding, I’m well aware that America’s reputation is in need of a fresh coat of paint due to years of neglect.) More seriously, Mourinho should trust Reynolds as Karsdorp’s understudy because he has very little choice in the matter, at least until January. This is the project Mourinho signed up for, and he’s gotten a lot of great new toys to start his time here, but when you don’t coach a club like Manchester City, sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got. As I said before, I think Reynolds has the ability to be a big piece of Roma’s future over the next few seasons. That has to start with him getting some playtime, though, and if Karsdorp’s form continues to be sub-par, there have to be consequences for the Dutchman.

Young players develop through game time, it’s as simple as that. If we want Reynolds to ever become good, he’ll have to get more game time, preferably in Rome. Mourinho made our very own Davide Santon look like the second coming at Inter back in the day; I’m sure he can work with Reynolds.

BSanti: Truth be told, I’m struggling to come up with a case for Reynolds being Karsdorp’s understudy aside from pure necessity. I think several of Mourinho’s selections and substitutions over the course of the season, in particular in the Conference League, should’ve been a wakeup call to Reynolds to step his game up, and although we aren’t privy to how he is performing in training, I have to assume he hasn’t done so thus far. Mourinho has a reputation for neglecting prospects in a squad, but that hasn’t really felt the case this time around, aside from his stance on Reynolds. I think at this point a loan is the best move for all parties concerned.

ssciavillo: I have to agree with Brandon that we don’t know what’s going on in training, but clearly Reynolds isn’t impressing the coaching staff. The biggest case to play him is out of necessity. You can’t run Karsdorp out there every match and when you do spell him in the Conference League against minnows why not give the kid a shot rather than play Ibañez or Kumbulla at right back. If he’s not going to play he needs to go out on loan to develop though.

Seven Serie A matches from now (Nov. 28th against Torino), where is Roma on the table and what are saying about the club come winter?

Trabzonspor v AS Roma - UEFA Conference League: Play-Offs Leg One Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Bren: Well, we have Juventus, Napoli, Milan, and multiple Conference League matches in that stretch, so this may very well make or break Roma’s top-four hopes. I’m not worried so much about the ECL games, but Roma needs to take two of those three other matches. I think we can take Juve and Milan, but I’m chalking up Napoli as an L. If that’s the case, I think Roma will still be in fourth place come mid-November, which sets them up nicely for a competitive 2022.

JonAS: Yikes Bren, that’s a nasty list. I admire your optimism concerning Juve and Milan but we’ll drop points here and there, that’s for sure (unless Mourinho proves me wrong and I sincerely hope so). I do have faith in José, he’ll have a plan ready when we face the big guns. Napoli and Milan are at the Olimpico so that’s a slight advantage.

I hope we’re still top 4 or at least max 3-4 points behind fourth place. Then I believe Roma will be in the hunt for CL until the very end, with a smart buy or two in the Winter mercato (hint: Zakaria and a cheap yet experienced right back like D’Ambrosio from Inter).

Jimmy Miotto: I think Roma will still be top four come winter, barring any major injuries (knock on wood). Part of the reason I say that is my belief that the Giallorossi are going to find ways to win against Milan and Juventus at the very least, and part of it is that I think certain clubs are inevitably going to come back down to Earth. Luciano Spalletti’s hot form isn’t going to last forever, and if I know anything from his time in Rome, winter is often when the wheels fall off for him.

Roma’s next seven matches in Serie A are against Juventus, Napoli, Cagliari, Milan, Venezia, Genoa, and Torino. I think all of those matches are winnable, even if they don’t result in wins. I’m personally hoping for five of those to be out-and-out wins, though, and I think form like that could mean the Giallorossi are even in third or second place by the time we’re at match week 14.

BSanti: Excellent question. Honestly, I think Roma will be in the exact same position that they are now at the end of the next seven matches, which is partially contingent on the result against Juve, considering that they are the most dangerous team outside the top four at the moment. Should they manage to avoid defeat against Juventus, and regardless of the result against Milan and Napoli, who are already ahead of Roma in the table, the other four matches are favorable enough to reasonably expect all 12 points from those games. Considering Roma’s top four rivals will likely also drop points over the next seven matches, I think claiming maximum points from those lesser sides should be enough to maintain the status quo until the winter.

ssciavillo: I have to agree with Brandon, I’m going with the status quo with Roma sitting in a Champions League place. I think that Roma will be able to take points in at least two of those three big matches in October which if coupled with taking points off the smaller sides should be enough to be fourth at minimum.

Thanks for reading, now please, give us your thoughts on Roma's performance after seven Serie A matches. Have your expectations increased? Stay the same? Dropped?