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Bren vs. Bran: Resetting Expectations, Two Striker Formations and More Fallout From Venezia

Bren vs. Bran is back, and in the wake of another disappointing defeat, we tackle a few big picture issues facing Roma and Mourinho at the moment, including new expectations, new formations and second chances.

AS Roma v CSKA Sofia - UEFA Conference League Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the wake of Roma's 3-2 loss to Venezia last weekend, one in which some seemingly dormant big picture issues sprang back to life, we thought we'd perform our own resurrection, bringing our polite debate series, Bren vs. Bran, back to life after a brief hiatus. With a season-high 28 shots on goal, including eight on target attempts (their second-best mark of the year), Roma looked livelier in attack than we've seen in weeks.

Still, despite that slightly crisper offensive performance, José Mourinho lamented his club's finishing:

It’s difficult to talk about ‘cutting edge’. A key part of the story of this game was our attacking play: we created lots of chances, and lots of what I call ‘half-openings’ – where you get into a really dangerous area but then aren’t able to make that final pass that will lead to a goal... it’s hard to explain how, with so many attacks, we were only able to score two goals.

We'll have much, much more on Roma's shooting woes later today, but before we dive into that, let's dive into today's debate!

Point #1: We’re at a really strange point in time where it feels like the sky should be falling but it’s not, at least not yet. So are the issues we’re seeing systemic club-wide concerns or specific tactical/management failings from Mourinho?

Venezia FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Bren: It’s probably still a bit too early to definitely say, but I’m going to sort of split my answer here. Since Mourinho only just arrived and the club really only signed three players at his behest, whatever lack of quality the squad is currently displaying is a bit out of his control...But, if he’s as good as he believes he is, shouldn’t he be able to muster more from this squad than he has?

The quick start with beautiful football has completely vanished and devolved into a squad that, at times, lacks identity and purpose, to say nothing of making in-match adjustments, and that’s on Mourinho.

Bran: I think it’s a little bit of both as well, although ultimately I think the rough patch the team is in has more to do with the extremely difficult run of games they just went through more than anything.

Yes, there are systemic issues that have been present for the past few seasons. And yes, Mourinho could be getting a little more out of this squad, particularly the bench players. But three of the last four league games prior to the Venezia match have been against three of the heavy hitters in the league, and Roma were arguably the better team in two of those matches! So, with that in mind, I think this is a product of the schedule more than anything.

Bren: Hmm, I hadn’t really accounted for the scheduling of it all, but losing to Venezia tends to cloud over things like that. I suppose what fascinates me most about this Mourinho Makeover is the dual tension between Mourinho and Friedkin. That is to say, whose patience will wear out first?

At a certain point, Mourinho has to put his money where his mouth is. This “project” isn’t one where money can paper over the cracks, so sooner or later, Mourinho has to elevate the quality of play on his own, through teaching, through coaching, and by creating some innovative solutions to the club’s issues.

That’s one area in which a younger manager might have an advantage: the willingness and need to get creative to solve problems. Mourinho is established and, in a sense, set in his ways and accustomed to certain levels of talent, so this Roma gig could open up a new side of Mourinho or frustrate him to no end.

Bran: If I had to guess, I’d say Mourinho’s patience will wear out quicker than the Friedkin’s patience will, but that’s mainly due to the fact that the owners are notoriously tight-lipped. But it’s still very early on in the project so I’d imagine that we won’t know the answer to that question until around this time next year.

Bren: haha, yes, that's an excellent point. They don't tell us *%&@, so we likely won't know until it's too late!

Point #2: A permanent move to a two-striker system is the best (tactical) solution to fix Roma’s current issues. Agree or disagree?

AS Roma v CSKA Sofia: Group C - UEFA Europa Conference League Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Bren: If we had better full-back play, I’d say something like a 3-4-1-2 could be the optimal tactical setup for the club. I’m still not entirely convinced of Eldor Shomurodov as a 20Mish talent, but he’s swift, strong, and aggressive—the kind of guy you notice when he’s out there. In that light, getting him out there as much as possible can fix some of the club’s problems, to say nothing of giving the club a chance to get a healthy ROI on him.

But since our full-backs, and even our center-backs, have been decidedly average this season, I’m not sure putting them in an even more precarious position is the best idea. Lorenzo Pellegrini is the club’s best player at the moment, so the tactics should revolve around him, and I think the 4-2-3-1 is perfect for him. His best performances over the past two seasons have come in that setup, so I’d stick with it a while more, or maybe slowly morph it into my old FIFA favorite, the 4-2-1-2, with Pellegrini in the hole behind Abraham and Shomurodov/El Shaarawy.

Bran: Personally, a narrow 4-2-3-1 has always been my go-to FIFA setup. As for whether a 3-4-1-2 is our best tactical solution going forward? Agree against the smaller sides, disagree otherwise. We talked a bit about this exact question on the latest episode of Across the Romaverse, and I maintain that despite the result against Venezia, the formation change may be the way forward against the smaller sides, mostly due to the fact that against these sides, we’re often going to dominate possession, and this formation allows us to get quite a bit of offensive firepower onto the pitch. Against the bigger sides, however, I’m not sure we’re solid enough defensively to risk it with this formation.

Bren: Well, if this was EA’s old NHL series we’re talking about rather than FIFA, you just take Jeremy Roenick and skate across the face of goal and score. Easy peasy. You do raise another interesting point about varying his approach between small and big clubs, but how confident are we that the club can effortlessly flit between two setups without issues? Maybe a year from now, but we’re already seeing the club become increasingly disjointed, so I’d worry about losing that chemistry if they’re changing formations and approaches every other match.

The 4-2-3-1 is typically my favorite formation, but I can’t deny that the few instances in which we’ve seen Abraham and Shomurodov on the pitch together have been very intriguing, so I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that.

Bran: Yea, completely agree with you here on the potential negative effects of a frequent formation change. I’m curious to see whether Mourinho can dig deep and stick with the 4-2-3-1 in order to establish that vitally important identity and team chemistry, despite his dissatisfaction with the squad depth, or if he’ll throw caution to the wind and change things up from match to match. Maybe experiment a bit more in the Conference League?

Bren: Yeah, and I think that approach—using completely different setups in the league vs Europe—actually served Paulo Fonseca quite well last year, so it was easy to assume Mourinho would follow suit, but he's rolled with the A-Team more often than not in the Conference League, and now that they're not even a shoo-in to win the group, I fear he may stick with what he knows, no matter the physical toll.

Point #3: Much has been made about Mourinho’s preference for the top 12 to 13 players but sometimes change can affect short-term improvements. So make a case for one of those dozen players to be replaced by one of the “outsiders”. What change would you make and why?

On the Set of The Outsiders
The Outsiders...get it?
Photo by Nancy Moran/Sygma via Getty Images

Bren: Easy, give me more Riccardo Calafiori. I think Viña is a fine player, but Calafiori just has that extra little something. He’s not as far along as Viña yet, but to me, he has a higher ceiling and provides more of a threat than Viña.

Bran: I agree with you on Calafiori, but for argument’s sake I’ll go ahead and say Borja Mayoral. Mourinho himself was complimentary of the Spaniard after Borja’s most recent cameo, and with Roma struggling to put the ball in the back of the net as of late, it can’t hurt to regularly give some game time to a player who had the most prolific season of his career just a few months ago.

Bren: Okay, but whose spot is he taking?

Bran: Well, therein lies the problem. In my mind, it would really only work in a two-striker set-up, with Mayoral and Shomurodov alternating with each other and playing alongside Tammy. Alternatively, it would be a good opportunity to give Tammy some rest on occasion, but that’s not as strong an argument as it would be if we were talking about Mkhitaryan for example.

Bren: Yeah, I could see that, but I can't imagine that Borja is here past New Year's Day, so maybe it's Erik Botheim taking that role!?

Point #4: The Scudetto and perhaps even Champions League qualification feel like distant dreams right now. The club, Mourinho, the local press, and hell, even the entire Romaverse feels unsettled now.

With those two lofty goals possibly out of reach, what would a short-term success look like in Roma this season? Is it all about table position or are there subtler signs of success we should be paying attention to?

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Bren: On paper, this still looks like a club capable of finishing in fourth place, but given their recent struggles, I think we need to dial things back a bit. Mourinho simply needs to rip off a 10 match stretch where the club gets something on the order of 20 points; he needs to prove definitively that the club is internalizing what he’s teaching.

Bran: Well, the point total necessary to win the Scudetto will likely be a good bit higher than what it’ll take to secure a top-four finish, so I wouldn’t be so quick to abandon ship on the latter happening just yet. Despite the Venezia result, Roma are just three points off the pace for top four, with plenty of season left to play. Now that the murderer’s row that was October’s schedule is firmly in the rearview mirror, I would imagine the Giallorossi string some results together and reestablish themselves as top four contenders.

Bren: Possibly, but we’ve seen this movie before. This slide could easily continue into the easier part of the schedule, so I guess what I really meant was can Mourinho at least get a winning streak back together. If so, then we can reassess, but we’ve been through this far too many times over the years; losing momentum (that is the momentum of losing, that is) is tough to reverse, so in my eyes, he needs to nip this in the bud and then we can figure out what this team really is and what they really need to compete beyond this 5th/6th place purgatory.

Bran: Oh, absolutely I expect this team to get back to winning ways and go on a little bit of a run. Typically, our poor run of form starts in December and carries on into the spring where we can’t recover so maybe this rut we’re in could be a blessing in disguise in that we got it out of the way early? Joking aside, I do think we’ll bounce back fairly convincingly in the near future, the key for Mourinho will be avoiding a rough patch as significant as this one when that time comes.

Bren: Ugh, you're right. This is typically the beginning of the slide. Thanks for reminding us!

We're still trying to perfect the format of this series—it may be week-to-week or more of a monthly check-in—but until we iron that out, please give us your thoughts on these four discussion points!