For a number of weeks, there was little guesswork about the side that Jose Mourinho would run out from the start of a match. It was a matter of clockwork—barring a minor knock or suspension— that the starting eleven would consist of Rui Patricio, Matías Viña, Roger Ibañez, Gianluca Mancini, Rick Karsdorp, Bryan Cristante, Jordan Veretout, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Tammy Abraham in a 4-2-3-1. However, that hasn’t been the case lately.
Just as death and taxes are a part of life that can’t be evaded, injury crises have become a way of life at Roma. And the injuries, COVID quarantines, and occasional suspension have forced Mourinho to severely alter his tactics and personnel decisions in recent weeks.
With all that has gone down, Roma has shifted to a 3-5-2 formation, and players that were buried down the depth chart have had to step up to ensure that the Giallorossi would not only survive but thrive the absences. And Mourinho was sure to compliment them in Tuesday’s presser.
“It starts with having a strong mentality. This is a close-knit group, a good group, who want to help each other out. The credit goes to my players, especially those who have not played much so far – like Diawara, who had only played a couple of minutes [before].
“There are players who work really hard during the week, despite probably knowing they are not going to start the game at the weekend. But the way they work, the professionalism they show, gives me good problems. And then there are those who do play, and do so with relish – like Kumbulla, who came on at the weekend for a minute but in that minute stopped a dangerous attack, took a yellow card, and then marked a giant like [Torino goalkeeper Vanja] Milinkovic-Savic from the final corner. He does the job he needs to do in that final minute and finishes the game happy. He did that for the team.
“So more than positions or tactics or my work, the credit really goes to the players – for their mentality and the sort of group they are.”
The Giallorossi are slowly returning back to health with the return of Chris Smalling, who performed well on Sunday. Matías Viña also made a late appearance against Torino and Riccardo Calafiori is back available. Mourinho got a late boost on Tuesday with the news that Bryan Cristante tested negative for COVID and can travel to Bologna with the squad.
But, of course, Roma suffered a devastating blow on Sunday when captain Lorenzo Pellegrini exited after 15 minutes and was ruled out for about a month with a thigh strain. It’s a deflating injury considering Pellegrini’s importance to the side.
Despite the return of a number of his regulars, particularly at left-back, it looks as if Mourinho will stick with the three-man backline that has kept three consecutive clean sheets. The only doubt about that back three is whether Smalling or Max Kumbulla will play due to the Englishman’s recent return from injury.
“As for Smalling, right now he’s a great player and an important player for us. But we also have him, Kumbulla, Mancini and Ibanez – we don’t have a problem at centre-back right now and, as a result, we don’t have to rush Smalling. We have alternatives.
“So we will manage the situation, speaking with him as part of that. We will decide tomorrow. The opinion of the player is always very important to me, along with the checks we do and the GPS and technology we have for these things. But the player’s feeling is very, very important.
“So, for Smalling, if tomorrow morning he tells me that he is feeling really good then he will play. But if he tells me that he’s feeling 99% but not 100% we will protect him.”
Besides the one center back spot, there’s likely one midfield spot up for grabs. Cristante is available, but it’s unknown what his stamina will be like after being in COVID protocol for two weeks. If he plays, he’s likely to anchor the midfield. If he’s not up to playing extended minutes then Mourinho has two other options: Jordan Veretout playing the defensive midfield role with Carles Pérez as a mezz’ala or Diawara at D-mid and Veretout pressing higher.
I think the most likely option is Veretout and Perez. Meanwhile, with Inter looming on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me if Smalling is protected to ensure his availability for the big clash at the Olimpico. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Viña spell Stephan El Shaarawy, who has worked hard on both ends of the pitch.