Could the scheduling gods have put any more distance between the Inter result and tomorrow’s match against Spezia? After what’s seemed like an eternity, with a Conference League victory sprinkled in-between, the Special One met with the media on the eve of the Spezia match to discuss his relationship with Thiago Motta, the squad’s ability to cope with key players out, and the upcoming winter mercato.
Read the transcript below published on the team’s site, with some closing thoughts from yours truly.
Spezia have a coach you know very well in Thiago Motta, a former player of yours. Are there any particular moments with him that stand out? And, in terms of the action on the pitch, could we see Borja Mayoral and Tammy Abraham start together again?
“On Thiago, people think that I met Thiago at Inter when we won the treble together. Actually, I first met him when I was at Barcelona and they sent me to train the kids there. Obviously I have a lot of nice memories of him. He’s one of my former players.
“Among my ex-players who have gone on to take on this tough life of the football manager, I look at him, Dejan Stankovic, Cristian Chivu … they’ve all become coaches. So each week I am always wondering how they have all got on with their teams.
“This time, obviously, it’s different with Thiago because we will be opponents. Before the game and after it, though, I have and will continue to have a lot of admiration for him.
“As for Borja and Tammy, it’s true that they played well together. And it is also true that we don’t have Zaniolo, Pellegrini, El Shaarawy and Carles Perez available. So that pair is a possibility. But there is also Shomurodov who could play, there is also Felix who could play. We have a few options in that position.
“I am pleased because they scored goals on Thursday. Often for forwards these days it’s not seen to be enough to just put in a good performance; the statistics are important as well. For Tammy to be back among the goals and for Borja to score a great goal like he did is always good for their confidence.”
How does Tammy Abraham’s role change if he is alongside Mayoral compared to Shomurodov or Felix? Perhaps the latter duo run in behind a bit more…
“You’ve said it there. You’ve accurately summarised the differences among the players. Shomurodov is more on the move, a player who attacks the space in behind. Mayoral is more on the ball and dangerous inside the box. I don’t think a lot changes for Tammy if he plays with one or the other. He has the way he plays football. We can tweak his style a bit based on what we need from him, but I don’t think it affects him greatly which forward he is playing alongside.”
If you want to continue with the three-man defence, have you worked out which player can provide back-up to Rick Karsdorp on the right,considering El Shaarawy is out for a while?
“It’s tough, it’s definitely tough. Right now it’s not easy for us to play with four at the back because we don’t have Zaniolo, Perez or El Shaarawy. Shomurodov can play out wide there [at wing-back], but it’s not really his position. But we don’t have a lot of options. Mkhitaryan obviously could too, but if we are three at the back and we need to have an alternative for Karsdorp or Matias Vina [on the left] then we just don’t have them. That’s how it is.”
You have just said that you don’t have alternatives for Karsdorp and Vina. Considering the transfer window will open in January, is the priority for you still another central midfielder? Or do you have different ideas now?
“First and foremost, I want to clarify one thing around this question. I am not unhappy with the business done in the summer, because – as I have said before – it was a transfer window where we had to react to the problems we had. It’s not that the club did not want to get me a central midfielder, a position I had identified as one of need for the squad … it’s not that they didn’t want to do that.
“There was no fight over it, it’s not that I wanted it and the ownership and the general manager didn’t. No. Our transfer window was about reacting to things and that is why, to get a player in this position or that position, we subsequently weren’t able to also get a player in this position or another position.
“Obviously it’s something I don’t like because I always want to have the best squad possible, in order to compete for the biggest prizes possible. But the truth, the primary truth is that I knew from the beginning what the difficulties were going to be.
“Now we are reaching January and there is the opportunity to do some business and that is what we want to do – but some business does not mean crazy investments. There won’t be big spending, not similar to what we did in the summer. If we can do some business in January it will be because it can bring a bit of balance to the squad.
“In that regard, once again, all three of us – the ownership, myself, the general manager – are on the same page. There is no difference of opinion. Let’s see if, in line with my ideas and what is possible in the market, we are able to do something. Obviously in the second half of the season it is even more important. Let’s see.”
What is the priority, then? Which position do you want to go and reinforce?
“Any of the ones where we have a few limitations. When you look at our squad it can scare you a bit: we don’t have Pellegrini, El Shaarawy, Spinazzola and others. It’s a bit scary. We have five or six players missing and that has an impact. But in normal circumstances, where you might have just two or three players out, the squad is relatively well-balanced and there are probably two or three positions where you would want to take a look at.
“But we have three games to play before we get to January – let’s see if we can get as many points as possible from those three games first.”
A few weeks ago you said you didn’t like to play with five at the back… but it seems to be something you’ve been doing recently.
“I don’t like playing with five at the back, but I don’t mind playing with three [and two full-backs slightly higher up]. I really don’t mind playing with three at the back. Playing in that system with wide players who are not full-backs, but are more offensive players who can also adapt and help out with the defensive side. But I don’t like to play with a flat five at the back, no.”
So this current shift in system will change once other players are back – or could you stick to it even then?
“I like to have a tactical culture. Time helps you build a tactical culture, an identity, and a way of playing in different setups. It’s one of things I like most and one of the things I can work on with the players I have available to me. I am always open to do whatever is necessary to bring out the best in my players.
“With the right players I do not have any problem playing with a three-man defence. We are in a league where a lot of good teams play with three at the back and some of the weaker ones play with five at the back. And that’s fine with me. What I don’t like, though, is when emergencies or issues arrives that mean that, rather than building stability and consistency, you have to change things around every week to react to the new problem we have.
“I, like every other coach, would love to have a squad with no injuries and no suspensions. One week you might play in one system, one week you might play in another – but the overall dynamic stays consistent. If you play with three at the back there is a certain dynamic, but if you play with five it is different. If you are always trying to fashion something out of the emergency situations you have then it is much harder.
“But we are only talking about this because you asked me the question. Otherwise I don’t think it would be worthwhile to dwell on it. We have three games before the winter break. Then players like Pellegrini, Perez and El Shaarawy will be back in January.
“Felix [Afena-Gyan] is available tomorrow. He’s trained with us the last three days and so will be in the squad.”
How can you improve the quality of your back-up players?
“It depends on which players you are considering to be my ‘back-up’ players. If you are talking about the young players, who don’t have much experience and are not ready to take on all that responsibility, then what they need to do is work hard. And wait their turn. They will improve by working through the problems inexperience brings. Only through gaining experience will they improve.
“Against Inter Milan we had eight players on the bench who are under 21 years of age. We are talking about players who last season were playing in the Primavera championship. Even Edoardo Bove, who played 30 minutes against Inter and then started on Thursday in Sofia, was playing for the Primavera. And in my opinion the quality of that league is very low, it doesn’t prepare players to play in Serie A.
“If we were to compare that league with those in England or Spain or Portugal then I don’t think there is really a comparison to be made. So the players need to learn. Even the second goal we conceded in Sofia; the way Darboe – and this is not a criticism – lost the ball in the 92nd minute. It’s not about a lack of quality, it’s just inexperience. If there was another player there in his place, one with less quality but more experience, they would never have lost that battle for the ball. Never. And you end up paying the price.
“Obviously I would rather look at a bench like Inter’s, with Vidal, Darmian, Ranocchia and others. But we are in a different stage and I like working with those players. That’s the truth. It’s not a criticism, just the reality. All they can do is work hard and with time the experience will come. Errors are part of that process. Perhaps occasionally it will cost you a goal or a game, like the way we suffered in Sofia. But that happens.
“The thing I want to make clear for the 100th time is this: Obviously I would really like to be fighting for different targets, but I am really pleased to be here. I want to make that very clear. I am very happy to be at Roma, to be leading a very different project to the others I have had in my career. I am very, very happy. And there is no doubt that I am giving everything I have to this battle. I am really happy here.”
Roma are among the teams with the most yellow cards in the league this season, even if you haven’t conceded the most fouls. Why do you think that is?
“Perhaps it is better to talk about other statistics – like how we are the Serie A side with the most shots on goal so far. It’s probably best to leave it there and not say anything else I shouldn’t.”
I hope that the next batch of articles hypothesizing that Mourinho will crash and burn at Roma quicker than at any of his previous stops make note of Mourinho’s latest comments. By all accounts, and from Mourinho’s own comments, it’s clear that everybody at Roma continues to be on the same page with regards to this being year one of a three-year project, which is crucial to getting through the rough patches that the club has experienced thus far this season.
Sure, several of Mourinho’s comments, particularly those immediately after a defeat, have understandably rubbed some people the wrong way. But I find it very encouraging that the manager, sporting director, and ownership continue to be working in tandem together with a specific timeline in mind. The last couple of months of the season haven’t been great, but it’s clear that it’s not quite time to hit the panic button on Mourinho’s tenure.
With the halfway point of the season drawing ever closer, Roma can ill afford to continue to drop points against teams near the bottom of the standings if they want to qualify for next season’s Champions Legaue. We can only hope for a convincing win tomorrow to build on the momentum going into next weekend’s all-important clash against Atalanta.