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Roma’s Big Win in Bergamo Could Be a Seminal Moment in the Mourinho Project

The “Roma can't beat big clubs” narrative took a big hit after their 4-1 win over Atalanta. So, could this win be the turning point in the club's Mourinho project?

Atalanta BC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Narratives are created when small amounts of evidence build into larger more damning cases against an individual or idea. We can go on forever about the political and social narratives that are currently being reinforced, or those throughout history that have had catastrophic results for humanity, but we won’t get into that here since this is a cathedral of calcio after all.

Narratives exist in football, too. Here are a few Serie A and Roma-related examples:

  • Serie A teams play defensive football and aren't fun to watch.
  • Roma’s “projects” never advance past their infancy due to impatience.
  • José Mourinho is done as a manager which is why he’s at Roma.
  • Roma can’t beat a big club when it matters.

Narratives like these create stories that sell papers and generate clicks, so I'm sure you could come up with plenty of others. But narratives can also be rewritten, especially when the target of those narratives is able to chip away and shatter those stereotypes. Just look at Serie A, which is far from a defensive league these days. Thanks to the open attacking play seen all over the peninsula these days, Italian football is slowly shedding that dull and boring reputation.

The final three bullets on that list, the notion that Roma can't win big matches and that Mourinho is washed up, are our primary concern. But Saturday's result in Bergamo could see those narratives crumble alongside the ruins of the Italian capital. We're all aware that Roma has failed (repeatedly) to defeat the top sides in Serie A over the last few seasons. It’s been painful to watch and was perhaps the biggest reason for the Giallorossi’s inability to return to the Champions League.

The Paulo Fonseca era was summarized by missed opportunity upon missed opportunity against Serie A's bigger clubs, the so-called Seven Sisters of Italy (with Roma being one of the seven): Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Napoli. Fonseca started his tenure with back-to-back wins against Milan and Napoli in late October and early November of 2019. But after that, Fonseca managed just two wins against fellow European hopefuls. And both of those were late-season, meaningless matches against Juve and Lazio.

Neither victory was truly impactful, and neither win, nor a deep run into the Europa League, could halt Fonseca’s downfall.

Enter José Mourinho.

Despite Mourinho's greater name recognition, the results against those bigger clubs have been no better under the Portuguese legend:

  • Lazio 3, Roma 2
  • Juve 1, Roma 0
  • Roma 0, Napoli 0
  • Roma 1, Milan 2
  • Roma 0, Inter 3

Those four losses (and one draw) added fuel to that narrative, causing it to grow bigger and louder with every passing loss. It wasn’t a Fonseca problem anymore. It was a Roma problem. If the results were the same, why change managers, many complained on social

Everyone thought that Mourinho would be the man to change the mentality of the club. After all, he’s the ultimate winner and the master motivator, but he was taking over a club that seemingly had a mental block when it mattered most. And those results, that mental block, and that narrative can't be changed overnight, in one preseason, or even in three months of matches.

Roma was never going to be able to change that narrative with one single win. Yet, it seemed as if they were trying to do just that, which seemed to make the players tight and apprehensive before each big match; not the ideal way to enter such massive contests.

Atalanta BC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Admittedly, some performances were better than others—and there were a few matches the Giallorossi should have won—but conceding early goals, poor refereeing decisions, some bad luck, and subpar individual performances were a recipe for disaster.

With each missed opportunity, the results began to weigh on the players, reaching new depths after the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Iner Milan, which saw the players look deflated and demoralized. Thanks to results like these, the monkey on Roma's back seemed to grow from a capuchin to a chimp to a silverback gorilla with each passing defeat.

Nevertheless, Mourinho wasn’t going to let his players take the heat. He wouldn’t allow them to give in to the noise. The master game player did his best to create a siege mentality after those losses; an us against the world mentality that seemed to galvanize a fairly young club into a tight, close unit who sacrifice and play for one another.

Despite their frustrations against bigger clubs, Mourinho continued to cultivate that belief by pushing the underdog mentality, using facts rather than emotion to combat the “Roma can’t win big matches” narrative.

A point he stressed when comparing his club to high-flying Atalanta.

There’s a fundamental difference between us and Atalanta. I’ve been here six months, whereas Gian Piero [Gasperini, the Atalanta coach] has been there six years. Six months, six years. And that difference is not just in the number of training sessions they’ve had together, but in the sharing of ideas and the identification of processes. They’ve had 12 transfer windows together whereas we’ve just had one.

Atalanta are an amazing club, a very stable one, with a great level of collaboration between the club and Gasperini. When I was first here in Italy, they didn’t have the same ambitions. But 10 years on they are now a Champions League side who are competing to win the title.

We are a team with new ownership, who I think are doing fantastic work in all regards, and a coach who has been here just six months. We’ve been through one transfer window, where we were reacting to events rather than implementing the plan we had.

There’s a significant different in the background situation of both clubs, which has had an impact on the two squads.

However, there is one thing that I have no doubt about: and that is that we can win tomorrow. Because football is football. We have great players, a team spirit that, while I am sure other clubs also have the same spirit and empathy among the group, we nevertheless have a really fantastic group of guys at this level.

“But, in terms of the game tomorrow, we are going there to win. We are not going there to say, ‘Eh, you guys have six years of work behind you and we have just six months. You have a squad of 25 top players whereas we only have 14 or 15.’ No, we are going there tomorrow to play the game. If you told me now that I can have a draw tomorrow, that I don’t even need to go there and play the game and I can have a point from the match, then I would still say no. I don’t want that.

I want to go there, I want to play this match. I want to measure my team against another really good side. Despite the respect – the admiration, even – that I have for the work that has been done in Bergamo, we are going there to win.

That quote from Friday’s press conference summed it up. As usual, Mourinho pulled no punches. And now he looks all the smarter for it.

Roma not only went into Bergamo and beat a white-hot Atalanta side that had won six straight in the league, but Mourinho’s side thoroughly destroyed La Dea 4-1.

When taking the quality of the opposition into account, It was perhaps the most complete performance of the Mourinho era. The defense was nearly flawless (save an own goal) and the attack was deadly. It was a classic Mourinho counterattacking victory that could signify better things to come in the second half of his maiden season in the capital.

A brace from Tammy Abraham’s seems to indicate that Roma’s biggest investment in years is starting to come good in the most important category for a striker: goals. And speaking of goals, Nicoló Zaniolo got his first league goal since the summer of 2020 prior to his second ACL tear. If those two are clicking, opposing defenses will constantly be on the back heel.

Atalanta BC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

For all those losses and a few draws against Italy’s premier clubs, the Giallorossi and Mourinho couldn’t completely rewrite that narrative in just one match. But this single victory could be a sign of better things to come.

With that monkey off their back, Roma can head into their next massive match, a January 6th trip to the San Siro to face AC Milan, with new confidence, which they'll need since they then face Juventus in Rome a few days later. Those back-to-back matches against members of the Seven Sisters will give Mourinho and Roma a chance to really flip the script; to begin to truly erase that narrative.

Victories in those matches could send this project in the direction the Friedkins, Tiago Pinto, José Mourinho—and everyone else that gives a damn about the club—envisioned when the Special One was hired last May. Of course, if Roma fails in those attempts, then the win over Atalanta will be called a fluke, and Roma and Mourinho will be berated with cries that “every dog has its day.”

However, as the Roma manager put it so elegantly after the match:

“Before the game I joked with them that I hadn’t felt the earthquake in Bergamo – because it was us who had come here to shock everyone. Every day you guys would talk about how it’s been 19 months since Roma beat a big side … now it’s been 22 minutes I guess.”

And that’s the beauty of football. This win provides the Giallorossi a turning point. It’s a potential plot twist in a long season and proposed three-year project, one that could allow Roma to write a few new narratives about its big game mentality and big-name manager.