With 50% of the season in the books, we have a clearer idea of where Roma stands in the Serie A pecking order: in the muddled middle. After 19 rounds of play, Roma sits in sixth place on 32 points, five behind last season's pace and with 10 fewer goals to their credit, but don't let those figures dampen your spirits. In true Mourinho fashion, the Giallorossi have become a defensive juggernaut, conceding 11 fewer goals than last season, while supporting a +9.8 expected goal differential according to Football Reference, the fourth-best mark in the league.
Despite those mixed results—and the wild swings of emotion that frequently accompanied them—something feels different about Roma's latest “project.” Dan Friedkin could have gone any number of ways with his first managerial hire as Roma owner, but by tabbing someone with the résumé and reputation of José Mourinho, Friedkin sent a subtle message to the rest of the league: this time Roma are serious.
It’s not every day that a manager with his gravitas arrives in the Eternal City, so on presence alone, Mourinho gives the Giallorossi credibility. The problem, as we've seen over the past few months, is that sometimes the product on the pitch doesn't quite match that reputation.
But are those struggles indicative of Mourinho's shortcomings as a manager or the roster simply not having enough talent? What can Friedkin and GM Tiago Pinto do to bridge that gap?
We won't have definitive answers to those questions for quite some time, but we assembled the crew to tackle those issues and more in our midseason roundtable discussion.
Check back later this afternoon for part two of the conversation, but in the meantime, enjoy part one and please give us your thoughts in the comment section.
Okay, we’ve asked this a few times this year, but it bears repeating. We’re 50% of the way through Mourinho’s first season, so have your expectations for THIS season changed? Why or why not?
JonAS: I must admit they have changed. I thought we would be in or around the top 4 by the Holidays but as it stands we’re 6 points behind fourth. Roma’s closer to the Conference League these days (or even no European qualification at all) than Champions League. The win at Atalanta was a nice welcome but it was followed by a disappointing draw vs Sampdoria. It kinda nullified the win in Bergamo. I hate to say it but those are the results that will bite us in the ass by May. So yeah while all is not doom and gloom, I hoped we would be in better shape and less inconsistent by now. My expectations are now fifth and Europa League, as Juve are looking a threat again under Allegri. Vlahovic and Fiorentina still scare me.
BSanti: Early on in the season they had, now they’re back in line with what my expectations were before the season started, which is, in the hunt for a Champions League spot all season, ultimately just missing out and finishing fifth. Early on in the season, when Roma were on a roll, I thought we’d comfortably secure a UCL spot and maybe even sniff second or third place. Unfortunately, Roma just haven’t been consistent enough to be comfortable about a top-four finish.
ssciavillo: I have to say I agree for the most part with Brandon. Before the season, I said I thought we could qualify for the Champions League. But, at minimum, I felt that we should at least remain in the top 4 race to the bitter end even if we missed out. That seems to be the trajectory we’re on right now. But, to Jonas’ point, we can’t follow up big wins by dropping points to bottom-half sides if we’re going to remain a threat for a Champions League spot.
Bren: I’m on #TeamJonas. He nailed it. I was expecting a dog fight for fourth place but I think qualifying for the Europa League will be a tremendous sign of incremental progress in Mourinho’s first season. There just hasn’t been enough consistency (in anything) for me to have faith they can pull off a miracle and make the Champions League next season. Europa League should be the goal.
Jimmy Miotto: Well, if I have to choose between Jonas and Brandon, I’m definitely going with #TeamBrandon. I expected to be in and around the Champions League spots, and that’s where we are. I don’t buy Napoli’s longevity (they were already looking dicey at times, and we’re still a ways away from the traditional Luciano Spalletti Wintertime Meltdown) and Atalanta have looked shaky too. I think we’re on the trajectory for a fourth or fifth-place finish, and I’m perfectly fine with that given a lot of the issues Roma’s dealt with this year.
From talk of a surprise Scudetto run early in the year to recent whispers his job was in jeopardy, Mourinho has experienced the full range of Roma emotions already. How would you grade his handling of the press/pressure of the Eternal City so far?
JonAS: Well we knew what we were getting ourselves into with hiring Mourinho. But IMO it’s an overall positive experience. He looks more mature. And of course, he protects his favorites and complains about the refs. Which professional trainer doesn’t? I think José only ‘hurt’ AS Roma once: after the 6-1 loss in Norway. The presser in which he literally threw half of the team under the bus and burned down the house. That didn’t really work, not 11-12 players at the same time. Not so long ago he was praising Borja and even Villar so yeah, that presser made him look even more like a fool. But hey, I still love The Special One. Just avoid 6-1 losses and you’ll be fine.
BSanti: Well, despite the inconsistent play at times and the debacle against Bodø, I think it’s clear that the squad has very much taken to Mourinho and there’s a sense of togetherness about this team that I haven’t seen since Roma’s fabled run to the Champions League semis (thanks Monchi). As JonAS mentioned, throwing half the team under the bus following the 6-1 debacle was a low point, but if you were expecting anything else from Mourinho after such a humiliating defeat, well, you haven’t been paying attention.
ssciavillo: I have to agree in the sense that this is what we signed up for when we hired Mourinho. The post-Bodø fallout was a bit ugly, but I think Mourinho really wanted to drive home the point with certain players and some like Kumbulla and Mayoral have responded well. Otherwise, I think Mourinho has done just what we expected by creating a siege mentality around the squad that has really galvanized it. The media in Rome is probably the toughest in Italy and Jose is protecting his players from it. Plus, some of the pressers make for entertaining reading.
Jimmy Miotto: The resurgence of Max Kumbulla as an option in defense post-Bodø is one of the few upsides of that terrible 7-1 collapse. The way Mourinho operated after that shellacking was important, and although I grumbled about him ostracizing a good number of players from the squad at the time, I now think it was the right move. I agree with Steve and Brandon (again); the creation of a siege mentality by Mourinho is what we signed up for, and six months in, all signs point to it working as well as we could have expected.
Bren: It’s really hard for me to answer this because I didn’t really follow Mourinho’s non-Serie A career closely, so is this normal? Is he taking a different tact this time around? I’m not sure but I think that, if nothing else, he’s ensuring that we all expect the unexpected week in and week out. One week, he’s effusive and friendly while the next he doesn’t even hold pre-match pressers.
I’m sure there’s a method to his madness, I’m just not sure what it is yet but it’s definitely keeping the focus on him, which may have been his plan all along.
Regardless of what you just said, what has impressed you most about Mourinho through the first 19 weeks, and what concerns you most?
JonAS: Switching to the 3-5-2 formation. I thought Mou would keep using his 4-2-3-1 but he realized both Karsdorp and Vina excel more as wingbacks and not fullbacks. Zaniolo and Abraham up front are so raw but so exciting. It could work. Putting Mikhi in centre midfield and not the wing was a nice adjustment too. Glad to see he still has the magic touch. Giving minutes to Bove, Volpato, and others is a plus in my book too. What concerns me is his use of subs. He waits too frikkin’ long sometimes. You got five subs man, no need to overthink it.
BSanti: Giving the youngsters their opportunity to shine. Mourinho’s track record of managing some of the biggest clubs in the world would suggest that he’s not one to give youth a shot but if you look on a more granular level, The Special One isn’t afraid to give the kids a chance - just look at Greenwood at United, Tanganga at Spurs, etc. Only halfway through the season and we’ve seen Bove, Darboe, and of course, Felix Afena-Gyan all play to various degrees, and although part of that is a product of squad depth, or lack thereof, it’s nice to see that Mourinho has no qualms with trotting out the youngsters.
ssciavillo: I have to agree with Jonas and Brandon here. I think the switch to a 3-5-2 has shown a tactical flexibility from Mourinho that maybe I didn’t expect to see. That’s something we would’ve never seen if Roma had hired Maurizio Sarri instead. And bleeding some of the youngsters into the squad has been encouraging. In terms of concern, I think the lack of substitutions can be worrying at times, but I think it speaks to Mourinho’s gripe that he doesn’t have the quality depth that other teams do. I expect that we may see him use more of his five subs in certain situations post-holiday break when Pellegrini and Spinazzola return and Pinto brings in a reinforcement or two in the mercato.
Jimmy Miotto: Well, I can’t go with tactical flexibility (although that is my real answer). I’m more than a parrot of what Steve says! Given that, I have to say that his inclusion of players like Felix Afena-Gyan, Bove, Missouri, and more are very good signs for Roma’s long-term future; we’re not going to be able to buy a Tammy Abraham every window, so it would be great if the club could use its world class academy more actively than it has in the past.
Bren: I'll agree with the late subs and his seeming distrust of some players on the squad as a primary concern, which is kind of a chicken-egg scenario: how can these kids or marginalized players get better if they don't play? I also found his post-Bodø presser a bit troubling as well; publically criticizing players like that—even if only through veiled references—can certainly cause problems if it becomes a habit.
I've been most impressed with his relationship with the players, which I know sounds contradictory, but the real pillars of this team (Pellegrini, Abraham, Zaniolo, etc.) all seem on board with Mourinho's methods, so that gives me hope for year two of this project.
Okay, enough Mourinho. Which player has impressed you the most through the first half of the season and what must that player do in the second half to maintain their performance?
JonAS: To be fair there isn’t really one player who stood out for me. Pellegrini had a hot streak but has been injured for quite some time. Mikhi isn’t the same as last season. Abraham too hot ‘n cold. Zaniolo is not his usual 100%. I expected more of SES, Mancini and Shomu. Smalling was good but missed like 80% of our games so far. If I had to pick one, I’ll go for Rui Patricio as he’s been one of the most consistent performers (next to Ibanez). Yeah, he’s no Alisson or Buffon but imagine Fuzato or Olsen was our number one, where would Roma be in the standings? Nuff said. Rui just needs to continue working hard, he has Mourinho’s support so I don’t expect any real relapses.
BSanti: I was tempted to go Patricio here, but for the sake of offering a different take, I’ll go with the obvious answer and say Pellegrini. As the former President of the Anti-Pellegrini club, I have no problems saying that Pellegrini has converted me into a believer with his play thus far. And while I still get uneasy whenever he steps up to take a freekick, there can be no denying that Pellegrini has been Roma’s MVP so far this season, with the midfielder just a single goal behind top scorer Tammy Abraham with five games less played.
ssciavillo: Patricio is a great shout. And Pellegrini has been great, but I’ve been leading his bandwagon for some time now, so his great form hasn’t surprised me. I’ll go with Tammy Abraham here. I know Roma spent big to bring him in and his finishing has been hot and cold, but his game goes so far beyond goals. I’ve been so impressed with his all-around skill set as a striker. He does so much for the side in build-up and is so dangerous on the counterattack. Plus, he works his tail off when Roma is defending a lead. And perhaps most impressive has been his attitude. He has taken to Roma and the city like someone who grew up rooting for the club. I love it!
Jimmy Miotto: Roger Ibañez is my answer. I was as onboard the Ibañez hype train as many other Romanisti, but this first half of the season has been revelatory from the Brazilian. At age 22, he’s playing like one of the best center backs in Italy, if not Europe, and especially when he’s in a back three with Gianluca Mancini and Chris Smalling, Roma’s defense has been very formidable. Ibañez has been so good, I wouldn’t be shocked if he became Roma’s sacrificial lamb next summer; after they sign Haaland and Mbappé, you have to imagine Roger is next on Real Madrid’s wish list.
Bren: If we're talking about the entirety of the first 19 matches (plus the Conference League), then the obvious answer is Pellegrini: he’s really coming into his own. But, just to spice things up a bit, I'll say Chris Smalling. We're witnessing in real-time how impactful a healthy Smalling can be; he brings a level of serenity and intelligence to the backline no other player can match.
Flip it around. Which player has struggled the most in your eyes, and what must they do to improve their form in 2022?
JonAS: Well a lot of possible answers, just look at my previous post! I’ll go for Mikhi. Why? Because Roma simply needs the best Mikhi to even have a glimmer of hope for the top 4 places. Mikhi just needs to party like it’s 2020 (sans pandemic of course).
BSanti: Smalling, easy. And not so much for his play, as we saw in the Atalanta match that he can still play an important role for this team, but the injuries that have plagued him of late have left a sour taste in my mouth, particularly after the headache that was his permanent transfer to the club. As great as he’s been when he’s on the pitch, it can only count for so much if he’s not able to stay healthy. Fingers crossed that he’s finally put his injury issues behind him!
ssciavillo: I’ll have to go Mkhitaryan here as well. We’ve seen him do more of late in terms of working for the team in his new role by recovering plenty of balls, etc in matches like Atalanta. However, his offensive production just hasn’t been there this season. I think Roma will need a little more from him in the goal production area. His assists per 90 is not far off his pace of the last two seasons, but his goal-scoring is way down. Roma will need Mkhi to score more than two league goals in the second half of the season if it’s going to qualify for the Champions League.
Jimmy Miotto: Gonzalo Villar is the only answer here. I expected the Spanish playmaker to be a part of Roma’s midfield rotation for seasons to come, or at least net Tiago Pinto some spending money after a club like Atletico Madrid or Sevilla splashed the cash. Instead, Villar has completely fallen out of the squad; where players like Max Kumbulla and Borja Mayoral took their post-Bodø banishment as incentive to prove themselves, Villar has reportedly done the opposite, posting Instagram stories complaining about his situation and doing everything he can to move on from the club that plucked him out of obscurity. I’m hopeful that this January, Villar will get a change of scenery and Roma can get some cash to splash on Boubacar Kamara. When the going gets tough, the tough get going; the shame here is that Villar has apparently decided he’s not tough enough to succeed with Mourinho in Rome.
Bren: Easy, Eldor Shomurdov. Nothing this kid has done so far warrants the near €18 million price tag. Watching him play, I completely understand why people are excited by him, he's strong, agile, and athletic, but we're still talking about a 26-year-old kid with a rather ho-hum career to date. I was skeptical when they signed him (and for FIVE years) and so far my skepticism seems well placed. He looks like nothing more than a complementary piece, which is fine, but the praise heaped upon this signing made it seem like we were getting a star in the making capable of cracking 10-15 goals and 7-8 assists.
There’s been a lot of talk about formations this season, with the club using a variety of three and four-man defenses, so let’s not get too cute here: What formation and what lineup should Mourinho use and why?
JonAS: If all CB’s are healthy, three men. It gets the best out of Karsdorp and Viña, even Veretout and Cristante. If there are not four central defenders healthy, use the 4-2-3-1 but please keep Ibanez away from LB and Cristante from CB.
BSanti: Well, for the time being, I say keep riding with the three-man defense until it stops working. Ultimately, however, I think Mourinho reverts back to the 4-2-3-1 at some point this season. Mourinho’s spoken on more than one occasion about the importance of establishing a team identity and then tinkering with the lineup/formation, and given that he started the season with the 4-2-3-1, it stands to reason that he’ll go back to it as soon as the situation allows for it.
ssciavillo: I think, for the time being, riding the 3-5-2 is probably the prudent move given the roster makeup. However, I do believe that Mourinho will eventually revert to a 4-2-3-1 when he feels he has the pieces to run his preferred system, whether that be later this season or next season remains to be seen.
Jimmy Miotto: 3-5-2 is working; 3-5-2 is what Roma should roll with until it stops working. Is it the prettiest football? No, but we can worry about getting La Maggica back once Roma is a consistent player in the Champions League again.
Bren: The 4-2-3-1 is Mourinho's base formation, so I think at some point, we'll see that again but I agree with the consensus here: don't mess with what's currently working. So, even if it’s not his preferred set-up, the 3-5-2 is clicking at the moment, so he should ride that to its natural conclusion.
That's it for now, but check back this afternoon for part two where we talk about Roma's finishing issues, Mourinho vs. Fonseca, and much more!