Earlier today, during part one of our Great Roma Questionnaire Extraordinaire: Midseason Edition, we focused mainly on José Mourinho and his re-adaptation to life in Italian football. While we quibbled on a few minor areas, for the most part, the CdT crew remains firmly in the pro-Mourinho camp, even if we find ourselves vexed by his press conference from time to time.
In part two of our roundtable discussion, we do a bit of comparison shopping between The Special One and his predecessor, Paulo Fonseca, before diving into the transfer market and wrapping things up with a few predictions for the second half of the season.
Okay, without further delay, to the roundtable we go!
At the halfway point, Roma are behind last season’s points and goals-scored pace, so what should we measure as marks of progress? In other words, what has improved under Mourinho vs. Fonseca? And why does that give you hope going forward?
JonAS: Uh, the average age of the team? And technically that’s the work of Pinto and co. Not really clear differences just yet, but at times I saw them play as a team, united, showing fighting spirit like during the win in Atalanta. I missed those performances. But those are still very rare, they need to up the ante soon.
BSanti: I think we need to look at the performances and the developing identity of the team to truly measure progress in year one of the Mourinho experience. As mentioned previously, this team seems to have a sense of togetherness that’s been missing in seasons past, and despite performances not going Roma’s way from time to time, that sense of togetherness is crucial in preventing the season from going off the rails following a bad spell. As much as I was a fan of Fonseca, I’m not sure Roma recover from the Bodø defeat with him in charge like they have under Mourinho.
ssciavillo: The numbers may not show it because Roma has fewer points in the table and the goalscoring rate is down slightly, but I think there have been improvements in the mental make-up of the team. Roma finally got over the hump against a big side by beating Atalanta. But, even prior to that victory, the results against big sides were close outside of the Inter beatdown.
Additionally, the defensive solidity that we expected Mourinho to bring is starting to take hold. So far Roma has allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league with 21. That translates to 1.11 goals allowed per match, which is a huge improvement from last season’s 1.53 allowed per match. Roma is on pace to cut 16 goals from the 58 allowed last season. I can take a slight dip in goals scored if Roma continue to keep the ball out of the back of the net.
Jimmy Miotto: First off, I think it’s important to acknowledge just how tight Serie A is this season. The Giallorossi might be underperforming their stats from last season, but that’s somewhat understandable when you see that there are only seven points separating fifth from tenth place. I agree with the guys that the statement win over Atalanta is crucial, and that the defense seems to be falling into place; given all of that, I’m not too worried about supposedly underperforming Fonseca’s last gasp in charge of Roma.
Bren: Great points all around, but I think the biggest difference between this year and last is the defensive performance. Mourinho's attack isn't quite as prolific as Fonseca's was but he's shored up the backline, and as well know, defense wins championships. With the back line settled and hopefully a bit deeper after the transfer window shuts, I think Roma are in good shape to build and improve throughout 2022.
For the most part, we’re seeing the same Jekyll/Hyde dynamics at play when Roma faces big Serie A clubs vs. the so-called minnows. Can Mourinho succeed where his predecessors failed? How can he reverse Roma’s fortunes against their direct top-four rivals?
JonAS: No real changes so far. Losses vs Juve, Inter, Milan, Lazio… I think Mou needs one addition: a world-class DM or at least a better DM than Cristante or Veretout (who both aren't really DM’s). I’m talking about a guy like Makelele, Roy Keane, Kante, Fernandinho, Van Bommel; someone who can control the game and boss the midfield. A wall. That type of player can easily push Roma to the next level, certainly vs tougher opponents.
BSanti: Considering the only game against the big clubs that Roma truly looked out of their depth was the Inter match, I think we’re seeing that Mourinho can in fact reverse Roma’s fortunes against their top-four rivals, with the Atalanta victory being the obvious reference point. I think one more summer transfer window is needed before Roma truly start flipping the script against these sides, but I think Mourinho is absolutely laying the foundation for a Roma that can go toe to toe with these clubs.
ssciavillo: I agree with Brandon that it’s still going to take some time to truly be on the same level of the other big sides as Pinto continues to build a roster for Mourinho. As Jonas pointed out, the defensive midfielder is priority number one. But I have been encouraged by the fact that we beat Atalanta and went toe-to-toe with everyone besides Inter–who is by far the best side in the league. I think the two matches following the break will be huge in flipping the script (@Milan, vs Juve).
And in terms of the Jekyll/Hyde profile against smaller clubs and playing down to the competition, I think having a little more depth for a match like Samp where you can bring in hungry players who may not have featured in the big win vs Atalanta will make a difference in terms of the squad having an emotional let down. Rotate out some of the overused stars and let the hungry reserves have at it. Let them prove they deserve more minutes. As Mourinho always says, the best teams have two players for every position.
Jimmy Miotto: I agree with Brandon; the Inter match was the only time I felt like Roma looked lost against a big side, and considering how many players were out for that match, it was understandable. The only place I disagree with Brandon is his assertion that the summer mercato is where we’ll see the positive growth. The names Roma’s been linked to for the winter market are plenty enticing, and if Tiago Pinto can bring in a great defensive midfielder and a backup right-back in January, I think it will solve a lot of the club’s problems.
Bren: Yup, well done, Brandon. You can sense the self-belief growing when they face these bigger clubs. It's a shame they couldn't follow up that Atalanta upset with a win against Sampdoria but it should buoy their spirits when they face Juve and Milan after New Year's.
We’ve discussed Roma’s shooting and finishing woes many times this season, so what can the club do to correct these issues? Is there a new tactical approach or a new lineup tweak that could help Roma convert chances at a better rate?
JonAS: Do we have some sort of striker ‘expert’ on the team? A co-trainer merely focused on the attacking department. I know the Belgium NT has Thierry Henry to prepare Lukaku, Batshuayi and Mertens. Maybe we can hire someone like Vieri, Di Natale, Montella or Baggio to help Abraham and Zaniolo. Or why not, go for a cheap experienced striker a la Quagliarrella during the Winter mercato? Remember the successful six-month loan of Toni in 2010.
BSanti: Can we petition Serie A to widen the goals a bit so we can stop hitting the crossbar and post? Seriously though, I think Roma’s finishing woes are a product of bad luck more than anything else, look no further than the amount of times Tammy has hit the post so far this season, so I’m not sure a tactical approach or lineup tweak is needed so much as Roma’s luck needs to go the other way in these situations.
ssciavillo: I don’t think any tweaks need to be made. Tammy Abraham has been the most snake-bitten player in the league with all the posts he’s hit. It’s not like he’s missing a mile wide. His goals have started to come, Zaniolo scored recently. As those players grow in confidence, I think more of those shots start to go in.
Jimmy Miotto: It’s bad luck, plain and simple. We won’t be having this discussion as soon as Zaniolo and Abraham start to score, and my astrologist and my pastor agree: 2022 is going to be their year.
Bren: I'm not sure it's luck, not when you factor in their poor shooting percentage. Hitting the posts or a keeper playing out of their mind, that's luck. What we've seen this season is a team that, for the most part, can't put shots on the frame of the goal, which then makes every decent chance they get a life or death affair. And you miss a couple of sitters here or there and suddenly you get anxious or impatient and the shot quality suffers even more.
As I mentioned in the piece linked in this section, Abraham's career numbers suggest he'll turn things around, but players like Pellegrini and Zaniolo simply have to be better and/or more selective with their attempts.
The only tactical tweak I can think of is simply getting the ball to Tammy more. It's kind of like baseball where you want your best hitters at the top of the lineup because, over the course of the season, that will ensure they get more at-bats. So if your football club struggles finishing chances, it can't hurt to get the ball to the one guy who can.
Most fans agree that a defensive midfielder should be the club’s top priority on the winter transfer market. But let’s play devil’s advocate and say they fail to sign one, what then can Mourinho do to improve his midfield play?
JonAS: Maybe give Diawara one more chance? I remember his chemistry with Veretout was quite good and looked calm on the ball. Something Roma needs right now. The duo can work in both 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 formations. He had a tough time under Mourinho but hey, it’s Christmas season. Time for some red dead redemption. If not, then might as well throw Darboe in the firing range and give him the full-time job of DM. There will be ups and downs but at least it’s an investment in Roma’s future.
BSanti: Aside from more time on the training ground and working more with Cristante, Veretout, and Co., I’m not sure how much more Mourinho can do to improve his midfield play, otherwise I’m sure he would’ve exhausted those options given that poor midfield play has been one of the themes of the season thus far.
ssciavillo: I think if Roma fails to sign a true DM in the winter mercato then the three-man backline is here to stay until the end of the season. Roma don’t have the midfielder ball-winner on the roster that Mourinho needs for his 4-2-3-1 to truly succeed. So, might as well strengthen from the back to free up players like Veretout and Pellegrini a bit more by covering them with three CBs.
Bren: I'm with Jonas here. Roma aren't likely to qualify for the Champions League next season, so why not throw Darboe's feet to the fire? Diawara's days with Roma are numbered but Darboe is quite the talent and needs game time; simple as that. He's looked up to the task nearly every time he's taken the pitch, so what better way for him to get some seasoning than to play regularly in a relatively low-pressure situation.
Mourinho and the club administration have preached patience during the early days of this project, and if that is indeed the case, they should be able to weather Darboe's inevitable mishaps as he learns the position.
Prediction time: Who will be Roma’s MVP in the second half of the season?
JonAS: I feel Abraham will finally start scoring goals left and right and leave that goal post Malone… Damn you, autocorrect!
BSanti: Oof, excellent question. While I’m tempted to play it safe and say Pellegrini or Abraham, I’m still on the Zaniolo hype-train so I’ll go out on a slight limb and say Zaniolo finally figures it out and puts Roma on his back for the second half of the season.
ssciavillo: Oh man both good shouts and I can see it being either one of them. I’ll tip Abraham here just because it seems like the goals are starting to flow for him at just the right time.
Jimmy Miotto: Tammy Abraham is my pick; I think that if things go just right, he might even catapult himself into the capocannoniere race. Even if he “only” cracks 20 goals this season, though, that would most likely make him Roma’s MVP.
Bren: Tammy Two Goals. I can't quite explain it but I think he's going to have a massive second half. He's already done better during his first season in Rome than many of their previously big-ticket items and he appears to be growing in confidence while his understanding with Zaniolo and Pellegrini is growing in kind, so I wouldn't be shocked at all if he bags another 8 to 10 league goals in the second half.
Prediction time, part two: Where does Roma finish the season?
JonAS: I feel Roma will eventually fall short of the CL places and end fifth. Atalanta and Juve will end 3rd and 4th while Spalletti’s Napoli will have a serious meltdown.
BSanti: I’m not going to bother getting my hopes up for anything beyond a fifth-place finish. Depending on how the winter market goes I may change my stance, but as currently constructed I don’t think Roma can achieve the consistency needed in the second half of the season to finish in a top-four spot.
ssciavillo: I wish I was able to look about two weeks into the future before answering this question because I believe the Milan and Juve matches will tell us a lot about where this team is going. Alas, I’m not a clairvoyant, so I’ll have to go based on what I’ve seen. While I believe there’s still plenty of hope for the top 4 given the weaknesses displayed by everyone but Inter, until Roma shows the ability to consistently beat its direct competition, I’ll have to play it conservatively and say 5th as well. But, if Roma beat those two, then Champions League is realistic.
Jimmy Miotto: Roma claw their way into fourth at the end of the season, led by a resurgent Nicolò Zaniolo. I can dream, can’t I?
Bren: Fifth. It's not what any of us wanted, but it would be a tremendous sign of progress for the club during this season, which was probably always meant to be a transition year. The Friedkins are finally settled in as Roma's owners, Pinto has a year or so under his belt and Mourinho is starting to feel out the roster, so fifth place would be a suitable achievement and would set them up for greater success in 2022-2023.
That's it for this rendition of The Great Roma Questionnaire Extraordinaire. Let us know what you think about Roma's Champions League chances, the second half MVP, and whatever else is on your mind!