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Bren vs. Bran: Is Mourinho Rotating the Squad Sufficiently Enough?

In a new series, our two similarly named writers go toe-to-toe to tackle some lingering issues from Roma's win over Sassuolo.

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

It's not every day that we quote Shakespeare around here, but The Bard's eloquent examination of the meaning and value (or lack thereof) we place on names feels especially pertinent as we unveil our newest series: Bren vs. Bran.

In my younger days, I attempted to answer Shakespeare's existential question, not as a path to unite with a star-crossed lover, but rather to ascertain why my parents decided to call me Brendan in the first place. In addition to my mother not wanting another Anthony in the family, she simply wanted her only son to have a unique name. And, based on the number of people who immediately call me Brandon, I'd say she succeeded.

In addition to slow walkers and loud chewers, being called Brandon is the bane of my existence, so you could imagine my horror when we brought a real-life Brandon (our newest contributor Bsanti7, who is returning after a three-year absence) into the CdT fold.

But, rather than stewing in my own anger, we're going to take this lovely little quirk of onomastics and turn it into our latest series: Bren vs. Bran, which we're envisioning as a more civil take on sports debate.

The series remains a work in progress, but it's one we're incredibly excited about and eager to grow and develop into a regular part of our matchday routine. And in this, our first installment, we're going to tackle a few of the lingering issues from Roma's perfect start.

The beginning of The Special One’s tenure with Roma has gone better than any of us possibly imagined. Not only are Roma undefeated and perched atop the Serie A table, but they're also playing some of the most exciting football we've seen in years. Fueled by new signings like Tammy Abraham and a breakout year in the making from Lorenzo Pellegrini, Roma fans are on cloud nine after the first few weeks of the new season.

But, as we all know, sooner or later things will slow down, opponents will have a better idea how to deconstruct Roma and the results won't come quite as easily. And in these early days of the fixture list, our major concern (especially in the wake of yesterday's tight win over Sassuolo) is squad rotation and fatigue management.

So, join Bran (though I should say, he doesn't always go by that moniker but it fit our gimmick) and me as we debate José Mourinho's squad rotation.

Point #1: Did Mourinho make the right call by starting Viña on short rest yesterday?

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Bran: Great question. Although I absolutely understand the thinking behind starting Riccardo Calafiori and giving Viña a rest for this match considering him returning with a knock and on short rest, Mourinho has shown with his rotations thus far that building chemistry and familiarity with his first choice 11 is an important objective early in the season, and for the foreseeable future, Viña is the first choice LB, so it’s not surprising to see him given the start in pursuit of that objective.

Bren: I'll play devil's advocate here and say, no it wasn't the correct call. Not only did Viña log nearly 150 minutes last week while on international duty, he only returned to Roma the day before the match. Take the wear and tear from those two matches and the always tiring prospect of international travel, and it's a wonder Viña could even stand yesterday, much less play 90 minutes against an incredibly tough Sassuolo side.

If we're ever going to see what Riccardo Calafiori is made of, he has to play. I get that Viña is a bit more experienced on the whole, but it's not as if he has some level of Serie A insider knowledge that Calafiori doesn't. And, as we saw yesterday, Viña looked noticeably gassed and far from his best self. I suspect that Calafiori will get the start midweek against Sofia, but with Spinazzola out for another few months, Mourinho will have to throw Calafiori into the deep end sooner or later.

Point #2: Is Mourinho running the risk of over-using Henrikh Mkhitaryan?

AS Roma v Sassuolo Calcio - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Bran: Similarly to Viña’s situation, I think the amount of game time Mkhitaryan has seen thus far is a product of Jose wanting to develop that team chemistry among his first 11. I would imagine Mkhitaryan gets a rest for the Conference League match on Thursday, playing him in that would certainly suggest that there is a high risk of over-using him, in which case you would hope that El Shaarawy is given more opportunity to start. So, ultimately, I guess stay tuned for Thursday to see where Jose’s head is on this, as of now I would say he isn’t.

Bren: I think he absolutely is playing with fire here. Last season, his first with Roma, Mkhitaryan logged 2.700 minutes in Serie A alone—a plateau he hadn't reached since 2016 with Dortmund, and sooner or later all that action will catch up to him. Throw in the fact that he played 180 minutes for Armenia last week, and then I think we should all be concerned about his ability to sustain this pace.

He's a few months shy of his 33rd birthday, so managing his minutes should be one of Mourinho's top priorities, especially when you consider the fact that he may be the most irreplaceable player on the squad. There isn't really anyone else on the squad, at least at his position, who brings the same blend of scoring and creativity to the pitch. We should be very concerned he doesn't get fatigued early in the season.

Point #3: What is Stephan El Shaarawy’s proper role with this team—starter or super sub?

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Bran: Super sub. This could be recency bias talking, but El Shaarawy just seems to have a much better impact off the bench these days. You could argue El Shaarawy’s ability to create something out of nothing is worth more if he’s starting, but on the flip side, a fresh El Shaarawy running at tired legs late in the second half is an extremely dangerous proposition, as evidenced by his winner Sunday. I certainly won’t complain if he’s given more opportunities to start, but I love the prospect of him being a consistent game-changer off the bench.

Bren: Oof, you're making it difficult for me to take the counterpoint here—those are excellent points. The only thing I'll say kind of relates to the prior question. El Shaarawy is a completely different player from Mkhitaryan, but he's been Roma's starting left-winger/wide midfielder before to great effect before (11G, 3A in ‘18-’19), so it's not out of the question, plus he'd provide Mkhitaryan some much-needed rest. And if he can take those late-game heroics and deploy them earlier in the game, Roma will be in the business of protecting leads rather than chasing them or desperately hunting for a late-winner.

I suspect you're correct and that SES will serve as a veritable sixth man this year, but, depending on the formation, we could easily make a case for El Shaarawy to return to the starting lineup.

Point #4: We saw Mourinho change Roma’s shape late in the second half, which begs the question: is the 4-2-3-1 even the best look for the club at the moment?

AS Roma v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Bran: As long as the results remain consistent, I’ll say that the 4-2-3-1 is the best shape for the team at the moment. Despite the winner coming after Mourinho changed the shape late in the second half, and some shaky defensive performances against Sassuolo, Roma have won all 5 competitive matches under Mourinho thus far with the 4-2-3-1. Credit to Mourinho for reading the match well and making the correct substitutions and change of shape, but I don’t see a reason to change the shape while Roma are winning, at least, not this early in the season.

Bren: While I am a firm believer in the 4-2-3-1, the two-striker look with Tammy Abraham and one of Eldor Shomurodov or El Shaarawy is an incredibly intriguing proposition. Whether it's a standard 4-4-2 (or the diamond variant—boy, that's a scary word now, isn't it?) or a 4-3-1-2, not many Serie A teams are accustomed to defending that particular formation nowadays. And as we've seen in the brief instances they've shared the pitch, the Abraham-Shomurodov combo has caught opponents off guard.

Like any good manager, Mourinho will react as the game states change, but there may come a point when a full-on change may be necessary.

We hope you enjoyed this new feature, and as we said at the outset, we're hoping it will become a regular feature of our matchday coverage, where we can talk at greater length about certain themes, concerns, and trends we're seeing on a match-to-match or month-to-month basis.

In the future, it will feature more back and forth, but we really just wanted to get it on its feet right now, so to speak, so it may look a lot different next time out. Ideally, it will grow and develop on its own, but we'd love any feedback or ideas on how we can push it along that path.

Thanks for reading!