Following his stunning game-winner against Sassuolo, Stephen El Shaarawy, followed by Jose Mourinho, met with the media Wednesday afternoon to preview Roma’s opener in the Europa Conference League, with the club posting a transcript on the team website.
Read both El Shaarawy and Mourinho’s interviews below, along with some closing thoughts on each from yours truly.
Stephen El Shaarawy
In your career you have always been a key player for your teams – how are you finding it now, starting the season on the bench?
“I’m certainly not feeling anxious or under pressure about it. I have a lot of experience in Serie A and I know what the coach wants, what his process is. I know that if you want to compete at the highest levels then you need a lot of competition for places in attack, and you need to be able to accept the decisions the coach makes.
“As I said after Sunday’s game, the wait is always worthwhile. And what I mean by that is that the goal I scored was really important for me. So it’s important to be able to wait for your moment and then be ready when it comes. I think that is something that has helped me stand out over the years.”
If you look back on things, what do you think now about your spell in China?
“That chapter of my career is closed for me now. It was a different experience, I took the opportunity I had, and then my aim was to come back to Roma. We were able to do that and I have to thank the General Manager and the club ownership for bringing me back. Now I’m focused exclusively on helping Roma, doing well here, and of course earning back my spot with the national team.”
What are the differences between the Roma you left behind and the one you returned to? And with experience do you see the environment around the club a little differently now?
“When I came back, I was rejoining a really strong squad in terms of the quality. We had started the season really well, then we dropped off a bit towards the end. But we have restarted this season with a project that has plenty of players with experience and also some younger guys with a lot of talent. The club has really invested in the coach, who has a vast amount of experience and knowledge – everyone knows what he’s done – and who the players all want to follow.
“Clearly there are high expectations, but I don’t think this should put too much pressure on us. It will just make us more determined and enthusiastic to get to work. That enthusiasm will feed us. We can achieve what we want by winning and by working hard, just as we’ve been doing so far.”
How much healthy competition is there within the dressing room at the moment – and do you think that’s the recipe needed to achieve something?
“There’s a lot of competition. If you want to focus on big targets, then that’s how it needs to be and it can’t scare you. There are young players here and others with more experience. But the aim for each of us has to be to train hard, calmly but with focus, to make sure we are all ready when called upon.
“There will come a time when things aren’t going as well. We’ve started well, we’ve started strongly, but we need to stay focused and on guard. Because the tough moments will come, we know that well, and so we need to make sure we are able to react and bounce back in the right way.”
How does having a striker like Tammy Abraham change the way the team plays?
“He’s another really young guy. But he’s settled in really well in Rome. I think he was welcomed into the fold in the right way and he’s managed to adjust and integrate in the best manner possible.
“He’s a complete player – he’s technically good, he can run into the spaces, he can hold up the ball. So, because of all that, he’s definitely a key player for us and can be a huge help on the pitch.”
After your time in China, was it a bit difficult to rediscover your fitness or re-adjust mentally to being back?
“A bit of both. But perhaps it was more about the fitness. Because during the year that was worst affected by Covid, we stopped for sixth months. Then I came back to Italy, only playing when I was with the national team, not training with a club side either in Italy or in China.
“So this summer was my first pre-season in three years, so in terms of the fitness stuff I had the chance to charge up a bit more. We discussed all that with the fitness guys and prepared an individual training plan as a result. Now I feel really good, and the target is to make sure I keep building on this.”
Pretty standard stuff here from Il Faraone. I like that his interview reinforced the game-by-game approach that Mourinho has been advocating for, and it’s clear that, even to the players, the goal is to build a foundation this season for sustained success longterm, as evidence by the couple of times he noted the squad was a blend of experience and youth.
His comment about this summer being his first pre-season in three years blew my mind. 1) Has it really been that long since his first stint with the club? and 2) well, that certainly would explain his minimal impact last season. Hopefully, a full pre-season for the winger continues to pay dividends for him and the club this season.
Five wins from five so far. There’s a lot of expectation, you can see that even from the number of tickets being sold for tomorrow’s game – almost 30,000. How can you maintain this level of performance when there is so much pressure on the team?
“Five wins are not 50. Just like I said three wins were not 30. There’s no reason right now to be super-optimistic, to be really positive, to lose our heads. But, that being said, good results are important, they help the process of developing the team.
“The people, the fans are happy I think, but even they need to make sure they keep perspective like we are doing here. Perspective in the sense that they understand that this is a process that we have only been working on for two months. They can sense some changes, yes, and that’s clear in many different ways, but we have to keep calm.
“The fact that the stadium is always as full as it can be is great and perhaps that will have an influence on the authorities, who should realise that there is clearly a real desire from people, not just our fans but everyone in Italy, to get back towards normality. And that normality will be when the whole stadium will be open.
“In order to keep the targets high, this desire to work hard together is one characteristic that we want to ensure we keep. I always tell the players that anything less than 100% is nothing. We need to be perfect in that regard, that’s a non-negotiable to me. Against Sassuolo they could have won the game 2-1 – but even if they had won the game, our spirit and our ambition and the desire we showed is something that can’t change. It’s something we always want to show, even when we lose a game. We are in a construction phase and this is part of what it takes.
“I am sure a question will arrive asking whether I will make changes to the team tomorrow – clearly I will. We will not pick the same team as last weekend. I will make a few changes, but the key thing is we keep the structure in place. Because we need to get a good result. It’s a competition that, step-by-step, we want to do something in. And step-by-step means getting to the end of this group stage and qualifying for the knockout rounds. So if we can start by picking up three points at home, then all the better.”
How do you manage a player like Nicolo Zaniolo? Are you trying to manage how you use him? Will he play tomorrow or will Carles Perez?
“The players still don’t know who is playing tomorrow, so I won’t tell you that. If they already knew themselves then I wouldn’t have a problem letting you know, but they still don’t know.
“With Nico, we need to strike the right balance. We don’t want him feeling too much pressure. He’s doing well, his injuries are behind him, those negative feelings are in the past. On Sunday he was a bit tired, clearly. I understand that, when players go away with their national teams … I haven’t managed a national team, but I understand if players don’t play in the games then there isn’t much time around that for training and physical conditioning work. So if a player goes away on international duty and doesn’t play that much, then usually he comes back a bit off his usual condition, a bit behind where he was when he went away.
“That’s something we noted not just with Nico, but with a few other players too. He played 70 minutes on Sunday, he’s recovered well and he’s fit to play tomorrow. I don’t want to talk about his fitness in every press conference. He’s doing fine. Psychologically, it’s important for him to forget the injury. There have been a lot of players who have suffered injuries – but if the injury is behind them you have to look to the future.”
How do you keep those players who haven’t played much so far engaged in things? For example, El Shaarawy has already contributed two goals off the bench … he’s a great example. What about the others? And, on another topic, is potentially become the first coach to win all three UEFA competitions an extra motivation for you?
“With El Shaarawy, and with other players in the same situation, I will just say that the players are smart – they understand, from looking at us, from seeing how we talk with them, from the way we talk, from the feedback we give … they are smart and they understand things without the need for plenty of words. Stephan knows he’s an important player for me, that he’s a starter for me.
“But starters are not just the 11 that actually start, because that can always change. I have never been at a team where the starting line-up at the beginning of the season is exactly the same as the one that finishes the season. The season is not a highway. Maybe at the start it’s a highway, but then it can become country roads. That’s what the season is like, and with players it can be the same.
“For players it’s always hard to start the season and finish it as a starter. So they all need to understand that without all of them we are dead, because you can’t achieve much with just 11 guys. Stephan is smart. He has a lot of experience of the game. He understands how important he is to me.
“I really like his attributes as a player and he knows that. He also understands that from the start of the season he has needed to put the work in to get into the best possible shape. To overcome things – the intensity he lost in China, the injuries he’s had, only coming back here in January. He’s improving a lot. And, beyond that, before the game against Sassuolo we had a chat.
“I told him then that he would start the game against CSKA. I told him then that he is a starter for me, even if he’s been on the bench so far. The players, all of them, are more responsible for creating a united dressing room than I am. Guys that know their different roles, guys that know to respect the coach’s decisions, in those regards we have a group that work well together. I find it very easy to be a leader for this group because it’s a really good group of guys.
“As for your question about the Conference League: I also won, as an assistant coach, a competition that doesn’t exist any more, the Cup Winners’ Cup. I won that with Barcelona in 1997. But I’m not thinking about all that, I don’t target things for the sake of being the first person to do them. We want to do well.
“We are a long, long way from winning this competition, but we want to try to do it. We are at the very first game of the group stage. I don’t want to lie to you guys again. I won’t say I’m not interested in this competition – I am interested in this competition. But the first thing is to make sure we get through the group.
“We are all here and ready for this game. No player will be left at home, no player will be allowed a rest. It’s a collective project. If a few of the guys that played the last game are on the bench for this one, then that happens. They need to help the other guys so that we win the game tomorrow.”
Over the last few years Roma have had a few good runs in Europe. Do you think there is a specific reason for that?
“It’s easy to say that the team did really well in the Europa League last season. It’s easy to say because it’s objectively true. The defeat against Manchester United was a heavy one, but Manchester United are a team with a different sort of power to Roma and the team hardly came into the tie in the best condition possible either.
“So you can say, indeed you should say, that they did really well in the Europa League. I don’t know if this squad of players is more used to certain competitions. The league is really important for us – clearly it is much more important than the Conference League – but I want the team to always be thinking that the next game is the most important. That’s the mentality needed.
“When the Coppa Italia starts, those games will become the most important. That’s how I like to think, that’s how I was always thinking in England when we played in four competitions. That’s what we want to do.
“The squad is ready to go in all the competitions they are in. Obviously our squad has a few limitations. We need to make certain choices as a result. People already know so I can say it: tomorrow Matias Vina won’t play, Riccardo Calafiori will. That sort of change is normal. Right now we are focusing on tomorrow’s game, not on Sunday.”
Did you expect 200 people or so to be waiting outside the restaurant last night after your team dinner? Has something like that ever happened to you before in your career?
“It was great, and I think it was really important for us. For the players. For those who are coming to Italy for the first time, like Vina or Tammy Abraham. It’s important that they understand where they are. It was great.
“I thank them for that. Building this bond with the supporters is important. We need to be calm about it, need to take it in the right way, need to understand that we still have a lot to work on. For example, today we held a meeting to reflect on the Sassuolo game. We found lots of mistakes, both collective and individual ones. Some things we had improved on, others we had regressed in. It’s a constant work in progress.
“But if the fans are pleased, knowing the situation our team is in, then for us that’s a good thing. I am convinced that, even without that magical goal from Stephan against Sassuolo, even if the game had not finished in the epic way it did, then I think the fans would have still gone home with the verdict that the team is united and gives everything they have on the pitch. We can only thank the fans for how they are supporting us.”
How are the four central defenders doing? Are you thinking about changes in that position too? What about Marash Kumbulla, for example, and his progress since coming here?
“If I play Kumbulla and leave out Mancini then you will ask me what the issue is with Mancini. If Smalling doesn’t play, you will tell me I have a problem with Smalling from our time together in Manchester. If Ibanez doesn’t play, it’ll be something else. That’s how it is.
“There are four of them, and that’s the right number of central defenders for a squad. There are always questions like this. I am pleased to have the four central defenders that we have. They all have different qualities, different strengths and different areas where they are less strong. If you are asking me if I will change both centre-backs tomorrow, then the answer is no. I won’t be changing both.”
You have started Serie A really well, but I think you’ve probably noticed a few ongoing issues too. What sort of game are you looking for tomorrow?
“As I’ve already said before we are not the perfect team – there’s still a lot to work on. We need to work on things every day. We are a humble group, we need to make sure we stay that way, aware of our issues and what we want to do.
“As far as the game tomorrow goes, clearly it is not a game with the same pressure as a knockout tie like the one we had against Trabzonspor; but it is a group stage game, we have six of them, and across six games we can drop points and still qualify anyway. But our target is to qualify as soon as we can and clinch top spot in the group too.
“We are going up against a side that Roma have faced in the recent past: they’ve won and they’ve lost as well. So we know we are going up against a good side with a decent threat.”
The standout response for me on this one was Mourinho’s comment on El Shaarawy and the other role players on the squad. I think one of the more unspoken impacts that Jose has had on the squad, is his relationship with the players outside of his first-choice eleven. Both El Shaarawy and Carles Pérez, seem to have fully embraced their current roles in the squad, Pérez in particular, which is a huge credit to both Mourinho, and the players themselves, as it clearly demonstrates that the team is united and fully bought in to what Mourinho’s has been preaching to them.
Continuing with the theme of team unity, Mourinho touching on it again in response to the question about the team dinner, was wonderful to read. Mourinho’s two main objectives thus far are very clearly establishing team chemistry and managing expectations, which he reinforces in one response right here. Of course, as long as the team continues the run that they’re on, it’ll become increasingly difficult to achieve the latter, but the Special One’s early success in shifting the mentality of the players will hopefully allow them to keep their heads, should results continue to go Roma’s way.