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Bren vs. Bran: Defensive Midfielders, Full-Back Depth & More Come Into Question After Verona Defeat

After Roma's first defeat of the season, we dissect some increasingly important issues, like Roma's worrying full-back depth and the defensive midfield conundrum.

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

In the first-ever edition of our new debate series, Bren vs. Bran, we discussed several issues that sprang up after Roma's last-gasp victory over Sassuolo, including José Mourinho's surprising decision to start Matías Viña on such short rest after the international break. It was a relatively tame discussion because Roma were riding high after winning five consecutive matches; a streak that became six-straight after their 5-1 rout over CKSA Sofia in the Conference League group stages.

But, as we all know, Roma's win streak came crashing to a halt yesterday in Verona, where Mourinho’s men fell 3-2 to Hellas Verona, who looked inspired in their first match under new manager Igor Tudor, who replaced the recently sacked Eusebio Di Francesco.

In the wake of that defeat, Brandon and I went toe-to-toe on several new issues, some of which may be fresh wounds after this weekend's defeat, while others are broader, more systemic concerns.

Bren vs. Bran remains a work in progress, but this time we were able to arrange a bit more banter, so we hope you enjoy it! And as always, feedback and ideas on how we can grow and develop this new piece is welcomed and appreciated.

Point #1: After Sunday’s loss to Verona, are you more or less convinced that Roma’s top winter priority should be a defensive midfielder?

Jordan Veretout (Roma) with the ball and Bryan Cristante (... Photo by Giuseppe Fama/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Bran: I think that was the priority regardless of this result. Sure, I’m willing to hear the argument that this result reinforces the idea that a defensive midfielder should be Roma’s top winter priority, but all phases of the team were lacking Sunday, and we already knew what position was at the top of Mourinho’s wish list in terms of reinforcements. I don’t think this result changes the urgency with which Roma signs a DM, it still seems more contingent on shipping off more deadwood than anything.

Bren: To be frank, I agree with most of what you just said, but I’m actually growing increasingly more concerned about the right-back spot. Rick Karsdorp has been a revelation, particularly when you consider where he was as recently as a year ago. He’s certainly done well to put his injury woes behind him, but if they resurface, Mourinho may be up a creek without a paddle. In that light, adding depth to that position seems more important. I think there are some young talents who can play the defensive midfield position, it’s just a matter of whether or not Mourinho trusts them.

In that sense, it’s no different than the right-back depth issue, but I think there are simply more in-house options for defensive midfielder than there are for the right-back, where we only have the young and untested Bryan Reynolds. At least Ebrima Darboe got some consistent run down the stretch last year and looked pretty damn impressive if I’m being honest. We can’t say the same for Reynolds yet, so I believe right-back is the more pressing need.

Bran: That’s a great point. It’s pretty clear that either Mourinho doesn’t exactly rate Bryan Reynolds, or he’s trying to send a message to Reynolds to start getting it together. On top of that, Mourinho was asked about Santon, to which he responded by saying that he hasn’t thought about reintegrating anyone into the squad. So, with that context in mind, right-back may be a position to look into this winter.

Bren: Right-back and defensive midfield are critical areas, too, and have been for several years now, so Pinto may have his work cut out for him this winter. The Reynolds situation is particularly troubling to me, especially when you consider he came to Roma over Juve, in part, because they allegedly promised not to send him on loan. The kid is a physical specimen—you don't often see full-backs with his size—so I have to believe that, with proper coaching, he can be quite an asset for Roma, but to date, he’s not being given the chance.

At this point, I'm wondering if there is a RB/DM hybrid we can sign! That would solve all our problems.

Point #2: Are there any in-house options or tactical tweaks Mourinho could make in the meantime to bolster the midfield?

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Bran: I could see Mourinho switching to three at the back in order to add another player to the midfield, with the caveat that I don’t think this happens unless Roma goes on an extremely poor run of form and Mourinho really needs to switch things up. With Mancini, Ibanez, Smalling, and Kumbulla all at his disposal, Mourinho has the option to consistently play three at the back and rotate as needed. I don’t think the team is best suited to play this way long-term, but for a quick jolt in the arm for the squad, I can get behind it.

Bren: I’ll take your idea and tweak it a tad. We’ve already seen what Gianluca Mancini can do as a defensive midfielder, and given the depth in defense you just mentioned, a positional switch could be the cure to Roma’s midfield ails, at least until the January window opens and they can get a proper DM. But Mancini has enough touch and athleticism to play the position, while Darboe looked like a solid regular in the making last season under Fonseca, so there are actually multiple, viable options for this position. Adding to that, changing formations, while extreme, could be the solution but I might suggest a more lateral 4-3-3, which could prevent the midfield from being overwhelmed.

Bran: Again, I think I’d have to agree with you here. I did toy with the idea of having Mancini as a CDM in my initial response, but I’m not sure Mourinho will turn to this barring a significant injury crisis. Having said that, slotting Mancini into the midfield with Veretout and Cristante in a 4-3-3 formation might just be the tweak needed to stabilize the midfield.

Bren: Dude, we're supposed to argue!! This would be an entirely different debate—one we might tackle later on—but where does Mancini offer more value: as a center-back or a defensive midfielder? He's still young enough to make the switch, but you have to wonder if the opportunity cost of training him up is worth removing him from the backline.

Point #3: Should Nicolo Zaniolo be replaced in the starting lineup, at least temporarily?

Hellas Verona FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images

Bran: I don’t see the benefit in doing so. My love for Zaniolo aside, I do think that the best way to get him back in form is to keep playing him. Context matters here and we have to remember that this is more or less Zaniolo’s first few matches in two years. It’s going to take some time before he’s firing on all cylinders again, and I don’t see the value in benching him seven games into the season. There will be a point in time where you think about replacing him if this poor run of form continues, but we aren’t there yet by any means.

Bren: Man, you’re really tempting me to throw this entire format out already! I love Zaniolo but let me make a case for removing him, at least for a few weeks.

Number one: As important as it is for him to get match time, we also have to keep his psyche/mental well-being in mind. If he struggles, and struggles, and struggles, they’d run the risk of sapping his confidence and aggression. Taking a few weeks away from the starting eleven might give him a chance to look at things with fresh eyes, to observe Mourinho’s tactics from afar, and this mental break might actually serve him well in the long run. None of this is to suggest he has any issues with that, but sometimes just being given the opportunity to reset and attack things with fresh eyes can do wonders.

Number two: To be quite frank, I”m not sure the club is in any position to essentially play short-handed if Zaniolo is off his game or not 100% fit, so using someone like Carles Pérez as the start might benefit the club as a whole in the short-term. Even just a 50/50 job share might be enough to reinvigorate him.

Bran: Don’t scrap the idea just yet! There’s bound to be a truly divisive topic down the road, and I’m sure the readers will be heartbroken if they don’t get to see us truly lock horns. Having said that, you make some fair points here. I’d be more inclined to give Pérez a run-out if he was influencing games more, sure he’s looked sharp in the appearances that he’s made thus far this season, but I’ll still take my chances with Zaniolo starting, the potential to influence games is just so much higher.

Bren: I think above all else, we really need to be objective with Zaniolo, and that cuts both ways. We laugh and joke (light-heartedly) about Roma's ACL issues, but this kid has suffered two catastrophic knee injuries just as his career was taking off. There's a mental and physical toll that comes along with fighting back from that, which will force Mourinho to really assess what the causes of his struggles are: Is it his knees or in between his ears?

I'm genuinely surprised how large of a role Pérez has carved out under Mourinho so far, but I'm not 100% confident he's ready to be the week-in-week-out starter just yet. So if Roma’s two options are U-23 kids—one fresh off major injuries and the other relegated to the bench for most of his tenure here—Mourinho may be best served by riding the hot hand until Zaniolo proves he can be counted on every weekend.

Point #4: Are you at all worried that this loss is a sign of things to come, of some systemic issues within the squad, or was this a one-off?

Hellas Verona FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images

Bran: I think it’s a little bit of both, but I’ll chalk this off as a one-off result for now. There are obvious problems in the midfield and with the team switching off defensively, but can we really legislate for a game in which your opponent is operating on the post-EDF sacking boost?

Jokes aside, there certainly is something to the boost teams get following a mid-season manager sacking, and is something Mourinho hinted at himself in his pre-match presser. New coach for the opponent, wonder goal to beat you, etc., I think if we replayed this match nine times, Roma would win at least eight of them, but sometimes the result just doesn’t go your way. There are obvious issues to be addressed, but it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.

Bren: Purely for the sake of debate, I’ll say that yes, there are some systemic issues we may be looking at, none of which are directly Mourinho’s fault. I can’t take credit for this line of thinking myself as it popped up in the comment section after yesterday’s match, but this team is a bit heavy on the attack. And Mourinho suggested in his post-match presser that forwards like Zaniolo weren’t doing their defensive due diligence, which puts other players in compromising positions, which, in turn, weakens the entire defense.

I’m not sure what the workable solution is at the moment, but if this were an NFL team, Roma was spending all their early-round draft picks on running backs and receivers while kitting out the defense with undrafted free agents.

I don’t think this imbalance will prevent them from achieving their goals, but it’s certainly becoming a noticeable trait, particularly in the wake of their first defeat of the season.

Bran: Is that a systemic issue, though? Or, are Roma merely victims of circumstance? For what feels like the first time in however many years, Roma finally have a plethora of attacking options at their disposal, making them multifaceted in the attack and tricky to gameplan against, and that’s a credit to the work done in the summer transfer window.

True, the evidence suggests that Roma are a bit top-heavy, but I think we can chalk that up to the Spinazzola’s injury, the time it’s taken for Smalling to return to full fitness, and Tiago Pinto’s hands being tied in the marketplace by an inability to ship out some of the bloated contracts on the books, all issues that can and will be resolved at some point.

Bren: Well, I guess that depends on how we define systemic as it relates to Roma. If the constant upheaval on the bench and the boardroom is the root cause of these roster construction issues, then yes, I think we have a systemic issue (albeit one they can stop simply by, you know, not firing people so frequently), but I don't want this debate to become a semantics issue.

But the systemic vs. circumstantial debate is an interesting one. Ultimately, I think the imbalance looks worse than it is because much of that imbalance stems from the fact that Roma doesn't have a pure defensive midfielder. Adding someone like that to the mix, like a Zakaria or Xhaka, could iron out a lot of these wrinkles and bring some much-needed balance to the equation.

I also think we have to note that we're still so incredibly early in the season and into Mourinho's tenure as manager, so we should expect all manners of hiccups during his first few weeks and months on the job. In some ways, I think the perfect start makes these minuscule issues appear more serious than they might be. Time will tell.


That's it for BvB, Round #2. We'll try to make these a consistent part of our day after match routine, but in the meantime, we'd love to hear your take on these issues.