While it was a baby soft call late in the match, thanks to Lorenzo Pellegrini's second yellow card in the dying moments of yesterday's win over Udinese, Roma will be without their captain and best player as they face Lazio on Sunday in the latest rendition of the Derby della Capitale. Playing one match without Pellegrini isn't the end of the world of course, but it did bring Roma's reliance on him into focus.
As we put the finishing touches on our Roma vs. Udinese coverage, Bren and Bran tackle a thorny subject: Is Roma too reliant on Pellegrini? How can the club cope without him on Sunday? And what can Mourinho do to spruce up the Giallorossi midfield?
Point #1: What in the world is going on with Roma’s midfield? What can (or must) Mourinho do to improve the results from this position?
Bran: That’s a great question. I’m not sure there’s much Mourinho can do at the moment aside from a change of formation to add another midfielder onto the pitch, given that his hands are tied till the winter market. Sure, he can give a run out to his midfield options on the bench, but I think we’re all aware at this point that Jose doesn’t exactly have a ton of faith in his options. Either way, the issues in midfield are becoming increasingly worrying.
Bren: Well, it’s difficult to tell without having access to the locker room, but the prevailing notion that he doesn’t like or trust the likes of Villar, Diawara, and Darboe seems a bit strange to me. Even if we accept the fact that they’re not his top choice, they both proved—in varying doses—to be effective midfielders, so they’re definitely capable of contributing to the cause and I wonder if he’ll reach a point where the only options are A) run Veretout and Cristante into the ground or B) roll the dice and let one of those three play, if for no other reason than to give the starters a break. This zero-sum game can only last so long.
Bran: I think Mourinho has already shown that he’s inclined to go with option A, no? As evidenced by Mourinho making the double switch of putting on both Cristante and Veretout, and taking out Villar and Diawara, in the game against CSKA Sofia, he has shown that his other midfielders have a short leash, and if that continues, there’s a serious risk of running both Veretout and Cristante into the ground.
Bren: Yeah, it's not so much a concern now, since we're so early in the season, and he’s still really getting a feel for the team but sooner or later he has to give the younger midfielders a chance.
Point #2: Lorenzo Pellegrini is playing some fantastic football at the moment, but he’s averaging 3.4 shots per game (a career-high), which begs the question: Is he perhaps shooting too much? Can any of Roma’s struggles over the past week be due to this trend?
Bran: I wouldn’t put the blame on Roma’s struggles on Pellegrini’s volume of shots. I think you can attribute the career-high in shots taken to the role that Pellegrini has cultivated from himself under Mourinho, and if you’re Mourinho, you want your most in-form player to have a high volume of shots. In previous seasons Pellegrini was always criticized for trying to do too much rather than making the simple play, that doesn’t seem to be the case this season. Pellegrini has a more significant role in this iteration of Roma than seasons past, it’s not really a stretch for Pellegrini to average career highs in this department.
Bren: I am going to genuinely disagree with you here. I’m not sure that having your attacking midfielder be your highest volume shooter is the best course of action. There have been a few occasions this season where we see Pellegrini ignore open outlets as he looks for his own shot, there has to be a better balance. Roma doesn’t need Pellegrini to score 18 goals this season; a blend of maybe 10 goals and 12 assists would seem more suitable and sustainable.
But when your chief shot-taker is struggling and continues to press the issue, good things seldom happen. I can’t picture any scenario in which he averages over three shots per match for the remainder of the season. Tammy Abraham should be our high-volume shooter if we indeed need one.
Bran: I can’t believe after being anti-Pellegrini for so long here I am defending him. I take your point about Pellegrini forcing the issue a bit too much and that Abraham should be our high volume shooter, but do we really want to put the majority of the pressure of producing offensively on a young center-forward playing in a new league, in a new country, for the first time? I have no doubt that Abraham will have a prolific career with the club based on what I’ve seen thus far, but I think you would be doing his development a disservice by putting that pressure on him. To that point, I’m okay with Pellegrini being our high-volume shooter for the time being.
Bren: I think Abraham is already proving he's capable of a lot more than he was given credit for when he was signed this summer, so it wouldn't surprise me to see him assert himself more in the coming weeks. But, you're probably correct: Pellegrini (or maybe Mkhitaryan and SES to a lesser extent) is our most reliable and/or proven attacking asset at the moment, so there's really nothing stopping him from calling the shots, as it were.
#3: Pellegrini’s second yellow card was a bit of a soft call, but does Mourinho deserve some of the blame for leaving him in the game that late with a lead to protect?
Bran: I don’t place any blame on Mourinho for leaving Pellegrini in the game. If Roma were up 3-0 or even 2-0 for that matter, I can certainly understand the rationale behind blaming Mourinho for leaving him in for too long, but with a 1-0 lead, and with Roma looking very shaky in dealing with Udinese, you cross your fingers and hope Pellegrini is able to ride out the match without picking up a second yellow. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way, but it’s a soft call, to begin with, and in scenarios such as the one Roma found themselves in, you can ill afford to take off your captain and most in-form player.
Bren: It was obviously a horrible call and it’s too bad they can’t correct it, but I don’t see how, with a one-nil lead to protect, Pellegrini furthers that cause; he should have been yanked in the 75th minute or so, shortly after Mourinho changed to a more defensive posture by bringing on Chris Smalling. Having a more bruising, combative midfielder in that advanced role would be ideal (think Nainggolan under Spalletti) but Roma doesn’t have a player like that at the moment.
I understand Mourinho’s hands were tied, but with the derby looming and Pellegrini’s importance to the squad, I do honestly think it was a bit of an oversight from Mourinho. Some of this speaks to our earlier question, but if he had more faith in players like Diawara, Villar, Darboe, or even Bove, he could have pulled Pellegrini out earlier and changed shape slightly to preserve the lead—it’s all small potatoes since they won, I’ll concede that but now we’re down our best player in a crucial match, and it could have been avoided.
Bran: Do you see any value in having him out there primarily for his leadership? The clear counter-argument is that with Mancini and Cristante also out on the pitch at this point in time, you probably can live with just those two as your leaders on the pitch, but I think there is certainly some value in having your captain on the pitch for the full 90, especially when you need to win ugly. Also, leadership factor aside, leaving Pellegrini on the pitch gives you a player who can hold the ball up, find the incisive pass on the counter, and can keep the ball in tight spaces, all important qualities to have when trying to hold onto a 1-0 lead.
Bren: Those are certainly good points, but with the fixtures coming quicker and quicker, Mourinho should find any excuse he can to rest players like Pellegrini. Again, it's nitpicking because Pellegrini was done dirty by the ref.
Point #4: How should Mourinho approach the next match without Pellegrini?
Bran: I think the approach should be to play Zaniolo in Pellegrini’s position, with El Shaarawy and Mkhitaryan playing on either side of him. The great debate rages on regarding Zaniolo’s best position, with many advocating for the youngster to play a more central role. Given Pellegrini’s current run of form, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, but this presents a wonderful opportunity to play Zaniolo in this role and see what he can do when given the opportunity.
Bren: Not a bad idea, but I think the easiest and simplest solution would be to field Mkhitaryan in the middle as the de facto trequartista and use either SES or Shomurodov on the left and leave Zaniolo on the right. Zaniolo needs to get in a groove and I don’t think shifting him around the pitch will help him at the moment. It would obviously change Mourinho’s substitution patterns since El Shaarawy and Shomurodov have generally been his first attacking options off the bench, but we know that Mkhitaryan has what it takes to be Roma’s chief playmaker.
Bran: Totally fair point, and I actually think that’s what Mourinho will go with on Sunday. I suppose I will chalk it down to the massive Zaniolo fan in me wanting to see him play centrally to increase his chances of having a starring role in the match, but clearly, he’s more than capable of doing so from the right as well.
Bren: Yeah, and once the whistle blows, he drifts all over the final third, so it's an academic argument, really. I'm really more curious what this temporary absence will do to Mourinho's substitution patterns.
Apologies that this one was a bit late, but look for the next BvB after Sunday's derby!