Roma under José Mourinho started the season with four central defenders (sorry Fazio, you’re not one of them. And no Santon, you’re not a CB by any means). We’re well into the season now and three of them already have gathered quite a few minutes on the field. Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibañez obviously have the most minutes while Chris Smalling struggled with a minor injury at the start but is now a serious contender for one of both CB spots in Mou’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation.
This leaves us with one more name: Marash Kumbulla. The 21-year-old Albanian defender, born in Italy, is enjoying (well, not really enjoying but we’ll come to that part later) his second season at Roma and officially he’s still on loan from Hellas Verona. After his two-year loan (a deal worth about €2 million net after considering the players Roma sent the other way), Kumbulla will become a 100% Roma player for about €13.5 million (excluding bonuses). Roma also ‘gave’ fellow CB Mert Cetin and two youth players to Hellas in return.
His first season at Roma was ok, with some ups and downs. 21 Serie A games (most of them as a starter though), one start in the Coppa (the cursed game vs Spezia), and six games in the Europa League. He also had some bad luck as he suffered a couple of muscle injuries and also got infected with the coronavirus along the way. Ibañez and Mancini were the CB certainties while Fonseca also deployed Cristante as CB from time to time.
Kumbulla was fully fit and raring to go for 2021-2022 under his new boss Mourinho. New season, new chances. But it’s safe to say it hasn’t worked out quite well so far. He played one minute in the ECL qualifier vs Trabzonspor and less than 15 minutes in the 5-1 thrashing of CSKA Sofia... Aaaaaaand that’s it. Not a single minute in the rest of the games, always on the bench, and against Sassuolo he didn’t even make the bench. And we, the fans, haven’t really received an explanation why. It’s all a bit bizarre.
So where does this leave Marash? In a tricky situation alright. Does José think he’s simply not good enough? Doesn’t he impress during training? Has Marash said anything wrong about Mourinho’s record at Tottenham? There’s something wrong, that’s for sure. I haven’t been blown away by the performances of Mancini, Ibañez, or Smalling so Kumbulla at least deserves a shot too, no?
CSKA Sofia, Salernitana, Trabzonspor, Hellas; there have already been multiple games in which Kumbulla would easily hold the fort in defense next to one of the others, but Mourinho keeps him on the bench while running the risk of burning out Mancini or Ibañez. Smalling, meanwhile, returned and got minutes right away but he's been injury-prone for much of the past year.
For his and Roma’s sake, Marash needs to play. A lot. Be it in Rome or another club in Italy because he needs experience, game time. He needs to develop and these are crucial years. Kumbulla wasn’t as expensive as, say, Tammy Abraham, but the club will still pay around €16.5m when all is said and done.
Of course, all is not lost for Roma and Kumbulla. It’s still too early to judge him. He remains a kid in the CB world of Serie A so there’s plenty of time to set things right. He’s obviously talented (I remember Conte’s Inter Milan were also in the hunt for his signature) but still raw, a bit rough around the edges.
If Kumbulla merely remains a plan C or D for Mourinho and is stuck on the bench, then we might have to think about a possible loan next season, after Roma has bought him outright. If that were the case, he'll still be plenty young when he returns, so there shouldn't be any problems in the long run, while he remains signed with Roma through 2025.
The question is: Does Kumbulla think the same? Will he agree to waisting another year in Rome, being loaned out (perhaps twice) to a smaller team like Sampdoria, Genoa, or Cagliari only to come back to Roma without any guarantees for the first team?
As I said, it’s a tricky situation. Kumbulla has no real bond with the club or city unlike Pellegrini or even Veretout, Zaniolo, or Mancini. Right now his worth has dropped so Roma needs to do something in the near future to protect its investment and more importantly Kumbulla’s wellbeing.
A start vs Empoli or in the Conference League would be a good opportunity for Kumbulla, a chance to show everyone why he was once hailed as a future star back at Hellas.
If you’re reading this, José, Marash and me would be very grateful.