It's not every day that the entire sport pauses for a month in the middle of the season. But then again, how often is the World Cup awarded to a nation that allegedly bribed FIFA officials to win the bid, according to the United States Department of Justice?
With the 2022 World Cup kicking off next week in Qatar, football leagues across the world will hit the snooze bar for a month, putting fans in a bit of a pickle. Yes, this is the World Cup, but given all the controversy surrounding the bidding process, to say nothing of the human rights violations, deplorable working conditions, and a wide range of civil rights issues, it's hard to get too excited about this particular rendition.
We’ll have more to say on the World Cup in the coming days, but with Serie A on pause until 2023, what better time to assess the state of the Giallorossi than now?
With Roma limping into the break, the CdT crew assembled to discuss the highs and lows of the first 15 matches, looking at the standout performers, biggest disappointments, and more.
Enjoy, and please give us your thoughts in the comment sections on these questions or any we may have missed!
Let’s not mince words here: something isn’t right with Roma at the moment. What is the biggest issue facing the club now, and how can José Mourinho fix it?
JonAS: Clearly, Roma has been hammered by injuries and, particularly to Mourinho’s most prized assets: Wijnaldum, Dybala, Pellegrini, and Spinazzola. So José never really got the chance to field his ideal XI until now. There were always 2-3 guys missing from the team. That, combined with a busy, packed schedule due to the World Cup, kinda explains why Roma’s not right up there with Milan, Napoli, and co.
We can only hope everyone is healthy in 2023 so we can make that push for a top 4 finish. Injuries, bad luck, whatever, Roma simply needs to qualify for the CL, or this entire season is a bust. And perhaps even the ‘Mourinho project.’
Bren: Well, they’re still third in xG scored and second in xG differential. So if we use that as a guidepost, Roma is doing everything right except the part that counts–scoring goals. Now, obviously, we can’t and shouldn’t judge Roma on one metric alone, but that one is pretty telling. It shows us that Roma is doing the leg work, moving the ball, creating the chances, and so forth; they’re just not, you know, scoring the ball. And if we look at plain old points, according to Understat, Roma is second to only Napoli in expected points: 31.4 through 15 matches.
But where the rubber meets the road, on the pitch, things aren’t quite as rosy. Given those stats, I put the blame largely on the forwards; where Roma only has three league goals from an actual striker, Tammy Abraham, while their wide forwards, Stephan El Shaarawy and Nicolo Zaniolo, have accounted for only two goals.
There’s your problem.
Jimmy: I hate to be a broken record, but it’s injuries, isn’t it? Whether it’s Wijnaldum to start off the season or Dybala for the last month or so, this club seems to have lost its charm from last season, where injuries were less of a concern. To defend the team on that front, it is true that the condensed schedule hasn’t been kind to any club’s injury list, but as Roma are in a developmental period and needs success to maintain and develop depth, it’s particularly frustrating to see key player after key player fall.
Bren’s point on actually scoring goals is a key one too. Clubs rise and fall with their forwards, and both Tammy Abraham and Nicolò Zaniolo haven’t looked like the star forwards we thought we were pairing with Paulo Dybala when he signed this summer. I have some hope there, though, because cold streaks end for everyone, and I know both Abraham and Zaniolo have the prerequisite quality to succeed. And hey, we’ve got Cristian Volpato now too, which is probably the most exciting development of the first half of this season.
ssciavillo: I think it’s a combination of the two, really. As Bren pointed out, the xG, xGA, and expected points all speak to a Roma that hasn’t played that badly. And up until a couple of weeks ago, when Pellegrini joined Dybala in the stands, Roma was creating plenty of chances. Unfortunately, it was Dybala or bust in terms of finishing before he went down injured. These last few weeks or so, though, the injuries have become the biggest thing. Recently, Roma hasn’t been able to generate chances with so many key absences, leading to three straight matches with dropped points heading into the break.
These things can be fixed thanks to the extended World Cup break. With only four players heading to Qatar, the Giallorossi will have time to get fit. And hopefully, the attacking players that will be at Trigoria start to get their heads and shooting boots straight.
BSanti: Agreed with all of the above, so I won’t relitigate either of those arguments. Instead, I’ll throw out a third element—mentality. Look, I know it’s cliche to chalk things up to “lacking” a particular mentality, but despite the progress, they made last season on this issue, a cloud of insecurity still hangs over this club.
And that’s not even in reference to the team as a whole. The Giallorossi, as a collective, play hard and fight until the final whistle - as evidenced by the stats presented above - and I don’t think Mourinho’s message is falling on deaf ears yet.
Instead, I think it’s just a series of moments where individual players have crises in confidence, resulting in those missed scoring opportunities or boneheaded decisions on defense that lead to the opponent scoring.
Mourinho doesn’t have to do much to fix it - an extended winning run in all competitions should cure all ills.
In that same vein, which player(s) have been the most disappointing so far and why?
JonAS: Sir, do you have an hour? I think every player has faced problems so far, even stalwarts like Rui, Smalling, and Pellegrini. I’m gonna go for Abraham, though. He started his Roman career so brightly, and next to Dybala, Pellegrini, Zaniolo, etc., he would really level up and keep on scoring goals. Alas. 4 goals after almost half a season, that’s a huge downfall from last year. And what worries me most is that it’s probably a mental affair, not physical, since he was barely injured. Tammy needs to find some redemption in 2023, that’s for sure.
Special mention: Belotti. I’m a big fan, and I so want his transfer to succeed, but damn, it’s been tough for him these days.
Bren: Yeah, this is difficult to answer briefly! But I have to put the onus on Tammy Abraham. Admittedly, he had a slow start last season (only 4 goals through 15 league matches), but something just seems…off. Last season’s swagger is gone, and with Zaniolo, SES, and Belotti not offering much help up top, perhaps he’s pressing a bit too much. It’s hard to quantify, but after such an impressive debut season with Roma, I was expecting a lot more from Abraham.
Jimmy: Interesting; it’s not that hard for me to pin this one on Tammy. Sure, Pellegrini and Rui have had their rough moments, and Rick Karsdorp is literally banished from the side, but the difference between what I expected from Abraham this season versus what I’ve gotten is colossal. As I said before, I’m sure he’ll turn it around after the trip to Japan, but still... he’s missing shots like first-Roma-season Džeko. That’s really concerning and doesn’t bode well for Roma’s hopes of returning to the Champions League.
ssciavillo: I don’t think you can point to anyone except Tammy. Sure, other players have been disappointing as well, but so much more was expected of Abraham that four goals are a complete and utter disappointment. I thought he’d be in the race for the golden boot, instead, he’s on pace to score less than 10 goals. He needs to be much better if Roma is going to finish top 4.
BSanti: I can’t tell you how badly I want to answer Pellegrini for this one, but Steve’s right here—you can’t go anyone but Tammy. Using the tried-and-true method of asking, “who’s made me curse at my TV the most this season” as a way to quantify this, Tammy’s missed scoring opportunities are certainly at the top of the charts.
And you feel for the guy. After a stellar debut season that culminated in Roma winning a European trophy, things just haven’t gone the way Tammy would’ve hoped. Now that he no longer has the World Cup hanging over him, you hope he’s able to hit the reset button during the break and be ready to recapture his form come the start of the second half of the season.
Flip it around. Are there any players actually exceeding expectations through 15 matches?
JonAS: It looks like Matic and especially Camara were good deals from Pinto. And we all know Smalling and Dybala are class. But I’ll pick Ibanez because he has visibly made progress and even got a call for the Brazilian NT. Yes, there was the derby brain fart, but that was his only real mistake so far. He’ll learn from it and become even stronger in the end. I think his price tag already doubled compared to last season, which is good for the Friedkins and their wallet. He’s turning into quite a defender and one of Mourinho’s favorites. Not unimportant, ey Karsdorp?
Bren: You know what? I’m going to say Smalling. He’s put in some hard miles for Roma during his four years with the club, and at age 32, he had every excuse in the book to slow down. And honestly, he’s playing lights out this year. Getting another defender (or giving Kumbulla an actual role) will help ensure he’s fresh down the stretch, but he impresses me every week. Get that Hall of Fame plaque ready.
Jimmy: I’m going to give some love to Mady Camara here because if Tammy is the biggest let-down for me compared to who he was last season, Camara is the biggest surprise fifteen matches in. I thought that, at most, he’d be a serviceable rotational midfielder, but instead, he’s looked hungry and determined to impress from the word go since his transfer from Olympiacos. Call it blasphemous, but his willingness to die for the shirt (and s**thouse) reminds me a bit of one Radja Nainggolan. We’ll see if that hunger and drive extends through the whole season, and we’ll see if he’s not eventually pushed to the bench by a healthy Wijnaldum and a potentially rising Edoardo Bove, but Mady’s made me a fan of his very quickly.
ssciavillo: I’ve been impressed with Mady as well, but his sample size is still pretty small. I’m going to go with one that maybe nobody expects and say Roger Ibañez. This may sound crazy after his derby mistake, but Roger has been very solid for a solid back three. We knew what we were going to get from Smalling, while Ibañez and Mancini were more of the wild cards because of their inconsistencies. If he can continue to clean up the mistakes (which have been lessened this season), Ibañez could be on his way to stardom at the back.
BSanti: You know what, I’m going to go one Paulo Dybala. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking—that we all knew what a talent Dybala was prior to him signing with Roma, so of course, he’s playing like the superstar that he is. But, c’mon, folks. Look, of course, given the magnitude of the signing, how much of a coup it was for a club of Roma’s stature, and the celebration that ensued once Dybala was officially unveiled, expectations were always going to be through the roof.
And yet even with that context in front of us, I think Dybala’s exceeded them! Sure, the obvious counterargument is his extended injury, and that’s fair. But when Dybala is on the pitch, this team looks totally different going forward. And Dybala himself seemed at times a one-man wrecking ball; look no further than how the dynamic of the match changed when he came on against Torino.
I don’t think many of us could’ve imagined just how seamlessly Dybala would ingrain himself into this Roma side after so long at Juve; he certainly exceeded my expectations.
Give us some names that could see their roles increase after the World Cup wraps up next month.
JonAS: Dybala obviously. He’ll be the main man to turn this season around and take Roma to the Champions League. His goals and assists will be vital. I’m also expecting a lot from Camara after New Year. He basically has one month to increase fitness, have extra training under Mourinho’s guidance and improve chemistry with his teammates to truly become that midfield enforcer we lost in Wijnaldum. Yeah, he and Dybala could drastically improve our overall quality of play when 100% fit.
Bren: Yeah, Dybala and Wijnaldum are the obvious choices, but they were injured, so that’s kind of cheating, Jonas! I’ll dig a bit deeper and say Volpato–I don't think this little fall cameo is a passing fancy; I think he legitimately has something to offer the team on a regular basis. But you’re right, Jonas. I think Camara has played his way into regular minutes in the midfield, which should help Wijnaldum as he works his way back into game shape.
Jimmy: Volpato and Dybala. I think they could work well together, actually, and they both seem like the type of players who might be able to help unlock the less-in-form elements of Roma’s attack. I won’t deny that I’ve been on the Volpato train for a hot second (though I’m not a conductor like I am with Nicola Zalewski); still, the AussItalian has a certain it factor that you just can’t ignore. I hope he’s able to capitalize on it in Rome, and I hope that it makes his decision to snub the Australian National Team for this year’s World Cup appear sage.
ssciavillo: I agree with bren that Dybala and Wjinaldum are cheating a bit, so I’ll go with Volpato and Camara. I think Mady has been a nice addition and should still see plenty of time when Gini comes back. Meanwhile, I think Volpato’s performances over the last few matches have shown enough for him to have a role after the World Cup. He could be this season’s Zalewski and cement himself as a first-team regular contributor.
BSanti: I’ll go Çelik and Camara. The former is cheating to an extent, as the man above him on the depth chart was just banished to Mourinho’s Shadow Realm. But both Çelik and Camara have impressed of late, and I definitely anticipate both players getting significant minutes when the season resumes.
What should we expect from Ola Solbakken in 2023? What sort of role do you envision for him, and where does he fit within a crowded forward rotation?
JonAS: Replace a certain body called Eldor Shomurodov. At first, I thought he would be SES’ replacement, but I see Stephan staying in Rome beyond summer 2023 while Eldor is just done. It’s over. Take all the money we can get and run.
Just use the first six months to prepare Ola for 2023-2024. Some subs here and there, getting to know the club and city. And then be ready for Year 3 alongside Dybala, Zaniolo, and co. If José would opt for a drastic change and go for a 4-2-3-1 then I reckon Ola’s role in the second part of this season could be larger.
Bren: Agreed. I think El Shaaraawy has found a niche as an off-the-bench guy, so I don’t think he’ll leave or that his place is in jeopardy. This move points in only one direction: Shomurodov. He’s clearly not a priority, so I think he stands to lose the most with Solbakken coming aboard.
It’s hard to say exactly what to expect from him on the pitch because he’s such an unknown product, but what we have seen is incredibly promising. I mean, we’re talking about a 6’1” forward/winger capable of cutting in from the flank, beating players off the dribble, and even working through the middle… and he has a killer left foot. What’s not to like?
It’ll take time for him to adjust to a new league, but his physical makeup alone is enough to make a short-term impact while he learns the intricacies of Serie A.
Jimmy: JonAS and Bren got this one. Shomu is likely toast with Solbakken coming in. I won’t lie; I’m not going to miss the Uzbek Messi too much; I think the jump from Genoa to Roma was just too fast for him, and while I still think there’s talent there, it’s probably the type of talent that can beat up against small sides while playing for a bigger side; it’s not the type of talent that can thrive in any role for a bigger club.
ssciavillo: I concur. I think Eldor is as good as gone this January with the addition of Solbakken. I think the Norwegian will be eased in the second half of the season once he arrives. I think Jonas makes a good point, though. If Mourinho does ultimately want to switch to a 4-2-3-1, then his role could increase as a winger.
BSanti: I’ll be honest, I’m not expecting much out of this move. And I think in 18 months' time, we might be questioning what all the fuss was about in our efforts to sign him. Having said that, I hope I’m wrong, and Ola develops into the most dominant Norwegian attacker in Europe (looking at you, Erling).
For now, I envision a Carles Perez-esque impact from the Norwegian.
Apart from Rick Karsdorp, what other Roma players may never see the light of day in the Eternal City again? Who else is on the chopping block?
JonAS: Eldor, like I said before. But apart from him, I don’t see any real ‘misfits’. There are, however, some guys who might want a moment with Mourinho for an explanation. Kumbulla might get nervous. Vina as well. But they need to stay until at least June because otherwise, our depth is zero. Unless Pinto finds a new CB (or two) this winter. And what the hell is wrong with Svilar, José? Why are you massacring my beautiful Belgian boy?
Bren: Yeah, it’s gotta be Shomurodov. I just don’t see how he’ll fit in now that Solbakken is coming to town. So, sadly that leaves us with Kumbulla. I’m not sure why he hasn’t played more often, but he’s still only 22-years-old, so I hope they don’t sell him outright.
Then again, there are now rumors that Roma might be open to selling Tammy Abraham, so we could see more upheaval than normal in January. In the end, I expect Shomurodov and Kumbulla to go out on loan.
Roma needs upgrades and depth. It’s not like the squad is bereft of talent, so I don’t see many players being run out of town because they’re bums, but if Pinto can make a few shrewd moves in January, we may see some rotation pieces slip further down the ladder, likely at full-back.
Jimmy: Shomu, Karsdorp, Viña, and (I hate to say it) Kumbulla. All of them have underperformed, all of them have been linked with exits, and all of them seem perfectly replaceable. Add in the fact that there are some exciting center-back prospects coming down the pipe in the Giallorossi academy, and I wouldn’t be shocked if all four of these guys were gone by the summer.
ssciavillo: Shomorudov is the first name that comes to mind. If Kumbulla goes, it could be because he’s tired of sitting on the bench. I could see Viña go as well in search of more playing time, but Roma would likely need two more fullbacks if Karsdorp and the Uruguayan go. I don’t know if that happens, so he may need to stick around. Plus, he still got called to Uruguay’s World Cup squad even with very limited playing time, so there’s no rush for him to leave.
BSanti: In a cruel twist of fate, now that Eldor has completely changed my opinion of him thanks to my successes with him on FUT, I’m forced to pile on and also label him as the player most likely to follow Karsdorp into exile.
Goodnight, sweet FUT super-sub.
With Wijnaldum set to return to the fold, give us your ideal midfield formation and function.
JonAS: A 4-3-3 with Wijnaldum, Matic, Pellegrini maybe. Then you have a true DM, CM, and CAM. Or 4-2-3-1 with Camara-Wijnaldum and Lorenzo in the hole (Matic is too old and slow to be part of a two men midfield). I’m not a fan of Cristante, but I’m also not blind to his ‘strong points. He can be useful and can occupy all roles in midfield; that’s a big plus in my book. But if everyone’s healthy and ready? Sorry Bryan, no room for you.
Bren: The 4-2-3-1 has always been my favorite formation, so I’ll agree with you on that one. I’d bench Tammy for a bit and give Belotti the gig up top with Zaniolo, Dybala, and Pellegrini behind him; that should hopefully give him enough service to find his groove again. In midfield, I’d go with Camara-Wijnaldum in the pivot, with LB to be named, Mancini, Smalling, and Celik in front of Patricio.
Jimmy: 4-2-3-1, with a Wijnaldum-Cristante double-pivot (Camara as super-sub).
ssciavillo: I don’t see the 4-2-3-1 as viable unless Pellegrini is sitting deep because you’re not shoving Dybala out on the wing. So maybe it’s a 4-3-1-2 where Pellegrini can play in a 3-man mid with Wjinaldum and Camara or Cristante. Then Dybala can play the attacking mid. Or Pellegrini can play in the hole, and Dybala can be a second striker. However, with the solidity the 3 man backline has given Roma so far, I’m not sure Mourinho moves away from it before next season.
BSanti: 4-2-3-1 has always been my personal favorite, so that wins by default. I’d like to see Camara and Wijnaldum in the double-pivot; I think as a duo, they’d offer a level of dynamism that few Serie A mid-fields could handle (assuming Gini quickly returns to his best).
Are there any other areas or players you’d like to see Tiago Pinto address once the winter window opens?
JonAS: CB and CB. And a CB, of course. Oh, and a CB. Did I already mention we need a CB?
Bren: I guess it depends on if they’d really entertain the notion of selling Tammy midseason, which I just don’t see happening. The midfield isn’t great, but it’s already overcrowded, so I think most of our additions will be in defense, with one and perhaps two full-backs coming aboard to go along with the CB they pretty much already promised.
Jimmy: If he could invest in a Shooting Boots camp for Tammy Abraham and Nicolò Zaniolo, that’d be fantastic. More seriously, I think that defensive reinforcements, particularly at fullback, are a smart idea.
ssciavillo: I wouldn’t buy a midfielder just to buy one, but if the right deal can be had for a player like Davide Frattesi, then I’d make that move. Roma misses that Mkhitaryan type that can make those late runs and chip in goals. Bring him home to Rome.
BSanti: It’s time to bring Radja Nainggolan home, Pinto.
Which Roma player stands to benefit most from this unusual break? Which one stands to suffer the most?
JonAS: Camara and Spinazzola to benefit. Camara for a bit more tweaks to create a finished product. Spinazzola to refind his 2021 form. Both will be vital for our comeback in 2023.
Abraham and Belotti will suffer since they ended the first part on a very sour note and far too few goals between them. All they have left for the next few weeks is training and watching the WC. Kinda frustrating.
Bren: I’ll contradict myself and say Abraham. It’s a bummer his form didn’t carry into the new season and earn him a spot in the World Cup, but if he can use this month-long break to reflect, relax and recharge, he could be in line for a big second half. After all, he did it last year, right?
Which one suffers the most…hmm. Difficult to say, but my gut says Volpato or Camara, simply because they were just building up momentum, and then, Bam, no games for nearly five weeks! That could lead to some hiccups in 2023.
Jimmy: Camara, Spinny, Abraham, and Zaniolo. All four are players who need time at the club with a little bit less pressure to be stars at this exact moment. All four could use some time with Mourinho because he clearly trusts them all despite their inexperience (for Camara) or their form (for the other three). As much as I’m disappointed that the Giallorossi don’t have too many World Cup participants this time around, I do think it will help the stars become refocused post-break.
ssciavillo: I think Pellegrini could benefit the most just because he will have an extended break with no pressure to rush back to get healthy. I don’t think he’s been right for at least a month physically. Getting him back to last season’s form could also be the key to Abraham and Belotti getting the service they need to start bagging goals again.
In terms of suffering from the long break, no Roma players are in that great form, so the only worry is that someone gets hurt at the World Cup. Other than that then I think this break could be good for all.
BSanti: I’ll say Zaniolo will benefit the most. His body gets a break from the wear-and-tear of the season, and it allows him to get some more time with Mourinho on the training ground that he wouldn’t otherwise have without this break. Those two factors could result in a strong second half of the campaign for Nicolo.
Come May, what will we say about this World Cup break? Was it the kick in the ass the club needed, or did it make matters worse?
JonAS: Worse short term but a Godly gift in the long run. Dybala and Rui get severely injured during the WC, ending all hopes for a top 4. Luckily Svilar did just enough for Roma to finish sixth in the league. Angry Mourinho decides to leave, and the Friedkins hire Ancelotti, who takes this team to the Scudetto 2024 with De Rossi as T2. Ah, the life of a Roma fan.
Bren: Provided that Dybala returns from Qatar unscathed, I think this break will do wonders for Roma. Getting Dybala and Wijnaldum back healthy is already a step in the right direction, but the time away could do wonders for Tammy, Belotti, Zaniolo, and a few others. Add Solbakken into the mix and perhaps a couple of new defenders, and Roma could be primed to make a genuine run at fourth place.
Jimmy: It was the breather Roma needed before winning the Europa League and getting a top-four spot. What can I say, you can’t beat an optimist down for too long.
ssciavillo: I agree. I think in the long run, for a team that’s been struggling the way Roma has this break will be just what the doctor ordered. I’d be worried if we were in blazing form like Napoli.
BSanti: Scudetto push, incoming.
Thank you for reading, and be sure to stick with us throughout the Word Cup break as we dive deeper into these questions and more!