It looks like José Mourinho’s Roma is finally kicking into the highest gear. Unbeaten in 10 consecutive Serie A games, one loss since January 9 (in and against Inter which isn’t a shame, to be honest), a never-say-die spirit until the 95th minute, four clean sheets in its five last Serie A games—I could go on and on.
There were some treacherous games along the way like Lazio, Atalanta, Sampdoria, and Sassuolo but Roma never crumbled under pressure or left the field as losers. This is arguably José’s finest hour since joining Roma last summer. And we have to mainly thank the Old Guard for this hot streak: Rui Patricio (34), Chris Smalling (32), and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (33).
Of course, there were the numerous Tammy Abraham goals, the amazing Lorenzo Pellegrini free-kick, Rick Karsdorp’s menacing runs, or Nicola Zalewski’s sudden rise to fame, but the real heroes nowadays are Roma’s golden oldies. Rui and Smalling strengthened the defense and guided Roger Ibañez, Gianluca Mancini, and Marash Kumbulla. Mkhitaryan reinvented himself during the autumn of his career in a new role in Mourinho’s 3-5-2.
Ask yourself the question. Can a player over 30-years-old still enter his prime? Did Smalling, Rui, or Mkhitaryan ever perform any better than this recent string of games in 2022? Rui has been consistent all season long while the defense has looked better every week since Smalling returned from injury. Mkhitaryan may not put up the same numbers as last season, but his new central midfield role suits him like a glove; his absence is way more felt when he’s out and he’s more vital to our midfield than a Cristante or Veretout.
Up front, Roma doesn’t have a Smalling or Rui Patricio anymore after Dzeko’s departure. Luckily Abraham is fitting in quite nicely but one has to wonder if he and Zaniolo would bang in more goals with a mentor genre Dzeko, Giroud, Cavani, or Quagliarella.
“Sometimes the old ways are the best”—a famous quote from one of my favorite James Bond movies, Skyfall. Sure, it’s nice to have flashy things (Abraham, Pellegrini), a diamond in the rough (Zalewski, Felix), or youthful enthusiasm (Mancini, Ibañez). But sometimes you also need a calm presence around, warriors who have seen some sh*t in their career and who know how to close down games, albeit in an ugly way. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Winners create winners, that’s why Friedkin hired Mourinho in the first place.
You can’t win prizes with a bunch of 20-year-olds. You need leaders, captains of the ship. Lorenzo is the official capitano, but don’t underestimate the impact of a Smalling or Rui. Both are very communicative while Mkhitaryan may be less vocal, but he compensates for that with his intelligence, skill, and positional awareness. All three of them have been in superb form lately and while I don’t want to ignore the qualities of Pellegrini, Karsdorp, Cristante, or Oliveira, the golden oldies have really stepped up after New Year.
Progressing in the Conference League and even keeping hopes up for a top-four finish (Roma are currently five points behind fourth-place Juventus); things are starting to look bright again in Trigoria thanks to Roma’s fine run between February and now. Traditionally we saw Roma crumble during these months so it’s nice for a change to see them grow and become a tough unit under Mourinho.
As for the future: Rui is tied down to 2024, so that’s nice. Smalling has a contract until the summer of 2023, so we don’t have to make a decision just yet. He’ll be 33 when that ends which is actually a spring chicken compared to some Italian defenders. Even I had some doubts when he arrived in Rome, an English CB in a tactical league like Serie A? But Chris has adapted quite well and there’s nice chemistry with the other CB’s and Mourinho. So don’t be surprised if Smalling actually stays beyond 2023 or even 2024. Just pray he remains injury-free.
The most important puzzle is Henrikh, whose contract expires after this season. Obviously, Roma wants to keep him (Mourinho is a fan as well, he said it multiple times during press conferences) but it all depends on which conditions. Mkhitaryan may look for an extension until 2024 while we all know the Friedkins want a revamp and a younger, smaller core of players. Offering 33-year-old players a new contract isn’t the right way, especially after Pinto had to cut all the dead weight and clean up the mess of Monchi.
But like I said earlier: the way Mkhitaryan is playing now, it’s impossible to ignore him and his demands. Perhaps an extension until summer 2023 with an option for another year under circumstances (appearances, goals, etc.) could suit all parties? That way it stimulates Mkhitaryan to keep performing after 2022 while also protecting Roma should he go downhill fast after this season. Football is business after all.
For now, let’s enjoy the Roman Renaissance of these three players. They are thus living proof that age is only a number. And class is permanent. Fine wine indeed.