Even without their gleaming new trophy at Roma HQ, the Giallorossi's 2021-2022 season was noteworthy for one very simple reason: José Mourinho. Whether they won the league, finished sixth, or decided to play every third match in pajamas, this was a year to remember. After all, it’s not every day that Roma signs a manager with The Special One’s résumé or reputation. In time (like, hopefully, next year), Mourinho will likely get the Giallorossi back in the Champions League's good graces, but year one of the club's Mourinho Makeover was as much about self-belief as it was Scudetto chases.
With a few exceptions, Roma wasn't actually that much better under Mourinho than they were under Paulo Fonseca. However, the club's impressive form in 2022, the tenacity they showed all year long, and, of course, the outpouring of emotions after the club broke their 14-year title drought prove that Mourinho has done more work between Roma's ears than any of his recent predecessors.
Intangible signs of progress are important, but that Conference League trophy was a fitting end to Mourinho's first season in Rome and points to brighter days ahead. To recap all the highs and lows from the Giallorossi's season, we assembled the crew to talk expectations vs. reality, surprises, disappointments, and a whole lot more!
We might as well start with the obvious: How did the results of Mourinho’s first year match up with your expectations back in August?
JonAS: I think we can divide that into two parts: domestic and international. IMO we were disappointing in Serie A and the Coppa but overachieved in Europe. After all, we finally won a prize for the first time since 2008 which I didn’t expect back in August. I hoped for a top 4 place and maybe a Coppa final but an actual damn trophy? Kudos to Mourinho for making them winners again. On a financial note, CL qualification would have been better for the balance. But those celebrations in the city center were more than worth it to ‘ignore’ our below-average Serie A season.
ssciavillo: I think Mourinho met my expectations in the sense that I hoped Roma would push for 4th, but probably finish in the EL spots and make a deep run into the ECL. Roma hung around for quite some time putting pressure on Juve for the last CL spot. Meanwhile, EL qualification was achieved and Roma ultimately won the ECL. That last fact makes this season an unbridled success. The ECL title will have its detractors for being a third-tier competition, but Roma had never previously won a European trophy and it’s been 14 seasons since Roma added any silverware to the trophy case. That part exceeded my expectations.
Bren: Well, back in August I said 5th or 6th feels about right for this current squad, and that’s precisely where they finished. At first blush, Roma didn’t really improve that much over last year if we’re being honest, but Mourinho’s biggest accomplishment this year was getting the squad to believe better days were ahead. As the season progressed, he also seemed to single out 7 to 8 key pieces, and with those players seemingly buying in hook, line, and sinker, we have nowhere to go but up—next year should be VERY exciting.
Jimmy: Back in August, I was hoping for Champions League qualification. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but the team was fighting for a top-four spot throughout the season and they ended up winning silverware for the first time in over a decade, so I can’t really complain. Call the Europa Conference League a Mickey Mouse tournament all you want, it’s more than any other Italian club has done on the continental stage since Mourinho’s Inter. I was also hopeful that Tiago Pinto’s new-look Roma would make me hopeful for the long-term viability of the Giallorossi in the league and in Europe; what we’ve seen from the likes of Tammy Abraham, Nicola Zalewski, and Rui Patricio definitely makes me believe that this club could be going places in the next two seasons.
BSanti: Well, my expectation was that Roma would finish 4th, without any silverware. Given that Roma finished 6th with a European cup to their name, I’d say it about evens out. While domestic expectations fell short of the mark, I definitely didn’t expect such a definitive transformation of the character of this team so early in Mourinho’s tenure, something that absolutely needed to happen if Roma are to challenge for the Scudetto in the near future.
What surprised you most about the first year of Roma’s Mourinho Makeover?
JonAS: I’m surprised Mourinho already fixed a lot of defensive problems and brainfarts. Rui Patricio is joint second in clean sheets this season which says something. Ibanez, Smalling, Mancini, and even Kumbulla all had good moments throughout the campaign, and three-fourths of them aren’t even in their prime yet. Promising indeed. The 6-1 Norway disaster and Juve loss at home hurt a lot but Mourinho used those moments to build a stronger unit. And in the end that worked out.
ssciavilo: I agree with Jonas. The way Mourinho was able to improve the defense to the point where Roma defeated Leicester City and Feyenoord in its last two ECL matches was impressive. Mourinho has seemingly transformed the team’s mentality as well. Roma rarely hung its head after giving up an early goal, fought back late many times in the second half of the season, and limited its defensive lapses. That is a great foundation to build on next season.
Bren: What surprised me most was the simple experience of living with Mourinho as the manager of your favorite football team: the immediate increase in expectations, the at-times prickly press conferences, the sneering, the arrogance, the unrelenting sense of self-belief but also the kindness, the compassion and the genuine bond he seems to have with the players. It’s been one of the more interesting seasons in my decade covering this club; the only thing that comes close was the euphoria of Rudi’s first season in the capital–that sense that something new and significant was afoot.
Jimmy: I was most surprised that Primavera players were repeatedly getting chances under Mou. The grumbling from my friends who support Tottenham and Manchester United was that Mourinho didn’t develop youth, and while you can argue that the lack of depth on the roster practically forced Mourinho to give players like Edoardo Bove, Cristian Volapto, Felix Afena-Gyan, and Nicola Zalewski a lot of chances this season, he still gave them those chances, which is something most coaches in Serie A simply don’t do. I’m not too surprised by the defensive integrity of this Roma side under Mourinho; we’ve always known that there were good defensive pieces in the side like Gianluca Mancini, Roger Ibañez, and Chris Smalling, it was just a question of pairing them with the right goalkeeper and hoping that Max Kumbulla would come good. Now that both of those things have happened, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Roma’s defense get even better next season.
BSanti: For me, it has to be the makeover Mourinho himself experienced. While there were no doubt moments this season that screamed vintage Mourinho—particularly after the debacle in Norway—The Special One was able to turn the ship around and guide Roma to European glory, all the while emphasizing at every opportunity that for him, this was solely about delivering something to the fans - a departure from previous iterations of Mourinho that even he himself acknowledges.
What disappointed you most about Roma’s first year under Mourinho?
JonAS: The inability to defeat smaller teams when needed. See Venezia, Bologna, Verona at home. That’s six points dropped in a stupid way, the CL race vs Juve should have been way tighter.
ssciavillo: I have to agree that the record against some of the smaller sides left a lot to be desired. The five dropped points to Venezia alone stand out.
Bren: I mean, the results, right? The Conference League trophy notwithstanding, Roma’s league performance was a bit disappointing. There were several times throughout the season when it seemed like Mourinho was going to get these guys to overachieve, and while he improved several facets of Roma’s play, the difference on the table was…one point and one spot on the table from where Paulo Fonseca had them under much more difficult circumstances.
Jimmy Miotto: While I think Mourinho made major strides on this issue this season, Roma’s losses to smaller sides in all competitions made it clear that they still have a long way to go towards developing a true champion’s mentality throughout the side. I think winning the ECL will help there; there’s nothing like winning to promote more winning. Still, if we lose five out of six points to some relegation-bound side like Venezia next season, I’m going to be punching drywall like Adam Driver in Marriage Story.
BSanti: Definitely the performances against the smaller sides. Under Fonseca, the Giallorossi consistently came out on top over the smaller sides, particularly in his last season. And although Mourinho was brought in to change the mentality of the squad so that Roma could finally start knocking off their top-four rivals, this league is won and lost on results against the lesser teams in the league, so a regression on that front is certainly a blemish on this first season.
Which player benefitted the most from Mourinho’s arrival?
JonAS: A lot of them: Rui Patricio, Smalling, Ibanez, Karsdorp, Pellegrini, Zaniolo, Abraham... But I’ll pick the youngest of them all: Zalewski. The only true surprise package who went from zero to hero. And one that makes life a bit easier for Pinto since he doesn’t have to spend money for a vice Spinazzola and can sell Viña without any problems.
ssciavillo: Man, there are so many like Jonas pointed out. Zalewski is a great shout, but I’m going to go with Pellegrini. Lolo has now firmly established himself as the club’s captain to the point where nobody can question if he’s got the armband just because he’s Roman. He’s now a true leader. Meanwhile, performance-wise, Pellegrini had a hell of a season as he continues to improve his all-around game and establish himself as one of the best midfielders in the league.
Bren: Well, I wrote several thousand words last summer with the belief that Zaniolo would blossom under Mourinho’s leadership, which may very well be the case soon enough, but this was always a transition year for The Kid, so I’ll go with Pellegrini, who should receive some legitimate league MVP votes this year. He’s still not at his apex, but this was the first year I can remember where there weren’t many “yeah, buts” with his performance. His maturation was a sight to behold; he can do it all.
Jimmy: Zalewski’s the obvious answer, and it’s even more obvious coming from me; I really think the kid is going places, and I hope he gets to play in a more attacking role next season. However, to provide some variety, I’m going to go with a dark horse and say that Max Kumbulla benefitted the most from Mourinho’s arrival. Mou freezing Kumbulla out after the Bodø/Glimt debacle seems to have flipped a switch for the young Albanian defender; he fully acknowledged the holes in his game and apparently worked week in and week out to patch them up, regaining Mourinho’s trust and a place in the defensive rotation in the process. Sometimes the most important thing separating a person from improving is acknowledging their flaws; while Mourinho’s freeze-out method took some casualties (farewell Gonzalo Villar, we hardly knew ye), if it means that Kumbulla becomes a key defensive cog for Roma in the long term, losing the Villars, Mayorals, and Diawaras will be 100% worth it.
BSanti: Karsdorp, anyone? While trending upward under Fonseca, Karsdorp truly became a key cog in the side, holding down the fort for half a season until Ainsley Maitland-Niles was brought in to give him a bit of a respite. To go from being a transfer failure to being a key cog in the side to getting a call up with your national team, Karsdorp’s growth over the last year has been wonderful to witness, and you certainly have to give props to Mourinho for getting the most out of Rick.
Was there any player you thought would excel under Mourinho that didn’t? If so, why do you think they failed to meet expectations?
JonAS: I hoped Veretout would blossom under Mourinho. A bulldog in midfield. I honestly believed he would turn into Nainggolan 2.0 this season but alas, he even got benched in favor of Oliveira and Cristante. I guess José just isn”t a fan of Jordan. My second names are Darboe/Diawara since we needed a true DM and they could have been a cheap solution.
ssciavillo: Veretout is another great shout. However, I’m going to go with Zaniolo and it’s not because I think he had an awful season. I just thought he’d explode a bit more under Mourinho. I think a lot of it comes down to the return from the two ACL surgeries, as the first half of the season was a bit of refinding his footing. Also, he took quite a beating from opponents without much love from the officials. So, his offensive output was down a bit. But, if the Bodo and Feyenoord matches tell us anything it’s that Zaniolo can turn up in the big moments. I expect big things from him with another year of tutelage under Mourinho.
Bren: Yeah, I’m right there with you, Jonas. I’m still mystified why Veretout is seemingly being pushed out or seeking his own exit; he’s a quality player and has a lot of traits you’d think Mourinho would drool over. I’ll take my answer in a different direction and say, Gianluca Mancini. He just feels like a Mourinho guy and I thought he’d take tremendous steps forward this year, but, while he was fine, he didn’t really do anything to make me believe he’s going to be a top-shelf defender. This isn’t a knock against him—let me stress that—just that I thought he’d take his game to the next level under Mourinho, but there’s still time.
Jimmy: Yeah, I don’t know what happened with Veretout this season, but he went from a player I wanted with Roma for the long term to someone I actively want gone this summer. It sounds like Bove will be taking his place in the midfield rotation, with another signing coming in to replace Sergio Oliveira. I’ll probably miss Oliveira more than Veretout, which tells you just how poor Jordan was this season.
BSanti: I wish I could argue for anyone else, but it has to be Veretout.
Arguably the biggest non-Mourinho story of the season was Roma’s transition from Edin Dzeko to Tammy Abraham. Tell us a bit about how that played out and what we should expect going forward. Were there any areas in which Roma missed Dzeko?
JonAS: The numbers speak for themselves. Abraham did a damn fine job in his first season abroad while he’s also 10+ years younger than Edin. This is a good long-term solution for Roma. Perhaps Dzeko was a bit more lethal in the penalty area but Abraham hustles and runs so much more, I really love his style and passion. He’s a winner and your prototype Mourinho player. I expected more goals from other players though like SES, Eldor, and Zaniolo. We can’t ask for 50 goals or more from Abraham, he’s no Messi or Ronaldo.
ssciavillo: This move turned out to be perfect for Roma. It was Tammy Time throughout the season in the capital with Abraham leading the line in a big way. His finishing can be improved at times when you consider just how many times he hit the post. But, Tammy has a great all around game and is a guy that Roma can build its attack around. Dzeko wasn’t missed at all in my opinion. Now, as Jonas said, some others need to contribute some more secondary scoring.
Bren: I think I fell into the trap of wondering how Abraham would fill Dzeko’s shoes rather than asking how Mourinho would make use of Abraham’s style of play. That is to say, can the club use Abraham the way he needs to be used rather than forcing a square peg into a round hole? And I think they did exactly that. Mourinho didn’t want nor expect Abraham to play or act like Dzeko (or Harry Kane, for that matter); he just let him be himself, to find the ball and pick out his own time/space to make his moves.
The only area in which we maybe missed Dzeko was his hold-up and playmaking, where he was still slightly ahead of Tammy. But I think that can be remedied with a better supporting cast.
Jimmy: I really can’t add too much here; I didn’t expect a Diet Džeko when Abraham signed, but I also expected a much steeper learning curve for Tammy Two Goals. Instead, he’s the highest-scoring English player in all competitions this season, and my worry has shifted from “is Abraham worth that much?” to “will we be able to keep him for more than two seasons?” Rich person problems, for sure, but problems nevertheless.
BSanti: Honestly, I don’t think Roma skipped a beat with the transition from Dzeko to Tammy. Sure, you miss Dzeko’s hold-up play at times, but Abraham more than made up for that with his ability on the ball, pace in behind, and willingness to track-back. There’s a level of experience that you can’t make up for, but with a manager like Mourinho at the helm, that responsibility falls on him, freeing Tammy to become comfortable in a pressure-filled environment.
Roma’s failed pursuit of Granit Xhaka was well-documented, so what did you make of Mourinho’s midfield adaptations this year? What worked? What didn’t? Can they make it another year without a proper DM?
JonAS: No, they desperately need one. Xhaka, Matic, Lopez, anyone. Hell, bring back De Rossi if necessary. Cristante or Oliveira are not the solutions for that problem while Veretout will probably leave this Summer. I still want to see Mancini getting a shot as DM in a 4-2-3-1 with Smalling and Ibanez as CB’s.
ssciavillo: I think Roma still needs a DM badly. However, I think Cristante was a big benefactor of Mourinho. He’s no-nonsense like the manager and does whatever he’s been asked. Ideally, though, he’d slot in alongside a true DM and play the more box-to-box role in the center of the pitch. I think Oliveira is a good rotation piece at the right price. Veretout should be gone. But, Mourinho’s masterstroke was playing Mkhitaryan in a hybrid role during the second half of the season. Now, let’s see if he sticks around or heads to Inter on a free.
Bren: I think a bit too much was made of all this. Roma needs a real defensive midfielder, there’s no doubt about that, but lacking one isn’t necessarily what kept the club out of the top four. In some ways, I think they’re kind of hamstrung by Cristante; a player I love. He’s definitely not a defensive midfielder, but he’s also not someone you can dismiss out of hand—his passing, particularly his deep passing, can be a game-changing weapon, so Roma would be worse off without him. The problem, quite simply, is this: If he’s not your makeshift DM but you still want him on the pitch, whose place does he take? Not Pellegrini. Not Mkhitaryan…so who?
Jimmy: Two words, Bren: Edoardo. Bove. More seriously, I agree that Roma needs a real defensive midfielder ASAP, and I would argue that that is the missing piece that made it such that Roma didn’t qualify for the Champions League this season. I’m hopeful that the Giallorossi will find a way to get José the midfielder he wants; Roma is already linked to some intriguing midfielders, so let’s see how silly season plays out. My guess is that the big signing of the summer will be that defensive midfielder.
BSanti: I like JonAS idea of bringing back De Rossi, let’s make that happen. Roma are in desperate need of one, and like Jimmy said, this should be the marquee signing for Pinto this summer.
Which U-23 player impressed you most this season and what must they do to build off that progress next season?
JonAS: Zalewski. He needs to be an integral part of the team for 2022-2023, he can relieve both Karsdorp and Spinazzola in the current formation or as a winger in Mourinho’s favorite 4-2-3-1. He doesn't need to be loaned out, he’s ready for the job from what I’ve seen. I think all the other U-23’s like Felix, Bove, and Volpato could use minutes at a smaller team.
ssciavillo: It has to be Zalewski. The kid came in from the primavera, playing in an unnatural position and absolutely shined. I agree with Jonas’ assessment as to where he fits in the two formations and that the other youngsters would benefit from minutes elsewhere. I’d keep an eye on Bove next season though if enough midfielders move on. He could end up as part of the rotation.
Bren: Yeah, no arguments here. He was incredibly impressive. I’ll be curious to see if they let him return to an attacking role next season or if this unexpected shift to wing-back becomes permanent. Either way, he just needs a consistent role next year to build off this success.
Jimmy: Nicola Zalewski, final answer.
BSanti: Zalewski, next question.
Who was Roma’s MVP this season and why?
JonAS: I’m torn between Pellegrini and Abraham. I’ll go for Abraham because he surprised me so much this season, while I always knew Pellegrini is a worthy captain for Roma and a unique talent. Honorable mention: Zaniolo for scoring the arguably most important goal of the season vs Feyenoord.
ssciavillo: I agree that it comes down to those two. I’ll go for Pellegrini just because I’m thrilled to see the way he’s continued to raise his game and grow into the true leader of this team. My honorable mention would have to be Chris Smalling. Roma’s defense was always much more secure when he played.
Bren: This is quite obviously a Pellegrini vs. Abraham vote, but given that his function in the offense is a bit more important and requires a greater assortment of skills, I’ll give my vote to Pellegrini, though it’d be a tough call!
Jimmy: Nicolò Zaniolo didn’t score much this season, but when he did, it was at the exact right moment. His hat-trick against Bodø/Glimt exorcized some demons for sure, and of course, the Giallorossi probably don’t win ECL without his goal against Feyenoord. In terms of a more consistent MVP, though, I have to go with Pellegrini. He didn’t keep up the nuclear-hot form he had to start this season, but he’s shown himself to be one of the best creative midfielders in Europe this season. Long may capitano reign.
BSanti: I’ll go with Tammy on this one. To become such a vital player in the squad and take on a leadership role in just his first season at the club, Tammy has clearly injected some life into this squad that was sorely needed, and when you add in the goals, he’s clear MVP for me.
Finally, with a trophy in the bag, more positive juice than we’ve seen in years, and some fresh expectations, what MUST Roma do this summer to build off that momentum?
JonAS: Keep the core. Sell the deadwood. Add 2-3 AAA players including a DM and the top 4 is yours.
ssciavillo: See above.
Bren: Four words: Dybala, Paulo. Grillitsch, Florian.
Jimmy: Paulo Dybala; Edoardo Bove promotion; Yves Bissouma; Gonçalo Guedes; Ola Solbakken. In that order.
BSanti: Give me Isco, thanks.
Well, you've heard our say, now it’s your turn: What surprised or disappointed you most about Roma's first year with José Mourinho?