For a minute there against HJK on Thursday (well, 45 minutes, to be precise), it felt like Roma was destined for another well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing performance. Despite having a clear talent advantage over Helsinki, Roma struggled to create much of anything in the first half, either running into a wall of defenders (or simply running out of space) anytime they entered the final third.
With his club in the middle of a brutal three-matches-in-six-days stretch, José Mourinho decided to bring Paulo Dybala on to start the second half. While his day off was interrupted, Dybala broke the deadlock after approximately 70 seconds with another impressive left-footed strike.
Dybala's goal was followed up quickly by Lorenzo Pellegrini, who had the good fortune of watching the ball carom off his chest into the back of the net, while Andrea Belotti tallied his first goal with Roma some 20 minutes later. What began with frustration ended with a flourish as the Giallorossi (or the Rosanero, as it were) walked off three-nil winners, gaining some much-needed traction in Europa League Group C.
Unfortunately, things won't be quite so easy against Atalanta tomorrow. With an undefeated record (four wins and two draws), Gian Piero Gasperini's group has started the 2022-2023 season on the right foot. They may not be bowling over the competition in their usual manner, but with 10 goals through six matches, the Goddesses have thrown themselves back into the Champions League conversation in the early stages of the new season.
After struggling against Atalanta during the latter days of the 2010s, Roma has flipped the script over the past 18 months, winning the last two meetings by a combined 5-1 scoreline, including a 4-1 rout in Bergamo last December.
But whether or not that streak survives depends on a few key factors, so let's look at what to watch for in Sunday's tilt at the Stadio Olimpico.
Keep An Eye On
The man who was nearly a Roma midfielder last year took some time to adjust to life in Italy, watching his production and playing time dip during his first season with Atalanta. After scoring 15 goals and providing five assists in 2,700 minutes for Alkmaar in his native Netherlands in 2020-2021, Koopmeiners managed only four goals and one assist in 2,100 minutes last season. It's not uncommon for players to suffer a dip in form when changing leagues, particularly midfielders, but this was a rather steep drop for the 24-year-old Dutch midfielder.
However, it pains me to report that Koopmeiners has effectively put his demons behind him, scoring four goals and providing one assist in 540 league minutes, putting him on pace for one monster campaign. But when you peel back a few layers, his performance, while still incredibly impressive, isn't as sustainable as it may seem on the surface.
Thanks to half of his four goals coming from outside the area, Koopmeiners doubled his expected goal tally (2 xG) through his first six matches. While this isn't meant to diminish his hot start, when you consider that each of those strikes—a near 30-yarder against Verona on opening day and a setpiece against Torino in early September—carried a 0.2 xG, Koop has been a bit lucky so far.
Statistical nuances notwithstanding, you never know what may happen on any given Sunday. Koopmeiners has been Atalanta's best player through the first six rounds of play and will present an enormous challenge to whoever Mourinho rolls out in midfield tomorrow.
La Joya's inclusion in this section is a testament to his powers and a warning to the rest of the club. With four goals and two assists through his first eight appearances with his new club (all competitions), Dybala has lived up to, and perhaps even exceeded, the hype. While Pellegrini has done his share (one goal and four assists), when Dybala is not on the pitch, there is a palpable drop in creativity, aggression, and inspiration.
It almost reminds me of this (in)famous quote from Homer Simpson:
No, Dybala is not the original dog from hell (you mean Cerberus?), but when he's not on the pitch, it's almost as if the rest of the squad is asking, "Where's Dybala?" We're still in the early days, and I have no doubt Mourinho will eventually create a dependable Plan B, but right now, his side is dependent on Dybala, which, given his injury history, is troubling. Someone has to take the reins when he's being rested.
With Nicolo Zaniolo recovering from a dislocated shoulder earlier than expected, this situation may resolve itself soon, but Roma needs production from players not named Dybala or Pellegrini.
Speaking of which...
Can Tammy Catch Fire?
With the caveat that we're only six weeks into the season still intact, Tammy Abraham's second season in the capital is off to a rather strange start. While his shots per 90 minutes, shots-on-target per 90 minutes, and total shots per 90 minutes are all above last season's pace, his goals per shot, goals per shot-on-target, and goals per 90 minutes are lagging behind his 2021-2022 mark—and all despite playing to the same 0.60 xG per 90 minutes he managed last season.
His shot groupings are essentially the same—still concentrated mainly in high percentage areas—but he's just not finding the back of the net for some reason. He suffered a similarly slow start last year, so this quirk will likely correct itself soon. With Zaniolo just returning from injury and Dybala already shouldering a heavy load, a Tammy Two Goals breakthrough performance would alleviate many of the concerns we discussed.
(That should read Matchday 7)