Not that it would be a surprise for a side coached by José Mourinho, but Roma’s defense was its strength this season, in no small part due to the center-back group comprised of Chris Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, Roger Ibañez, Diego Llorente, and Marash Kumbulla.
Smalling was as dominant as ever, Mancini took the next step in his development, and Diego Llorente was a last-minute edition that put in strong performances in one of the more crucial parts of the season. Ibañez had an up-and-down season, with strong performances in the first half of the season prior to the World Cup, only to experience a dip in form that would culminate in a handful of glaring mistakes towards the end of the second. As for Kumbulla, the Albanian once again played a bit-part role prior to suffering a devastating ACL tear.
With their season recaps out of the way, let’s revisit our CB predictions from last summer:
Key Player: Chris Smalling
There were certainly questions marks surrounding Smalling’s ability to perform under José Mourinho when The Special One first arrived at Roma, but Chris performed admirably and once again cemented his place as Roma’s rock in the back, so going into this season, it was more a question of Smalling maintaining his form and ensuring the defense did its part given the arrival of Paulo Dybala to bolster the attack.
What We Said in August
Fortunately for all parties involved, Smalling found his health and his form last season under Mourinho, even putting to bed the concerns that he wouldn’t be at his best in a three-man defense, shining once again and further cementing his role as leader of the defense.
With hype at an all-time high going into the season following the arrival of Dybala and the impending arrival of Gini Wijnaldum, the defense will have to do its part—with a large amount of that relying on the form and health of Smalldini.
What Actually Happened
Well, Smalling held up his end of the bargain. Led by the Englishman, Roma’s defense was one of the bright spots this season, playing its part in keeping 14 clean sheets in the league and grinding out result after result in the Europa League en route to the final.
The only hiccup was the injury that ruled Chris out for the majority of that brutal stretch of matches that saw Roma play Atalanta, Milan, and Inter all in short order, but the Englishman was able to recover in time for the EL final and put in a man of the match worthy performance.
Player Under Pressure: Marash Kumbulla
Back in August, I highlighted Marash Kumbulla as the center-back under the most pressure for the 22/23 season, mostly due to the fact that Roma only had four CBs on the roster and plenty of minutes to go around prior to the arrival of Diego Llorente on the final day of the winter window.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan for Marash. The Albanian spent most of the season in the same position he was in last season, utilized by Mourinho only when needed and logging just 462 minutes in 12 appearances across all competitions.
To make matters worse for Kumbulla, he fell victim to an ACL tear in Roma’s match against Milan at the end of April, ostensibly ruling the Albanian out for the first half of next season. Roma had extended his contract till 2027 about a month prior to the injury, but you have to imagine that both parties will look to move on in the summer if possible, especially with Diego Llorente supplanting him in Mourinho’s pecking order.
Given the lack of depth at the start of the season, it was clear that health was the main priority for us in predicting the fortunes of Roma’s CB group:
Assuming Roma doesn’t get any reinforcements at the position by the end of the summer transfer window, I think we’ll look back and see that outcome as a wasted opportunity. I assume if Roma doesn’t bring a center-back in this mercato that they’ll bring one in come the winter window, but one significant injury early on in the campaign could severely risk the Giallorossi’s goals for this season.
And sure enough, Roma did reinforce the position, albeit on the last day of the winter window. Kumbulla’s unfortunate injury ensured that Roma would finish the season with as many CBs as they started with, but Diego Llorente’s performances, when called upon, were crucial in helping Roma navigate a difficult portion of their schedule.
It remains to be seen whether the Giallorossi will be able to successfully negotiate with Leeds to lower the purchase price for Diego now that the English side has been relegated, but having earned himself Mourinho’s trust, it’s a good bet that we’ll see Llorente continue his Roma stay.