Between Serie A, the Coppa Italia, and their run to the final of the Europa League, Roma played in 55 competitive matches this season. And apart from a few laughers here and there, they were 55 mostly arduous affairs. Thanks to their usual spate of injuries, a few ill-timed suspensions, and José Mourinho's penchant for producing anxiety-inducing victories, Roma fans were put through the wringer this year.
Despite the challenges Roma faced this season, there were many reasons to be optimistic. Paulo Dybala impressed during his debut season with the club, Nemanja Matic displayed remarkable skill and composure in Roma's midfield despite his age, and Bryan Cristante, once a frequent target of criticism, had a standout year and became one of Mourinho's key players.
And just as we do every summer, we assembled the CdT crew to make sense of all the madness. In part one of our Great Roma Questionnaire Extraordinaire, we discuss expectations vs. reality, causes for optimism, Tiago Pinto's performance, and Mourinho's so-called anti-football, among other topics.
Be sure to check back later for part two, where we discuss Dybala, Nicolo Zaniolo, and much more.
Enjoy, and as always, please give us your thoughts in the comment section!
1. I set an impossibly high standard by asking straight away if Roma were title contenders. Other than simply not being good enough, why did Roma fall short of those expectations, or even simply a spot in the top four?
JonAS: Well, a lot of things, but I think the two major ones were injuries at a bad time (Dybala, Wijnaldum, Karsdorp, Smalling especially) and our two strikers, Abraham and Belotti, not showing up. I had such high hopes for Belotti, I even predicted him to score more goals than Tammy. Boy, was I wrong. I never thought he would fall that low. After all, this is (was?) a man who scored 100+ goals in Serie before his 30th birthday.
Of course, they didn’t get a lot of help from our midfield, but in the end, they’re strikers; their job is to score when things are rough, out of the blue. Roma really missed that killer instinct up front. 8 goals between the both of them (actually, only Abraham) in Serie A is damn weak. Guys like Felipe Anderson, Koopmeiners, or Orsolini scored more goals on their own.
Bren: Yeah, it may be impossible to narrow it down to one culprit, but I’m with you on this one, Jonas. Mourinho’s defense was rock solid as always, but when you have no faith in your strikers, you have no choice but to gut out 1-0 wins every weekend. It still feels so absurd that many of us were actually worried there would be enough shots and adulation to satisfy both Belotti and Abraham...had we only known.
Apart from that, I’d say the midfield came up short this season. They were a step too slow and a tad too predictable, which either a) exacerbated the club’s finishing issues up front or b) was exacerbated by the club’s finishing. Either way, not good.
Throw in the always standard shitting of the bed against some smaller sides, and there you have it. Mystery solved.
ssciavillo: I think you guys both bring up valid points between the injuries and lack of goals from the strikers. But let’s not forget just how thin this roster actually was. There was little depth behind some of the stalwarts like Dybala, Smalling, and Pellegrini, so once those injuries and eventually fatigue piled up, there just wasn’t enough to keep up the two-front battle. If Roma was out of Europa League, then I believe they would’ve finished top four, given how inconsistent just about everyone, minus Napoli, was. However, once Mourinho had to choose and prioritized the EL then, there just weren’t enough legs to hang around in the league.
Jimmy: I think it’s important to remember that the midfield wasn’t operating at full capacity from the word go. Gini Wijnaldum was seen as a transfer on a similar (but not equal) level to Paulo Dybala, and then a freak injury during practice basically killed Roma’s hopes of having a midfield with depth this season. If Gini is healthy, they make a top-four push, even with Belotti and Abraham disappointing; it’s as simple as that.
2. Despite finishing in 6th place, there were plenty of positives from Roma this season. What impressed you most about Mourinho’s men, and how can they build on that for next year?
JonAS: I really liked the team’s overall attitude and fighting spirit, classic Mourinho. It wasn’t always nice (like…most of the time), but guys like Mancini, Bove, SES, Matic, and Smalling fought like lions on the pitch. Even Belotti and Abraham, our two biggest disappointments this season, gave their all and kept running. At least you couldn’t say they didn’t try.
Bren: You nailed it again, Jonas. I can see why you’re always first to these! But I agree the mentality and intestinal fortitude he’s instilled in the club have been amazing.
For my answer, I’ll branch slightly off yours and say that I’ve been incredibly impressed by Roma’s esprit de corps; these guys truly seem to care about one another. You saw it in the way Matic consoled Dybala after the loss to Sevilla or how they picked up Roger Ibañez any time he erred.
That stuff may be hard to quantify, but it goes a long way toward building an atmosphere that recruits and retains quality players.
JonAS: Mourinho just needs to keep this whole ‘us against the world’ approach for next season and create the same aura around the team. The fans will surely keep coming to the Olimpico. And Pinto should look for more players who fit perfectly, like Matic.
ssciavillo: I agree that both of those things were true positives this season. I love the club’s fighting spirit and the fact they never gave up in a match. And the camaraderie is second to none in my time as a Romanista. As a third, I’d also throw in the development of youngsters like Nicola Zalewski and Edoardo Bove. Even if it was forced based on roster construction, Mourinho gave those two plenty of valuable experience and bled a handful of other youth team players into the squad.
Jimmy: Yeah, the amount that these players cared this season was impressive, to say the least. I think that despite the Europa League final loss, a lot of players are going to want to stick around for next season because of that emotional connection to this squad and this club. You can’t buy that.
3. Mourinho’s “anti-football” tactics and overall conservative approach became talking points as the season wore on. Do you have any qualms with his approach, or was he simply doing what was necessary given the circumstances?
JonAS: There were games in which the 3-4-2-1 with three CBs was too conservative, mostly against the smaller sides. I hoped he would use his 4-2-3-1 more often. But in the end, José had to work with the tools at his disposal. We don’t have the roster to dominate games like City, Barcelona, or Napoli. And sadly, we don’t have Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Robben, Lampard, or Drogba like in his good old Chelsea or Real days. Some, like Dybala or Wijnaldum, would be those guys if they weren’t injured or at 50%.
Bren: Would it be too forward of me to say that I hate Mourinho’s tactics? I understand the rationale behind it, but as we saw against Sevilla, it has definite limitations. I’ll credit him for dragging this team to the final, to begin with, much of which was due to their impressive defensive structure, but I just don’t think those tactics win out in the long run.
The 4-2-3-1 has always been my favorite formation, so I would love a switch back to that. The few instances in which Mourinho used that formation (or one of its variants) produced some pretty free-flowing and effective football; take the 3-0 win over Sampdoria from April, for example.
In the end, he was really limited by the quality of the squad, so the formation could only do so much.
ssciavillo: While it’s not the most attractive football to watch, I think Mourinho was simply dealing with the hand he was dealt. Considering the lack of midfield depth and wingers, the 3-4-2-1 was the best fit for his personnel. I do agree with Jonas that against some of the smaller sides, I’d like to have seen more of the 4-2-3-1 with Roma taking more of the attacking initiative.
However, I can’t argue with the overall results that Mourinho has been able to achieve in Europe over the last two seasons. Roma was a goal away from lifting back-to-back European trophies. I think next season, I’d like to see a little more variability based on the opponent, but I’m not going to be the one to critique a manager of Mourinho’s quality if he keeps getting results in Europe.
Jimmy: Yeah, I side with Steve here and say that Mourinho’s tactics were largely a result of the squad he had available. I want to see this Roma in a 4-2-3-1, and the signings that Tiago Pinto is looking at for this summer indicate that the Giallorossi are moving back towards Mourinho’s favored formation. The one thing he could’ve done differently would have been maybe cutting bait on Andrea Belotti sooner. Call me crazy, but I would’ve rather seen a Primavera striker up top toward the end of this season instead of Il Gallo.
4. Did they make the right call in prioritizing the Europa League over Serie A down the stretch?
JonAS: Nope. Why? Simple. They didn’t win it, did they? But they came close, very, very close. Playing in that final was memorable, but in the end, Roma was left without a prize and without CL football. I really believe that if Roma crashed out vs. RB Salzburg back in February, they would make the top 4 in Serie A. There are Fewer injuries, less fatigue, more time for training and preparation…
Bren: Man, even though I came up with this question, I’m not sure how to answer it. Mourinho is nothing if not a pragmatist, so I think he chose the path of least resistance, considering the circumstances.
Facing unfamiliar opponents and with confidence in his defense (not to mention his European record), all Mourinho had to do was scheme his way into one goal and choke the life out of the match.
Was that the safer and better plan than hoping Roma could, I don’t know, average 2 points per league match in the spring? Hard to say, but they did make the final, so I think I’ll have to side with Mourinho on this one.
One correct handball call in the final, and we’re not even having this conversation. Having said that, I hope he puts more emphasis on the league next season.
ssciavillo: He 100% made the right call. With Roma already into the semifinal and four teams essentially competing for the last Champions League spot in the league, shooting for the final gave Roma a greater probability of reaching UCL next season. As Bren said, one handball call or something else goes differently in the final, and we’re not even asking this question.
As I stated in one of the earlier questions, I do agree with Jonas that if Roma had crashed out earlier, I believe the top-four would’ve happened. However, given the way things played out, I wouldn’t have traded making a European final for a tighter top-four race that still could’ve gone against Roma.
JonAS: Yeah, we wouldn’t have those amazing nights like Sociedad and Feyenoord at home. And, of course, the club earned some money by advancing this far. People in Europe now know the club Roma after these two consecutive European finals. At least that’s something important for the ‘branch’ AS Roma.
Jimmy: Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that he made the right call. Roma’s fate in the league was out of Mourinho’s hands after a certain point, and he’s also been known to succeed (even with Roma) in European competitions. I really doubt that Roma would have made top four if they crashed out against Salzburg. There were just not enough Serie A quality players to rotate in, even if the club had only been in one competition.
5. This squad felt pretty complete last August but proved to be woefully shallow and ill-equipped to compete in multiple races this year. So what did GM Tiago Pinto get correct, and where did he fall short? What signings should or shouldn’t he have made?
JonAS: The trio of Dybala, Matic, and Wijnaldum were great signings. I was really impressed by those names. Only Wijnaldum was doomed due to his serious injury at the start of the season, but Pinto couldn’t have possibly known. Getting Camara from Olympiacos in a hurry wasn’t the best deal in hindsight; Bove/Tahirovic could have shared his minutes, and we would nurture our own talents instead of a meaningless loan. You know, kill two birds with one stone.
Bren: I understand your stance on Wijnaldum, and it couldn’t have been easy for him to arrive in Rome with all those expectations only to be hurt before the season really began. But he did return several months ago and never really made his mark, so I think we may have been a tad too optimistic there. But I guess we’ll never know how things may have played out had he not been injured late last summer.
If we have to name specific names, I think adding Davide Frattesi and Luis Muriel last summer could have solved a lot of the problems we eventually saw this season. Isco would have been a nice addition to replace Henrikh Mkhitaryan, too.
And hey, would it surprise anyone if all three of those guys are linked with Roma this summer?
ssciavillo: I think the Dybala signing goes without saying. He was able to bring in one of Roma’s best players in my time as a supporter on a free. Matic also proved to be a perfect fit, even at his age. The Wijnaldum one is always an incomplete grade because he missed so much time, but I do agree with Bren that I thought he’d have left a bigger mark in the months he did play.
Working with such a limited budget, there wasn’t much more Pinto could’ve done from a signing standpoint. I know Belotti looks like a bad deal now, but when that move was made, I thought it could be a real coup. I don’t think even his biggest critics could’ve expected so few goals, so I can’t criticize Pinto there.
If anything, I’d have liked to see another LB brought in on a cheap deal or as a free agent to free up Nicola Zalewski to play further up the pitch. I’m happy he got so many minutes this season, but don’t want to see him go down the Florenzi path.
JonAS: Pinto could have brought an extra LB, DM, or CB if he was at City or Chelsea but not in Rome. As I said earlier, injuries depleted the team, and Roma doesn’t have the money to pay 25 AAA players. After a couple of injuries, the overall quality decreases; it’s only logical for a team like ours.
Jimmy: Wijnaldum’s injury messed Roma up in a serious way this season; more than the decision to fight for the Europa League, his injury is what derailed Roma’s quest for top-four football. I agree that adding Frattesi would’ve been helpful, but I’m skeptical that Roma had the funds for that move (unless a Tammy Abraham sale was completed, but you have to imagine part of the reason why Paulo Dybala wanted to join Roma was Abraham himself, poor form this season aside). The Dybala signing itself was an excellent move, and pre-injury, I was impressed with the Wijnaldum move.
Personally, I would’ve loved it if Roma could’ve moved on from Rui Patricio before this season and signed a young goalkeeper with the potential to grow into a world-beater, but you can’t always get what you want, can you?
6. Which player exceeded your expectations this season?
JonAS: Nemanja ‘da boss” Matic. Last Summer, I thought he would mainly be a luxury sub for Mourinho, but Nemanja played almost 50 games this season and became one of the most important guys on the team. Also, due to Wijnaldum’s injury but when called upon, Matic delivered. One of the most consistent players this season. Perfect player for Mourinho and Serie A, one of the smartest buys in years. He’s aging like a fine wine.
*Honorable mention: Bove. Thanks for the Leverkusen goal, kid.
Bren: I’ll admit, I was incredibly impressed with Matic. He’s not the fastest player out there, but his size, intelligence, and touch were all that kept Roma’s midfield from falling apart at various points this season.
I won’t say Dybala because he did exactly what we thought he would, so I’m going with Bryan Cristante. I know people still have issues with him, but I think he’s shed the scapegoat label this year. He’s a versatile, team-first player capable of progressing the ball up the pitch in the blink of an eye, while his long passing is Mourinho’s ace up the sleeve.
There’s plenty to like about Bryan Cristante.
ssciavillo: Cristante didn’t surprise me at all because I’ve always been one of his backers. When De Rossi says he wants 11 guys like him on a team, I’m sold.
My initial reaction would be to go with Matic like Jonas because I really wasn’t sure if he had that level of play left in his aging legs. However, he more than validated Mourinho bringing him from a playing standpoint.
That being said, I want to give a shout-out to my boy Gianluca Mancini. I was very impressed with how he was able to clean up his game without losing his physical style. In just about the same amount of league minutes, he cut down his yellow cards from 16 to 7, and his fouls committed from 59 to 39. In addition, he’s established himself as a locker room leader. I know some are tired of his antics, but he’s proven to be a perfect player for Mourinho.
Jimmy: It’s gotta be Bryan. I’ve already sung his praises ad nauseam this season, but his team-first style of play is necessary for a winning club, which is why proven winners like José Mourinho, Paulo Dybala, and even our very own Daniele De Rossi consistently sing his praises. All hail Bryan Cristante.
7. Which player underperformed expectations this season?
JonAS: I can’t help but answer Andrea Belotti. Again, I had such high hopes for the Rooster. Like, serious Toni 2.0 vibes. He would be an instant hit. He would take the spot from Abraham and score 15-20 goals this season. But what did we get? 0 goals in Serie A and a long list of uninspiring and painful performances. I’m not even sure if he will stay at Roma at this point.
It’s even more dramatic if you see him hustle. He tried and tried and tried, but that damn ball would not go in. I prayed for a last-minute goal in the EL final vs. Spezia to make everything right. Alas. I even read his name in a list together with flops like Mido, Ibarbo, Esposito, Corvia… That’s rock bottom, dude.
Bren: I can certainly understand that, but Belotti was brought in as an alternative to Abraham, so I’m not sure we should have expected more than 7 or 8 goals. And while he definitely failed to cut the mustard, I’ll have to go with Tammy. From 27 goals in all competitions to 9, that’s a pretty precipitous fall. And now he’s out until next March, too. This kid couldn’t catch a break this season.
ssciavillo: While you can’t go wrong with either of Roma’s strikers, I’m going to go with Abraham. I was expecting him to push 20 goals in Serie A and 30 in all competitions again. Instead, like Bren said, we got 9. Now, he’s got the ACL tear to deal with, so it’ll be a while before he can even redeem himself or net Roma some cash. Rough season all around from Tammy Two Goals.
Jimmy: Andrea Belotti. Zero goals in the league? Come on, man.
Check back later for part two, where we discuss the Nicolo Zaniolo transfer, Dybala's brilliance, and Bove vs. Zalewski: who has the brighter future?