There's little doubt that Roma rode José Mourinho's defensive tactical acumen to its Conference League title in 2022 and a Europa League final appearance last season. The Giallorossi's ability to keep opposing attacks at bay for 90 minutes or more allowed Mourinho's side to cover for an often struggling attack. And when you think of defense in calcio, your first thought goes to the center-backs that provide the last line of it in front of the keeper.
Through the years, Roma has been able to identify and maximize the ability of center-backs that lack name recognition, but often, they briefly nurtured that talent before selling it off to the highest bidder, a la Marquinhos and Mehdi Benatia. That was until recently when we saw Chris Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, and Roger Ibañez form Roma's backline for the last three and a half seasons under two different managers.
That trio was finally broken up with the sale of Ibañez to Saudi Arabia this week. But overall, Roma has added depth by securing Evan Ndicka in free agency and renewing Diego Llorente's loan. And rumors are swirling that Roma may add another central defender before the window closes at the end of August. And let's not forget that eventually, Max Kumbulla should play some part when he returns from his ACL tear.
So, without further ado, let's look at the big men in the back: Roma's center backs.
- Chris Smalling
- Gianluca Mancini
- Evan Ndicka
- Diego Llorente
- Marash Kumbulla
Key Player: Chris Smalling
As much as I wanted to change it up this season and make vice-Captain Mancini the defense's key man, there was no unseating Smalling. The Englishman arrived in the summer of 2019 with plenty of question marks upon arriving from Manchester United, where he was essentially a spare part. However, over the last four seasons, Smalling has probably left some United fans questioning why he was let go in the first place.
Smalling has been a rock along Roma's back line and was the key man in the heart of Mourinho's back-three last season. There were two versions of Roma defensively: Smalling on the pitch and Smalling off the pitch. Last season, Smalling made 32 appearances (31 starts), amounting to his Roma career high of 2,808 Serie A minutes. At that time, Roma had a +18 goal differential. In the time when he wasn't on the pitch, Roma was a -6. And for a side with a feeble attack, every one of those goals he helped keep out mattered.
Additionally, Smalling led the side with his 123 clearances, patrolling Roma's penalty area with a calmness that permeated through the defense. He also won the third most aerial duels on the team (71) while doing it at the highest success rate (74.7%). And that aerial prowess also showed on set pieces as he chipped in three league goals.
As Smalling goes, so does Roma's defense. So, it'll be imperative that Mourinho keeps the 33-year-old Englishman fit throughout the season.
Player Under Pressure: Evan Ndicka
It may be a little unfair to put Ndicka here, considering he's only arrived in Rome at the beginning of the summer. Nevertheless, with Roger Ibañez now playing in Saudi Arabia, Ndicka will be counted on to not only replace the Brazilian but also improve the back line at the same time.
Ndicka arrives from Eintracht Frankfurt to much fanfare as Roma fought off competition from several other European clubs for his signature. Having just turned 23 years old and with a five-year deal in place, Nidicka's maturation should continue under Mourinho's guidance, who should turn him into a shutdown defender.
Since he'll be patrolling the left side of a three-man defense (Ibañez's old spot), he'll face pressure from the fans, many of whom still wonder if it was worth selling the beloved but mistake-prone Brazilian. Ibañez may have driven Romanisti mad with some bonehead mistakes, but he still endeared himself to much of the fanbase for his hard-tackling, grinta, and love for the crest. Ndicka will be tasked with providing much of the same while limiting mistakes.
The X-Factor: Diego Llorente
Llorente arrived from Leeds to little fanfare in January but quickly worked his way into the good graces of Mourinho. The former Real Madrid youth product is now a 28-year-old veteran and has found a role as Roma's fourth center-back. He may not be a star or even jump off the screen, but he fills a vital role that Roma has lacked for some time.
He's a guy who can fill in anywhere along the backline without hurting his side. His addition for an entire season will allow Mourinho to rest his starting trio more often without worrying that the overall quality will drop. And that could be key for a side whose three center-backs were only eclipsed by Rui Patricio and Bryan Cristante in minutes played.
A Year From Now, We'll Say...
Roma's center-backs provided solid defense for Mourinho, enabling Roma to dictate matches tactically. Smalling was once again one of the club's most valuable players, while Mancini continued to improve, becoming a lockerroom leader as well. Evan Ndicka continued his ascendancy as one of Europe's most promising young defenders, while Kumbulla returned from injury to play a pivotal role against smaller clubs.