If you squint really hard, he looks like he could be cast in a murder mystery series as the main detective. Poirot, Montalbano, Mauro Baldissoni. That’s it. That’s got to be his real job, surely. Baldissoni catches me staring at him a little longer than is socially acceptable, and I snap out of it.
I’m in the new swanky Roma offices of the city centre’s EUR zone. Baldissoni’s sat to the left, but James Pallotta is stationed right in front of me. He’s talking me through the job expectations. Look, James, I think I already know the deal here.
I’ve memorised game theory: open-information games, imperfect information games, Bayesian models. I’ve even scribbled down a few things to impress the Big Data team, wherever they’re hiding in Roma’s ‘Moneyball’ lab. Let’s see them try this for size:
“You won’t be needing that,” Pallotta says. He’s brought me a laptop prepared to plug in all the features I’ll ever need for this audition. Once Pallotta starts talking about ‘player profiles’, it’s getting closer to the lingo I memorized all of last night just to get into the biz.
Player’s performance, participation in the national team (senior and U-21 level), age, age squared. Throw in player popularity as the final variable. I should be good to go.
“And time travel,” Pallotta says.
He’s letting the silence hang. Baldissoni’s not exactly giving away any hints as to whether I should laugh politely? Or not. Here I thought I was going to test myself against the best in the business: Monchi.
Sevilla’s Monchi, the villainous alter-ego Monchi that had to ‘kill off’ the ‘old Monchi’ in order to rebirth himself as Roma’s Monchi. Hell, would it have been out of the question for the analytics team to have me pitted against some supercomputer AI-simulated Monchi?
“No,” Baldissoni finally chimes in, “we want you to face off against the actual bloody Monchi, mate.” To tell you the truth, I’m a little thrown off by his accent. “Well?”
It’s a tough choice: If I get in the time travel machine, I’ve no idea what could happen. If I stay in these offices, I’ve got to deal with the awkwardness of figuring out whether Baldissoni has been watching Jason Statham movies to try and toughen up as Roma’s new vice president. And I don’t really want to do that, so I go with the best of two dubious choices. Time travel, it is.
“Excellent! You’re going to be thrilled working for us! You’ll be working with the biggest, baddest player transfers on the planet!”
It sounds great already.
Pallotta has just a few private words with me before he sends me off. An arm around my shoulder and a inquiry in my ear away from Mauro. “Do me a favour will you?” Pallotta pauses for a second. “We only get one shot at this so... find out where Monchi goes to get his haircut. He always refused to tell Mauro. Couldn’t get it out of him.”
If only I’d paid attention to first part of Pallotta’s final words that morning, I might not be stuck here writing this from the part of the time-space continuum I’m reaching out to you now. We only get one shot at this.
13th June 2017 |Hector Moreno from PSV to Roma | €5.7 Million
The 29-year old Moreno may be getting past his prime, but central defenders tend to last the longest in the game. He’s also just had the best season of his career on the offensive front, scoring 7 and assisting 2 goals as he tried - but failed - to help PSV defend their league title.
Moreno’s comfortable in the air, and his long passing is phenomenal (7.0 at 88% passing accuracy) if you’re looking for route one football. He can pick out a teammate from any range.
He’s racked up 79 caps for Mexico, having played senior football since he was 15 years old. Moreno’s got a lot of mileage in his legs, but the experience and wisdom both on and off the ball to show for it. He’s just had his best season performance. I don’t want to see him go. PSV fans don’t want to see him go either.
Monchi rings me up. I tell him no. He smirks back down the phone that he’s had Hector on other line for months, wanting to play wherever Monchi is headed to next. I give in and we settle on 5.7 million euros. It’s a rough start for me.
VERDICT: MONCHI WINS 1-0
My disappointment at losing out on this deal is curbed some weeks later. The Confederations Cup gives me a little schadenfreude, seeing Moreno get absolutely torn apart by Germany in the semi-final. Maybe that age is catching up, after all.
22nd June 2017 | Mohamed Salah from Roma to Liverpool | €50 Million
Salah has just turned 25 years of age a week ago, the very prime year of an average forward’s career. And Salah is anything but average. In a Fiorentina shirt, he made world headlines by scoring a goal after running 70 metres with the ball in 7 seconds - it wasn’t so long ago that was world-record pace in athletics. And 100 metre runners don’t have to worry about a ball at their feet, while Salah maintains an average dribbling speed of 30.7 km/h.
What Salah does is instantly raise the xG per 90 for fast-break goals in any team. He may not help you score more goals on the counter attack if your Liverpool team is already fast and prolific, but he will make goals easier to score at high speed for everyone around him. So it wouldn’t be such a wacky idea to make him the creative focal point.
More than that, Egyptian Messi is an icon on the internet. I’d sign this guy any day of the week, especially since I know Roma’s public accounts disclose they’ve made a 100 million euro loss from crashing out of the Champions League qualifiers. I phone up Monchi and gloat that Salah’s team have been on the phone to me for months, and now Monchi has to sell.
Or did Roma think they were the only one that could exploit other teams in hard times? This transfer guru stuff is a two-way street.
We settle on 50 million euros. A 42 million up front fee, with 8 million more to come if Salah turns out to score... oh I dunno... let’s say double figures? I can live with that.
42 days later, I’m laughing all the way to the bank. Neymar is tired of the legal battle over tax evasion, and the cameras being on Messi during Barca’s ‘greatest Champions League comeback of all time’ ™. No team will ever make a CL comeback like the one they did against PSG for a long time. Surely not. Ever.
Neymar feels like he doesn’t get the credit for that night, and buys himself out of his Barcelona contract for well over 4 times the amount of the Salah fee.
Monchi is horrified, and I’m back in the game.
28th June 2017 | Rick Karsdorp from Feyenoord to Roma | €19 Million
22-year old Rick has the world at his feet, except for the fact he’s thinking about getting some surgery on a niggling MCL right now. The Dutch full-back is in and out the senior team by this point, but his creativity has been eye-catching all season with Feyenoord.
The trequartista-converted-to-right-back has 1.4 key passes per game, knowing when to cross from the outside and when to cut inside to through-ball it early. His combined rate of tackling and intercepting is above average and would do nicely among Serie A’s performers. He has at least 5 years to reach his prime, and his speed off the ball is right up there with the best of them.
I know I’ve got an ace-in-the-hole here: the DS before Monchi was already letting me know Roma wants him. And now Roma’s new head coach really wants him; he’s been wanting him for well over a year.
I slap on 5 million worth of add-ons, on top of the 14 million euro fee. Rick is a top prospect but I’m going to say I just edged Monchi in this deal.
VERDICT: 2-1 TO ME
30th June 2017 | Lorenzo Pellegrini from Sassuolo to Roma | €10 Million
We’ve really screwed the pooch here. What kind of developmental deal did I sign to get Pellegrini to play for me?
The 21-year-old striker-converted-to-midfielder has 6 goals and 6 assists in his Serie A campaign. He’s in the middle of helping Italy U-21s to a European semi-final this very month. He even got on the scoresheet in the opening group game, with a wonderful goal. Monchi’s known for months that he’s lined up Pellegrini’s mentor for the job at Roma, all helping to guarantee Lorenzo playing time in the capital.
Lorenzo’s all for the move back home. I’m livid.
VERDICT: MONCHI STRIKES BACK 2-2
1st July 2017 | Leo Paredes from Roma to Zenit | €27 Million
If I there’s one thing clear about Paredes, he’s got a hell of an educated right foot. And his 1.6 key passes per game from deep in Roma’s midfield is among the top performance levels for Serie A midfielders - at least from open play. That is despite him being in-and-out the side. Still in the development age of his career, Paredes just turned 23 and enjoyed his first call-up to the Argentina side barely a month ago. The future is bright for Leandro on all levels. Except for one thing.
My continuum-scrambled memory is coming back to me, and I know Eusebio Di Francesco personally tells Paredes he just won’t be playing much under DiFra.
“How the hell do you know that?” Monchi says down the phone. Just give me the player, Monch’. You’ve only cleared half of the 100 mill you need to clear, and we both know it.
We settle on 23 million euros + 4 million in bonuses for Paredes. And I know July still has another gift in waiting from Roma’s fire sale.
VERDICT: 3-2 TO ME
3rd July 2017 | Maxime Gonalons from Lyon to Roma | €5 Million
Gonalons is 28 and just past his peak, but he’s been key in a run all the way to the Europa League semi finals. His career is a story of the nearly-man. Nearly made it to Lyon’s dynasty-winning side of the 2000s, but he was just too young. Nearly made France summer internationals squads, but not quite.
Despite the fact he’s got some nice passes in his locker on any given day, Gonalons has never excelled in midfield over the course of an entire season. The only area where he dominates is aerially, which Monchi quite likes in a player. Apparently they fancy Gonalons as Paredes’ replacement.
And what’s that? Gonalons has just had a falling out with my president. I tell Monchi I’ll accept 5 million euros to make the drama go away; about half of Gonalons’ market value at the time.
9th July 2017 | Kost... Antonio Rüdiger from Roma to Chelsea | €35 Million
A 24-year old Rüdiger relies more on tackling (1.7 per game) and aerial dominance (1.7 per game) to defend off the ball. His other defensive stats are average, when compared to the general performance levels of Serie A.
It’s on the offence where the German shows true all-round versatility, coming up with 2 goals, 0.5 key passes per game, and a respectable cross completion when playing from full back.
Rüdiger can play anywhere along the backline, and he’s just breaking back into Germany squads after overcoming a ligament injury two years ago. Maybe his versatility in his problem, as he needs to specialize in something by the time he hits his prime. But he’s one of the fastest-recorded athletes in the league and marries speed with confidence on the ball.
Yeah, i was gonna buy the other guy but hell, Monchi is panicked. It’s well past the July 1st deadline and he’s in FFP trouble. I’ll take him.
VERDICT: 4-3 TO ME
13th July | Mario Rui from Roma to Napoli | €9.25 Million
If there’s anything notable about Mario Rui’s performances, it’s nothing I can sell my coach on. It turns out, in the summer of 2017, I don’t have to. My coach claims he’s worked with Rui at Empoli before. My coach doesn’t trust just anybody to play in his team, and yet he trusts Rui. He figures the Portuguese left-back could do with a fresh start after a torn ACL.
He’s been on the phone to Rui, and the left-back quite fancies the idea I make this move happen. Are you kidding me? I can hear Monchi’s smile over the phone as give him the 3-digit security number on the back of my card.
VERDICT: 4-4 DRAW THAT FEELS LIKE A LOSS
The Next Day | Cengiz Ünder from Basaksehir to Roma | €13.4 Million
20-year-old Cengiz is already a senior international for Turkey, off the back of his 7 goal and 5 assist league season with Istanbul’s Basaksehir. He took just 2 caps to get on the scoresheet for his country.
His Basaksehir team is good enough that they punch their way to 2nd place - the highest ever league finish in the club’s history. The word is starting to spread about the Altinordu ‘golden generation’ of talent ready to take Europe by storm, and Cengiz is at the vanguard. His pace alone guarantees I’ll be asking for high fee, as is the norm for modern forward players.
I’ve got Man City on the line, and the young agent Ozun Jr. sounds thrilled to have a deal done and dusted. But his father isn’t, and Omer Ozun uses his friendship with Monchi to convince the player to sign for Roma instead.
Monchi’s done me again. We agree on just over 13 million euros, though I’m sure I could have gotten more elsewhere.
VERDICT: MONCHI TAKES THE LEAD 5-4
20th July 2017 | Gregoire Defrel from Sassuolo to Roma | €20 Million
There’s nothing remarkable about Defrel’s career on any level. He’s just had a damn solid season for Sassuolo, if you like goals-per-minutes as a stat, but that’s the first time he’s stood out in any category.
Even though he’s just hitting the prime age for a striker, at 25, he’s never once appeared at international level. There’s just his pace, his work rate, and the fact Luis Muriel has just gone to Sevilla for 21 million euros with almost the exact same 2016/17 season on Muriel’s CV.
All that being said, I’m more than comfortable accepting a fee over twice Defrel’s market value.
22nd July 2017 | Aleksandar Kolarov from Man City to Roma | €5 Million
31-year old Kolarov is - on paper - well past his prime on that July morning, even for a defender. But Kolarov is known to take care of himself, and his combined tackle and interception rate from Man City days (along with his aerial dominance) would easily make him one of Serie A’s top performers from any position on the backline.
The only gripe with his form is that creativity on the ball has taken a dive. And there’s no way Kolarov could go onto become a formidable playmaker from the back. No chance. My coach tells me he’s sorry to see Kolarov go, but the Serbian is asking for first-team football.
I’ve got Sabatini on the line at Inter, telling me he’s wanted by Spalletti. But for whatever reason I just can’t resist that Monchi magic when Roma’s sporting director phones me up. This could be the start of a long relationship.
VERDICT: MONCHI 6-5
29th Aug 2017 | Patrik Schick from Sampdoria to Roma | €42 Million
I was just about to pack up and take a late summer holiday. Monchi’s rang me up on the last days of the transfer window and, judging by the offer he’s just made me, he must have been out knocking back the margaritas with Nainggolan. I ponder if there’s some kind of a catch.
I type “supermarket” into Pallotta’s transfer-guru laptop, and a bunch of headlines pop up that explain Monchi’s eagerness to finish the summer with a bang. The laptop estimates that Spaniard’s press conferences haven’t gone down well all summer. In fact, there are a ton of supermarket memes that Roma fans aren’t too pleased about, so he really wants to give them something to send 10,000 fans to the airport over.
Hey man, it’s your career. We agree on potential club-record fee for the Czech international wonderkid Patrik Schick.
In fairness to Monchi, Schick’s got some nice finishes in his locker, and a hell of a ball control technique while the kid’s been finding his feet in pressure-free town like Genova. And his goals-to-minutes ratio is ridiculous. What could possibly go wrong?
VERDICT: 6-6 FINAL SCORE
I’ve just tied the summer of 2017 with the best sporting director in Europe. Just to make it look sexier on my report back to Pallotta, I’ll even tell him Monchi did something crazy, like letting his first-choice keeper Szczesny go back to Arsenal before signing for Juventus.
I mean, the guy finished the season with the most clean sheets in Serie A. Who could you possibly replace Szczesny with?
Maybe they’ll bank on that promising young keeper. You know the one, Lukasz Skoruspki. I’ve heard good things.