As he stood there on the sidelines mimicking a violin, you could see the same thought plastered on his mind that ran on every Romanistas, ‘what do we have to do to be league leaders?’ Coming off the back of a record breaking season, AS Roma were supposed to topple Juventus’ strong hold over the Serie A. Mind you, this was a supposedly weakened Juventus that had lost their leader Antonio Conte, who brought and firmly instilled the winning mentality in the Bianconeri.
Conte was replaced by Massimo Allegri at the helm, a coach who had been shown the door at AC Milan halfway through last season and had deemed Pirlo not fit to play in the center and forced him out of the club in 2011, and the rest, as the English say, is history.
A season that was supposed to welcome our favorite football anthem (Champions League) back to the Stadio Olimpico, make Romanistas dream and put the Giallorossi firmly back on the map of top European football faltered. Unfortunately, all it has done up till now is frustrate the fans, a feeling that they are quite familiar with, seen the club bow out of Champions league and has done no favors to Roma’s quest to rid themselves of their perennial underachievers tag.
Statistically speaking, the club is still in the same position they were last season, second behind Juventus, and even additionally have a chance of winning the Europa League albeit a very outside one. But its the immeasurable that are missing: the swagger and control over games, the attacking cohesion, the defensive calm and more importantly champagne football.
Having gone through the pain and watched every minute of AS Roma’s matches, I’ve gone a bit masochist and analysed as to what has gone wrong in 2014-15 season for the Wolfpack:
World Cup Hangover: The usual cliche that everyone throws post a world cup, but it’s affected the Giallorossi badly. Last season’s thin squad saw quite a few key players turn up for Football’s biggest spectacle in Brazil. Majority of the world cup attendees have suffered for form and fitness especially Daniele De Rossi, Maicon, Torosidis, Pjanic and Gervinho who have faltered to play on the same level they were in 2013-14.
Defensive Liability: So how does one go from one of the best defenses in Europe to a bucket with massive holes in it. The loss of Benatia was massive, a seasoned Serie A ball playing defender who chipped in with vital goals. Couple this with Castan’s season ending brain surgery, the defence’s spine goes MIA and not there to cover up for De Sanctis’ error prone pair of hands. But alas it gets worse, both left backs from last season are no longer active members of the club, Dodo left for Inter and Balzaretti potentially faces a career threatening injury. Switch over to the right side, Maicon is no longer playing for a place in Brazil’s world cup squad hence lacks the fire he displayed last year. The only positive for the current defence is Manolas, the Greek center back has done brilliantly to replace Benatia.
His revolving partners in crime in the middle, Mapou and Astori were supposed to be backups but as starters they are a ticking timebomb. I would be genuinely surprised if Astori’s stay is made permanent. Experiment Maicon i.e. a successful shift from Premier League to Serie A was repeated with Ashley Cole and failed miserably. The left back is clearly past it and has seen limited playing time after being exposed during early stage. Holebas has done a decent job playing on the left flank but is no improvement on last season. Torosidis and Maicon have faltered to impress and failed to stay fit this season, which has forced Florenzi into a makeshift full back. From a defensive unit that had played in the Serie A for a while to a unit that are not used to playing with each other or in the league equals up to a leaky defence.
Signing full backs and a decent goalkeeper should be a main priority for the summer transfer window as the current players don’t cut it.
The Ghost of Pjanic: The Bosnian maestro was one of the best stories of last season, he was finally fulfilling his potential and pulling the strings for the Giallorossi. The linguist is a shadow of last season and has looked completely off color. Not to pin entire blame on him as last season the defence was much more assured and playing a high line with Strootman and DDR patrolling the midfield, the Bosnian wizard was allowed to weave his magic in the final third with less defensive responsibility. This is a luxury not afforded to him, the defence is fragile, Strootman is not patrolling in midfield and his replacement Radja Nainggolan surely likes to tackle but equally likes to make attacking runs forcing Pjanic in to a more a traditional center midfielder. To get the most out of the midfield maestro a tactical shift is required.
Strootman’s continued absence: It’s been a difficult year for the dutch midfielder, having missed the world cup due to ACL injury he suffered in March 2014.
Averaging 3.3 tackles per game and contributing to 11 goals (5 goals, 6 assists ) for Roma in 2013-14, he is no easy presence to replace which was felt at the tail end of last season.
Strootman’s luck hasn’t improved much, at the turn of the year he made a comeback and took a few matches to gain form and confidence. Only for the injury to recur and sidelining him till at least April. He is a vital cog for Garcia’s machine, the quicker he returns the faster Roma’s season will improve.
Not just the league: Last season, playing once in a week allowed Garcia to play mostly the same squad and not rotate. With Champions League football becoming a fixture this year, the squad had to deal with a match every 3 days and rotation became a necessity.
Unfortunately Rudi Garcia has not been able to rotate the squad effectively, the secondary starting XI has not challenged for starting positions. This predicament has forced Garcia to same starting XI and has caused a few players to burn out, Nainggolan a prime example of this, the Belgian national was superb in the first half of the season but has looked a bit leggy in recent months.
Rome was burnt by Bayern: Return to the Champions League was bittersweet for Roma. Having flirted with knock out qualification they fell at the final hurdle to Manchester City. The lowest moment of the campaign was the 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich at the Stadio Olimpico. The Munich based side gave a perfect performance and humiliated the Giallorossi in front of their fans.
Despite the fans cheering for them even after the game, the team’s confidence took a battering which they have failed to recover from. The performances after that un-fateful night in Rome have been massively different and have lacked a fluidity that previously was customary to their game.
Iturbe, the most expensive signing of the summer: The young Argentine was signed from Hellas Verona for 21 Million Euros (+7 million for his agent) and was hailed as a coup by the Romanistas. It was steal by Sabatini from under Juventus’ nose who had all but signed the pacy winger likened to Messi ( like every upcoming Argentine ). It would be harsh to say that Iturbe has failed but he has surely not lived up to his price tag. His good moments have been far too few and far too less.
Despite the indifferent performances the winger has seen an extend run of games due to injuries and Gervinho’s involvement in the AFCON. Otherwise Ljajic, who has been a real protagonist for Roma and has summoned the performances he was turning in for the Viola, would have benched him.
Unfortunately, just when Iturbe seemed to find his feet at the Trigoria, he had an ankle and knee ligament injury and is feared to be out for the season. For things to improve, the Giallorossi need their marquee signing to perform.
Is there a doctor in the house? The medical staff have been kept very busy at Trigoria and have lead to odd theories circling around in fans. The starting/best defence ( Holebas, Castan, Manolas, Maicon) has rarely featured together, with Castan out for long term, Maicon, Manolas, Astori, Cole and Torosidis all have been on the doctor’s bed quite a few times in the year, leading to a constantly shifting defence in front of De Sanctis.
There could be a case made of not giving players enough rest and playing them continuously, especially in the midfield which has looked quite jaded in the second part of the season. Nainggolan and Pjanic were completely burnt out and had muscle related issues, while it was surprising to see Keita being given 90 minutes in the first match he played post AFCON. Strootman still remains a doubt for the season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
In the forward line, Totti, Ljajic, Gervinho, Florenzi (who has been used everywhere ) and Iturbe have struggled with injuries as well. The fans had more of a reason to express frustration over ‘an injuries curse’, when winter signing Ibarbo succumbed to hamstring issues and is expected to be out till start of March.
Youth ignored for experience: Walter Sabatini had Roma fans dreaming at the start of the season by signing amazing prospects from Barcelona and Boca Juniors including Leandro Paredes, Antonio Sanabria and Salih Ucan.
The disappointment that has followed is Garcia’s lack of faith in playing the youngsters even in cup games or against low ranked teams. Ucan and Sanabria have made a total of one sub appearance each and their total playing time does not exceed 50 minutes.
Paredes has played games in the second half but those appearances were forced due to injuries. The former Boca Juniors midfielder has impressed in the playing time afforded to him and is expected to feature a lot more now, but one wonders if injuries hadn’t forced Mister Garcia would he have handed him a start?
Daniele Verdi, a name that is on every Romanistas lips, is also a similar case. Any die-hard fan who watches the Primavera would tell you he’s brilliant (unfortunately such fans are a dying breed) and they were expecting him to feature. The 18-year old made his first start against Cagliari, grabbed two assists and turned in a man of the match award. Again a case could be made for ‘Garcia does not trust youngsters’, as the diminutive winger forced in the starting 11 due to lack of options.
A personal fear of mine would be the club turning into somewhat a Chelsea, signing a lot of youngsters who keep on going on loan but never feature for Roma. Unfortunately even this would be better than having them rotting on the bench and deprived of first team football. The youth policy will have to be re-looked end of the year.
No Totti, No Party: Despite being a massive Totti fan, it pains me to say that the club is still dependent on a 38 year old. If he goes missing the entire team fails to tick. With age catching up and Il Capitano no longer capable of playing full 90 minutes in every game, its a dangerous strategy that is being employed and is costing them points. Fans, team and Rudi Garcia need to plan for life without Totti ( let me grab a tissue as I wipe my tears), he should not be the main player and definitely not one that should be starting every game. His role needs to reduced to an impact player but Garcia has the most difficult job in Rome right now: Replacing a Roman god with an equally capable god ( if that exists).
AFCON: Ivory Coast finally fulfilled their destiny by winning a nerve wrecking final in the African Cup Nations. Though the Ivorians success came at Roma’s expense as they had to do without Gervinho, who contributed 10 goals and 9 assists last season and also with recent Doumbia, who is yet to be seen in a Roma shirt. The attack is craving for an injection of pace that the returning Ivorians will provide, so expect quicker play, faster transition and less dilly dallying in the middle of the park. Hopefully expect more goals as well.
Juventus haven’t gotten any worse: Despite what people expected, Juventus have not gotten worse, in truth they have improved or worse come worse maintained their performance level from last season.
They have qualified to the second round of Champions League and lead the Serie A with a significant 7 point margin. A lot of this success can be attributed to the meteoric rise of Pogba and Tevez producing his best football in years. But compliments must be paid to Allegri who has kept Juventus motivated and consistent.