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Fanning the flames

Walter Sabatini

“Streaming is proving difficult. And will I take this sign from the gods and spend the next two hours doing something healthy? No.” – @chiesaditotti

“A scudetto at Roma is worth ten at Milan or Juventus.” This is the iron law of Roma that Romanisti had hoped would begin to become just a tiny bit more flexible in 2011/12. Instead, this was the season that Fabio Capello’s immortal words felt like the legislative equivalent of the law of gravity. Stop, start, flourish, wilt, will, won’t, do, don’t, beat the best, crumble like a dried leaf in the hands of the worst, play like Barcelona one week and Matamata Swifts over 35s the next. Those are the themes of a typical Roma season and have been for 80+ years. Was it ever really likely to substantially change over the course of a grand total of one season? All we knew back in August was we had new owners, new management, a new manager, a whole new squad, more monetary resources than we’d ever had before, and above all, we had a project.

 “It will be a hell of a championship, let’s be prepared to fight for any place in the ranking: but WE have a project, others…” – @CarloRM61

 ‘The project’ – two words we have heard a heck of a lot in the past 12 months: “the project begins”, “the project continues”, “we must have patience with the project” and “the project lives on”. What did it mean? Was there a plan chiselled into a stone tablet somewhere in an underground bunker beneath Trigoria or was this simply yet another way to heap on more pressure at a club where you would never have known that to be possible? All we know for certain is that it began at the end of last season when Thomas Roberto Di Benedetto took the club over from the Sensi family. At the beginning, the project was about a new dawning, not just with any new owner, but the first foreign owner of any club in Italy. It was about starting from scratch with a blank piece of paper. In the eyes of the fans and the media however, the meaning of the phrase seemed to evolve over the course of the season to become something much more specific.

 “It’s the reverse of Ranieri’s Roma, really; we play well but don’t score. Under CR we scored but everyone was like “how?”” – @blogistuta

One of the first things ‘the project’ needed was someone to execute it on the pitch. An extensive search was undertaken to find the right sort of manager. Amongst the names being floated around the traps were Marcello Bielsa, Andre Villas Boas, Carlo Ancelotti and the man who eventually won the role – Luis Enrique. Enrique was an intriguing choice. Coach of Barcelona B, he had never managed top flight football and never played or managed outside Spain. He was apparently, we were told, brought in to replicate the Barcelona system in Italy. This was where ‘the project’ seemed to morph to the point where it appeared to be distilled down to as much about Roma playing Barcelona style football as anything else. Was it ever really meant to be that prescriptive? The success of the paella would depend at least in part on the quality of the ingredients the new chef would be given to cook with.

“Things I want to see second half: Erik. Lamela.”@JulianDeMar

The sort of summer transfer windows we are used to at Roma are high on rumour and short on news. Fans pontificate for months about this player and that with discussion revolving around which superstars of the game are available, who we want and who we would turn our noses up at. Of course most never come. The most important off-season recruit of all was Walter Sabatini – the new Director of Football and the one man alive (for the time being) who smokes more than Rosella Sensi. Sabatini had a mandate for change that none of his predecessors could ever have imagined. The proverbial guts were ripped out of our previous starting line-up as good players who had served us well filed out the door and into the dustbin of history. Out went Philippe Mexes, John Arne Riise, Alexander Doni, Jeremy Menez, Mirko Vucinic, Matteo Brighi, Julio Sergio, Marco Borriello, Stefano Okaka, and David Pizarro. In came Jose Angel, Gabriel Heinze, Bojan Krkic, Marteen Stekelenberg, Erik Lamela, Pablo Osvaldo, Miralem Pjanic, Simon Kjaer, Fernando Gago, Fabio Borini and Marquinho (winter). The old era was swept away in one fell swoop by an entire new playing XI of exciting and talented youth.

“Next days I’ll envy you, my dear Romanisti friends from the rest of the world, for not having to suffer the inevitable mocking by “BURINI””@CarloRM61

The season began as you would expect with a club that was a blank piece of paper only a few months beforehand. Slowly. But what struck me the most early on was just how little transition there was. Take the round 6 starting line-up that faced Lazio in the first derby della capitale of the season. Only 2 players, De Rossi and Perrotta, had ever experienced a Rome derby before. This was a choice, not a necessity. There were still experienced derby performers on the bench albeit with Totti out injured. This to me was symptomatic of the arguable fact that too much changed too fast. ‘The project’ is a long term one – we all get that, but would it not have been better for long term prospects if new players had played alongside experienced ones? Surely this was an opportunity for the new kids to learn off the old hands and hopefully pick up how to play in this unique environment. The fact that we lost the game was not in itself cause for concern – you win some, you lose some but with an inexperienced defender red carded and penalised, the manner of the defeat made the loss seem all too avoidable.

“ah ah ah ah Totti singing “Tutti al mareeee” (a classic summer song!) LOL!”@Di_Elle

Come Christmas, our record wasn’t too bad under the circumstances. Won seven, drawn three and lost six. Victories against Atalanta, Napoli and Bologna stood out as good showings and with the last two coming in the previous two matches, we tucked into our Christmas turkey feeling like a corner had been turned. The football was pretty to watch if you like that sort of thing… I myself find good defending pretty to watch. It saddens me that Italy doesn’t seem to produce great defenders anymore – a situation that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. In 1991/92, the top ten Serie A clubs conceded an average of 32 goals over the course of the season. In 2011/12 it was 43. Roma scored 60 goals this season, only 8 fewer than the champions and 8 more than third placed Udinese. But we conceded 54 to Juventus’ 20 and Udinese’s 35. Pretty football makes you feel great when it’s also winning football, but when my team is losing, the most dazzling passing game on earth makes me feel nothing but sick to my stomach.

 “LE should just go the post-match presser with a shirt on that says “shut up and let me work””
‏@theoren91

Going through the results and remembering the games, it really is a struggle to find the best period of the season. Great performances were interspersed with terrible ones throughout the term. A good example of this is our 4-0 demolition of Inter in February. Beating the Nerazzurri like that really made my year, especially after Lucio’s disgraceful deliberate kick to the skull of Marteen Stekelenberg the last time the two sides had met. Inter have evolved over the last few seasons into a club I dislike more than Lazio, but this game had me singing “can we play you every week?” Looking at the other games around that period bring back terrible memories though. A frustrating draw at home against Bologna, a 4-2 loss at Cagliari (even if the only truly shocking thing about that should have been that Daniele Conti didn’t score) and getting knocked out of the Coppa Italia 3-0 by Juventus. Urgh.

  “I need to develop new insults during HT. I feel like the ones I’m using aren’t harsh enough to express my extreme hatred.”@aristeia

Derby 2 was almost a carbon copy of derby 1. The main difference being Stek was the villain rather than Kjaer. His dismissal for bringing Miroslav Klose down in the penalty area before ten minutes of the game were up effectively ended the contest before it got going and handed Lazio their first double over Roma in 14 years. The game was somewhat marred by Lazio fans making racist monkey noises at Juan. Much faux outrage ensued, but nothing could distract from the humiliation of Lazio vaulting 10 points clear of Roma in the Serie A standings. A club like ours can never expect to play Champions League Football every year, but if you can’t win the league and you can’t make Europe, then the absolute bare minimum expected of any Roma squad in any season is to beat Lazio in the derbies and/or finish ahead of them on the table. That we missed on every count made our failure as absolute as anything short of relegation.

“BORINI IS BLEEDING FROM THE EYE LIKE THE STIGMATA.”@aristeia

It’s difficult to fairly judge a completely new squad as individuals. When a new player is brought into an established group there are surely a limited number of variables. At this level nobody is, as they say, ‘rubbish’. There are only players that flourish in a club’s system and those who don’t. But what is Roma’s system? Nobody really knows yet. Individuals stood out. Lamela is obviously a class act. Others such as Bojan seemed to struggle for consistency. However it’s at the defensive end where most of the questions are rightly being asked. In my view this was not because we had bad defenders, but more because we called on them to do too much. Our midfield was too attacking and staggeringly vulnerable to the counterattack. De Rossi was heroic but he needs help. No club can rely so heavily on one player and expect success. Before we look at wholesale change in the back four, I would have thought a holding midfielder or two should be priority one.

 “What are Fiorentina doing? Oh, defending.” – @JefreyH

The fourth quarter of the season was dominated by ‘will we or won’t we make the champions League’. It should have been obvious we were never going to get there. That we came as close as we did was mainly a testament to how awful the other contenders really were. We seemed to achieve nothing apart from piling more and more pressure on ourselves week by week as we obsessed about European football. I am quite taken with the way Roberto Mancini went about helping Manchester City, another new big club that has recently started from scratch, win the English Premier League this season. He did what politicians call ‘managing expectations’. He constantly played down City’s chances by saying they had no chance of winning the league. He didn’t do that to play mind games with Sir Alex Fergusson, nor to motivate his players. He did it to take the pressure off a club renowned for choking and it worked a treat. The beginning of the end of the end for Roma was the 4-2 loss at Lecce on July 8. From that point on we achieved the type of consistency nobody wants as the performances got progressively worse. The painful thing is the gap to third was mostly only 3, 4, 5 points. A real lost opportunity.

“#Roma may have given up 3 goals but at least they have created zero chances and had no discernible offensive flow” – @gregc9

With the season over, it almost feels like we are back where we started. Luis Enrique has quit and much of the talk is that Vincenzo Montella, our 2010/11 coach, is on the way back after a successful spell at Catania. The phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” could not seem more apt. Fans have been blogging and tweeting a lot in the past couple of weeks about how we need a complete culture shift and only a total cleanout will do it, as if the act of selling all the players that played in the Sensi era will in itself solve all our problems. Trouble is, it’s not just players who make a culture. I don’t believe that our problem this year was not enough change. On the contrary, you need a balance of both continuity and change, particularly if you are not going to have patience with a team that doesn’t produce instant results. Montella may be just what we need. He can address that balance in a way nobody else can, having ties to the past but not being shackled to it.

When Capello made his comment about a scudetto at Roma being worth ten at Milan or Juventus, he was referring to the pressure to succeed at Roma. The weight of expectations you have to bear in the Eternal City doesn’t exist to the same degree elsewhere. This was, to him, the biggest barrier to success in Rome. If we want a complete culture change we should remember that as fans we are a massive part of the culture of our club. Perhaps, as Gandhi recommended, we must BE the change we want to see in the world. Or am I asking too much?

“No tweet of mine is likely fit to be in a blog post.”@aristeia

Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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