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Managing expectations

Are Romanisti the most fickle fans in football? Probably not but sometimes it truly feels like it. We win a game, we’re the best in Europe and the scudetto is a mere formality. The minute we lose the club sucks, the players all suck and the manager has got to go. All fans can be like this, but it does get a wee bit tiresome. Supporting Roma is a perpetual ordeal at the best of times. We have always inexplicably turned out woeful performances at the worst possible moments against teams we should never ever be losing to. Managers change, owners change, players change but Roma will always be Roma. Why season after season we expect anything different is beyond me. The thing is though, when you are going through an unspeakably terrible living nightmare such as a standard Roma fixture, the last thing you need is someone continually whinging in your ear. However at the moment, being on Twitter while Roma is playing is like having your right arm amputated with no anaesthetic while being comforted by George Costanza’s mother.

Zdeněk Zeman is nine games into his second spell as Roma manager and already the knives are out big time. He has so far only achieved a record of four wins, two draws and three losses. We’re hardly setting the world alight but is there any surprise in that? By comparison when Claudio Ranieri took over Roma in 2009 his first nine Serie A games yielded a record of, wait for it, four wins, two draws and three losses – identical to Zeman. Roma finished that season in second place only one point behind champions Inter going into the last round. In Luciano Spalletti’s first season in charge he achieved an even more inferior record of three wins, three draws and three losses. He went on to become one of the most beloved managers in Roma’s history. Fabio Capello started with a slightly better but still somewhat mediocre four wins, four draws and one loss. He went on to achieve Roma’s third scudetto.

At various times in the tenures of all Roma managers every one of them has experienced the giallorossi’s faithful supporters baying for their blood. Yet in contrast to the fans, by world football standards Roma’s leadership have always been fairly loyal to their managers, and by Italian standards they are to their managers what Bert is to Ernie. Expecting Zeman to be sacked after nine games is pure fantasy. Slow starts are part and parcel of new managers who bring new tactics and inevitably feel the need to stamp their own brand on the squads they inherit. Chopping and changing managers never helps anyone and it’s simply not going to happen in this instance. So why waste energy calling for change? Why not just get in behind the team for the time being?

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book ‘Soccernomics’ is a great read. In the spirit of ‘Moneyball’ it uses statistics to analyse football and debunk numerous myths around what contributes to success. Its chapter on managers is instructive in this case. Kuper and Szymanski reason that football clubs tend to average approximately 1.3 league points per match and within reason there is very little that meaningfully influences that. When a manager is sacked mid season there is usually a ‘honeymoon period’, but this is easily explained by the fact that sackings always happen when a club is at its lowest ebb. The law of averages says of course there will be an immediate improvement after that.

Managers are mostly just figureheads and it is dangerous to place too much importance on them. Their average tenure in the life of a club is miniscule and as a result their focus is short term. It’s the bigger picture policies of the club, the culture, the quality of the squad and, in Italy where managers have much less say than in England, their dealings in the transfer market that are far bigger influences on long term performance. The manager is the public face of a huge army of people who put any given team on the pitch. They are often viewed by clubs as their most expendable employee who can be easily sacrificed to shut the fans and the media up when it becomes necessary to throw them a bone. All that achieves in the real world though is unnecessary disruption to the team environment.

I will concede the whole ‘Zemanlandia’ circus that accompanies Zdeněk doesn’t help. Like Obama’s ‘hope’ and ‘change’ campaign messages of 2008 it has simply created impossible to deliver expectations that have become a rod for his and our collective backs. Everyone has been raving about Zeman’s complex intricate genius tactics that the players are meant to have picked up in no time flat by osmosis. All eyes are on Roma as the football world sits panting excitedly, drool dripping from their teeth, as they wait for these 6-3 thrillers that are meant to be our new hallmark. Meanwhile the pressure, something that’s always huge in the eternal city, is building once again to a crescendo. All of a sudden if Roma doesn’t play like the Harlem Globetrotters while never dropping below the Champions League places the manager is a failure and the players are failures. This is not wrong or unfair. It’s just how it is and it’s partly Zeman’s own fault. It’s little wonder that he’s lashing out at referees. Backed into a corner, where else does he have to go?

As I’ve written before though, the biggest problem with Roma has always been the pressure. At the risk of becoming repetitive, if we all get off the team’s back, show a bit of patience and let them work, we might be amazed what a difference it makes. We need to learn to walk before we can run, so please for the love of God – chillax just a little bit.

Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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