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Old dogs, old tricks

[This piece was originally published over at Roma Journal, a fan site that will be picking up all my AS Roma related material from now on]

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Some of the great football managers who shaped AS Roma, like the great sculptors who shaped Rome, have created great players as works of art that they have become synonymous with forever. Michelangelo crafted Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, Canova is famous for his exquisite rendition of Pauline Bonaparte in the Galleria Borghese, and Bernini’s magnum opus is the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. One or two years later, Alfréd Schaffer created Amedeo Amadei, Nils Liedholm created Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello created Walter Samuel.

Francesco Totti’s growth as a player however is much more of a collaborative effort. It can be tracked through Roma’s semi-recent managerial history, as those who are arguably the three great Roma tacticians of the past fifteen years have all had their own major impact in chiselling their own features into Er Purpone (Roman dialect for “the big child”).

Fabio Capello made him a trequartista – a goal creator who sits behind the strikers and specialises in the little flicks and tricks that are the defining factors in what makes Totti such a famous name in the football world today. Luciano Spalletti, on the other hand, converted him into a lone striker, a move that made him the most prolific goal scorer in Europe in 2006/07.

Fast forward to the dying embers of 2012, and it’s hard to imagine that only a few short months ago, many Roma fans had called time on ‘il Capitano’s’ career in the starting line-up. It was quite a thing. Anyone who thought otherwise was seen as a sentimental old fool. Reality was reality and it was staring us in the face. At 35, the great man was getting old and slow and the time had come to get used to the idea that our aging star was no longer up to it. A managed, dignified exit was all that was left, starting with a new role for our superhero – as a supersub.

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That was until the return of Zdeněk Zeman, the man widely credited with discovering the true potential of Francesco Totti. First arriving at Roma in 1997, he found a raw 20 year-old prodigal son. He took that rough marble slab, shaped him into an invaluable wide player and handed him the captain’s armband. For Totti, the rest is history. For Zeman, he was unceremoniously dumped by then Roma President Franco Sensi in 1999. Fabio Capello then took the squad that Zeman had largely assembled with Totti as its on field spearhead and won the league with it.

Totti, today a champion of Italy and World Cup winner, is said to have always remained fond of Zeman and his tactics. When Zeman steered Pescara to the Serie B title last season, Totti put out a press statement that said to his old manager: “you are football”. For Zeman’s part, when he was asked in an interview to name the best three players in Italy, he famously replied “Totti, Totti and Totti”.

Now, chain smoking like a coal-fired power station chimney and with a face only a mother could love, the slow talking crazy old man has returned to the Roma hot-seat for a second spell, and what a change it has been. He’s attracted plenty of criticism for his approach that consists, as it always has done, of attack first, attack second, attack third and attack all the other numbers too. But now that the apprentice has been reunited with his old master, Francesco appears to have rediscovered the old Totti.

Sprinting around like a teenager, Zeman’s notorious fitness regime (a necessary part of asking 8 or 9 players at a time to camp out in the opponent’s penalty area and maybe defend occasionally too) appears to have agreed with him. What’s more he’s already managed to score six goals and create another six.

He looks happier too. Like most players, he demands to start and despises being subbed, but with Totti it’s more than just ego. As the sayings go, as Totti goes, so too goes Roma – or put another way, ‘no Totti no party’. He’s the talisman and he feels that responsibility deeply. He needs to play to feel like he’s doing his job and the players around him need him there to spur them on. Besides, in the form he’s in right now, why wouldn’t he play 90 minutes?

With his match-winning brace against Fiorentina the other week, he moved to within four goals of another Roma legend, Gunnar Nordahl in second place on the all-time Serie A goalscorer’s list. He might still be 53 short of first placed Silvio Piola on 274, but with a couple or three seasons of Zeman’s tactics ahead of him, would you bet against him?

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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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