A quick glance at the Serie A table and you will see the revelation of the European season unfolding – something miraculous is happening in the Eternal city. A resurgent Roma under Rudi Garcia have exploded out of the traps, recording the greatest ever start in the Italian league, winning all ten of their opening games and conceding just one goal in the process, only on the eleventh time of asking was an opponent able to take points from them yet they still march on unbeaten as matchday 14 nears. So, after two seasons of failing to qualify for Europe, what has changed?
There are two individuals who can be praised for this reborn Roma. Firstly, and most obviously, is the head coach Rudi Garcia. Appointed in the summer after a strong spell at Lille, which included a league and cup double win in the 2010/11 season. The Frenchman’s arrival came at a pivotal time after the previous two coaches in charge both left Rome with their tails between their legs. The summer of 2011 heralded a major moment in Roma’s history with the arrival of the American owners. Bold statements were made regarding the club and the direction they wanted to take it. In came former Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique to export the Barcelona model to the Italian capital. Franco Baldini, Roma general director at the time, chose Enrique not only for his footballing philosophy but also because he believed he wasn’t contaminated by Italian football. Enrique’s time in Rome ended after only one year as he resigned at the end of his first season, despite clear affection from his players, the fans on the other hand were not impressed with the Spaniard. Afterwards came the return of Zdenek Zeman. Another move appointed on the idea that this new Roma had to have an attractive brand of football in order to grow, Zeman is famous for his ultra attacking style. The decision to bring back Zeman failed spectacularly with the Czech tactician being relieved of his role with 3 months of the season remaining. The need for a more conservative coach was now crucial for this project to work. After more or less three seasons without European football given that Roma were eliminated at the Europa League qualifying stages by Slovan Bratislava during Enrique’s first month in charge, and with the club hemorrhaging money as a result, the results on the pitch had to improve drastically. The choice of coach for this season was therefore seen by many as make or break for the American ownership.
So what has Rudi changed? Firstly, from a tactical point of view Roma defend with a much deeper backline. The midfield fold in on top of the defence and the two wingers also dropping deep to form a 4-1-4-1 formation when the opposing team have possession. It is not unusual to see either of the widemen (usually Florenzi and Gervinho) retreat deep enough to act as a shield in front of the respective full-back on their side. The high work rate of both players allow for this to happen. Last season, with Totti playing as a left winger, despite the success it brought going forward, it left the Roma left-back Balzaretti extremely exposed at times as Totti’s lack of mobility could not allow him the protection the likes of Gervinho can offer him in the defensive phase. The deep defensive line also plays strongly into the hands of the two centre-backs – Benatia and Castan. Both joined Roma from previous successes in similar defensive setups, Castan with the Copa Libertadores winning Corinthians and Benatia in Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese. As a partnership they are very much at home at watching play unfold in front, being able to attack the ball from deep and minimise the space in behind them. After Zeman failed to re-create Daniele De Rossi as a box-to-box midfielder last year, under Garcia he has returned to his strongest role anchoring the midfield, and when pressure mounts he drops in as a third centre-back between Benatia-Castan. The midfield trio of De Rossi, Pjanic and Strootman is one that possesses everything – aggression, flair, steel and intelligence. Strootman in particular has been an incredible addition to the side. His reading of the game is extremely underrated and he has a habit of starting Roma attacks by winning the ball from the opposing midfielders in dangerous areas. Miralem Pjanic also looks to be blossoming into the star he was once tipped to be at Lyon now that he has the muscle in midfield to protect him.
Arguably Garcia’s greatest move is returning Totti to his false nine role. Totti thrives when he has movement around him, he is the best passer of the ball of his generation and he has options to find he will do so time and time again. For this reason Gervinho and Florenzi are hand carved to play alongside him in attack, the off the ball movement of both is world-class. Florenzi is forging a similar relationship with his captain to the one Totti sparked with Simone Perrotta during the Spalletti years, albeit in a slightly different position.
Another underrated aspect of Rudi’s work with his Roma team is the slight but very effective moves he has made to the roles some play. Take Florenzi for example. In his breakthrough season last year he played as part of the midfield three. He was very effective in this role going forward but his over-eaginess to contribute in attack often left the other two midfielders over-exposed. Garcia noticed this and has used Florenzi as a winger, utilising both his energy and off the ball movement to add to Totti’s game but also Florenzi’s high work rate to act as defensive winger when Roma do not have the ball. A move that has clearly benefitted both the team and the player as Florenzi has since been capped and scored for the Azzurri. The same can be said of his decision to move Totti back to a central role instead of keeping him out on the left. This way Roma still reap all of the benefits of Totti and none of the defensive draw-backs his lack of mobility causes at times when on the wing.
Off the field Garcia has re-moulded the squad. He has installed a mentality that previously just doesn’t exist within the camp. This can be seen most obviously in the way Roma are seeing out winning leads, something this squad of players had great trouble with over the past two years. Rudi has also welded a togetherness with the group. Cliques had formed within the squad in the past two seasons with a Brazilian group of players forming their own little group, likewise for the Spanish-speaking player and the native Italian speakers. The squad seemed to be split in sections. Whereas now they seem to be one big group. Garcia now orders the team to eat together after matches, to celebrate as a team. And in the summer pre-season tour of America through late July into August, he even took the team on some unusual group bonding events. The most publicized one was water-rafting. Some of the videos from the event are very funny with the players in different boats pushing each other with oars and splashing one another etc. Some pundits claim one loss could make this side go into freefall but seeing the unity of them, that is extremely unlikely. Garcia has forged something remarkable in this group and with the eyes of Europe now upon them, the road ahead will only continue to get tougher as teams will now value them as title contenders. Having recently dropped points to Torino and Sassuolo in the past week, the absence of Totti and Gervinho has ground to a halt the scintilating form the club showed up to matchday 11 but the return of these key men is expected after the international break, with mouth-watering ties against Fiorentina and Milan approaching just before the winter break.
The unsung hero of this Roman revival is the man behind the curtain of it all, Walter Sabatini. If you are not familiar, I’ve previously written an article on him nearly two years ago which can be read here. The American ownership placed Franco Baldini in charge of the footballing side of the project, working as general manager from the summer of 2011 until the summer of 2013. It was Baldini’s decision bring in Luis Enrique and then Zeman in the head coach position, a decision which failed spectacularly on both accounts. Rudi Garcia had been linked to the capital club as early as the summer of 2011 as one of the five possible candidates who were reviewed. Baldini instead chose to ignore the man who is now setting Serie A alight, favouring two inferior managers in the hope of an overly romantic idea of what the project should be. The end of Baldini’s time at Roma came during the past summer when he very publicly courted Milan’s Max Allegri when it looked like Berlusconi was not going to stick by the tactician. But in a surprising u-turn Allegri, after dining with Milan director Adriano Galliani, was backed by the senior management of the Rossoneri for the coming season. This move was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Baldini went to London and Sabatini was promoted in his place. The first thing Sabatini does is recruit Rudi Garcia. So the question must be asked, was Baldini holding the project back? If Sabatini had been in charge from the get-go would the project also have kicked off as promising as it has this season? An impossible question to answer and Sabatini did make some questionable signings as sporting director but it is clear the project was ultimately set to fail with Baldini’s poor choice of coach to lead the club.
A meeting between Sabatini and Roma CEO Claudio Fenucci which was inadvertently recorded by a journalist (Sabatini had left his phone on during the conversation) brought to light the failure to secure European football over the past two seasons had now cost the club financially. Sabatini was clear in that at least one important player had to be sold and that Daniel Osvaldo’s behaviour under interim manager Andreazzoli at the end of last season rendered the striker’s future at the club on extremely thin ice. Over the coming weeks Roma would offload close to €100 million in players. The most spectacular was centre-back Marquinhos, a player Sabatini paid only €5m for the previous summer was sold to PSG for €35m.
It could be said Sabatini was dismantling the squad he had built under the idea of what Baldini wanted Roma to be. And he was now going to construct the side in his own image. An influx of Serie A veterans arrived – Morgan De Santis, Maicon and Mehdi Benatia. At the request of Rudi Garcia Gervinho arrived to replace Lamela. And in a transfer that would draw 500 Roma fans to the arrivals section of Fiumicino Airport on a Tuesday night to welcome him with screams of joy, Sabatini bought PSV captain Kevin Strootman for €19m in one of the shock transfers of the market. Every single one of these dealings have so far proven to be worth their weight in gold. A perfect summer transfer market for Roma with Sabatini pocketing the club a cool €20m profit at the end of it after reshuffling his deck. That money may prove to be important if the club look to strengthen again in the winter market for a Scudetto push or will go towards helping to somewhat alleviate the growth of debt at the club as the lack of Champions League football generates more and more turnover in the red (despite some growth in revenue).
Rudi Garcia may be the man who is being showered with praise for rebuilding what looked like a broken Roma, and rightly so, but Walter Sabatini deserves immense credit for his activities during the summer. After Baldini’s failures it was he who had the vision to appoint Garcia and then when forced to sell some key players, he assembled a squad even stronger than the one before it. After two false starts, Roma Americana is well and truly upon us now.