Thursday, January 27, 2022

Jose Mourinho at AS Roma: What’s gone wrong, and can the Special One’s second Serie A stint still succeed?

It was July 8th when AS Roma unveiled Jose Mourinho during a press conference in one of the most iconic spots in the Rome, Terrazza Caffarelli, a magical place from which you can see all the beauties of the Eternal City, including the dome of Vatican. When, in a surprise move last May, AS Roma’s Twitter account in the space of a few hours first announced the departure of manager Paulo Fonseca and then surprisingly the arrival of the Special One, the fans waited for him with anxiety and hope. They dedicated a street in the city center and a mural to him, thanking him for choosing their club. (You can catch all of Roma’s matches, and the rest of Serie A on Paramount+)

Six months later, those images can seem very far away, but they haven’t disappeared over the horizon altogether. Most of the fans today are still with Jose Mourinho despite some negative results, a situation which is quite uncommon in the history of the Giallorossi fans. In the recent years many coaches were criticized, and each one in a different way ended up being the target of the fans. The most incredible example is the one of Luciano Spalletti, who in the 2016-2017 season brought Roma to 87 points in the table (best result ever in terms of points for the club), finishing second behind Juventus. Unfortunately for Spalletti, that season will be remembered only for the farewell of Roma legend Francesco Totti. The hero of the fans and the enemy of the coach in that last year of his career. For the fans, 87 points was nothing compared to getting on the wrong side of an icon. 

In an environment which is so inhospitable to manager why is it that Jose Mourinho, for now, is still supported by the club and the majority of the fans?

Summer transfer business: what went wrong

When Jose Mourinho was announced by the club, many fans were under the illusion that his arrival was enough to change some dynamics related to the transfer market. Obviously, it could not be like this. The economic troubles that are affecting the business of Italian soccer clubs are still the same. The club could not afford over-budget signings. Mourinho himself was obviously aware of this and admitted it from the first press conference when he said,  “This will be a medium-long term project, I have signed a three-years contract”. Although the situation was clear, you can still hear fans today claiming in outlets like popular local radio shows that the main problem was a transfer window that did not correspond with the demands of Jose Mourinho. 

In the summer of 2021, AS Roma bought Tammy Abraham for around €40 million. The English striker was the most important signing of the summer. He replaced Edin Dzeko, who moved to Inter Milan where he replaced Romelu Lukaku and he’s currently doing very well under Simone Inzaghi. At Roma, Abraham was a perfect match. He made the fans fall in love with him from the first game and with eight goals and three assists he was the absolutely the team’s focal point during the first part of the Serie A season. Then there was goalkeeper Rui Patricio, who gave stability to a role that in recent years had several problems. Matias Viña arrived to replace Leonardo Spinazzola after his Achilles tendon injury and did the best he could, but the Italian defender was an objective weak spot in this first part of the season for Mourinho. 

But, the main disappointment is Eldor Shomurodov. The Uzbek striker was signed in the summer from Genoa, and he seemed like a good bet to do well even in a more important club but he was not yet been able to demonstrate his talent, and Mourinho himself has not managed to find him a place in the team apart when Tammy Abraham was injured or suspended. He has managed to score only twice, though he has added three assists in only 530 minutes of game time in Serie A.

So, on balance, the transfer market over the summer added some important pieces, but also contained enough misses that fans who wish to defend Mourinho have ample ammunition.

Three key games

The most worrying thing about Mourinho’s first months at Roma is that the negative moments are more remembered than the positive ones. There were three key matches: the shocking 6-1 defeat against Bodo/Glimt in the UEFA Conference League, and two Serie A defeats against Inter Milan and Juventus. The six goals AS Roma conceded against Bodo/Glimt made noise all over the world, in part because a Jose Mourinho side had never conceded six goals in one match before, let alone against such inferior competition. After that match, nothing was the same between manager and the team. The Special One has openly stated that some players in that team were simply unable to play, and they have been sidelined in the following games. Borja Mayoral, Gonzalo Villar, Amadou Diawara and the American Bryan Reynolds all, in fact, missed the Serie A match against Napoli the same week and were only grudgingly later reintegrated into the squad.

It was a big decision that then led Mourinho to choose the same starting eleven for several games in row, sending a clear message for the club: “These are the players I have and these are the ones I can play”, he said. It is no coincidence that these four are now out of the project and will leave in January, with Borja Mayoral and Gonzalo Villar off to spend the rest of the season at Getafe on loan, and Reynolds off to Anderlecht for the next months as well, and Diawara as well likely on his way out.

But the ream recovered, and Jose Mourinho, between ups and downs, found a way to play that was leading to a constant growth and good performances, and then came a heavy defeat against Simone Inzaghi’s Inter Milan. Perhaps even more damning than the 3-0 result was that the match was practically only played by the visiting team. The match made clear all the problems of this team, starting from the lack of alternatives on the bench (Abraham and rick Karsdorp who have played the fourth and fifth most league minutes for Mourinho were suspended), but also showing the team lacked the mentality to react well in difficult moments. It’s been a problem that has occurred many times this season, and reared its head again last Sunday against Juventus when a crazy comeback by the visiting team led to another defeat after losing at San Siro against AC Milan at the opening match of the new year. 

This is a team that really has put in a number of good performances this season, but in the biggest moments they not only come up second best, but seem embarrassingly far from the mark.

Is Mourinho a changed man?

Jose Mourinho, however, remains focused on his work, aware of what still needs to be done. It’s impossible not to make a comparison with the same coach who won the Treble with Inter Milan in 2010. After the defeat against Bodo/Glimt, Mourinho directly called out some players in the post-match interview. He probably wouldn’t have done that in Italy in the past. He built his successes at Inter Milan on the close relationship with the players, who were ready to give everything on the pitch for him, even those who did not play and could feel excluded. 

Marco Materazzi, former Inter Milan defender, cried in the Santiago Bernabeu parking when he greeted his mentor for the last time before his move to Real Madrid. Materazzi was not a key player on the pitch for that team, but Mourinho considered him fundamental inside the dressing room. Mourinho at Roma, on the other hand, is struggling to involve the non-starters. This echoes his time at Tottenham and Manchester United more than his previous spell in Italy and it’s a crucial problem that Mourinho must solve soon.

Certainly there have been heavy absences, such as of the European champion Leonardo Spinazzola, and other key players such as Nicolò Zaniolo and Jordan Veretout have underperformed. Players like Gianluca Mancini, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Tammy Abraham missed key games for various reasons but that makes it all the more important for Mourinho to have the buy-in of his entire squad, so he can turn to them when it’s needed.

Mourinho also changed his tactics from using a back four in defense to a back three during the first part of the season. Things have improved, but not enough to say that this team has found a convincing structure. But, again, the question remains, is the issue that Mourinho has not yet found the solution to get the most out of players, or that the players are not good enough for Mourinho.

Sporting Director Tiago Pinto and the Friedkin family support Mourinho in every decision. With the transfer window now open, they will try to help provide the coach with alternatives and acquire players ready to improve things immediately. The first signings were Portuguese midfielder Sergio Oliveira from Porto and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who arrived from Arsenal and was thrust immediately into the starting lineup against Juventus. Part of the reason  Mourinho accepted the job offer at Roma and returned to Serie A is because he knew he would find a place like this, where he felt like the leader and could have the support of the club in every decision. That is a situation that’s very different from his last experiences at Manchester United and Tottenham. This is also why it’s unfair to compare today’s Mourinho with the coach of ten years ago. In 2008 when he moved to Inter Milan, the club was already winning and had star players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Maicon, Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic, just to name few.

All of which is to say that while some of Mourinho’s struggles at Roma are of his own making, the belief, which is shared by both management and the fans, is that Mourinho needs more time, and more players, to mold this squad into his image of what a winning Serie A team should look like.

The feeling is that it is the summer transfer window which will be the crucial one to figure out the ambitions of this project, which, as Mourinho often repeats, will last at least three years. In Italian soccer, however, we know that while long-term projects might sound nice, it’s the results that count more than anything else. Right now there is a fragile agreement between fans, coach, team and club. For now, everyone is heading in the same direction, and this is an important step in the growth process of this team given what has happened in the past years. But, if results don’t improve, and Roma don’t demonstrate clear progress, who knows how long that fragile peace will last.

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