Roma and Manchester United meet again! United fans have good memories of playing against Roma over the years, and Thursday’s Europa League semifinal certainly feels like a “proper” European tie. To hear about how did Roma fans reacted to the draw, how they feel about their chances, and to get some insight into their season so far, we chatted with our colleague Bren from SB Nation’s Roma site, Chiesa di Totti.
The Busby Babe: There’s been a lot made in the Italian press of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comments when the draw was made: he admitted to not having watched much of Roma this season, and some took that as being disrespectful. From our viewpoint, it was probably an honest admission that he hadn’t had the time, given that United have played 2-3 games every match week since the start of the season, up until this week (and he’s obviously done his homework since then). Is this an accurate reflection of the feeling amongst the team and fans, or is this much ado about nothing?
Chiesa di Totti: Well, the first thing I’d say is that the environment in and around Roma operates at extremes. There is no middle ground, so I would imagine any hostility Solskjaer engendered may actually stem from an inferiority complex. The wounds of the 7-1 beatdown are still fresh, believe it or not, so any perceived slight from anyone remotely connected to Manchester United was bound to be inflated by the Roman media and the ultras. In the end, it’s much ado about nothing. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t expect him to be that familiar with Roma and Paulo Fonseca is no expert on Manchester either—that’s what your scouting departments are for, so I actually appreciated his honesty.
TBB: There’ll be some familiar faces at Old Trafford on Thursday. Our old mate Chris Smalling took to Roma like a duck to water, and we were happy to see how well he had settled. He’s struggled with injury this year though. Is he expected to start at Old Trafford? And how is he rated by the Roma fans now? Henrikh Mkhitaryan never really settled at United, and from what we can tell, he hasn’t exactly set the world alight this year in Rome either. Will he be a factor in this tie?
CdT: Well, a year ago most Roma fans were gnashing their teeth at the club’s inability to get a permanent deal done for Smalling. He was a revelation for us in 2019-2020 and when he “returned” to United for, like, a week late last summer and missed Roma’s knockout match against Sevilla, many fans were quick to blame management for failing to secure that deal so he could play against Sevilla—he really was that critical to Roma’s success last season. This year, after securing a permanent deal, he’s struggled to remain healthy but he did play over the weekend against Cagliari, perhaps as a run-up to this match. We’ve done well enough in his absence, plugging in midfielder Bryan Cristante into the back three, but having three actual defenders back there—Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, and Roger Ibanez—is certainly preferable, so if Smalling is healthy, he should play.
As for Mkhitaryan, it’s almost an identical situation. He was arguably a league MVP candidate through the first several months this year; he was far and away the club’s most dynamic player and was putting up numbers on par with Cristiano Ronaldo earlier in the season. While he’s definitely hit a wall in 2021, Roma will need his experience and contributions in the attacking third. We really don’t have any other player like him, no one can operate quite like he does in an advanced role, so if he’s fit, he’s playing. And even if he’s not 100%, he’ll still likely see significant minutes.
TBB: Roma had a promising start to the season, but your form in Serie A started spiralling at some point, and now winning the Europa League may be your most realistic path back into European competition next season. What happened?
CdT: Oof, that’s a tough question to ask. A big part of it was the simple fact that, earlier in the season, Roma was relying on guys like Edin Dzeko, Smalling, Mkhitaryan, and Pedro but they’re all on the wrong side of 30 and haven’t been able to sustain that pace. And behind them, Roma’s roster is an incredibly odd mix of U-23 players and aging veterans. We don’t really have that many players who are in the prime of their careers, so we’ve been relying on players defying father time or trying to learn on the fly, neither of which is sustainable. Throw in a string of minor injuries to guys like Smalling, Leonardo Spinazzola, and Stephan El Shaarawy, long-term injuries to Nicolo Zaniolo, and just a plain and simple lack of effective depth, and Roma’s early start was probably a bit of a mirage.
On the pitch, the results just stopped coming. We began the year faltering against big sides but dominating smaller clubs, but now we can’t even do the latter, so you’re correct: we are spiraling.
TBB: Fonseca is out of contract in the summer, and with no news on a renewal, there are rumblings that the owners may sound out Sarri after the season. Is Fonseca considered to be a lame duck, then? Is he doing the best with the hand he was dealt, or are the fans looking forward to new management for next season?
CdT: Well, this definitely feeds off the prior question. There is no doubt that Fonseca is a lame duck now, with the Roma brass reportedly holding multiple meets with Maurizio Sarri over the past few weeks and Max Allegri earlier in 2021 and I think that is starting to bleed into the product on the pitch—there’s a palpable sense watching the team that they’re just biding their time until the season is over. Roma is just beginning a massive transition phase, and Fonseca just feels like a remnant of the prior ownership group.
In a lot of ways, he was dealt a shorthand throughout his entire tenure in Rome. He was, at best, the third choice in 2019 when he was hired by the prior club administration. Couple that with the pandemic, the loss of Zaniolo, and the club’s continued financial issues, and Fonseca never really got a fair shake in Rome. I can’t speak for every Roma fan, but this is my take on Fonseca: he seems like a wonderful man, he’s well-liked by his players, he has an astonishing command of multiple languages and proved to be a more flexible manager than we ever imagined but he just wasn’t cut out for Roma—not under these circumstances. So, in that light, I think a sizable portion of fans will thank him for his service but will eagerly welcome the next manager, who will presumably be “the guy” the one the new owners wanted rather than the one they inherited.
Roma’s new owners just hired their own GM, Tiago Pinto formerly of Benfica, they’ve sorted out a new kit deal with New Balance and are reportedly working on a new sponsorship to replace Qatar Airways, so, little by little, they’re making their mark on the club and Fonseca will ultimately just be a victim of circumstance. He’s a good manager but the timing just wasn’t right for him with Roma.
TBB: Where do you think this match will be won or lost? Any particular strengths or weaknesses for Roma that can decide the game?
CdT: Well, two of Roma’s past three matches have been against relegation-battling clubs and they conceded six combined goals, two of which stemmed from horrific defensive gaffes. We have talented individual talents on paper but the defense has been extremely susceptible over the past several weeks, so that’s my biggest concern. And at the opposite end of the pitch, Roma has bounced back and forth between Edin Dzeko, who is aging and appears increasingly disinterested, and Borja Mayoral, who is young and inconsistent, so we have no consistent source of goals.
Whatever positive momentum Roma had earlier in the season has come completely unraveled in recent weeks, to the point where I’m not even sure there is one definitive strength on this team. If Dzeko starts, which he presumably will, and they get him involved early and often, Roma will have a chance. Dzeko has done the dirty work all season long but when he’s not getting enough touches or attempts in the box, he becomes visibly frustrated and the attack tends to flounder. They’ve played better at points with Mayoral, who is faster and more direct than Dzeko, but he doesn’t offer as much physicality, so when things really get bogged down he can’t bully his way to goals like Dzeko.
Bottom line: Roma is at their best when the ball is moving quickly through the midfield and using Dzeko or Mayoral as a focal point to anchor the attack and spring the wide runners. But that fluidity has practically disappeared over the past few weeks. The roster is just a hodgepodge of different approaches stemming from the club’s constant turnover on the touchline and in the front office and now we’re seeing the results: a team with no discernable identity. It’s like that old Seinfeld joke: this is what happens when you run out of nothing.
TBB: And finally, what’s your prediction for the result?
CdT: Well, if the preceding questions didn’t clue you in, I’m not overly optimistic...haha. I’ll say United 3, Roma 1.
TBB: Thanks for chatting, Bren. 80% of a brilliant first name you’ve got there. Readers, you can check out my Q&A with Chiesa di Totti here.