It’s been another turbulent year on and off the pitch for Roma, but a strong finish has restored faith in Paulo Fonseca’s project after a difficult debut season for the Portuguese coach.
On the field, Fonseca had to deal with maddening injury problems that threatened to hinder his progress, not least the six-month absence of superstar-in-the-making Nicolo Zaniolo.
The youngster’s spell on the sidelines coincided with two patches of bad form that ultimately ended the Giallorossi’s hopes of finishing in the Champions League spots, but a change in formation to 3-4-2-1 saw Fonseca’s men end the season in good form and nail down fifth place.
However, the club has again been plagued by off-field issues. Speculation over owner James Pallotta selling up to the Friedkin group has dragged on for months, the club’s financial results made for grim reading, the stadium project is still on ice, and sporting director Gianluca Petrachi was controversially dismissed after less than a year in the role.
Player of the Season: Edin Dzeko
The years keep rolling by, but the Bosnian doesn’t seem to notice. Now aged 34, the Giallorossi continue to rely on their captain for goals, and his tally of 19 in all competitions this season was the highest in the squad by a distance.
But Dzeko was also his side’s chief creator, notching 14 assists, and his importance to the Lupi became more evident than ever when the inconsistency of Roma’s other attackers was exposed during Zaniolo’s period out injured.
Dzeko is a leader, a goalscorer and a creator for this side, but their reliance on him is troubling for Fonseca – the striker only missed three league games all season, and second-choice option Nikola Kalinic has looked miles off the pace when he’s stepped in.
Smalling settled quickly in the capital, soon earning the nickname ‘Smaldini’ after some encouraging early performances, and he was an ever-present for Fonseca when fitness has allowed him to be selected.
The Englishman showed he could adapt not only to a new style of football, but also from a back four to a back three, and he chipped in with three goals too. No wonder the Lupi hierarchy are desperate to make his temporary move permanent.
Coach: Paulo Fonseca
All in all, it has been a creditable debut season for the former Shakhtar Donetsk coach. There have been inevitable periods of pressure, most recently when a run of three defeats in July had some fans screaming for his head, resulting in Pallotta publicly backing his man.
But 17 players have missed at least four league games through injury this season, including the long-term absence of his best player in Zaniolo.
That considered, he’s done a fantastic job in getting his new-look side playing a more entertaining brand of football, and he found a solution to his side’s poor form last month by changing shape to great success.
One of the darkest moments of the season was watching Zaniolo embark on a swashbuckling run that went half the length of the pitch against Juventus, only for it to end in tears on a stretcher.
Little did we know then, at the start of January, that the 21-year-old would still get a chance to finish off that dribble before the campaign was out.
After six-and-a-half months out with a ruptured cruciate ligament, the midfielder was back on the pitch. And almost exactly seven months on from that cold night in Rome, he ran from inside his own half against SPAL, but this time had the chance to finish it with a goal. Poetry in motion.
Two years out of the Champions League is a big problem for Roma. Not only in terms of prestige, but financially too – as the club’s record €126.4m losses for the first nine months of the season showed, a rise of almost €100m from the same point last year. Budgets will need to be trimmed with another year of Europa League football coming up.
A potential takeover was thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic and remains incomplete, and it is maddening that a year later there is still very little progress to report on the new stadium. Petrachi’s dismissal followed last year’s Monchi flop, leaving the future of the sporting director role up in the air. This off-pitch instability doesn’t create huge confidence that a return to the Champions League is imminent.