After a very promising start to life under Paulo Fonseca in the first part of the season, things have not gone so well for Roma in 2020.
The New Year was supposed to bring in an even greater sense of optimism, with potential new players coming in and an ownership change on the horizon.
But things have certainly not gone to plan on the pitch, with Roma suffering six defeats since the start of the calendar year – twice as many as they had in their previous four-and-a-half months under Fonseca.
Roma’s slump has been that odd that nobody seems to be able to agree on a single root cause. Fonseca himself still seems the right man for the job, although he will be concerned by the current trend in results. The uncertainty surrounding the takeover could also be a factor, but it should not be affecting things on the pitch this much.
Here, Giallorossi Yorkshire considers five other possible causes of Roma’s wretched run, as the club hierarchy ponders how to solve the current problems.
Post winter break fitnessEmbed from Getty Images
It seems the most obvious demarcation point between when Roma were playing well and the current downward spiral was the winter break. Roma went into Christmas on a seven-game unbeaten run – a spell which had seen them secure Europa League knockout football, as well as becoming the first team this season to keep a clean sheet against title challengers Inter Milan.
Roma returned from the winter break with two losses in a row, and while brief hope was restored by back-to-back wins thereafter, Roma have not tasted victory since. Have the players come back from their break less fit than they were before? Is there a lack of motivation? Did the two losses upon their return set up a negative psychology?
Roma’s season certainly has been split in half, so perhaps the biggest issue relates to how they have come back from the winter break. It goes without saying that the momentum has been disrupted, but that’s not enough. Why exactly is this the case?
Transfer market questionsEmbed from Getty Images
Of course, another thing that can disrupt a side in January is the transfer window. It is rare that squads change too much, but clubs look to make minor tweaks here and there.
Roma were unusually busy in January, even if they left it late. In came Carles Perez, Gonzalo Villar and Roger Ibanez, and out went Mirko Antonucci and Alessandro Florenzi.
The departure of captain Florenzi was a divisive subject, and perhaps it split the squad too. Fonseca has struggled to find the right role for him, but he was still a leader within the group.
Bryan Cristante spoke of the “destabilising” effect of the January transfer window after its closure, in perhaps one sign that the players had their own questions about the decisions that were made.
There was also a disruption with the failed swap deal with Inter Milan between Leonardo Spinazzola and Matteo Politano. Roma thought the latter was coming back to fill the void left by Nicolo Zaniolo, and were happy to let Spinazzola leave as a makeweight, but the deal controversially collapsed at the last minute.
Did this cause unrest among the squad? Of course, questions were answered when Roma signed Perez instead of Politano, while Spinazzola himself has been one of the few shining lights since. The full-back may have been reborn over the last few weeks, but did his near-sale represent some deeper conflict?
Did other players view it as a sign that, coupled with Florenzi’s departure, nobody’s position is safe? They arguably should not, because the ones who remain know where they’ll be for the next six months at least. But perhaps it was a further example of discontent.
Elsewhere on the transfer front, even with the addition of Perez, Roma have still looked light in attack. Nikola Kalinic remains the only alternative to Edin Dzeko, and more than a year without a goal does not make good reading for him.
Sometimes, a creative spark has been lacking as well. When Lorenzo Pellegrini has not played well, Roma have struggled for other sources of inspiration. The lack of reliability that can be placed upon the shoulders of Javier Pastore or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, even just to keep fit, is worrying for Fonseca.
The coach has had few options to really change things mid-game, and the addition of another attacker as well as Perez would not have harmed.
Injury plague continuesEmbed from Getty Images
As just mentioned, Roma needed to bring bodies in because of injuries – notably to Zaniolo. While everyone would agree that he has been very good for Roma, perhaps they didn’t realise just how much they’d miss him.
Roma have lost a creative spark since the winger was ruled out, in addition to the determination and drive that he possesses. Cengiz Under made a brief positive impression on a couple of occasions, but has not been fully himself this season, while Perez needs time to settle in.
Another key injury was that to Amadou Diawara, who had become something like a metronome presence in the midfield. Diawara was dictating games with his passing ability, and the midfield has looked lost since. His return to light training this week is one of the biggest reliefs Fonseca could have asked for.
Fonseca: “The signs are encouraging with Diawara – we hope he keeps improving day by day. I spoke to him after training – he’s okay and not in pain. We’re optimistic for the coming days.”— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) February 19, 2020
#ASRoma #UEL #RomaGent pic.twitter.com/GbjKyzi1JI
But can injuries really be wholly to blame? Roma were without key players at other times this season and did well. Fonseca was resourceful, using Gianluca Mancini as a midfielder, for example, and things still ticked over. The same cannot be said at present.
Pellegrini’s poor formEmbed from Getty Images
Another reason the midfield has not been as convincing is the drop-off in form of Lorenzo Pellegrini. It’s a hard one to explain – the Rome-born playmaker was sublime earlier in the season, quickly reaching 10 assists, more than he had ever managed in a single campaign before.
However, something has not been quite right with him since. No doubt his own injury will have halted his progress, but he got back up to his best fairly soon after. Something has changed since then, and he has endured a tough run of form.
So, where was the turning point? Was it when he led his side out with the captain’s armband against Inter? That was a significant moment in his development, that could have been the start of the raising of an even higher bar, but maybe, subconsciously, he saw it as the culmination of his journey.
Of course, he will still acknowledge that there is a lot left he wants to achieve. But psychologically, he has now assumed a role of greater responsibility, and that may have triggered a shift in his performance levels.
Since Florenzi’s exit, he is now Edin Dzeko’s vice-captain. He has thrived under pressure before, but this is a different kind. It would not be an error from Fonseca to drop Pellegrini for one game, so he can re-focus his mind and come back stronger.
Fonseca’s Europa League rantEmbed from Getty Images
Pellegrini’s shift to a role of greater responsibility was not the only thing that could have changed things in December. After only scraping a draw with Wolfsberger in their final Europa League group game, Fonseca launched a public criticism of his players.
“It is clear that I did not like the attitude of the team,” he said. “We need to be more aggressive, we didn’t have a good game today.
“I didn’t like some of the players tonight. It’s hard for me to talk but some players didn’t deserve to play in this game.”
Was that the real turning point in Roma’s season? Sometimes players need a kick up the backside to spring them back into action, but Fonseca may have overstepped the mark when he said that.
In general, Roma had been playing very well before then. It wasn’t fully warranted to make a striking criticism like that in front of the whole world.
Two wins may have followed those outbursts, but perhaps some psychological damage lingered. Criticism is fair, but Fonseca should have considered his tone better, at risk of creating irreversible damage.
Things looked very positive after the draw with Inter, but in the very next game, another draw seemed to take the wheels off Roma’s season. And perhaps Fonseca aggravated the problem with his comments.
It was the week that changed everything for Roma.