Serie A Week 6 – Monday 12 September 2022 – Stadio Castellani | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The retooled Roma ran into troubles in the last two matches and will seek to return to winning ways against Empoli, which have maintained their identy despite a coaching change and multiple departures.
Empoli have been ballsy in moving from a coach, Aurelio Andreazzoli, that had guided them to a serene campaign, and hiring Paolo Zanetti, who got fired by Venezia late last season when the relegation was fast approaching. Their president was apparently worried they would get complacent. The new gaffer had proven his worth in Serie B, while his schemes and ideas seemed a little reckless in the top league, which was often exploited by the opponents.
The roster currently at his disposal is better and more experienced than the one he had at Venezia. He surely fits the ethos of the club, which, no matter who is on the bench, always plays proactive and courageous football. Zanetti might never be on a par with some of his illustrious predecessors, but they probably went with him to bring in youthful energy and build a multi-year project. He’ll need to massively boost his stocks before being poached by bigger clubs. It’s a marriage that should work out on paper, even though the previous divorce wasn’t entirely justifiable.
They have taken some hits on the transfer market, but it wasn’t a bloodbath, as they managed to hold onto a few of their center-pieces. Ander Pinamonti and Szymon Zurkowski were on loan, and they had no shot at retaining the former, while the negotiation with Fiorentina for the latter went down to the wire, but they came up empty-handed. Conversely, Nedim Bajrami and Fabiano Parisi, whom the Viola had eyed, stayed put. The Albanian playmaker has looked flat in his early showings, perhaps because he thought he would transfer, but he should be back to splendid levels when they manage to re-engage and re-energize him. He’s super elegant and impactful on his day. Instead, the left-back is a star in the making and always wreaks havoc, so keeping him is a coup.
Kristjan Asllani shined so brightly that his departure was inevitable, plus Nice paid a pretty penny for Mattia Viti considering that he had just 20 professional appearances under his belt. They have gone almost piece by piece to replace those who left, with a pair of extra ones. It’s still early to assess whether they have more hits or misses, but they surely didn’t slack while putting together the squad.
Razvan Marin alternates convincing stretches to games where he disappears or constantly gives the ball away. He’s been brought in to serve as the deep-lying playmaker, and then they signed the less brilliant but steadier Alberto Grassi because they weren’t totally sure he would pan out in that role. But, they can use him also as a box-to-box or as a no.10, perhaps in a Christmas tree-type of formation.
They have gone both with prospects, Sam Lammers and Martin Satriano, and a veteran, Mattia Destro, to replenish their attack. The ex-Genoa marksman has been banged up in the early going, but he can catch fire and get streaky at any moment. In any case, they have insurance, although the two youngsters are similar as they are mobile forwards that could use a reference point next to them. But they can make do even if pairing up, and they both scored against Salernitana. They abound in agility when they are on the pitch together.
They took a late flier on Marko Pjaca, who can play as a no.10 or second-striker in their current scheme. As any talented player, he has his moments, but his health is ever precarious. But it’s a calculated risk, as he doesn’t come in with a major role but rather as a cherry on top. So far, the coach has stuck with 4-3-1-2, but a slight tweak to 4-3-3 could be in the cards. The Croat is a purer winger after all, and they also have onboarded Nicolò Cambiaghi, who’s coming off a majestic season at Pordenone, but he got hurt early. And they can turn Bajrami into a creative box-to-box relatively quickly in that scenario.
They took two swings in the back to substitute Viti, who wasn’t quite a full-time starter yet, adding two promising players in Koni De Winter and Sebastian Walukiewicz, on top of giving a bigger role to Ardian Ismajli. Sebastiano Luperto is an institution at this point, and the odds of at least one of his three teammates emerging as a reliable option are good.
The end product is a squad that changed a lot because it was forced to but maintained its style and, possibly, its caliber, even though some newcomers will have to cut their teeth as they go. They are in a similar spot to where they were at the start of last season when a few players they eventually cashed in on had yet to blossom. Tommaso Baldanzi quickly became a candidate to do just that this season, but he went down with an early injury.
They have yet to notch a win, but they stayed afloat through four draws against Fiorentina, Lecce, Verona, and Salernitana, while they were beaten by Spezia in the opener. It’s a run-of-the-mill stretch of results. They have shown strong resiliency for a young team. They have looked like a squad that is very light in the head, and for that, they will be able to keep up with most sides through their dynamism and the strength of their identity. But their daring attitude will occasionally be used against them by experienced teams with menacing frontlines.
Expected XI (4-3-1-2): Vicario; Stojanovic, Ismajli, Luperto, Parisi; Haas, Grassi, Bandinelli; Pjaca; Lammers, Satriano.
Roma had somewhat cruised in the first few matches, although they will never be the most effervescent and dominant side. Still, they bested Salernitana and Cremonese without suffering despite the narrow results. They had started to show some creaks in the Juventus clash, but they stayed in the game despite a terrible first half and came away with a tie, and they deep-sixed Monza for good measure afterward.
All of their momentum came to a screeching halt against Udinese, and there weren’t many signs pointing towards an imminent collapse. The issues carried over to Europe, where the loss was a tad unlucky and undeserved, but it’s still a blemish. So now they have to prevent things from snowballing and becoming a proper crisis. The match-up isn’t overly challenging, but they will have to bring it to tame Empoli.
The Giallorossi have consistency issues that occasionally rear their ugly heads in loud fashion. Their defense is top-notch on paper and capable of racking up clean sheets. After all, considering José Mourinho’s history and style, that’s their bread and butter, and they have overwhelming physicality. But if opponents challenge them repeatedly, the gaffes tend to arrive and do them in, and they aren’t great when they have to respond to adversities.
They are coming off a remarkable window when they accomplished a lot while spending little. Unfortunately for them, Georginio Wijnaldum picked up a major injury right away, and Nicolò Zaniolo got hurt too, although less severely. That has prevented them from executing their vision, as the returns of a more aggressive XI, but not scheme, were promising. The Dutchman won’t be able to add his talents to midfield till 2023, and who knows how much time it’ll take for him to be fully in shape. They went on to sign Mady Camara as a fill-in afterward, who might get his first start here.
The Special One going with Zaniolo and Paulo Dybala supporting Tammy Abraham, and deploying Lorenzo Pellegrini in a more defensive role, where he hadn’t featured in ages, had raised eyebrows due to potential imbalance issues. After seeing the bulkier midfield in action, with Bryan Cristante and Nemanja Matic partnering up, there is a dynamism deficit in the role. And that’s where Wijnaldum being out stings, and so does not having another trustworthy attacker to throw in and maintain the same configuration. Stephan El Shaarawy is on the mend, Felix Afena-Gyan is long gone, and Andrea Belotti is too much of a pure striker for it to work, although he always busts his tail, so perhaps they’ll get there eventually. There’s no doubt he can feature next to Abraham, but whether he can while all the other stars are on the pitch is very dubious. Zaniolo has been called up for this one, and the temptation to deploy him right away will be very strong.
There is a more straightforward solution to fit everybody with just small adjustments, which is to go back to Mourinho’s beloved 4-2-3-1, which they do from time to time when they need to score. The only player out of position would again be Pellegrini, who would start on the left, but he’s done it with Italy, and in any case, the three no.10s would have a lot of freedom, plus two muscular guys behind them that wouldn’t need to do much on offense. But the gaffer has explicitly ruled out a permanent switch because his center-backs prefer a three-man line. They have very little depth in the back so, despite their wishes, it might become inevitable at some point. To be fair, their fullbacks are more attacking than defensive-minded, especially those on the left, so they are more impactful as wing-backs. But Leonardo Spinazzola isn’t back to his pre-Achilles tear levels yet, and Nicola Zalewski is not as brilliant as last season in spotty minutes. The youngster is out with muscle fatigue, so Matias Vina would be the choice if the gaffer decided to give the starter a breather.
This feels like a match where Roma will have to overcome their own troubles rather than combat the opponents, which is not a great place to be. They can be fickle one way or the other, and even a cheap victory could help them get going again. By the early looks of it, the Scudetto and the Champions League races are wide open, there’s a ton of parity at the top and no juggernauts, and they belong if they get it together.
Expected XI (4-3-1-2): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Celik, Matic, Camara, Spinazzola; Dybala, Pellegrini; Abraham.
Empoli: Tonelli (ACL tear), Baldanzi, Destro (thigh strains).
Roma: Darboe (ACL tear), Wijnaldum (shinbone fracture), El Shaarawy, Kumbulla (thigh strains), Karsdorp (knee soreness), Zalewski (muscle fatigue).