The first two rounds couldn’t have gone any more differently for the two sides, but Roma got an injection of enthusiasm from the transfer market prior to the anticipated bout and tend to show up in crunch contests.
Serie A Week 3 – Friday 1 September 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The two first games went poorly for the Giallorossi, but that shouldn’t take too much away from a strong summer, albeit they had to wait to land their targets. Romelu Lukaku was the cherry on top and brought a much-needed jolt to a side and city that can easily get down in the dumps after a pair of missteps. Since they operate on a tight budget, onboarding so many quality reinforcements while selling just one starter was a massive achievement.
The other side of the coin is that, besides the early Bosman additions of Houssem Aouar, who has arguably been their best contributor in the first two fixtures, and Evan Ndicka, they had to wait for the late-summer discounts. Therefore, the newcomers will need time not only to gel with their teammates but especially to get into shape since pretty much all are coming off a few weird months. That was painfully obvious for instance for Leandro Paredes, who got the start against Salernitana. It’ll be an issue for Lukaku too, who’s not the nimblest player and was barely practicing with Chelsea.
Therefore, it’ll take one-to-two months for them to be at the peak of their powers, and lofty objectives might already be beyond their reach at that point. While they do have a lot of star power now, which fuels legitimate ambitions, competing for the title is still likely a pipe dream, although only the pitch can testify to that. But they’ll have a better shot at cracking the top four.
It’d be easy to argue with parts of their reinforcement campaign, but they aren’t exactly positioned to hand-pick their purchases. Since they had to make do with what the market had to offer, the results are more than acceptable. Nemanja Matic was a sneaky big loss, and why he asked out remains a mystery given his bond with José Mourinho, but they bounced back in okay fashion with Paredes and Renato Sanches, finally adding a true regista and a dynamic box-to-box they had been chasing after for years. Diego Llorente is rock-solid and will give Ndicka time to adapt. Since Roger Ibanez was blunder-prone, their rearguard has improved, even more so if they rounded it out with another man to have the full six options.
Rasmus Kristensen looked sluggish out wide, but he has the right traits, and they can still turn to Rick Karsdorp, who’s still here despite the rumors, or Zeki Celik if he doesn’t pan out. The more enticing route is moving Nicola Zalewski to the right, but they’d have to find another player to alternate with Leonardo Spinazzola on the other wing. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor issue.
Their search for one or two strikers was tipsy-turvy and shouldn’t have dragged on for this long. Conversely, they wouldn’t been able to snap up Lukaku, and probably Sardar Azmoun either, if they weren’t so patient. The real problem is that the transfer market shouldn’t still be open when the games start, but that’s neither here nor there, and they have nothing to do with that.
As was the case for Paulo Dybala, they are a perfect match for the big Belgian, who could use some love and has always been at his best when properly coddled. The pairing with the Argentine is exquisite from a technical standpoint, and he’s tailor-made for Mourinho’s style. He’s no slouch on counters, even though he lost a step over the years, and he’ll serve as a muscular reference point when they want to attack en masse. They needed a physical center-forward and arguably snatched the best one available.
Still, players are usually available at discount prices for a reason, and it’s injuries for a few of their additions. Sanches is already hurt, Azmoun is iffy, Dybala picked up a thigh problem last week, although the latest reports about him are on the positive side, and who knows how much time Lukaku will need to be in an acceptable form. The League waits for nobody, as Salernitana and Verona proved. No matter their caliber, Serie A sides are always ready to pounce on the difficulties, and they looked like a giant work in progress in the first two matches. They have more options to make up for the absences now, although substituting for La Joya is nearly impossible. The sooner they put together a coherent plan and no longer seem like a discombobulated mess, the better for their standings.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Llorente; Kristensen, Cristante, Paredes, Pellegrini, Zalewski; El Shaarawy, Belotti.
Doubts: Kristensen/Spinazzola, Paredes/Aouar, El Shaarawy/Dybala
Injury Report: Sanches (thigh strain), Abraham, Kumbulla (ACL tears)
Losing a fan favorite and captain-in-waiting like Sandro Tonali was a tough way to start the summer, but Milan went into it with a clear plan and executed it almost flawlessly. Considering how smoothly they have run their operations, the surprising ousting of Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara likely derived from having too many cooks in the kitchen. They surely wouldn’t have spent this much without selling their star midfielder, and the legend might have thrown his body in front of it.
Rather than replacing Brahim Diaz, who was a meaningful cog, or trying to revive Charles De Ketelaere, they decided to eradicate the no.10 problem at its root and switch to a 4-3-3. Not signing a new regista, heavily relying on Rade Krunic, is suboptimal, but their newcomers, Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have looked like a million bucks, and Yunus Musah has a very high ceiling. They probably think Ismael Bennacer will be able to hit the ground running once he shakes off his knee injury, which is dubious.
Still, it’s nitpicking considering how well they fared in the first two matches, and they have more levels to go to. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to have a muscular and defensive-minded anchor who moves the ball around and lets his teammates cook rather than trying to do too much. They certainly don’t lack technique and inventiveness throughout the squad.
Despite his talent, investing in Christian Pulisic was still a gamble since he was coming off a hellish season. He started off with two great goals and glitzy performances. Doing business early allowed the additions to jell, and it paid dividends early. Rather than Moneyball and whatnot and taking big swings on unknown youngsters, they have targeted market inefficiencies, signing players they believe could outperform their fee. Some got off to an impeccable start, we’ll see about the others. For instance, Noah Okafor might not be totally apt if he was supposed to serve as Oliver Giroud’s deputy, but they aren’t excessively deep upfront, so he can find room in other roles. His discounted price tag probably enticed them to overlook the technical and tactical doubts. The Mehdi Taremi deal continues going back and forth. They could be fine even if it collapsed, although maybe not as experienced as they’d like.
They surely were too dependent on Rafael Leao last season, and, after addressing his extension, which was a biggie, they proceeded to add two more pacey wingers. Being able to throw either Pulisic or Samuel Chukwueze at tired opponents will be a luxury; plus, they will be in a much better spot whenever they decide to give their star a breather. While he’s still very much the main engine, their new pieces will draw more attention, opening up some room he’ll surely exploit. And if they feel like it, a 4-2-3-1 with either Pulisic, Musah, or Reijnders in the hole to be more offensive-minded is right there.
Despite the several changes, including the schematic one, they were a well-oiled machine in the first two matches, romping a usually tough nut to crack like Torino and breezing past the pesky Bologna. This test will be telling. There’s no doubt they strengthened their squad overall. If they can avoid growing pains or an adjustment period, as they are seemingly doing, they’ll be a very serious threat in the title race even if other sides can rely on more continuity.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Maignan; Calabria, Thiaw, Tomori, Hernandez; Loftus-Cheek, Krunic, Reijnders; Pulisic, Giroud, Leao.
Doubts: Calabria/Kalulu, Pulisic/Chukwueze.
Injury Report: Bennacer (knee cartilage lesion).
Milan Win, Under 2.5 goals