Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Mourinho and Roma - The Special One Reborn In Serie A

Mourinho With Europa Conference League Trophy

No one stays on top forever, as time inevitably catches up with everyone. That being said, those who excel in their chosen profession can maintain a place near the top of the tree for a long time or, to use a sporting phrase, form is temporary but class is permanent. Bearing this in mind, I always thought that the way José Mourinho was written off by sections of the British press, following his experiences with Tottenham and to some extent Manchester United, felt incredibly premature. And this indeed appears to have been the case judging by how the Portuguese is doing in Rome.


More than halfway through his second season as the AS Roma manager, and Mourinho is in a good place, dare I say a happy one. Three months shy of the two year anniversary of his appointment, and José has shown no signs of the slow-burn of an implosion and the breakdown of relationships that have typically seen the end of his previous managerial tenures. In fact, barring an unlikely, catastrophic sequence of results, it's possible that Mourinho could stick around in Rome for a lot longer than expected.

You see, whilst Roma is a large club on the Italian stage, and occasionally the European one, it's also a club that has a reputation that belies their actual standing. In many ways they are like the Tottenham of Italy, an institution that sometimes flirts with genuine, craved for success, but that often settles for glorious failure. However, last season Mourinho made an instant impact in Roma by leading his team to the inaugural Europa Conference League title, thus providing the first silverware for I Giallorossi since the 2008 Coppa Italia, and a first European trophy since the 1961 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the precursor to the UEFA Cup/Europa League).

The glory of the win against Feyenoord was combined with a respectable 6th place finish in Serie A (an improvement of one place on the season prior to Mourinho), all of which means that 'the Special One' has a significant amount of credit in the bank. A positive balance that continues to grow during the 2022-23 season, with Roma currently sitting in 3rd spot in the league table, sandwiched in between the title holders AC Milan in 4th and Inter Milan in 2nd. On the basis of the evidence from the past 21 months, José is improving Roma incrementally.

These improvements have also been done on a relatively cheap transfer policy. When Mourinho arrived in the summer of 2021 there was of course a reasonable outlay on the squad, with a spend of almost €100M on six players and little recouped from sales. The marquee signing was Tammy Abraham for €40M, from his old stomping ground Chelsea, who went on to break the record for most goals in a Serie A season for an Englishman and was significant in propelling the team forward throughout 2021-22.

However, this past summer Roma tightened their belts significantly and only spent €7M (on the Turkish defender Zeki Çelik). Five other signings were secured between then and the recent January window, but Mourinho relied on the free transfer market to get them, starting with his old, reliable colleague Nemanja Matić. These included a major coup though as Paulo Dybala, arguably at the peak of his career, opted to leave Juventus for Roma after seven seasons, over one hundred goals and five league titles. So far the Argentine has been an inspiration, scoring eleven goals in twenty-two games in all competitions, a return that has helped Roma absorb the drop-off in goals that Abraham has had in his second season in Rome. 

In fact, the continuing upgrade in how Roma are performing this season, has been achieved on the back of a transfer profit as the club have received €63.4M from sales since last June. The most notable of these departures is Nicolò Zaniolo, the young talent that scored the goal to win the aforementioned Europa Conference League, but who decided within six months of that triumph that he wanted out. Once he had submitted his transfer request, Mourinho displayed how he remains as ruthless as ever if crossed, making it clear to the press that the attacking midfielder would be frozen out and that it would be unfortunate if he stuck around beyond the transfer window! As for Zaniola, he ended up moving to Galatasaray after rejecting an approach from Bournemouth and seeing his hopes for a move to Tottenham or AC Milan dashed. One has to wonder what he was thinking.

Meanwhile, his former teammates keep defying expectations as they grind out results in Serie A and battle to be the best of the rest behind a Napoli side that look streets ahead of every other team in the division and have a fifteen point lead. It now seems inevitable that Gli Azzurri will win their first ever Serie A title without having the genius of Maradona on the pitch.

Roma have already played Napoli twice this season, and both times they went down to narrow losses due to conceding in the last ten minutes of the game, results that give a fair example of where each club currently are in their development. The league leaders tend to blow away their opposition, having taken the most shots and the most shots on target across the league, and have the meanest defence too, conceding just fifteen goals in their twenty-three matches so far. As for Roma, they have the joint 3rd best defence (conceding nineteen goals) but their struggles have been up front. With just thirty goals scored at this point, it doesn't take much to imagine what impact that the Tammy Abraham of last season could have had on this campaign.

With regards to adding more silverware in 2023, Mourinho and his team fell foul of Cremonese in the Coppa Italia quarter-final at the start of February. That team may be rooted to the foot of Serie A without a win all season, but they added Roma to the scalp of Napoli, who were beaten in the last sixteen. As a result José is once more looking to Europe, where they host Red Bull Salzburg this Thursday and hope to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg of the knock-out play-offs for the Europa League. If they get through that it would be foolish to bet against them adding to the historic European resume that the Portuguese already owns. 

Either way, Roma are quietly going through a transition which could lead them back towards being genuine Serie A contenders for the first time since 2016-17, when they were runners-up under the management of Luciano Spalletti, the man now on the cusp of making history with Napoli. There's no doubt that Mourinho is plotting further investment in the summer and expects the board to financially back his own ambition if a top four finish is secured. Ultimately, he'll want nothing more than to disprove his detractors by furthering his legacy in Rome and showing that he is still 'the special one'.

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