An analysis of Roma's excellent start to the season
Retaining de Rossi was important for Garcia’s plans. He was very nearly tempted away to the EPL but desisted. (“I couldn’t bear to think that my last game in a Roma jersey would be that Coppa Italia Final lost to Lazio,” he later explained.) De Rossi is arguably the best defensive midfielder in Europe at present, and plays as the deepest member of the Roma midfield, almost as a third centre-back, screening the back pair of Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia who in turn have formed an excellent partnership at the back since Benatia’s arrival this summer. While the departed Marquinhos will probably mature into a better defender, former Udinese man Benatia is already at the level Roma need him to be.
Other summer signings include Gervinho and Douglas Maicon – talented and accomplished players who lost some of their sheen in England, but are deadly nonetheless. Maicon brings considerable experience to the field and has carried out successful campaigns in Italy previously, featuring in Inter Milan’s Treble-winning 2009-10 season. But it is in getting the best out of Gervinho, a striker he earlier managed at Le Mans and later Lille (where they won the league title) that Garcia has earned his spurs as a motivator.
The Ivorian was a key figure during Lille’s title-winning campaign and no one has doubted his quality – Eden Hazard has called him the best player he’s played with – but struggled to make an impact at Arsenal, where he spent two frustrating seasons, eventually being supplanted by Lukas Podolski in the first XI. Even a seasoned manager like Arsene Wenger was unable to get him back to his best, and as time went by, the Ivorian – known to have a sensitive temperament – began slipping further and further into an abyss.
So when Garcia was recruited by Roma and given carte blanche to sign the players he wanted, it must have come as a surprise (not a pleasant one!) to the board that his first request was Gervinho; “for whatever price,” he reportedly told them. But today, with newspapers in Rome swooning over ‘the African Messi’, no one can deny that he made the right call: Gervinho has been pivotal to Roma’s flying start, with his pace, dribbling ability and excellent understanding with Alessandro Florenzi resulting in a combined 7 goals already.
The absolute star of the forward line remains captain Francesco Totti, who at 37 continues to boss Serie A defences with panache and ruthlessness. Under Garcia he has been deployed as a false nine; the deep-lying central attacker in a squashed 4-3-3. His cunning positioning and movement constantly drags defenders out of their zones, as he did brilliantly against Inter Milan – at one stage managing to drag all three centre-backs into a vertical line to the right of goal. He is equally astute at finding the final pass, and leads Serie A’s assists chart at 6.
Totti’s pressing, in a sense, makes him Roma’s first line of defence: he moves all over the pitch to retrieve the ball, cleverly interpreting his role in his own way. The way Totti is playing, it won’t be surprising if Cesare Prandelli requests him to come out of international retirement and take the flight to Brazil next summer.
Already this team has faced three other contenders for Europe this season (Napoli, Lazio and Inter) and dispatched each whilst scoring at least two goals. Before the derby delle capitale against Lazio, Garcia attempted to cool the tension by allowing an open training session two days before the match. Owner James Pallotta handed Totti a new contract in recognition of his continued importance to the side. And the captain responded with a brilliant display as Roma avenged their Coppa final loss with a 2-0 win.
It may be early days yet to judge Garcia, who in his later years at Lille didn’t seem to have a Plan B if things went wrong. And Roma have suffered false dawns in the past. But this year, with no European football occupying their midweek slot, Roma have the squad depth and quality to mount a credible challenge for the Champions League places next season – at the least. Under Garcia’s stewardship, they may even go all the way.