Tides are turning. Even the most ardent Luis Enrique fans are starting to perhaps wonder if Roma’s experiment is one that simply is not going to work out. The concerns are not unfounded; no team, with all due respect to Lecce, can seriously lose to Lecce* by four goals and not wonder what in the world is going on with the defense. The evidence is clear to see; Roma are committing the same mistakes week-in, week-out, and not just in a high defensive line. Often the side has the majority of possession but does little with it, like a sponge that retains water for little reason other than simply to retain it.
However, firing Luis Enrique is far from the only possible recourse available to Roma. In terms of recent history, this season is one of the most promising developments in years for the capital side. After the awful decline under Claudio Ranieri, the team seemed full of aging veterans who were seemingly past their peak, with a president that may have had good intentions at heart but without the financial gusto to truly reinvigorate the squad. The entire boardroom was changed and well-respected figures (to say the least), from Walter Sabatini to Francesco Baldini, were brought in to shake the team to its core.
That shake was precisely what the side needed, and the extent to which is occurred is often forgotten. If the rule of thumb tends to be that a foreign player needs six months to a year to settle into a new squad, what to say of Roma, who has no fewer than six-eight starters drafted in from last summer? Pablo Osvaldo and Fabio Borini seemed to settle more or less immediately (back) into the Italian game, but the likes of Erik Lamela, Maarten Stekelenburg, Gabriel Heinze, Jose Angel, Fernando Gago, and Miralem Pjanic had never played a minute in Italy’s league before, notorious for being tactics-obsessed and pedantic in terms of preparation. Take into account the bizarre case of Simon Kjaer, who looks a shadow of the player he was at Palermo, and often the team looks truly like it is composed of players who have never played together before. Because they haven’t. It hasn’t helped that Nicolas Burdisso has been sidelined for nearly the entire season, perhaps Roma’s best player in the side’s most glaringly weak position.
Oddly enough, Sabatini often seems immune from blame but arguably deserves the majority of it. Though the team is undoubtedly full of offensive players, and midfielders to a lesser extent, mere weeks ago De Rossi was forced to play as a centre-back due to a crisis in defense. Although it would be unfair to blame him for Kjaer’s form, the January transfer window came and went without a single reinforcement brought in, which is quite headscratching. After all, Burdisso was injured well before that time, Juan notably in decline for over a year, and the aforementioned Kjaer inconsistent at best. Instead, the transfer guru brought in solely Marquinho.
And yet, when it works, it works gloriously; the times when it fails to click tend to get blamed most harshly on Luis Enrique, but perhaps the blame lies equally on many of the players. Lamela has been influential but hardly set the league alight in terms of goals scored; Stekelenburg has had games where he hardly seems to be the goalie that was so successful at Ajax and made it to a World Cup final; Heinze is slow and often beaten for pace at his elderly age; and even Pjanic and Gago, who often work so well as a trio beside the reborn Daniele De Rossi (a phoenix that undoubtedly flourished- and crucially, signed a contract extension almost solely due to Luis Enrique-) have had poor patches and struggled with injury. The players need time to settle in just as the coach does.
The board seems to recognize this. Luis Enrique is rarely given anything but full public support even after the most woeful of losses this season by Baldini. President Thomas Di Benedetto fits in nearly perfectly with the project: a total outsider to calcio who acts completely differently from nearly any other club’s president; rarely in the spotlight, quietly running the club, almost never quoted in the press.
Firing Luis Enrique may seem like the easy solution, but doing so would be immensely short-sighted. With seven games remaining in the league, there would be little time for a new coach to even being to implement his new ideas. More fundamentally, this squad was put together for his version of a 4-3-3. It is widely expected that the side will continue to spend in the summer, focusing almost entirely on defense. In essence, the project is incomplete; without defensive reinforcements to provide an actual base upon which the rest of the team can function, Luis Enrique’s team is not yet finished, much like a sculpture without its base.
Luis Enrique deserves a full platform upon which to be judged. Should defensive woes continue once reinforcements brought in, perhaps then the coach can be questioned about his ability to form a team with a solid core. Until then, Luis Enrique is a painter missing the colors required to complete his portrait; it could turn out to be the Mona Lisa or purely inept, but there’s simply no way to know that just yet.
*Yes, the final score was 4-2, but scoring two late goals after the game was essentially over proves relatively nothing.