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Lampredotto with the frenemy: CdT’s Bren sets up the Roma game

Always good to check in with one of our oldest and dearest frenemies.

ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - Coppa Italia
Oh, no reason.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

A new-look AS Roma means that we’ve got a lot of catching up to do with our favorite capital-based club, largely because your humble correspondent doesn’t want to waste too much time tracking the antics of a certain Portuguese manager. That’s where our old friend Bren of Chiesa di Totti comes in. We caught up with him as he was on his way out the door to a birthday party (way to brag about having friends, Bren), and he was kind enough to answer the questions we hocked at him.

Viola Nation: What are the early thoughts on Jose Mourinho in Rome? Has he shown anything new, or is it the same smug brand that we’ve all grown to know and love?

CdT Bren: Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. We’ve certainly seen Mourinho sneering on the sidelines a few times as his players mixed it up with the opposition after the whistle, but I’m reserving any sweeping, tactical claims until we have a few months under our belts. But people are definitely excited about this new phase in club history. Apart from Luciano Spalletti returning in 2016, I haven’t really seen or felt this level of excitement about a manager in all my time covering Roma.

If I had to venture a guess, I think we’re going to see a lot more direct approaches towards the goal, using the combined speed and attacking prowess of Zaniolo, Mkhitaryan, Abraham, and El Shaarawy, among others. In the end, I can’t imagine he’s going to reinvent the wheel, but he’s used a variety of tactical setups in his career, so I think this notion that he’s a one-trick pony is a bit exaggerated.

VN: You’ve obviously only gotten to see the preseason and the Conference League game against Trabzonspor, but what stands out to you as new about this edition of Roma? What’s the biggest difference so far between this bunch and what we saw under Paulo Fonseca?

CdT Bren: Right, as you said, it’s a bit too soon to tell. However, based on what we just saw in the Conference League match, Roma will definitely play more directly than under Fonseca, at least the latter half of his tenure with Roma. In the beginning, Fonseca used nearly the same system, so I think the transition will be pretty smooth because of that. However, with Zaniolo back in action and players like Tammy Abraham and Eldor Shomurodov joining up, I think this Roma will be faster and looser than any point in 2021. In a strange sense, they’re like the old showtime Lakers. Mkhitaryan and Pellegrini will play the Magic Johnson role, running and distributing, while guys like Zaniolo, Shomurodov, and Abraham are the sprightly wingers filling the lanes on the fast break. The biggest difference will be what happens when Roma is up: Will Mourinho shut it down or seek to compound the opponents’ misery? If he parks the bus straight away, forget I ever mentioned the Showtime Lakers. It’ll be more like the old Oakland A’s going up 1-0 in the 5th and then LaRussa just plays the lefty/righty bullpen matchup game until you fall asleep and the game ends 2-1.

VN: It’s strange to see Roma line up without Edin Džeko up top for the first time since 2015. What do you think of Abraham and Shomorudov as his replacements? How do you think they’ll fit into the overall team structure?

CdT Bren: Yeah, after so many years of writing about Džeko leaving, it’s kind of a relief to see that chapter close. Mourinho says they were taken aback by the move, but I don’t buy that, particularly not with Mourinho’s well-published admiration for Abraham. While neither Abraham nor Shomurodov are complete strikers like Džeko, what they lack in all-roundedness they make up for with speed and finishing. As great as Džeko was, he wasn’t terribly efficient, which seems to be a strength of Abraham’s. So, rather than seeing Džeko dropping deep and holding up play while the wide forwards advance, I think we’re looking at a club that will attack (or counter) in direct waves. It’s a work in progress and we saw a lot of disconnection in Thursday’s match against Trabzonspor, but I think the plan is to utilize Abraham and Shomurodov as pure finishers rather than strikers who do a bit of everything.

VN: What are the strengths of this Roma team, besides the mental invulnerability that Mourinho provides for about 6 months? Conversely, what are the areas that concern you?

CdT Bren: Man, did Mourinho back out of one of your eBay auctions or something? [ed. note: I really wanted those bike streamers and he didn’t let me have them.] Why all the hate, Tito? Why!? In all seriousness, the strengths are the combined powers of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Nicolo Zaniolo. If both players are healthy all season long, then Roma’s offense will be incredibly dynamic, making it almost impossible for defenses to slow them down; they each do so many things so well, the chances will come naturally. And if Abraham and Shomurodov can finish as well as we hope, the goals should come rather easily.

In terms of weaknesses, it’s the midfield, or at least the double pivot. Mourinho has spent the entire summer pining for a legitimate defensive midfielder like Granit Xhaka but, to date, they’ve failed in those attempts. A pivot of Jordan Veretout and Amadou Diawara simply won’t be fast enough to protect the backline while Bryan Cristante, who will likely play next to Veretout, isn’t really a defensive midfielder so he can only do so much to stem the tide.

VN: Which bit-part or youth players from last year do you expect to make the jump to major cogs in the system? I really like Bryan Reynolds and Riccardo Calafiori, but that might just be too much FM21.

CdT Bren: Yeah, I hate to break it to you, but those two will most likely be riding the pine this year. Calafiori seemingly had a golden opportunity once Leonardo Spinazzola got hurt but the club quickly signed Matías Viña from Palmeiras while Reynolds just doesn’t seem quite ready yet. But if you wanted to buy stock in a young Roma player, put your money on either Nicola Zalewski, a wide forward, or possibly Edoardo Bove, who could solve that defensive midfield riddle if given a chance.

VN: Zooming in on tomorrow’s festivities, what are your thoughts on Fiorentina’s summer so far? It’s been as wacky as we’ve grown to expect from our end, but it’s always good to hear from someone on the outside. Anyone you think could cause Roma problems in this one?

CdT Bren: Well, I am SHOCKED that they were able to keep Vlahovic, so I think the discussion really begins and ends there. If he really is a 20+ goal scorer year in year out, he could win Fiorentina plenty of points on his own. Then, of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Nicolas Gonzalez or Gaetano Castrovilli. With Roma’s defensive midfield issues, either of those players could feast on Sunday.

VN: Prediction time: What’s the final score, who (if anyone) scores, and what’s the overall texture of the game?

CdT Bren: Final score, I’ll say Roma 2, Fiorentina 1. Goalscorers, I’ll say Zaniolo, Mkhitaryan, and Castrovilli. Texture, I’ll say...leathery.

Thanks Bren! Here’s hoping for a good clean game that looks a lot like 2019’s Coppa Italia at full time.