“I think people all over the world know that Gerrard has been a Liverpool legend. He’s spent many years playing for one team and has always fought for that club. He should be respected and thanked for everything he’s achieved.” Such words were bestowed upon departing Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard by none other than Francesco Totti though; switching their names and replacing Liverpool with Roma, the Italian could well have been referring to himself.
2015 has proven to be a definitive year for teams whose successes have long been interwoven with individual icons. Totti’s elaborate sashays embodied Roma for a generation, just as Gerrard’s combative vigour did for Liverpool and Xavi’s intricate passing did for Barcelona.
Refusing to leave the clubs they adored as boys and grew to represent, these three players – while completely different in style on and off the pitch – were inevitably bound to pose their respective clubs the exact same question: what would they do without them?
Barcelona were proactive in finding a solution to Xavi’s eventual departure at the end of this season, gradually phasing out their legendary midfield metronome in favour of Ivan Rakitic and modifying their style of play to suit. Liverpool were more clumsy in dealing with Gerrard as his time with the club petered out in a series of disappointing instances, though if anything those moments made the process of moving on easier.
Roma, however, are still Totti-reliant. Fans have been born, learned or been taught to love Roma, grown experiencing the highs and lows of following the club and began to legally buy alcohol in the time since Totti made his debut. The emotional connection between the man and the club remains strong, though Giallorossi coach Rudi Garcia must loosen the hold that bond has over his team selection if Roma are to progress.
Totti is a world-class veteran at 38 and although his continued appearance within the starting line-up is in itself a testament to his longevity, it is also an indicator of the sentimentality Roma have seemingly been trapped by in failing to usher their ageing genius into a less active role sooner. With another year to run on his contract, the ageing Roman superhero; his reflexes dulled, still finds himself called upon to rescue his team.
Every now and then he will do something to once again justify why he has been so worshipped for so long, such as his two-goal salvo against Lazio back in January. Single-handedly, Totti hauled Roma back into the match and earned them a point that, with the added benefit of hindsight, was crucial. Such game-changing performances are dwindling, though. They are now an exception as opposed to the norm.
Roma beat their city rivals 2-1 in the second Derby della Capitale of the campaign on Monday evening, a victory that secured their status in the Champions League group stages next season. Totti started but on 61 minutes there was a familiar yet unbecoming sight: he was substituted. At the time the game was tied at 0-0, Roma had failed to assert themselves and Totti slunk off the pitch after a frustrating afternoon; one in which he received the first booking for a foul committed having been caught in possession. That was the story of his match; he was off the pace. Furthermore, it is perhaps the overarching theme of a Roma season in which attacking impotence has been their greatest bane.
With just 53 goals from 37 league games, Roma’s is the worst offensive record in Serie A’s top six. Only three teams in the entire league have drawn more than they and their lack of killer instinct in the final third is undeniably the predominant factor behind that. Since their humiliating 1-7 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich, Roma have put together successive wins on just four occasions, and none of those runs have gone beyond two matches. Their scudetto hopes were left paralysed by such inconsistency; the abundance of draws putting paid to their chances of keeping in touch with Juventus.
Midway through the season they took the decision to sign cunning Ivorian goal-poacher Seydou Doumbia for a fee of just under £13 million to replace the outgoing Mattia Destro. The investment suggested that the club had begun a much-needed re-examination and wanted to keep alive the idea of playing with an out-and-out centre-forward, an option that would likely require the relegation of Totti to the bench. This might effect a strange feeling, though if any conclusion has been reached through Roma’s staid showings this campaign, it is that tactical change is a necessity.
Garcia’s 4-3-3 has until now been predicated on Totti’s use as a false nine flanked by two wingers. It’s a role that Totti has embraced throughout his Roma career, often with great success. Naturally a trequartista, it was under Luciano Spalletti’s tenure as Roma coach that he became the faux-spearhead of Roma’s attack. In Spalletti’s renowned 4-6-0 system, he was given the freedom to operate between the opposition’s midfield and defence. It caused difficulty for opposing centre-backs, who were unsure as to where they should be and who they should mark. However these days Totti is far easier to get to grips with, and Roma’s resultant lack of penetration may leave them searching for another system, or at least a new style of play, in the summer.
In their latest victory over Lazio, Roma played with emphasis on the counterattack, a surprise given they have been a possession-oriented team for a considerable amount of time. They sat deep defensively and looked to spring into attack at speed down the flanks. This plainly did not suit Totti, who cut an isolated figure unable to keep up with the quick transitions. Whenever the wingers; Juan Iturbe and Alessandro Florenzi, burst forward and looked for options, their captain was rarely in sight.
Nonetheless, Roma had just 37% of possession and still won. The way they played in this match may have been a one-off, or it could hint towards a longer-term stylistic change. If so, they would certainly not be the only top European team to renounce the ball in favour of greater efficacy this season, as one look at Arsenal can confirm. A switch to a more orthodox version of the 4-3-3 – with a proper centre-forward replacing Totti – could provide extra cutting edge to their counterattacks. Perhaps that is where Garcia must go next if his side are to challenge Juventus in future. If anything can sell the idea to him, a vital derby win should.