Defeated 6-1 by Barcelona, Roma goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny didn’t seem angry. He didn’t even seem concerned. He was simply in awe. “It was beautiful to watch because we played against a team from another planet.” While certain members of the squad appreciated the skilful Catalans, the city of Rome mourned. Defeated 7-1 by Bayern Munich last season and 6-1 now, it seemed every big European challenge brought with it more humiliation and rather than provoke a proud reaction from the team, the side seemed content with accepting mediocrity.
Roma President James Pallotta, a business man who appreciates the importance of image, quickly realised a change was inevitable, especially as his side were drawn against Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League. Rudi Garcia may have done great things during his time with the Giallorossi but rather than protect his team and shield them from the pressures of a demanding city, he was aiding in their psychological collapse. Not only did he seemingly adopt suicidal tactics against brilliant attacking sides [a high line with no pressing game against Barcelona?] but he struggled to elevate the mood in a depressed dressing room once they were comprehensively thrashed.
Who better, thought Pallotta, to help guide the Giallorossi back to prominence than the man who beat the Galacticos twice in 2008, Luciano Spalletti? Hailed as the saviour, the Romans embraced the return of the tactical wizard hoping that he will not only balance a side that boasts fine talent but resurrect the fighting spirit that allowed Roma to compete so effectively against the seemingly eternal League champions, Juventus in Serie A.
Taking over in mid-January, Spalletti has presided over six matches, losing only once to a formidable Old Lady that has won her last 15 Serie A games. One of the few who understands the pressures of playing for a club with the most demanding of fans, he has taken the time to speak to each member of the team, appealing to them in a way that would inspire better performances.
Transmitting confidence and laying out new ground rules, Spalletti has set out to create a tactically versatile side, one that seamlessly transforms into various different formations to adapt to the requirements of the game. His sides are all about fluidity and the ability to maintain intensity despite the changes to the playing module and the personnel playing within it.
Only six games have been played under the new tactician yet one can already notice the various schemes and patterns of play adopted. Whether it was the 4-1-4-1 shape the team reverted to midway through the match against Carpi last weekend or the 3-4-1-2 formation they chose to deploy in the latter stages of the game against Sampdoria, Spalletti yearns to create tactical solutions to resolve the toughest of games.
Yet tactics are not all the Coach has changed. Training sessions have been shortened and more time is dedicated to recreating match environments so players know how to solve the possible obstacles they may face in a game. Never a man to simply observe, Spalletti continuously interrupts training to reorganise the side, point out individual mistakes or demand more from certain players, asking them to repeat specific patterns of play over and over again to ensure perfection and most importantly, defensive strength.
When the draw took place and Roma were pitted against Madrid, even the most optimistic of critics envisages a total mauling. Los Blancos were the highest scoring team in the group stages while Roma had the leakiest defence. Experienced winners against a side with a fragile mentality, how were Roma going to overcome the mighty Spaniards?
Two months later and the optimistic voices within the Italian camp are growing. The Madrid giants have not won a European knockout tie against Italian opposition since 1987 and the last time they faced Spalletti’s Roma, they were outwitted tactically, losing to a side that displayed maturity and character.
Real Madrid will always be favourites for the win but perhaps the Italians will offer them a challenge they don't expect. The only question is whether they have enough to actually cause an upset.