Edin Dzeko's double against Empoli in the opening weekend of April tied him alongside Andrea Belotti for Serie A leader in goals with 23. His 33 total goals in 41 matches this season is an exceptional output for a 31-year-old who scored just 10 goals last season in as many games. Dzeko's resurgence is the biggest reason why Roma is in second place in Serie A, and just six points behind Juventus this late into the season, yet his story isn't unique to the club. Mo Salah, Wojciech Szczesny, and Federico Fazio, amongst others, have each discovered a second wind in Italy's capital after being made a surplus at their previous sides.
Luciano Spalletti, also on his second spell as club manager, is reaping the rewards of his side's wisdom and development. In returning to the club last winter, there was no questioning his ability to put together a quick, counter attacking side that would entertain and score goals. Miralem Pjanic's departure in the summer opened a possession oriented gap in midfield, but Kevin Strootman in particular has picked up the deep lying, playmaking pieces. The Dutch midfielder, who was out of the game for almost a year with a knee injury, is another example of a player fulfilling his vast potential on this Roma side this season.
Criticism of Spalletti focused on the defensive side of the ball, as the strategy in the past seemed to be as simple as outscoring the opposition. This aspect is where Spalletti has grown the most. Relying on a four defender backline in the past, he mimicked current trends of European soccer in using three centerbacks and two wingbacks, each with clear roles in possession, transitions, and most importantly, when sitting back in defense.
His tactical masterpiece against Napoli showed how a side could break Maurizio Sarri's press through spacing and accurate long passes. And whether out of growth or naturally becoming more conservative with age, Spalletti continues to eschew creative players like Francesco Totti and Stephan El Shaarawy for an airtight midfield featuring Nainggolan's energy, De Rossi's veteran reading of the game, and Strootman or Leandro Paredes' deep lying skills, as was displayed against Lazio in December. To say that a side's midfield provides energy to a team is no revelation, but the details are in the nuances. Roma's center midfielders possess the contrasting skillset of being destroyers who can hit accurate diagonal passes to attacking wingers. All with the goal of finding Dzeko alone in front of goal.
Roma beat Inter 3-1 in February through their energy and tactical discipline in defense. Their 1-0 win over Milan featured their three defenders in Antonio Rudiger, Konstantinos Manolas, and Federico Fazio with Emerson Palmieri shuttling between a fourth defender and pseudo winger depending on which side had possession. The analysis of this match noted that while gegenpressing has yet to make its way to Serie A, Roma pressed effectively to keep the ball away from venerable areas. The formational interplay lead Spalletti to observe last season that Serie A tactics were much more fluid than in the past.
If Spalletti's Roma was defined by the flexibility and dynamism of six positionless midfielders on counterattacks his first time around, this side is defined by the box to box energy of the midfield three, and the three defenders sitting behind them. Now, the question becomes whether Spalletti will see out his Roma project into the club's next phase.
Juventus set a template for modernizing Serie A sides in building their own stadium and rebranding club symbols. Roma club president and part owner James Pallotta set a goal for his side to enter the global conversation like Juventus so brazingly did in changing their logo, but in this case, they are rebranding Rome. In approving a new stadium in February, Roma mayor Virginia Raggi placed historic expectations for the project in a city already defined by the grandeur of its architecture.
So now we wait for the official announcement of what is the worst kept secret in European football. If the rumors of Monchi moving to Roma are true, and taking into consideration the new stadium and rebrand, one could divide the club into two distinct eras of pre and post the Spanish football director. His move to the Italian capital would be the biggest transfer of the summer and could reshape the balance of power in Serie A and Europe.
But then again, previous sporting director Walter Sabatini built the Spalletti side that fits so well on the field. Named Serie A's Best Director of Football in 2014, his list of undervalued finds reads as its own impressive CV. There's the backbone of the side in Strootman, Nainggolan, Dzeko, and Salah. Then there's the sell ons in Pjanic (bought for $11 million and sold for $32 million), Marquinhos (bought for $6 million and sold for $32 million), and Mehdi Benatia (bought for $14 million and sold to Bayern for $30 million). Upon resigning, Sabatini gave Roma's use of software and artificial intelligence in lieu of scouting instinct as a reason for leaving the side.
And while there's no doubting his intelligence and effectiveness, Monchi's success is by no means guaranteed. Cracking Serie A's cultural code on and off the field requires its own learning curve, as will the patience and expectations of Pallotta once the new stadium opens. Will Monchi build a Spanish side in Italy, or shape his transfer policies for Serie A? Will he move forward with Spalletti as his manager? Monchi's Sevilla made their impressive run under Barcelona and Real Madrid's domestic hegemony, while Roma would surely look to challenge Juventus for the league title.
But with Totti in the final stage of his career, and de Rossi now 33 years old, this may be the perfect time to reset for both Monchi and Roma. How one judges both sides in the upcoming years may be an exercise in how to define success for a modern soccer club. What's more difficult: to turn value into a four time Europa League title at Sevilla, or to win the league with expectations and finances with Roma? With Internazionale and Milan in a transition phase of their own, there is a clear position to not only cement a role as Serie A's second team alongside Juventus but enter the global, cultural conversation at the same time. Roma have the ambition, and with Monchi, they will have the mind.