Luciano Spalletti is no stranger to adversity during his time at Roma. You could also argue this is where he produces his best ideas. His first spell as club manager in 2005 under the auspices of a year long transfer ban, but in foreshadowing a common theme of his career, he turned constraints into a then record 11 match Serie A win streak and a second place finish in the league. It was in Europe where Spalletti put himself into tactical lore, utilizing a strikerless formation featuring six midfielders that drew him comparisons to a soccer Alexander Fleming. With that, Spalletti briefly became the most sought after and influential manager in the world.
So it was no surprise when his reappointment in January was met with excitement. Roma has and always had promise, and likewise, always appear on the verge of both a domestic and continental breakthrough of some sort. Last summer’s signings of Eden Dzeko and Mohamed Salah built off a second place finish from the previous season, and were the final pieces to break into Europe’s top sides. A win against Juventus in their second match, in which Dzeko scored, should have been a turning point considering their rival’s struggles at the time. The counter attacking puzzle lead by Salah could be devastating at times - and that was before this Alessandro Florenzi goal against Barcelona in the Champions League group stages.
It was surprising how that momentum fell apart so quickly. The difference between first place in the league and battling for a Europa League place is tenuous in any league, yet Rudi Garcia’s fall from grace was especially steep. Roma were top of the table just five months ago; they won just one out of Garcia’s last seven matches as manager. As many have noted, Roma felt like a perennial work in progress even while they lead the league.
Enter Spalletti. The first time around, he was the architected of the most innovative counter attacking side of the last decade featuring no traditional strikers - a template later used by Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble winning Manchester United side. Spalletti turned down Chelsea in 2008; future national team manager was almost a certainty. Instead, his next step was Zenit St. Petersburg in 2009 with the goal of turning the club into a European soccer power. With investments matching their ambition, Spalletti won the domestic title in his first two seasons. But Champions League success evaded him and the club (although no Russian club has truly broke out at this level, which has much to do with their domestic schedule). He was fired in 2014 after three seasons without a trophy.
Not that Spalletti wasn’t influential during his time in Russia - and of course, Zenit entertained, playing some of the most wide open soccer in the Champions League. The 2012 Russian side that competed in the Euro’s featured Zenit’s counter attacking style, with five players from the club side starting on the national team. His time at Zenit could appear like the traditional tale of creativity at the expense of pragmatism, but that would sell Spalletti’s tactical knowledge short.
Almost two years out of the game, Spalletti’s impact on Roma has been immediate, in the form of many, many goals. They hit five against Palermo, including a vintage counter attack. They scored four goals against Fiorentina. Salah is the most on form winger on the continent this side of Barcelona. Perennial wunderkind Stephan El Shaarawy scored a goal of a season contender - a back to goal, no look backheel - along with his usual dribbling flair. Spalletti sides always go on runs - they won eight straight matches at one point - and are firmly in third place in the league.
The backbone of the squad in Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi are still around from the first time, which speaks to their longevity and loyalty to the club. Roma already had a semblance of a counter attack in place under Garcia, but Salah, El Shaarawy, and right back Alessandro Florenzi are tailormade for his play. There may be no strikerless revolution this time around, but the results (and style) are clear. As he was hired to introduce Zenit onto the world’s soccer stage, the same branding ambitions abound this time at Roma.
But as much as results, Roma needed Spalletti for morale and direction. And Spalletti needed Roma. At age 57, that great promise Spalletti showed a decade ago may be in the past. Then again, you could say Spalletti is already a world class manager in the sense of his sides playing with a cohesive identity on a relative budget. There’s managers we associate permanently with clubs, and Spalletti probably should have never left Roma in the first place.
There have been 19 managerial changes and counting in Serie A since the beginning of last summer. Job security for a manager at any club is tenuous (see Garcia at Roma), but the merry-go-round feels existential as each league is responsible for their great discovery to compete with the modern European game. Positional passing and pressing originated in Spain and Germany respectively. What is the great Serie A tactical innovation to keep pace? The past generation of Italian managers - the Lippi’s, Capello’s, Ancelotti’s, and Trapattoni’s - shaped the tactics and ideas of their generation.
The existential desire to return to the glory days of the mid 2000s extends past Roma. Internazionale hired Roberto Mancini last winter. But Italy will never lack in managerial talent. Max Allegri, 48 years old, took Juventus to the Champions League finals last season. 46-year-old Antonio Conte continues the long line of Serie A exports into world soccer, tasked with the challenge of rebuilding Chelsea next season (an interesting development since Spalletti and Lippi both turned down Premier League jobs due to a language barrier). The traditional ideas of the trequartista and catenaccio have been replaced in new forms. With Spalletti, Roma can modernize by looking back into the past.