Editor’s note: I’m pleased to kick off our Serie A coverage–I’ll use that word lightly for no–with a kick *ss piece from guest columnist Eric Giardini.
This week the great Roma star Francesco Totti came out with a simple three-word, but monumentally deflating, statement for every Roma fan after being introduced with but four minutes left in a 2-1 loss at Sampdoria.
“I am sad.”
Giardini explains the tragic weight behind those words:
NO TOTTI, NO PARTY?
The accolades speak for themselves: one Scudetto, two Coppa Italias, two Suppercoppa Italianas (think England’s Community Shield), one FIFA World Cup, as well as countless individual awards. He is Roma’s all-time leader in appearances and goals – 590 and 251, respectively (and counting). He has spurned offers from other clubs repeatedly to stay with the club he supported as a boy and made his debut for at the age of 16. This, as well as his jabs at Lazio – from famously celebrating a goal by revealing an undershirt reading “Vi ho purgato ancora” (“I’ve purged you guys again”) to his thumbs down gesture after defeating Lazio last season, signifying that Lazio will be relegated (which didn’t happen and now Lazio sits in 2nd at time of writing…karma) have endeared him to Romanisti worldwide. Very few players have meant more to a club and its supporters than he does. He is Francesco Totti and he IS Roma.
Totti has long been one of my favorite players.
His ability is without question (as countless YouTube videos with questionable music pairings can attest to). It is not just his class on the pitch that I enjoy watching, it is his brash style of play that accompanies it. Whether it is him chipping in a penalty or kicking a player in frustration, he plays with an honesty and emotion that is rare to see. While most consider his style “too flashy” or him being too much of “hothead”, Italians, and more specifically Romans, will tell you that it is part of being Roman. My grandfather from the outskirts of Rome can certainly attest to this (and my friends will also tell you that I exhibit this as well).
For years, my weekend routine has consisted of the following: setting my alarm at 8:45 every Sunday, putting on some coffee, putting one of my Roma jerseys on (with a new Totti one on the way), and watching Roma play while keeping my voice down to not wake my roommates. I tell you this because what I’m about to tell you shakes the very core of my beliefs as a Roma supporter. What I propose is Francesco Totti no longer be the first name in the Starting XI and that his minutes be reduced for the good of his career and the long-term good of Roma.
Under Claudio Ranieri, he is no longer an automatic presence in the Starting XI, nor should he be. Times have changed and this is no longer 2001, the year of Roma’s last Scudetto, and Totti, while remaining an integral part of the squad, should begin to see his minutes reduced. The days of Totti needing to play 90 minutes every match are behind Roma and behind him. Injuries are finally catching up to him and Roma now has the depth up top to allow the goalscoring load to be spread between a few players and not solely on Totti.
At the age of 34, Totti’s legs have seen many matches and don’t have the pace they once did. The footwork, back heels, and perfectly weighed through balls are not as successful as they once were. The body always goes before the mind, and while it seems Totti believes he can still play at the same level he was able to, it just isn’t happening this season. While a new contract at €9m per season is a lot to leave sitting on the bench (along with Adriano’s €5m but that’s another story), I think it would be in Roma’s best interest that he sees more time there.
Over the past five seasons, including the current 2010/2011 season, Totti’s starts have gone down while substitute appearances, and goals, have remained constant. In 2006/2007, Totti started 49 matches across all club competitions (this doesn’t include his nine matches played for Italy). 32 matches started in 2007/2008, 28 matches in 2008/2009, 24 in 2009/2010, and 19 thus far in 2010/2011. Totti’s goal totals during this time: 30, 16, 15, 15, and 4 (so far). Totti is showing the same productivity in recent years without having to log the high number of minutes. While he is on pace to surpass the number of matches played the past three seasons, history is not on Francesco’s side. Serious injuries in 2008 and 2009 are beginning to show that his age is catching up with him.
Substituting Totti off early on in an important game is not without precedence. The first notable instance of Ranieri showing that Totti was not untouchable came at the most courageous time for the “Tinkerman”—April 18, 2010 with Roma trailing Lazio 0-1 at halftime Ranieri subed off not only Francesco Totti but Daniele De Rossi as well.
At the time, it was unthinkable that Il Capitano and his understudy would both be substituted against their hated rivals (Disclosure: As a Roma supporter, I was stunned and was wondering if Ranieri would be axed by Monday). Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport said it best, “Ranieri didn’t leave two players in the dressing room yesterday but Romulus and Remus. He erased the Colosseum from the postcard…So-called colonels like Mourinho and Capello wouldn’t have even dreamed of making such a move.” In the end, the move paid off with two second half goals by Mirko Vučinić, resulting in a 2-1 win for Roma. The goals were the result of a penalty drawn by Rodrigo Taddei and a free kick won by Jérémy Menez (more on him later) – the two substitutes. This win came during a stretch of 24 unbeaten which brought the Giallorossi back into the Scudetto discussion only to have Inter win on the last match day…again.
I’m not saying Totti should be watching from the stands, but he doesn’t need to play every game all game. The team as a whole has evolved to the point where they can hold their own.
More recently, this campaign has seen highs and lows for Roma. Wins over Lazio, Inter, Milan and a draw over Juventus in Turin have been canceled out by losses at Brecsia and Cagliari, and a home draw to newly-promoted Cesena on the opening fixture of the season. At time of writing, Roma currently sits in 4th – 7 points behind leaders Milan. Through this, one bright spot that has emerged has been the play of newly acquired Marco Borriello and Jérémy Menez.
Borriello, on loan this season from Milan with an agreement that Roma will purchase for €10m over three seasons (aka highway robbery) has been a revelation in the capital with 7 goals in 17 games. Vučinić is second with 3. Jérémy Menez, the frail Frenchman who is in constant need of a new haircut (and maybe a sandwich) has also shown tremendous strides in the trequartista role (or “in the hole” playing off the strikers). With Borriello playing up top with Vučinić and Menez playing the trequartista role, the need for Totti to start and play every match is no longer there. Vučinić and Borriello, as seen in today’s match with Sampdoria, should remain the default partnership up top. Both are just different enough in their styles of play to complement each other perfectly.
Borriello is your typical targetman in Italy. What he lacks in pace and the overall ability to create goals, he more than makes up for with his strength, determinination, and nose for goal. Vučinić, on the other hand, has the ability to create his own opportunities on the dribble as well as create for others. He also possesses an uncanny ability to score big goals in big moments (see Inter from this season). More importantly, these players are younger and have the durability to play every week. These are also players that Roma can continue to build around for the future without Totti, which is rapidly approaching.
This brings me to my next questions: Is Totti hindering the development of young players and what does the future hold for Il Capitano? In my opinion, Totti is hindering the development of young players based on the limited number of minutes available for either strikers – specifically Stefano Okaka. The 21 year old has been with Roma since 2005 yet has only made 35 appearances. In each of the last 4 seasons he has been loaned out since there just isn’t enough minutes to go around. His loans have been to Modena, Brescia, Fulham, and this season to Bari where he scored on his debut. On to the second question, your guess is as good as mine. His current contract is a ten-year deal with five being a player and the remaining five has him in an advisory role to the club. However, recently, Totti has come out and said he has no intention of coaching once his playing days are over. What this means for his future is up in the air.
My ideal scenario would be for Ranieri to use Totti in the role he was used in against Bayern Munich in a recent Champions League group match in Rome. Down 2-1 in the 75th minute, Totti came in as a substitute for midfielder Matteo Brighi. Almost instantaneously he provided the spark Roma needed. Daniele De Rossi leveled the match in the 81st minute. In the 84th minute Totti scored what proved to be the match winner from the penalty spot. (My laptop wallpaper is a photo from that match of Totti celebrating his penalty with Borriello and Fabio Simplicio.)
The starting lineup suggested enclosed would provide the attack needed from Roma while limiting Totti’s minutes and hopefully keeping him healthy come the home stretch of the season.
The days of Francesco Totti needing to play the full 90 minutes are over. This Roma squad is talented and deep – especially in the attacking third of the pitch. Claudio Ranieri recognizes and said so over the weekend. “Every champion stands out for his individual qualities,” he remarked when defending his squad rotation and claims that Totti is unhappy. The fixture list will become congested with the second half of the league, Coppa Italia matches and, hopefully, many Champions League matches. It will be interesting to see how Ranieri balances the need to keep Totti playing as he is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the squad. However, recent results have shown that he does not need to start and play 90 minutes week in and week out – let alone play at all as was shown at the San Siro this past December.