Out with the Old, in with the Older: Vincenzo Montella Turns Back the Clock with Roma

It has been a particularly difficult past couple of weeks for Italian soccer.  Each of Serie A’s representatives in the Champions League suffered home defeats in their respective opening ties of the Champions League knock-out stages, with Italian soccer receiving some rather bad press and criticism along the way.  On the heels of these losses, it became apparent this week that, beginning with the 2012-2013 Champions League campaign, Italy would only be entitled to three representatives in the competition.  During these last few weeks, however, it was the team from the Italian capital that has arguably suffered the greatest.

Having nearly spoiled Inter’s historic treble year last year (missing out on the Scudetto by a mere 2 points and losing, to Inter, in the Coppa Italia final by just one goal), AS Roma has been suffering through a horror show of a campaign this year.  The calcio gods have been especially unkind to the capital giants these last few weeks when, having suffered four consecutive losses — including an embarrassing 3-2 home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, and an historic loss where they squandered a 3-0 halftime lead to Genoa — the club was forced to accept the resignation of its coach, Claudio Ranieri.

Ranieri, a proud Roman, born and bred in the capital, and a childhood supporter of Roma, felt that someone needed to light a “spark” in the Roma locker room, and that tendering his own resignation was the only way to do it.  Rosella Sensi, the team’s current, and presumably outgoing, President, and the rest of the Roma hierarchy apparently agreed.  They accepted his resignation, with little resistance, and promptly responded by replacing the native Roman with a veritable Roma legend – L’Aeroplanino, Vincenzo Montella.

Montella, currently 36 years old and the youngest tactician plying his trade in the Serie A, could not be further away from Ranieri on the coaching spectrum.  In terms of experience and philosophy (to the extent that a coaching philosophy can be discerned), Montella represents an absolute sea change on the Roma bench.  Ranieri has nearly 25 years experience on the bench, whereas Montella has been coaching for a year and a half, on the youth level, in charge of Roma’s Giovanissimi Nazionali (the under-15 level).  Ranieri, known as the “Tinkerman” because of his incessant fiddling and tweaking of strategies and formations, stands in stark contrast to Montella who once claimed: “Tactics interest me little…. I prefer to give the lads pointers that help them exploit their individual qualities better.”

Even before Montella was officially appointed, the press was already predicting his dismissal.  He is generally perceived as a mere placeholder until Carlo Ancelotti leaves Chelsea, presumably this summer.  Of course, while Ancelotti has indicated that coaching Roma is a personal dream, a club where he experienced great success as a player, he has made it equally clear that he has no intention of leaving Stamford Bridge this summer.  Montella seems unfazed by the specter of Carletto lurking over his shoulder and instead has done his best to dispel the notion that he is simply a caretaker.

To prove his point, Montella, who retired as a Roma player in 2009, turned back the clock in his coaching debut on Wednesday by relying on some old friends and a seemingly forgotten formation that is nevertheless familiar to many of the more seasoned players in the Roma squad.  Montella handed the gloves to Roma’s third string goalkeeper, Alexander Doni, started the diminutive David Pizarro, formerly a player central to the Roma squad that rarely found playing time under Ranieri, and immediately reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation that Luciano Spalletti seemed to favor in his tenure with the club (prior to his replacement by Claudio Ranieri at the beginning of last season).  Reintroducing Pizarro into the Roma mid-field, and reverting to a formation that the current Roma squad obviously feels more comfortable playing in, proved to be enough for a noticeably confident Roma squad to secure a 1-0 victory over Bologna in Vincenzo’s debut.  Not only did Montella successfully navigate his way to a much needed three points, he did so by winning on the road, and keeping a clean sheet, something that this Roma team had only been able to do on three prior occasions in Serie A this year.  He employed the same formula, with slightly less success, on Sunday, earning only one point in a draw against lowly Parma.

While it is obviously too early to label Montella the savior of Rome, if nothing else, it appears that his appointment was in fact the product of a deliberative process, and not simply the whim of a lame duck president, as had been previously speculated.  Perhaps Sensi saw in Montella the opportunity to bring back the old flair and style that was evident under Luciano Spalletti’s occasionally successful, but always entertaining, 4-2-3-1 system.   Under Spalletti, Roma seemed to have a clear identity – they played attacking, fluid football, “champagne football,” as Ranieri once called it.  Under Ranieri, by contrast, and perhaps as a consequence of his constant tinkering, Roma seemed to lack a definitive style of play.  A win, a draw, a clean sheet and the promise of more to come is what Montella has delivered in his first week in charge of the Giallorossi.  Montella has indicated: “I do not feel like a caretaker.”  Let’s see if his reliance on some old tricks and some even older friends is enough to prove that he is something more than that.

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