Just short of a year since his re-appointment, it remains surprisingly difficult to evaluate Luciano Spalletti's second tenure with Roma. The team's points-per-game ratio, aggregating this season and the last, is more than respectable.
At the same time, Spalletti's apparent objective of eradicating Roma's psychological weaknesses has failed to take off. “We have not lost the vice,” the tactician admitted after the cold shower represented by the 2-1 against Atalanta.
This January we may finally get an opportunity for a transparent evaluation of the Coach, as he tackles the considerable problem of Mohamed Salah's departure. Engaged in the Africa Cup of Nations from January 14 to February 5, the super-sonic Egyptian will leave his team to fend for themselves.
Make no mistake, this poses a huge tactical challenge for the Giallorossi. With eight goals and four assists in Serie A, the 24-year-old is a key component of the league's most successful attack. He boasts both skills and experience, along with an exceptional work-rate that makes him an asset when tracking back too.
Edin Dzeko is largely credited with being Roma's most decisive attacker, but Salah's hat-trick against Bologna shows he has that magic in him as well. Failing to compensate for this inopportune absence could well mean losing the momentum that Roma built in the first part of the season (assuming they haven't already thrown it to the dogs with that Atalanta game).
There are two ways that Spalletti can react to Salah's departure, both of which will require considerable tactical nous if they are to be implemented effectively. The first is to plug the hole with a surrogate: another winger or striker can be moved up into the road-runner's position, and asked to perform the same marauding tasks at the front and at the back.
In this case the Tuscan mastermind would have to assume from the outset that the next player will be no more than a palliative. No-one in Roma's squad has Salah's particular combination of skills, and certainly nobody has his speed.
Matters are made worse, of course, by the simultaneous absence of Alessandro Florenzi, who'll still be injured. Like some kind of magic universal Lego block, the Roman can play anywhere, including in Salah's position. And while his speed may not quite compare, his work-rate most certainly does.
Absent Florenzi, then, Spalletti would be forced to play a purer winger or striker. You could say he is spoilt for choice, as Stephan El Shaarawy, Juan Iturbe and Diego Perotti are all capable of attacking from the flank (even if they tend to be used on the left rather than the right). These players all have their strengths, but none of them tracks back the way that the former Chelsea man did.
The most significant challenge about replacing Salah with an artificial equivalent, then, is not how to compensate for his attacking impact, but how to reproduce his spatial presence.
The African's raw defensive contribution may not be particularly valuable (his tackles and clearances per game are nowhere near Perotti's, for example), but his ability to return and close passing lanes is an asset in itself.
In his absence, either the right-back will have to play more conservatively, or one of the midfielders will be asked to widen his game. Both options have deeper implications in terms of how the team builds its moves, and it will be interesting to see which one Spalletti goes for.
The good news is that Salah's chemistry with the team tends to be overstated. His league-leading four assists belie the fact that he relies more often on his individual brilliance than on his close understanding with his teammates.
This means that Dzeko should be no less of a destroyer in his team-mate's absence, whilst all three of the possible replacement players we discussed have a marginally superior success ratio in passing.
This is even true for Iturbe, whose only substantial game-time in the Europa League produced an 87.4% successful pass ratio, to Salah's 77.8% in Serie A. These stats must be read in the context of the quality of the competition, but still make a point.
The other way that Spalletti can deal with the absence of his favourite starter is not by replacing him directly, but by changing Roma's tactical system. This doesn't necessarily mean the formation itself has to be switched, but at the very least the substitute coming into the XI would have to play in a considerably different role.
This scenario opens up numerous possibilities. The first name that any self-respecting Roma fan will think of is Francesco Totti, as this could be a golden opportunity for the captain to join the attacking trident and make a lasting contribution to the team's campaign.
Asking Totti to play full Serie A minutes for less than a month surely wouldn't be too much to ask of his ageing physique. And while he isn't half as fast as the Egyptian, his passing skills would serve Dzeko wonderfully.
Of course, Spalletti has shown some reluctance to make use of Totti in the past. And the aforementioned difficulties that Salah's absence presupposes for the defence mean that the Coach could end up choosing a more conservative option. A grittier midfielder, perhaps even a youngster like Gerson or Leandro Paredes, could take to the pitch.
Roma would then be playing effectively with a four-man midfield, even if the new player nominally started as a winger. While not the most exciting plan, this set-up has potential too. The added defensive clout on the right would allow, among other things, the likes of El Shaarawy greater freedom to roam on the left.
The Lupi are not short of personnel, and they have what it takes to accommodate this unwelcome absence. What it all comes down to is how their Coach will plan and execute the transition.
Salah's departure should be seen as a challenge not for Roma, but only for Spalletti. The Russia-hardened veteran will have to be careful, because if things don't work out, the blame will lie entirely at his door. The Roma fans know this no less than he does. Good thing they're a forgiving bunch.
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