Rudi Garcia has rightly received much praise for the work he has done at AS Roma, arriving two summers ago to find a club is complete disarray.
The takeover by James Pallotta may have already begun revitalising their fortunes off the field, but on it the Giallorossi remained hapless, actually regressing under Luis Enrique and Zdeněk Zeman as they finished in sixth then seventh place. Missing out on Europe altogether, it was no surprise the appointment of the former Lille coach was initially met with some scepticism.
He would quickly dispel that however, starting the 2013-14 campaign at an incredible pace as they won a club record ten consecutive matches and remaining undefeated until January. It would take an unbelievable season from Juventus – who would set a new Serie A record by winning a remarkable 102 points – to deny them a title in Garcia’s first season in charge.
They would understandably suffer a late slump once they could no longer realistically claim the Scudetto, but there was no denying the incredible transformation Garcia had overseen. Where before there was chaos and nonsensical team selection, the Frenchman had installed a tactical system that worked, and drawn some superb performances from players who had previously underperformed.
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Yet perhaps his most significant act came before a ball had been kicked.
At the end of the 2012-13 season, fans of the club were demanding Miralem Pjanić be sold. Whether on social media, the phone-in shows on local radio stations or online forums, they never wanted to see the Bosnian midfielder in their colours again. The reason? In an interview with the press in his homeland, Pjanic had said that while losing the Italian Cup final to Lazio was painful, “it hurt less to concede a goal from an international teammate.”
Senad Lulić’s lone strike had handed victory to their bitter cross-town rivals, and Roma supporters knew that their Biancocelesti neighbours would never let them forget it.
Initially misquoted, Pjanić could have been forgiven for leaving, particularly as he was not guaranteed regular playing time with the Giallorossi and had made just 20 league starts in the previous campaign. Having previously impressed with Olympique Lyonnais however, Garcia knew what the player was capable of and convinced him to stay, giving him a major role in his revitalised side.
Pjanić thrived under that responsibility, recording six goals and five assists in 32 league starts, with all three figures marking new career highs.
Other than Gervinho, perhaps no player embodied the club’s transformation more than the Bosnian, who shone as an intelligent, creative and incisive passer in the heart of midfield. Possessing wonderful close control, he also clearly learnt much as the understudy to Juninho Pernambucano, blossoming into a devastating set-piece specialist in his own right.
With Kevin Strootman ruled out for the season with a devastating injury, it was Pjanić who controlled the tempo for Roma, and now it is he, rather than his Dutch team-mate, who is drawing attention from Manchester United and Liverpool.
That is for the summer however, and the concern at the moment is that, like the Giallorossi, the player himself is failing to match last season’s dizzying heights.
Roma still sit second, but they are already ninepoints behind leaders Juventus and have won just one of their last seven matches, while failing to progress from the group stage of the Champions League.
They can consider themselves unfortunate to have been drawn alongside Bayern Munich and Manchester City, but the manner in which they allowed Feyenoord to equalise in last week’s Europa League tie is emblematic of their struggles this term.
Statistically speaking, Pjanić looks to be having a fine season, already netting three goals and adding six assists, while WhoScored.com shows he has completed a staggering 91.2% of his passes and averages 1.5 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game.
Yet watching him on a regular basis, there is something missing from his performances and it is difficult to separate the cause (namely the general malaise at Roma) from the effect it has had upon his personal form. Many of the club’s players – but most notably Gervinho, Pjanić and Mattia Destro, who has now moved on to Milan – look much less assured than they did last term.
Perhaps some of that is the impact of returning to European action, the added pressure and extra matches taking its toll, but it is certainly cause for some concern.
Garcia has appeared to have no alternative game plan when his initial ideas prove unsuccessful, and – following October’s controversial loss to Juve – he has spent months publically complaining about injuries, refereeing decisions and offside calls, rather than accepting defeat and moving on.
Of course, there is little doubt the coach will be sending a very different message behind closed doors, and the current Roma squad are too talented for their struggles to last long. With a comfortable gap over fourth place, even that is relative and they are almost certain to secure a Champions League place again, which staves off any desire players may have to move on.
With the second leg against Feyenoord on Thursday followed by the rematch with Juventus on Monday, the future becomes something of a side issue for AS Roma this week and they will need to rediscover last season’s form quickly if they are to enjoy success in those fixtures.
They will also need the very best of Pjanić.
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