Atalanta were the big winners on transfer deadline day in Italy. Not for any last-minute wheeling and dealing but because, well, they won. They had hoped to balance the books by offloading Jérémie Boga to Leicester and Hans Hateboer to Villarreal but, after both deals collapsed, they had to settle for thumping Torino 3-1 and going joint top of Serie A.
It is the team alongside them in first, however, who might have enjoyed the best summer window overall. Roma landed Paulo Dybala, Andrea Belotti, Georginio Wijnaldum, Zeki Celik, Nemanja Matic and Mady Camara, while spending less than €10m on transfer fees. They offset those arrivals by shedding some costly contracts, as players such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Carles Pérez and Jordan Veretout headed for pastures new.
Whisper it quietly, but some people believe Roma have made themselves into title contenders. Or scream it from the stands of the Stadio Olimpico if you prefer. A chorus of “Vinceremo il tricolor” – “We’re gonna win the league” – rang out on Tuesday night as the Giallorossi thrashed Monza 3-0.
How many truly believed it? Those words form part of a longer chant that has been sung on the Curva Sud in less auspicious moments than this. Yet a measure of conviction might be observed in the number of people present to sing them. This was Roma’s ninth consecutive sold-out game at the Olimpico, including a pre-season friendly against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Comparing attendances from recent seasons is complicated by the various Covid closures and capacity restrictions. In the last full pre-pandemic season – 2018-19 – Roma averaged fewer than 39,000 fans per game. The idea that more than 60,000 could turn out even for unglamorous games against Monza or Cremonese would have sounded far-fetched back then.
Call it the José Mourinho effect. Few in England might have believed in the manager’s capacity to galvanise after grim stints at Manchester United and Tottenham, but he has looked a man reborn in Rome. He told his new audience a story they already believed: that the system was set up against them, skewed in favour of the rich and powerful clubs from Milan and Turin. The only way to prevail was to work harder, stay more united than before.
Players and fans bought in. Repeatedly last season, Roma won games in injury time: making tenacity their virtue. Then they won the Europa Conference League – the club’s first piece of continental silverware in more than 60 years. Some 100,000 fans turned out to see the trophy paraded past the Circus Maximus and Colosseum.
What next? Mourinho himself was dismissive in pre-season of the idea that they might compete for the Scudetto, reminding reporters that his team had finished 23 points behind the champions, Milan. “Only Sampdoria and Lecce spent less than us this summer,” said Mourinho. “I need to applaud the club because they signed five players of really high quality for €7m but nobody should say we are candidates for the Scudetto. Lazio spent €39m: why isn’t anybody talking about them winning?”
It was a disingenuous accounting of this summer’s outlay. Roma were indeed very frugal with fees – transfermarkt.com lists them as Serie A’s fourth-lowest spenders at the end of the summer, with a €1.5m loan fee for Camara this week lifting them above Spezia – but Dybala and Wijnaldum will each be paid wages similar to those of the club’s previous top earner, Tammy Abraham. Matic is not far behind.
Even so, the club has secured excellent value. Dybala was named as Serie A’s most valuable player two seasons ago and there is no reason to think he should be past his prime at 28. Belotti is the same age and had hit double figures in Serie A for six consecutive seasons before the last one, when injuries limited him to 16 starts.
Wijnaldum was a Champions League winner at Liverpool, and Matic a two-time Premier League champion at Chelsea. Celik starred at right-back for the Lille team who defied all expectations to conquer Ligue 1 in 2020-21. Roma’s sporting director, Tiago Pinto, has done brilliant work to assemble such a group without breaking the bank.
It is also true that Roma splashed out more than €120m last summer. Mourinho can debate whether his team should be considered as title contenders but at the very least they ought to be pushing harder this season to reclaim a Champions League spot for the first time in four years.
Ten points from four games is a promising start, though Roma have rarely dazzled. After beating Salernitana and Cremonese by the same 1-0 scoreline, they drew 1-1 at Juventus. An excellent result but not a compelling performance. Mourinho told his players he was “ashamed” of them after a woeful first half in which they were fortunate to concede only once.
There was optimism to be found in their equaliser, Dybala setting up Abraham for a close-range header: a first scoring combination between this summer’s headline signing and last season’s top scorer. The roles were then reversed against Monza, Abraham providing the flick that sent Dybala through for his first goal in a Roma shirt.
It was brilliantly taken, the Argentinian sprinting half the length of the pitch and taking his shot early to deny the goalkeeper, Michele Di Gregorio, a chance to close the angle down. Dybala scored Roma’s second, too, sliding in to convert the rebound after Abraham’s shot was saved. This was his 100th goal in Serie A. He is just the eighth player in league history to combine that number with 50 assists.
Ibañez completed the scoring with a header from Lorenzo Pellegrini’s corner. Roma finished the game with less than 40% possession, having allowed Monza not only to keep the ball but to do so high up the pitch. This was rope-a-dope stuff, inviting the newly promoted side on and deploying fast breaks to expose the space left behind.
Can such an approach work through a season? Against Juventus, Roma’s tactics had looked disastrous, with a limited press at the top of the pitch that lacked the numbers to put their opponents’ defence into any real trouble and a low block at the other end that left too much space for Matic and Bryan Cristante to cover in the middle.
These are early days and tactics can be adjusted along the way. Mourinho showed flexibility last season through the course of Roma’s Conference League run. This season has thrown up some unexpected challenges already, with Wijnaldum suffering a leg fracture that will keep him out till the new year and Nicolò Zaniolo dislocating a shoulder just as he, Abraham and Dybala were getting used to one another.
“This group has a positive energy,” said Dybala after the midweek win. “They just won an important trophy but it’s too early to talk about the Scudetto. We weren’t the best team in our last match [against Juventus] and we aren’t now either.”
A fair and sensible assessment, even if it won’t stop some fans from getting carried away. Roma are joint top and, in Dybala, may have found the bargain of the summer. Nothing yet has punctured their hopes for another enthusing season in store.