When he first crossed the gates of Fulvio Bernardini Sports Centre in Trigoria, Rome, Eusebio Di Francesco surely didn’t expect all the skepticism he was greeted with. Or maybe he did, because his four-year spell at Roma as a player, at the turn of the millennium, was enough to get some sense of how merciless and impatient the red-and-yellow environment can be.
To make matters worse, such sentiments only worsened at the end of 2016/17 season. The Francesco Totti era had ended on a warm afternoon in May, when Tiber River’s water had been joined by the tears of a whole city in its journey toward the Mediterranean Sea, and previous coach Luciano Spalletti, love him or loathe him, had established a new record for Roma with an impressive 87 points.
The average tifoso just wanted to win some silverware, and Di Francesco wasn’t deemed to be the right man, mainly because it was at his first experience on the big stage, having previously been in charge only of Virtus Lanciano, Lecce, Pescara and Sassuolo. With such premises, his new adventure didn’t start under an auspicious star.
But Roma’s new coach, partly because he knows the city and its people inside and out, partly because he’s a stubborn Abruzzan, is not the kind of person who lets others beat him down, and took the only possible path: hard work.
Starting off slowly
Despite DiFra’s efforts, Spalletti and Totti’s legacy was just too big to be brushed aside by a summer camp. Moreover, the first part of the season seemed to be in line with sceptical supporters’ predictions, with Roma struggling to claim three points away to Bergamo, losing 1-3 at home against Inter and miraculously throwing a point in the bag after a 90-minute siege versus Atlético Madrid, when Alisson’s hard-to-believe saves were the only thing that deserved some clapping from the ultras.
On that very night, in the post-match press conference, Edin Džeko further exacerbated the situation when he stated he felt lonely on the attacking line due to Mohamed Salah’s move to Liverpool, Totti’s retirement and Radja Nainggolan’s new position. He was frustrated that he was employed as an offensive midfielder by Spalletti, but relegated to a much more defensive role under Di Francesco. It’s needless to explain how such an utterance affected the increasing disappointment of supporters, more persuaded than ever that Roma needed something different.
Despite the general lack of trust, Di Francesco’s creature kept going forward, and his tactical creed finally started to proselytize, as Roma went on an incredible winning streak (bar a loss to Napoli and draw against Chelsea). The winning streak also included a 2-0 win at San Siro against Milan and a return leg versus Chelsea, won by the giallorossi, which finally convinced most supporters that Di Francesco, after all, wasn’t that bad.
By the middle of the autumn Roma were, by all accounts, a team with a clear identity, that reflected their coach’s way of being and was based on a balance they had barely showed in the past. The only problem was the lack of goals scored but, as long as they conceded few, Džeko’s lost killer instinct and newly-purchased Gregoire Defrel’s uselessness were something supporters could definitely put up with.
But the wind often changes, especially in Rome.
The second crisis
The beautiful equilibrium that had its architect in Eusebio Di Francesco, suddenly broke up on 26 November, when Genoa hosted Roma at Marassi. In a moment when the team was still close to the top and could reasonably hope to join Napoli and Juventus in the race for the Scudetto, De Rossi slapped Gianluca Lapadula in the face, going back once again to the blond-haired rascal he was in his tender years, someone every supporter hoped not to see again on a Serie A pitch. With the consequent penalty, Genoa secured a 1-1 draw that made Roma lose touch with the top of the table and, most importantly, seemed to create a rift in the certainties that had taken so much hard work for Di Francesco to create.
From then on, things weren’t the same. In an ice-cold December night, Roma achieved a much-deserved qualification to the Champions League knockout phase, against the Azeri of Qarabağ, but showed very slight progress in the campionato, where a goalless draw against ChievoVerona was followed by a late win against Cagliari thanks to a goal, by Federico Fazio, possibly scored with an arm, and finally by a depressing seven games in a row without even winning once, with a pessimistic attitude that found its best representation in the humiliating home defeats against Atalanta and Sampdoria.
Suddenly, Di Francesco came back to his previous status as the reason behind Roma’s problems.
Changing to avoid discouragement
The formation devised by Spalletti had been widely praised as the most congenial one for the team, while Di Francesco kept sticking to the 4-3-3, a system that had definitely paid off at Sassuolo, but that was struggling to leave a mark on Roma, Most Romanisti were quick to point this out, forgetful of the fact the team were doing well just a couple of months before.
Anyway, Roma’s coach decided to change something in Febraury, starting with Roma – Verona. He brought Nainggolan right behind the only centre-forward Džeko, with the two wingers next to the Belgian and two defensive midfielders like De Rossi and Kevin Strootman in front of the defensive line.
With this formation, Roma seemed to find the energies they had lost before Christmas, looking more solid on the whole and allowing Nainggolan to play closer to the opposite goal where, as proved during Spalletti’s tenure, he gives his best. This change granted Roma three victories in Serie A and a defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk, that eventually turned out to be painless.
However, by the end of the month, DiFra reverted back to his beloved 4-3-3. The briefly-experienced change positively affected his players, who got back on track and were able to beat Napoli, first on the table, on their home ground, crushing their Scudetto dreams and providing a brilliant display that took every supporter by surprise.
Reassured by some encouraging results, and by the growing support of a fan base that, though still partially sceptic, seems to have finally understood that, with the right frame of mind, their team can play according to the ideas of a new coach, Di Francesco looks set to go on with his tactical principles at least until next June, and to end a season that won’t put any trophy on the shelf, but that will hopefully lay foundations for a more successful 2017/18 campaign.
The bottom line
Unlike many of his predecessors, Di Francesco is not a typical media figure, and doesn’t like to put on a show while in front of the cameras. His low-profile, simple and hard-working persona can go a long way in an environment as particular as the Roman one.
Di Francesco’s greatest asset is that he doesn’t let anything get in the way until the job is done, and this is a huge advantage in a city where supporters’ constantly test the beliefs of every coach.
He pairs these things with an eye for young players, that has made Lorenzo Pellegrini and Cengiz Ünder into two pillars of this team, Gerson into a valuable replacement and Mirko Antonucci into a promising youngster, something unlikely to happen under the likes of Spalletti and Rudi Garcia, more oriented toward ‘ready-to-use’ players.
This is a ‘transitional’ season, with Totti wearing a suit rather that a pair of soccer boots, and Di Francesco as the only heir to a heavy, hard-to-manage legacy left behind by his forerunners; often too close to the top to fail without leaving a trace in the mind of every disillusioned fan.
In his first season at Roma, EDF finds himself having to juggle extreme pressure with managing a team. There are few doubts that, once he is done with the cumbersome heritage he found upon his arrival, he will finally spread his wings, possibly aided by a clever transfer window.
The only thing Eusebio needs is time, but he finds himself in a city that doesn’t always have enough of it.