- Fabio Capello’s Roma (1999-2004)
- Serie A (1): 2000–01
- Supercoppa Italiana (1): 2001
- Coppa Italia Runners-Up (1): 2002–03
People that have been following football for years are still occasionally surprised at the fact Roma only have three Scudetti. Capital city clubs usually dominate their respective leagues due to financial power, following and a history of winning. But Roma’s history has a lot more ‘what ifs’ rather than ‘how good was that?’.
The season before, Roma’s most fiercest rivals, Lazio, had won the the title, their second in their 116 year history, thus equalling Roma’s total. But as with this rivalry, Roma one upped their rivals. This Roma side were not nearly as entertaining and free flowing as Spalletti’s Roma, but by God, they were good.
Fabio Capello’s pragmatic approach while in charge of England is a far cry from the earlier days in his career. In his first season in charge of a post-Arrigo Sacchi Milan (1991/92), Capello won the Scudetto, scoring 74 goals, 16 more than anyone else in the league (18 teams in Serie A back then). Just as Sacchi had done before him, Capello continued to dismiss the notion that Italian football had to be defensive. His second year, Milan were tied for most goals scored with 65, a down year meant in 93/94 Milan scored 36 in 34 (still won the title) and in 95/96 normal service was resumed with Milan scoring 60 goals.
When Capello took over in the summer of 1999, Roma were not exactly a weak attacking team, the coach before Capello was the attacking mastermind Zdeněk Zeman, who had Roma leading the league in goals scored in both his seasons. It would be harsh to label the Czech’s time at Roma as a failure. It’s clear he provided a clear base and offensive structure in which Capello could build on.
But as is the case in Italy, politics are a big part of the game. And Zeman was not particularly good with politics. Franco Sensi wanted someone who was calm and collected, who would give Roma that ‘winning mentality’ they needed.
After Lazio’s title win, Roma spent big in the summer of 2000. Bringing in Walter Samuel (€20m), Emerson (€18m) and the big one, Gabriel Batistuta (€35m).
The title winning side – 2000/01
Roma underwent a few minor transformations under Capello but this is the side I’ll be focusing on the most.
Zeman opted for a 4-3-3, which did get the most out of targetman Delvecchio, however it left Totti shunned out wide. One of the first things Capello did was shift the formation to something that could at least have Delvecchio, Montella and Totti all operating centrally.
To accommodate such attacking talent, there would need to be width added to the formation, in Candela and Cafu, Capello had two players who would thrive as wingbacks. The rest of the formation was pencilled in rather nice, a back three would be offer more defensive solidarity, Roma’s achilles heel under Zeman. A defensive midfield pivot was inserted to ensure defensive capabilities were reached and rid Totti of any defensive duties he may possess.
The three at the back seems forever connected to Italian football, as Juventus were awarded with the title of bringing it back with the start of their five Scudetto dominance. But Roma’s three at the back borrowed both some old concepts of sweepers, whilst incorporating more modern concepts such as wingbacks that had a whole lane in front of them.
This side was actually quite unlike most Capello sides, starting with the back three, Capello often opted for physically advantageous defenders but this title winning side had a back three of two 6 footers and a 5 foot 11 Brazilian. It was quite odd at the time but perhaps it was a glimpse into the future. As we’ve seen throughout the 21st century, physical attributes are often covered up by technical attributes, as was the case in this side.
Samuel and Jonathan Zebina were both rather small centre backs for this era, both measuring at 6 ft with Zebina playing as a right back earlier in his career. In between there was Aldair, who was the key piece in the defence. Walter Samuel had yet become the incredible defender he became at Inter but was still an incredibly intelligent defender in his decision making and was also able to utilise the physical attributes he had, the same applied to Zebina.
However, without a sweeper, these two defenders would have most definitely not achieved what they achieved during their time in the Italian capital. The 4-2-3-1 revolution had not yet occurred and most teams were still playing with top strikers up front, this left an extra centre back spare in Aldair or Zago. Playing as a sweeper it was his job to, you guessed it, sweep up.
The 1994 World Cup winner was excellent technically, as you’d expect. Aldair was able to bring the ball out of defence, with quick escape routes either side of him in Samuel and Zebina. He was able to play the ball forward or ping it across to a wing back. He was also defensively capable to help out the other centre backs, if they were struggling to lost their man, as was the advantage of having an extra centre back. If Roma were struggling with a numerical disadvantage in midfield, Aldair was also able to step up as a defensive midfielder.
Unfortunately, Aldair was hampered by injuries during Capello’s time in the capital, but in the games Aldair did play, he was magnificent. Fellow compatriot Zago would fill in for Aldair when injured, fulfilling the same duties.
This is Cafu’s second time appearing on this list and much like at Milan, the Brazilian fulfilled a similar role. With Ancelotti’s 4-3-1-2, it was rather narrow, with Kaka operating just behind Inzaghi and Shevchenko. With a player in such a special mould as Cafu, Milan were able to leave the entire right flank to Cafu, an incredible athlete who could contribute offensively and also defensively without tiring. It was much of the same at Roma, in fact, it was perhaps Capello who gave Ancelotti such an idea.
Cafu would often be the furthest player forward along with Gabriel Batistuta. There is arguably no player in world football quite like Cafu, with Dani Alves’ skills declining by the season. Sure players may have Cafu’s stamina, Cafu’s outstanding offensive ability or his great defensive instincts, but do they have all three? Nope. Leaving the entire right flank to Cafu allowed Roma to overload in over areas of the pitch. With Totti and Batistuta operating centrally, sometimes with Delvecchio operating centrally, it could create a complete overload. But not a congestion, why? Because with Totti as a trequartista it meant he could drop into the half space and act as #10, with Montella and Batistuta, occupying the centre backs.
The Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio dynamic was an interesting one. With the purchase of marksman Batistuta, Roma had their goalscorer, and while Montella had done well scoring 92 goals in the previous 5 seasons, there would be trouble in terms of build-up play if the two led the line, especially with Capello preferring if Totti didn’t drop so deep.
A comparison between Delvecchio and Thomas Muller is not actually so alien. Delvecchio was a jack of all trades, but seemingly a master of none. In the two previous seasons with Roma, he had scored 29 league goals in 59 games, during 2000/01? He scored three in 21. While Batistuta was the main target for passes, etc. Delvecchio served as more of a support striker than a goalscorer, with Montella sharing minutes with him. In the summer of 2000, Capello told Delvecchio “If you do exactly what I’m asking for, we’re going to win the title.”
What the Italian lacked in some offensive areas, he made up for with his tactical intelligence for the game. He always seemed to be able to give Batistuta the correct spacing, sometimes drifting out onto the left, with Totti moving up to operate more centrally. ‘When we had possession I would come into the box as an additional target or move wide almost as a traditional winger,’ recalls Delvecchio ‘But when we lost possession, I would retreat to the point where I would be in a line with Cafu on the opposite flank and, many times, even deeper’.
The King of Rome
The main man, the main who has become the embodiment of Roma and the eternal city itself. During this season Totti was still clearly a fan favourite, but wider commentators had some harsh criticisms for Roma’s all-time leading goalscorer.
The argument amongst national radio hosts and newspaper columnists, was that Totti was far too immature and was still not yet utilising his potential. In fact, some argued that such an immature player couldn’t lead a team to a title in a league such as Serie A.
Totti’s talent was evident, he had been named in team of the tournament during Euro 2000 and was named young Serie A footballer of the year in 1998, along with other accolades. But apparently Totti only cared for himself. This was, of course, ludicrous, Totti cared deeply about Roma and also about delivering a Scudetto to a success starved fanbase and city.
It was under Zeman that Totti began to showcase his skills as a playmaker, though later in the 2000’s he developed his game to become a more reliant goalscorer. Capello didn’t need many more goals in this side, as showcased by Delvecchio. Totti still scored 13 during the campaign, mind.
As Emerson was out with an injury until January, the midfield pairing was Tomassi and Cristiano Zanetti, who were hardly the epitome of a creative pivot. Unfortunately this put a huge strain on Totti in the first half of the season, as the Italian found himself dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball as Zanetti and Tomassi struggled to progress it.
This often left the strikers isolated, plus Totti was not operating in the area he liked best. What this led to was an increased responsibility on wing play, both Candela and Cafu were given responsibilities to drive the ball forward into the final third and allow Totti to work his magic there. Totti dropping deep simply did not work. In the second half of the campaign, with Emerson back and Totti playing where he thrived, Roma only lost once.
What more is there to say about Francesco Totti that hasn’t been said? It’s a damn shame this will end up being Totti’s lone Scudetto barring a miracle. The man is a stupendous combination of goalscoring and creative talent and it doesn’t seem there is anyone even close to his talent coming through the Italian youth system.
I’ve explained Delvecchio’s role with the team already, but let’s talk about the main he clashed with, Vincenzo Montella. Yes before the Italian was a manager he was one of the best goalscorers in Serie A. It was a situational choice for Capello, against teams that were easy to build-up against, Roma could afford a deadly Montella – Batistuta partnership, against other teams? Delvecchio was the choice.
Francesco Totti was not the only player in this side who earned a well overdue Scudetto. Gabriel Batistuta had 269 games with La Viola, scoring 168 goals and had remained incredibly loyal, turning down multiple offers over the course of his time at Fiorentina from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid. In fact, the story of how Roma signed ‘Batigol’ as he became known, is actually rather incredible.
Batigol did not want to leave Fiorentina but their financial situation was getting dire, and Roma’s director of football, Franco Baldini knew he was available for the right price, but unfortunately Roma’s president, Franco Sensi, was not prepared to cough up the huge sum for a 31 year old.
What Baldini and Capello did is nothing short of cunning. They invited Mario Sconcerti, editor of Corriere dello Sport to dinner, they knew he had a problem, with Lazio’s title win, Roma fans were simply not reading CdS, they needed to give Roma fans a reason to buy the paper. CdS ran a story saying Batigol was close to joining Roma, despite the deal not even being close. Roma fans were jubilant, and applauded Sensi as a hero, but as time passed Roma fans grew itchy “Where is Batistuta? Why isn’t he here yet?”
This itchiness soon turned to sourness, Sensi did not wish to have the fans turn against him, after such a rough season. So Sensi coughed up £23.5m for the Argentine, and I very much doubt he regretted it.
An archetypal number nine, it sounds lazy and cliche but Batigol was able to do everything. It is not Lionel Messi who is Argentina’s all-time lead goal scorer, nor Diego Maradona, but it’s Gabriel Batistuta. A thundering shot combined with an underrated athletic ability meant Batigol was feared through Europe. My favourite Batigol goal probably has to come against my own club, Arsenal, here.
Roma only received one great season from Batigol, with 28 goals in 20 games. But a price in a city such as Roma, Naples or Florence has no price.
The grits and ginders of the team
Of course no successful team is without their unsung heroes. The accolade of unsung hero has to split in half and be given to both Damiano Tommasi and Cristiano Zanetti. I spoke about their unfortunate limitations in the offensive game but Zanetti was an underrate defensive midfielder. Zanetti helped do a lot of the base worked which allowed Cafu and Totti to have defensive carefree attitude at times, with Zanetti covering up their deficiencies.
Tomassi was much of the same, while Roma appreciated their groundwork in helping other players thrive, Capello was more thankful to see Emerson return during the winter break. The Brazilian helped Roma’s build-up enormously as he brought a different dimension in terms of build-up play with his passing range but also as a ball carrier.
2000/2001 Roma’s impact on football
Not a lot, unfortunately. Throughout time this has become more of a feel good story and a validation of Totti’s talents more than anything. Roma didn’t invent a three at the back system nor did they revolutionise it, but it was a lovely throwback. However, Roma did incorporate some lovely ideas into this squad. Dani Alves’ form last year meant Lionel Messi was able to drift centrally and operate more as a #10, helping the team create. Alves had the whole of the right flank to himself. Did Enrique directly copy Capello? Probably not. But it’s nice to see ideas being taken from team to team.
Should this team have achieved more? Probably. Only Zanetti left in the summer of 2001 for Inter Milan and the 2001/02 campaign finished with Roma one point behind Juventus. The following season, there was a 22 point drop as Roma finished 8th in Serie A with 49 points, the following season they did go back up to runners up, 11 points behind eventual winners Milan.
Perhaps it’s a bit patronising to call this a feel good story when it’s a big Italian club winning their third Scudetto, but that’s what it is. It’s also a beautiful reminder of a time where Roma and Lazio could compete with Milan and Juventus, but I suppose money talks.
You can follow my Serie A ramblings over at @BilbertoSilva.