Don’t tell Daniele De Rossi that his team played well against Inter. “I’m a footballing son of Luciano Spalletti,” said the Roma manager at the end of Saturday’s 4-2 defeat. “He would never accept compliments after a loss because that’s how you fall into mediocrity.”
Still, we can probably get away with saying it here. For 45 minutes on Saturday, Roma were excellent: standing toe-to-toe with the Serie A leaders like few have all season. The game had barely started when Stephan El Shaarawy forced Yann Sommer into a fingertip save. Inter subsequently took the lead through a Francesco Acerbi header, but goals from Gianluca Mancini and El Shaarawy put Roma in front at the break.
As the last of those went in, ball splashing in via both posts under a torrential downpour, De Rossi grinned and roared on the sideline, soaked through in a suit jacket that never stood a chance. He looked like a man in his element, and why shouldn’t he? This is the job he has dreamed of from the moment he retired as a player.
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Stephan El Shaarawy puts Roma ahead just before half-time after hitting 𝐁𝐎𝐓𝐇 𝐏𝐎𝐒𝐓𝐒 before scoring 🎯
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Back in 2010, De Rossi professed to have “only one regret: that I can only give one career to Roma”. Fourteen years later, he has been granted an opportunity at a second. When the club’s American owners, The Friedkin Group, lost patience with José Mourinho’s diminishing results and escalating polemics at the start of this year, they turned to De Rossi to salvage their season.
On the surface, that might look like a desperate appeal to nostalgia. De Rossi played for Roma for almost two decades, yet his only coaching experiences were as an assistant to Roberto Mancini with the national team, and then a brief and unsuccessful stint as manager of Spal in Serie B, where he was fired after winning three of 17 games.
Viewed from another angle, however, he was the only candidate that stood a chance. Despite Mourinho’s underwhelming domestic results – his 1.61 points a game are the lowest of any Roma manager whose tenure went past 50 matches in the era of three for a win – back-to-back European finals and his “us against the world” rhetoric had earned him the undying loyalty of many supporters.
Following him might have felt like a thankless task to another manager, but not De Rossi. He had nothing to fear from fans who had been there for every step on his journey from academy graduate to “Capitan Futuro” and finally inheriting the armband from Francesco Totti.
De Rossi has always been one of them, another benefit since it meant he could walk in on day one with concrete ideas about what needed fixing. He had been a regular at Roma games right up to the moment when reports started to spread of Mourinho’s job being at risk, at which point he chose to stay away so as not to feed the rumour mill.
Publicly and privately De Rossi backed the Portuguese – highlighting how he had brought the fanbase together. But that did not mean agreeing with every tactical choice. Right away, De Rossi changed the formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 that allowed him to field El Shaarawy on the left of attack: a runner who could offer a different threat to Paulo Dybala on the opposite side.
Roma’s players were encouraged to prize possession, and to hold a higher line. A team that had won only two of its last seven matches under Mourinho, slipping to ninth in the table, took maximum points from De Rossi’s first three games in charge.
It helped that those happened to be against the bottom three. Still, there were signs of a new energy taking hold. Lorenzo Pellegrini, Roma’s latest homegrown captain, scored in all three matches, more than doubling his tally for this Serie A campaign. After 2-1 victories over Verona and Salernitana, Roma thumped Cagliari 4-0.
De Rossi insisted that “every team in the world is beatable, even Inter”. His players bought in. Nineteen points separated the league leaders from Roma before kick-off, but you would not have known it from the way the match began.
Only in the second half did Inter assert their superiority. They equalised almost immediately after the restart, Nicolò Barella and Benjamin Pavard given too much space as they combined before the latter crossed for Marcus Thuram to score. In the 56th minute, a Henrikh Mkhitaryan centre was volleyed by Angeliño into his own net.
After a courageous attacking display in the first half, De Rossi’s Roma had revealed their soft underbelly. Yet they retained a threat. They ought to have pulled back level in the 70th minute, when an off-balance Pellegrini threaded a sensational half-court pass between Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni. Romelu Lukaku, one on one with Sommer, let the keeper take the ball off his toes.
Inter’s final goal came in injury time, with Roma overcommitted to their pursuit of an equaliser. As De Rossi acknowledged, the Nerazzurri had “stolen nothing”. Yet a draw would not have felt an unfair outcome either.
Roma’s optimistic football, going for the jugular against the best team in the league, made a sharp contrast with the consistently defensive and still unsuccessful approach we saw against top domestic rivals during Mourinho’s tenure. So did De Rossi’s post-game remarks.
There had been three Inter players in an offside position for Acerbi’s goal and one, Thuram, in shoulder-to-shoulder contact with Rui Patricio. Officials ruled that none were directly involved in the play since the header flew to the opposite corner and the keeper was unimpeded in attempting to save it. De Rossi reflected that the offside rule as written has ambiguities that lead to it being applied inconsistently, “but for my idea of football, that’s a goal”.
The Friedkins will have welcomed that measured response. It is hard to imagine Mourinho responding similarly in his final Roman chapter, when every week seemed to bring a fresh feud. But the owners’ top priority is to return their club to the Champions League – as it has been since they took over in 2020.
It remains a plausible target for this season. Even after Saturday’s defeat, De Rossi has raised Roma up to sixth in the table – four points behind fourth and just one off the fifth spot that could yet be good enough to qualify for the expanded top European competition next season.
The situation is precarious. Despite Mourinho’s regular laments about being outspent by rival clubs in the transfer market, the reality is that Roma are still working to balance the books after splashing out more than €130m during his first year at the club and continuing to add high earners such as Dybala and Lukaku even while making a net profit on up-front fees in transfer windows since.
Further cuts to the wage bill will be required as they work to stay in line with Uefa’s Financial Fair Play requirements. That will mean a heavier reliance on young and homegrown talent. Here, too, De Rossi could be a nice fit. His father, Alberto coached in the club’s academy system for 25 years and became Roma’s head of youth coach development in 2022.
First and foremost, though, the younger De Rossi must prove that he is up to managing at this level. His contract runs only till the end of the season. “I’m convinced this is a strong team, with important players,” he said when asked after taking the job why he had not sought to have an option for an extension written into the deal.
“Strong teams can have difficult moments, that has always happened. But I think we have everything we need to rise again. So we don’t need any parachutes. We just need this brilliant opportunity that we have.”
Milan 1-0 Napoli, Genoa 1-4 Atalanta, Bologna 4-0 Lecce, Monza 0-0 Verona, Fiorentina 5-1 Frosinone, Sassuolo 1-1 Torino, Roma 2-4 Inter, Cagliari 1-3 Lazio, Salernitana 1-3 Empoli.
Monday Juventus v Udinese