By Paul Rogers
It starts with a flight to the United States.
Luciano Spalletti travels from Florence to Paris on the morning of January 12 and then boards Flight AZ3560 with just his hand luggage, his laptop and a million thoughts circulating around his head.
His destination is Miami but it’s Roma on his mind.
Giallorossi president Jim Pallotta, right-hand man Alex Zecca and general manager Mauro Baldissoni are already in Florida awaiting the arrival of the 56-year-old.
All three are in Miami for a three-day AS Roma staff summit but first they have a date with the man they’ve identified to replace Frenchman Rudi Garcia.
Over dinner, they talk about nothing but football.
The same conversation continues over lunch the following day.
Later that day, Spalletti checks out of his room in 1 Hotel South Beach and travels with Zecca and Baldissoni to Pallotta’s place in Miami. The coach, twice a title winner at Zenit Saint Petersburg, spends most of the ride on the phone to the men he’d later bring in as his assistants.
In the garden, while a TV screen shows NBC’s live coverage of Arsenal beating Liverpool 3–2 at Anfield in the English Premier League, Spalletti is pointing to a video on his laptop and carefully explaining in minute detail how he thinks the Roma defenders should approach a particular attacking threat.
He lets the video roll, then pauses it, then acts out different scenarios to his engaged audience. On the TV screen above them, Anfield has exploded in raptures as Liverpool’s Welsh midfielder Joe Allen scores a 90th minute equaliser to tie the game at 3–3.
Spalletti doesn’t even flinch. Not once does he look up or pause for breath. He’s only thinking about one match and it doesn’t involve a Premier League team.
Afterwards, in Pallotta’s kitchen, he paces around with the phone almost permanently glued to his ear. Time is of the essence. He has meetings to arrange, people to speak to, video evidence to gather and training sessions to plan. Where he might sleep doesn’t cross his mind.
In four days he will return to the Roma dugout for the first time since 2009.
The team he has inherited have lost their way but as much as the fans and the media want to hear that everything is going to be alright, Spalletti isn’t interested in playing the game. Now isn’t the time for empty promises.
“It’s hard to change things in football with the flick of a switch,” he told me earlier in the day in my hotel room. “We’re in the situation we’re in and we need to earn back the respect of those who watch us. I hear too much talk from too many people. We have to get on with the job seriously and professionally and make sure that — through our work — we create opportunities for the future.”
The clock is ticking. Now he has to bid farewell to Pallotta and Zecca and head to Miami International Airport with Baldissoni.
He has a flight to catch.
It ended with a flight from the United Arab Emirates.
Flight EK97 to Rome left Dubai International Airport at 09:20 on Saturday May 21.
Upstairs, Luciano Spalletti was asleep before it had even left the tarmac.
After 53 games, Roma’s season finally ended the night before with a post-match friendly against Egyptian champions-elect Al-Ahly inside the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
What had happened after Spalletti’s whistle-stop trip to Miami in January was remarkable.
Roma collected 46 points out of a possible 57 in the league.
Fourteen wins, four draws and one solitary defeat — 17 games unbeaten — saw Roma overhaul both Inter and Fiorentina to claim Italy’s third Champions League spot and register the second most league goals in the club’s history.
When over 50,000 fans packed into Stadio Olimpico to see the team win their final home game of the season against Chievo 3–0, it was quite clear that the returning coach had indeed helped the team earn back the respect of the fans.
The Roma coach has risen.
As the Emirates flight crew scurry about the top deck, Spalletti’s now ready to talk and reflect on the half-season that was. He parks himself into the tightest of spaces by the emergency exit row and tries to avoid hitting anyone when he waves his arms around to make his point.
“The squad worked well over the last few months and the players rediscovered their form,” he says, almost matter-of-factly when I ask him how he reflects on the 2015–16 campaign. “That in turn got the Giallorossi fans behind the team again with renewed enthusiasm. It’s been a positive season. It’s fair to say that Roma are back.”
Very few people expected the team to qualify for the Europa League, never mind the Champions League when you arrived…
“The team was going through a tough time and unfortunately that happens in football. You have to acknowledge the strength of the opposition in Serie A this year though plus the fact that any side can have ups and downs over the course of a season.
“As well as all that, this season was strange in the sense that four or five teams were top at one point or another — so mental strength and a desire to work hard were even more decisive than in other years. The lads worked well and that’s how we were able to climb the table.”
Were you always confident you could make an instant impact?
“You’re never 100% confident before you actually do something. Actually if you go back to the start, we didn’t do well in the first two games. This is a sign that we made some mistakes at the beginning but that’s OK in the sense that you need a period in which to try some things out.
“However, the main thing is action. You need to do something to try to get back on track, seeing as the quality of the players was already there and that is plain to see. I’m not the kind of person who turns up and says that everything was down to me because ultimately it’s the players who are out there on the pitch. Obviously we were lucky in somehow pointing the qualities of these players in the right direction. The players are fundamental but it’s also important that you get them working together.
“As for whether I already had the right solutions in mind, I didn’t have anything pre-planned but I had a few ideas. It’s certainly not easy to communicate your thoughts to a squad of 25 players that you have at Roma without having done pre-season and a lot of preparation but it is possible, as we saw over these months.
“I already knew the majority of players here — Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan, Maicon, Seydou Keita and Edin Dzeko to mention a few — but I was also able to make some new discoveries with Lucas Digne, Emerson and Salih Ucan, all of whom I hadn’t seen in the flesh before. In general, I found a lot of quality players for me to work with at such a big club like Roma.”
Some people say it’s never good to go back in football. Did you ever stop and question whether you were making the right decision?
“Some decisions are guided exclusively by reason and others are influenced by sentiment — mine was the latter. As for the risk factor, that’s always present in my job and I believe that any coach has to be prepared for the fact that things might not go well because this is a possibility.
“Of course, the risk gets bigger and bigger since we coaches are required to do nothing else but win. In my case, if you manage to qualify for the Champions League in Serie A you’ve done your job and you’ve done it well, especially since famous teams like Inter, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio all failed to reach this target. When you’re in charge of one of these teams you really have to fight to get into the top spots, so that means the clubs which finish ahead of you have to do really well. Rome did well, so did Napoli and Juventus did fantastically.”
In your second game, you lost to Juventus. What happened after that game because the team went on an amazing run of results?
“We realised a few things about ourselves. I put fear into the team going into that contest in Turin because I spoke too much about focus, holding certain positions and being a team in just one sense. Nevertheless, the players showed me against Juve that they were prepared to do the things I was asking of them, even if what I had asked on that particular occasion was wrong seeing how the game ended up.
“As a result, I modified a few things in my instructions and in every game from then on we saw that we could dare more, demand more and go harder. The players at this club have even greater potential than what we’ve seen so far.”
The team finished the season unbeaten in 17 league games and only beaten once in Serie A since you returned. Did you wish the season could have carried on?
“Unfortunately the season can’t carry on but everything the players have achieved we can carry with us going forward. The second half of this season will stay with the lads, it’s theirs and it’s not going to be taken away from them during the break. During these months, the players rediscovered their true abilities, got satisfaction from their work and found enthusiasm, bags of goals and good play — everything that is positive from a football match. These memories belong to them and they won’t be easy to forget. It’s clear that this is what they wanted and what they were looking for. I’m dealing with some intelligent people here.”
Was there a particular game that stands out for you? That pleased you personally in terms of the team playing YOUR football?
“There were more than one because we had games in which we bossed the play from start to finish, those in which we had to change tack and others where we were able to withstand the pressure and take home the win. Every time we stepped onto the pitch was fundamental in terms of reaching the standard of performance and team unity which made the difference over the long term.
“If I absolutely have to pick out one game from all of them, I’d say the derby which is always a special match here, partly because everyone is waiting for that game as further proof of the team’s quality. I must say, however, that the Sassuolo match was important too. We took the lead early on that day but then we had to deal with being a man down and suffering a few injuries, but we still took home three vital points. I’d also like to mention the win against Napoli at the Olimpico when we lost two of the four players who started in defence — both of whom were vital for our defensive solidity as a team — yet nevertheless we won.”
With 83 goals, this was the second highest scoring Roma team ever. Do you still think we can score more goals or are there other areas of the team you want to improve?
“You always have to start from the premise that everything can be improved because you always need the courage to keep going further. It’s not awareness which is the important thing but action. For this reason, you always have to have increasingly big targets to aim for, otherwise you can stagnate and that’s not good at all. You can always discover new things in the world.
“For example we have just been to Dubai where we saw things that we didn’t believe could exist — you don’t believe in them until you see them with your very own eyes. This is the sense behind what I’m saying and it’s for this reason that we have to focus on making progress because the future holds even more new discoveries.
“Thinking in terms of areas of the team, you shouldn’t specify what can be improved because the team as a whole is where improvements need to be made. Obviously, if you look at the statistics you might say that the defence can be improved. However, if you improve there, since the team is a complex and inter-connected mechanism you’ll surely take away some of the contributions that the defenders gave in attack. That they have contributed in attack this season is obvious, the numbers are there for all to see. Summing everything up, I’d say that you always have to find balance in the team. I don’t like it when the papers are prone to breaking the team up into parts. For me, the team is a one, large whole and all the players are part of it.”
One of the things everyone has noticed is the tight-knit bond you have instilled among the squad with everyone playing for each other…
“This attitude is fundamental for me and it’s incredibly important. You try to specifically reach this objective and this is the starting point for achieving big things. The way you go about your work on a day-to-day basis is actually what makes the difference.
“If you take a look at whether the players’ attitude has been appreciated by those outside, then I’d say that it hasn’t been underlined sufficiently but this doesn’t interest me that much. I know that this is the right path to bring success to Roma as a single squad in which all the players are assessed in a correct and equal way. This is the right way because those on the outside who want to make too much out of something are ready to praise one situation but at the same time knock another. This is not the way to finding the collective strength that means we can go and compete in the right manner against giants like Juventus, Inter, AC Milan and Napoli.”
Finally, many fans have said you have given them their pride back. Do you have a message for them?
“I can tell them just one thing: We felt strong throughout the season but invincible against Chievo when they came en masse.”
In late July it will all start again with a training camp in Pinzolo and another flight to the United States.
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