The unheralded cogs

Posted by Julian De Martinis

Underneath this glorious, fantastic, no-one-saw-it-coming start was a question that many took as a sign of a potential issue for Roma: what happens when the first XI experiences injuries or suspensions? Certainly, the starters have proven themselves, but what about the substitutes? Many assumed Roma would not be able to cope when push came to depth.

However, the opposite has often been true this season: the side have been coping with losses since before the beginning and have continued to cope with major players missing throughout the first seven games. The most obvious would be Mattia Destro, now not expected back until mid-November. As the side’s only true No. 9 other than Marco Borriello, there were many questions over whether Roma could score in his absence; yet the team’s response has been so emphatic it hardly needs to be stated.

-Totti tipped for World Cup

Kevin Strootman has slotted in so well into the midfield that it may be easy to forget that Michael Bradley started Roma's opening match of the season, the 2-0 away win over Livorno, and came on as a substitute for Miralem Pjanic against Hellas Verona the following week before an ankle injury sustained on duty with the United States.

With Bradley not expected back until Napoli Oct. 19, the side have been deprived their first-choice midfield substitute for five matches. But the fantastic form of the three starters has been such that he’s not yet been properly missed in the area Roma seem to have the least amount of depth (although Alessandro Florenzi's ability to slot deeper in the field may prove useful as the season progresses).

Yet the side have not been tested nearly as much as they have been at full-back. Douglas Maicon has been revived in Serie A under Rudi Garcia and was a staple in the starting XI until his injury against Sampdoria in gameweek five. Entering with 10 minutes left in the first half, Dodo was thrown into the deep end and slotted in nearly seamlessly as he completed 85 percent of his passes (as many as Strootman and more than Federico Balzaretti and Francesco Totti), won three aerial duels and had 35 touches. Without Maicon, the side would have been expected to struggle; instead, they marched on in a business-as-usual style to a 2-0 win.

The following weekend, Garcia opted for Vasilis Torosidis in Maicon’s position at home against Bologna. The 5-0 scoreline here speaks for itself, and though Torosidis was by no means man of the match, he did well to deputize in the Brazilian’s absence. For comparison, in Maicon’s vs Livorno target="_blank">first start he had 88 percent pass accuracy, won all his aerial duels, had 109 touches, with four shots, three dribbles won and three tackles. Against Bologna, Torosidis had 84 percent passing accuracy, 74 touches, one shot and one dribble won; lower stats, but against an arguably better team on paper, even if Bologna are currently struggling in the relegation zone.

Against Inter Saturday, Torosidis struggled in the air, winning just 17 percent of his duels, and had noticeably fewer touches (three), but put in a solid performance to help the side to another clean sheet against the third-highest scoring team in the league that had averaged 2.67 goals a game (a figure inflated by their 7-0 thrashing of Livorno). Maicon is certainly the starter and the better fullback when healthy, but Torosidis has proven in a short time to be a reliable backup that does not ruin the defense’s chemistry.

Thus, just seven games into the season, the side have been without arguably their first-choice striker, first-choice midfield substitute, and first-choice full-back for a significant time -- and yet have continued to march on without interruption.

Without European football to factor in for rotation and with a fully fit squad, Garcia’s team has showed early in the season that rotation and injuries can be managed effectively. For the defense, Nico Burdisso or Alessio Romagnoli could deputize as center-back should the need arise; certainly, neither would be as preferable as Leandro Castan or Medhi Benatia, but it would be difficult to ask for more for a team without Europe for the past few seasons. Bogdan Lobont is a more-than-reliable keeper and Mattia Destro and Adem Ljajic are still puzzles that will be a fantastic headache for Garcia to fit into the attack.

Should the team finish in the European spots, next season’s summer mercato will certainly have to add depth to key places. But part of Roma’s strength this season has been in producing reliable performances from players who have fringe roles.

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