In the Eternal City, they’re once again having the eternal debate about Jose Mourinho.
A red card on Tuesday night – his third of the season – capped a desperate finish to what should have been Roma’s big night. A chance to jump into the Champions League places was frittered as Cremonese, a team without a win in the league this season, secured a controversial 2-1 win.
“I’m emotional, not crazy,” Mourinho said afterwards, alleging the referee Marco Piccinini had not treated him fairly.
There were dark mumblings about seeking out audio of what the official had said to him and it all sounded like vintage Mourinho, right?
Perhaps the red cards don’t tell the whole story. Last night’s defeat was a setback but they remain three points off second and the club are also in the last 16 of the Europa League with a team that has Chris Smalling and Tammy Abraham at its core.
Add in the fact there have been 23 consecutive sell-outs of the Stadio Olimpico and it has often felt like Mourinho is feeling the love again after bitter exits at Tottenham and Manchester United that left many doubting whether he still remained among that elite list of coaches that he once topped.
With speculation swirling around Graham Potter’s future, a few incorrigibles have even linked Mourinho to a third coming at Stamford Bridge. That won’t happen – not least because Chelsea continue to insist Potter’s future is secure – but the so-called “‘Special One” is starting to master a different model in Rome, one with smart, scientific recruitment at its heart.
The manager who famously brought a list of young players he’d brought through the ranks at Chelsea after taking umbrage to accusations he ignored the Academy is working on a budget and bringing players through the ranks.
The names of 21-year-old left-back Nicola Zalewski and 20-year-old midfielder Edoardo Bove might not mean much to English audiences but they are among the colts promoted and developed by Roma this season.
“It is a deliberate policy of the club to develop young players and offer them pathways to the first team and it’s paying off,” one source told i.
While Mourinho dominates the headlines, the man credited with driving their strategy is director of football Tiago Pinto, a 38-year-old human resources graduate who started life overseeing the basketball and hockey teams at Benfica.
A former Academy footballer who gave up the game because he admitted that he didn’t like “running and pressing” when he played as a striker, he instead went to university to study pedagogy. His big break came when he presented plans for the football operation to the club’s General Assembly and was promptly offered a job overseeing that department.
At Roma they are committed to development and improving. One of Pinto’s innovations is to split the training fields into three pitches, including an exact replica of the turf and dimensions of the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico.
On another there is a big screen that Mourinho uses to preach tactics without having to gather the players inside a meeting room.
Pinto’s recruitment model has been precise and decisive, dedicated to team building. To add to a core of young players developed at the club they have picked up some of the best free agents in Europe – snapping up Juventus’ Paulo Dybala to add to Nemanja Matic, signed from Manchester United.
The idea is to build an experienced spine on a budget and Roma have done it well, mastering a market that many bigger clubs are ignoring in favour of spending big on potential.
They will continue down that route this summer. Indeed i understands that Leicester City defender Caglar Soyuncu, also wanted by Atletico Madrid, is another English-based player on their wishlist.
Perhaps Pinto’s greatest trick so far has been keeping Mourinho happy – notwithstanding his ongoing battles with referees. Sources said he continues to be “exacting” and “demanding the highest professional standards” but is working well with Pinto, who prefers to keep a low profile.
We may know more about him soon. Pinto is attracting covetous glances from England and may pitch up in the Premier League soon.
“I hope to try other championships, to live in other countries,” he said recently.
“It is impossible not to follow the fascinating English football but for now I am focused in AS Roma.”
With Mourinho continuing to battle officials, that remains a full-time job.