Luciano Spalletti’s Roma return hits bum note – but still time for happy ending

Reappointment of man who first invented Francesco Totti as a false nine should have been music to ears of fans but draw with Verona underlined hard task

There was a song playing in the back of Luciano Spalletti’s mind when he announced his resignation as Roma manager in September 2009. “One thing that I will always carry with me is the club anthem sung by the fans at the stadium before a game,” he confessed during a farewell interview. “It shows the great attachment that the fans feel to this shirt. I will always keep on singing it, too.”

Who could blame him? Roma Roma is one of the great football anthems: all trumpets, emotion and overblown harmonies. However, its author, Antonello Venditti, has penned at least one other song that might speak to Spalletti’s heart. In Amici Mai, the veteran crooner reflects with feeling that “some loves never end”.

Not even a move to Russia could kill off Spalletti’s sentimental attachment to the Giallorossi. He won two league titles at Zenit St Petersburg – something he had never achieved in Italy – and stayed on for more than four years but even towards the end he was still able to observe that: “Wherever I go in the world, wearing my Zenit tracksuit, there are guys who stop me and say: ‘Spalletti: Roma.’”

Sometimes it even happened in his own home. Spalletti’s three kids, all Roma supporters, would nag at him to return to the club they adored. If only it had been his choice to make. Instead, they watched on together as Roma, after finishing second in the season of his resignation, slid to sixth, seventh, and then sixth again in the years that followed.

That negative cycle was broken by Rudi García. Appointed in the summer of 2013, the Frenchman restored Roma immediately to the elite of Italian football. The 85 points amassed during his first season at the helm would have been enough to seize the Scudetto in five of the previous six years. Instead, Roma settled for second place behind a record-breaking Juventus and finished there again in 2014-15.

On paper, that might look like a job well done – but already before the end of that second season, García’s Roma appeared to have stalled. There were too many dropped points, the manager himself observing that his team appeared to have contracted a bad case of “draw-itis”. He seemed incapable of shaking things up, persisting rigidly with the same 4-3-3 formation and the same predictable approach.

There was hope that things could be different this season after Roma beat Juventus 2-1 in late August. As the champions continued to drop points in the month that followed, García’s team had a real opportunity to sprint ahead in the title race.

Instead, they tripped over their own heels.

Roma did enjoy a brief purple patch, winning five straight games in the league, but soon their many flaws caught up with them. Edin Dzeko, signed to address a pressing need up front, scored only three times in his first 15 Serie A appearances – and two of those from the penalty spot. Matters were no better in defence. Despite sneaking through to the Champions League knockout stage, Roma conceded 16 times in six group games.

The owner, James Pallotta, lost patience. A 1-1 draw with Milan was the straw that broke the camel’s back – perhaps less for the result itself than García’s remarks about his players being too physically exhausted to protect their early advantage. Pallotta had already butted heads with his manager over the players’ athletic preparations last season, demanding that changes be made in the summer.

García’s sacking paved the way for Spalletti’s return. In one sense he was an obvious choice: a proven winner who had twice lifted the Coppa Italia during his previous stint but still had unfinished business left to address. He is the last manager to lift any silverware for this club, even if never the Scudetto - for which he pushed Internazionale right to the final day of the season in 2007-08.

If he was so gifted, then why had he not had more suitors since leaving Zenit? And was there a risk he might damage his own legacy by returning and never quite touching the same heights?

It was not a thought that seemed to trouble Spalletti. As he arrived on Thursday, he told reporters: “It’s as though I was never away.” After holding his first training session, he opted to stay and sleep at Roma’s Trigoria training complex so that he might reacclimatise more quickly.

He was not short of ideas on finding the winning formula for the team again. Spalletti had left Roma with a well-earned reputation as a tactical innovator – the man who first invented Francesco Totti as a false nine – even if only out of necessity. Now he mooted a variety of options for reinvigorating his side, from a three-man defence through to the enigmatic suggestion that “Daniele De Rossi has given me his complete openness to trying something particular – but I cannot say what”.

The fixture list had been kind, granting Spalletti his first game back at home to last-placed Verona – the only winless team in the division. The visitors would also be starting without the left-back Samuel Souprayen, the midfielder Federico Viviani and the striker Luca Toni.

Spalletti opted in the end for a 4-2-3-1, with a number of players in new roles. Alessandro Florenzi, deployed most often at full-back by García, started on the left wing; Radja Nainggolan moved forward from central midfield to trequartista; Miralem Pjanic went in the opposite direction, sitting deep as the team’s regista – emulating the role once filled for Spalletti by David Pizarro.

The centre-back Leandro Castán was also restored to the starting lineup. At his pre-game press conference, Spalletti claimed to have been encouraged by a conversation he’d had with the Brazilian, saying: “I asked him: ‘What if I play you tomorrow?’ He replied: ‘You’ll see what kind of performance I can give.’”

How unfortunate those words would sound in retrospect. After Nainggolan gave Roma the lead shortly before half-time, it was Castán who paved the way for Verona’s equaliser, fouling Pawel Wszolek in the box. Giampaolo Pazzini crashed home the ensuing penalty and the match finished in a 1-1 draw.

A home crowd that had greeted Spalletti warmly, whistled its displeasure at the end. This had been another dismal display by Roma, whose only real chance prior to the opening goal arrived when Dzeko prodded against a post as part of the same action from which Nainggolan ultimately scored.

Roma became more expansive in the second half but allowed Verona back into the game in the process. The hosts hit the woodwork again before Pazzini’s equaliser – Pierluigi Gollini pushing a brilliant Mohamed Salah volley on to the post – but so did the visitors, Ante Rebic unfortunate to see his shot bounce out of the inside of the frame.

There were further wasted opportunities for Roma – and in particular Dzeko, who capped a frustrating afternoon by sending a free header over the bar from six yards out in injury time – but they could easily have conceded more than once. Against opponents who before the game had only scored 12 times all season, that ought to be a cause for concern.

Spalletti departed at full-time with deep furrows set into his brow. Three days is no time to reinvent a team and nobody is blaming him just yet for Roma’s many shortcomings, but this match highlighted how much work there is to be done. The Giallorossi are still only five points away from the Champions League places but that says more about the concurrent struggles of the teams immediately ahead of them than anything else.

The manager, furthermore, knows his grace period will not stretch on indefinitely. “There are no alibis,” he had said on the eve of the game. “Either we win or within two months the same people who are celebrating me right now will be tearing into me all over the city.”

He speaks from grim experience. Spalletti did not need an appointment with Verona – the city of Romeo and Juliet – to remind him that never-ending love affairs do not always have a happy ending.

Talking points

• Spalletti was not the only person to make a return to his old stomping ground this week. After a disappointing season and a half with Borussia Dortmund and then Sevilla, Ciro Immobile has returned on loan to Torino – the club where he became Serie A’s capocannoniere in 2013-14. He marked the occasion with a goal from the penalty spot against Frosinone, helping the Granata to their first league victory since November.

• Juventus secured a 10th consecutive league win on Sunday, thrashing Udinese 4-0 on what was supposed to be a day of celebration for the Friulani – opening their redeveloped stadium fully for the first time. Paulo Dybala scored two goals and provided the assist on both of the others, meaning he has now had a hand in seven of the club’s nine goals since the start of the year. Little wonder Tuttosport should celebrate him on their front cover as “Saint Paulo” and “the anti-Higuaín”.

• Of course, Dybala still has a way to go to catch the actual Higuaín, who added another two to his own tally – meaning Gonzalo now has 20 goals in as many league matches. Napoli stay top with what I thought was an especially encouraging win against Sassuolo. A goal down early on against opponents who had beaten them once already this season, and who have also taken points off every other team in the top five, Napoli never succumbed to anxiety. Instead, they kept on playing their game and were in front by half-time, going on to win 3-1. Sassuolo had their chances because they are a good team but the result reflected Napoli’s growing self-assurance as well as their superior quality.

• That was some goal by Emanuele Giaccherini during Bologna’s 2-2 draw against Lazio – but still not as good as Leonardo Pavoletti’s falling volley for Genoa against Palermo.

• It’s high time we stopped to take notice of what Pavoletti’s doing at Genoa. He has now scored eight goals in his last seven games, a statistic that looks even more impressive when you consider that he only played six minutes of one of them – before being sent off, admittedly. Gian Piero Gasperini argued on Sunday that the player would soon be due a call-up to the national team and if Pavoletti keeps up this strike rate it would be hard to disagree. At 27 years old, you might call Pavoletti a late bloomer but, in part, that is simply a question of opportunity. He has had prolific seasons in the lower leagues, this is just the first in which he has really been given a regular start in the top flight.

Genoa’s Leonardo Pavoletti celebrates after scoring against Palermo.
Genoa’s in-form striker Leonardo Pavoletti is due an international call-up for the Italy team. Photograph: Simone Arveda/EPA

• In a broader sense, it is also worth noting how suddenly Genoa seem to have turned things around. Pavoletti’s volley was the icing on the cake of a 4-0 victory over Palermo and since falling down 3-2 in the derby against Sampdoria, the Grifone have now scored six goals without reply.

• Just when you think Sinisa Mihajlovic is teetering on the brink at Milan, his team goes and beats Fiorentina 2-0. This was a ruthless performance, more than a brilliant one – the final statistics show Milan had only four shots all game to Fiorentina’s 14 but put three of those on target, while their opponents managed only one – but it was enough to drag the Rossoneri back to within three points of the Europa League spots and eight of the top three.

Results Atalanta 1-1 Inter, Bologna 2-2 Lazio, Carpi 2-1 Sampdoria, Chievo 1-1 Empoli, Genoa 4-0 Palermo, Milan 2-0 Fiorentina, Napoli 3-1 Sassuolo, Roma 1-1 Verona, Torino 4-2 Frosinone, Udinese 0-4 Juventus