Blog: The shifting of Walter Sabatini


By: Julian De Martinis

The enduring image of Walter Sabatini is a man who smokes. Just type his name into Google.com and see what you find; a quick scroll over to the Images tab reveals at least four pictures with a cigarette in his mouth. Google.it reveals a similar trend but actually features a few more pictures, as if somehow between Italy and America, between Italian and English, this notion was diluted somewhere in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

And it’s across the sea that Sabatini first spent most of his time as a sporting director for Roma, engaged heavily in bits of translation with clubs in South America. This story begins on May 18th, 2011, the then-56 year old just having been appointed to replace Daniele Prade – one of many changes that the new ownership ushered in. His signings that summer would represent this transitional period and reflect the arrival of Luis Enrique as Roma aimed for a Barcelona-esque style of play and international renown. Out went a stuttering frontline and aging stalwarts: Jeremy Menez was picked up by PSG for a tidy sum (these being the days before the rich injection and cashflow that would come to define the French capital club), John Arne Riise went back to the Premier League via Fulham, and Alexander Doni joined Liverpool. Philippe Mexes and Mirko Vucinic were the two biggest losses, perhaps – both icons of the club and both going to rivals. Vucinic had finished a difficult season, during which the fans began to turn on him, and left for a reasonable sum to Juventus; Mexes departed in tears, for free, for the red-and-black jersey of Milan, the sin of not signing him to a longer contract weighing heavily on the minds of the tifosi and marring the memory of the Sensi ownership.

Sabatini’s first job was set amongst this bevy of departures. In came the overhaul. The young Erik Lamela was signed from River Plate and Pablo Osvaldo was brought back to Serie A from Espanyol. Bojan Krkic reinforced the attack with a complicated loan deal from Barcelona, and Marco Borriello’s forced payment kicked in after having spent the last season on loan from Milan. Spanish flair marked several of the summer signings besides the attack, with Fernando Gago coming over from Real Madrid and Jose Angel joining from Sporting Gijon. When Simon Kjaer was brought over from Wolfsburg it was seen as a coup for a centre-back who had so excelled with Palermo in the years prior, and Maarten Stekelenburg was supposed to be the goalie Roma had not had in years.

Sabatini’s first season was thus not an evolution as much as a revolution, with Spanish and Liga-based football players brought in to try and gel with Luis Enrique’s desired mix of possession-based football. With few exceptions, none of the players had Serie A experience and few were truly proven top-level footballs.

The season, of course, was massively disappointing: Roma finished seventh, Luis Enrique resigned, and Walter was left trying to reconfigure a team that looked far too static when they had the ball and too defensively frail without it.

And so, he shifted. The 11/12 season saw Roma spend 65m more than the club earned from sales on player transfers. This was clearly unsustainable for a side not in the Champions’ League and without its own stadium to earn revenue from. The signings thus became less splashy and a little more local, and all were far more carefully priced. Zdenek Zeman was at the helm now and his specialty: turning young, promising players into world-class attackers, often at the detriment of the defence, but always in the hunt for goals. Once again came a revolution, but it was a less expensive one.

In came Mattia Destro, on loan from Genoa, as well as the return of Alessandro Florenzi from a short spell in Serie B with Crotone. The overhaul began from the back this time and featured some of the club’s longest serving players, with long-standing stalwart Juan shipped off to Internactional and Marco Cassetti sold to Udinese. Three of the previous summer’s signings were then turned over, with Bojan, Kjaer, and Jose Angel sent elsewhere. Out went the heartbeat of the midfield, David Pizarro, and in came an interesting mix of Italians and Serie A-proven players, with the notable exceptions of Brazilians.

A duo of centre-backs was acquired from Corinthians: Leandro Castan and Marquihnos. Federico Balzaretti was brought in from Palermo to shore-up the fullback position, with Panagiotis Tachtsidis making the jump from Genoa to complete the midfield. The striker position was reinforced by Destro, who would now slot alongside fellow Italian Pablo Osvaldo in the bid to score Roma’s goals.

In essence, the summer of 2012 was a rejection of that of 2011- in came more Italians and more players who were tested at higher levels.

The season of 2012-2013 was only marginally more successful than 2011-2012, however. The team finished one spot higher but Zeman lost his job, with Aurelio Andreazzoli taking over for the final stretch of the season.

And once again, Roma was at a crossroads. Third time proved to be the metaphorical charm: the following season was points-wise the best in club history. And once again, it came due to a revolution in the side the summer before.

Sabatini shifted again. For the first time under this management, the side made money during the market by employing a strategy of selling young talents for high prices while replacing them with slightly older, more established, and less expensive games. Losing Erik Lamela to Tottenham and Marquinhos to PSG after how fundamental they had become to the side was a painful blow for the fans but brought the club over 60 million Euros. Then Pablo Osvaldo went and Bojan Krkic was bought back by Barcelona, netting nearly another 30m total. Stekelenburg never quite lived up to the hype and Tachtsidis did not evolve as quickly as he planned. The strategy under the new regime was laid clear by this point: gambles were not afraid to be taken, but losses were not afraid to be cut, and bids over market value would be carefully considered.

In came one of the most successful transfer windows Roma had seen in some time, along with new coach Rudi Garcia. The most expensive signing was Kevin Strootman, who immediately completed the midfield with Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic, the trio striking a balance that the side had been lacking for some time. Adem Ljajic and Gervinho came in to reinforce the attack, with the latter in particular proving uncontainable that season. And Marquinhos was replaced and improved upon for less than half the sum he was sold for when Medhi Benatia joined from Udinese and put in a Player of the Season worthy performance.

None of these players were truly unknowns, though they were certainly gambles. Strootman, perhaps the least so – Manchester United vied for his signature and he was highly rated by those who followed the Dutch league and national team. Gervinho, meanwhile, was seen as an Arsenal flop, but Sabatini and the board trusted Garcia could coax the best out of a player he knew intimately from their time at Lille together. Ljajic, meanwhile, spurred Fiorentina single-handedly at times during the second half of the prior season, and though Benatia was known to be Serie A proven centre-back, he certainly had big shoes to fill coming in for Marquinhos.

What did that summer have in common? An injection of winners and know-how. Garcia and Gervinho won trophies together before; Strootman has a grinta the side sorely lacked; Benatia slotted in immediately and seamlessly as Roma would go from one of Italy’s leakiest sides to one of Europe’s stringiest. The strategy was no longer to emulate the style elsewhere, or gamble on developing youths into greats. It was, instead, a careful integration of strong younger players with the experience and mettle of winning ones.

And it nearly paid the highest of dividends for Roma.

In those three years, Sabatini adapted. It was only in his third that he received a contract lasting longer than a year in duration; prior to that, he said he would only sign one-year deals as to not burden the side.

In doing so, he ended up liberating himself. He’s a high-stakes gambler, and like any Last Vegas regular can attest, not every gamble will end in victory. He has, however, carefully worked with Roma’s coaches during his time in charge, aligning what the board wants with what the team needs as carefully as he can.

Like the smoke that flows so freely from the end of the cigarette so often in between his fingers, Sabatini is capable of changing densities, conforming to the winds around him.