Here’s what the Portuguese coach had to say...
Udinese are undefeated in their last six matches. Will they prove to be a tough test, given the intensity and physicality of their approach? Will Lorenzo Pellegrini’s return prove to be important if Roma are to see more of the ball?
“What’s most important is the quality of our possession as a team. We’ve got to be on high alert when they counter because Udinese do so at pace, and their overall intensity levels are really high.
“Obviously if we’re dispossessed in dangerous areas we leave ourselves exposed. As a team we’ve improved in this regard. We’re seeing more of the ball. Lorenzo is always a big player for us. I’m aware of all of Udinese’s strengths which you’ve mentioned. They’re a well-rounded side.
“I was surprised by where they were languishing at the start of the season. They’re a decent team. If we drop back and let them have a lot of the ball, they’ve got the quality to harm us. Udinese are dangerous at set pieces.
“The likes of [Lazar] Samardzic and Walace are a threat from distance. Overall they’re a quality team. I’m not judging the difficulty of the fixture based on our respective league positions. I reckon it’ll be a real challenge.”
How are Udinese different compared to 2022/23?
“Although they’ve lost some big players they’re still the same Udinese. The coaching staff and core players, as well as those at board level, are vastly experienced in the business of football.
“They adapt well to losing players, as was the case with Beto and [Rodrigo] Becao. This is one of their strengths. Take [Christian] Kabasele as an example – he amassed years of experience in the Premier League. Their full-backs are quick, aggressive, get forward a lot and have plenty of energy.
“They managed to retain [Roberto] Pereyra. He’s more than just a player for them. He’s very versatile. They’ve got a lot of smart people working for them, people well-seasoned in running a football club. Udinese retain their identity even if they have a propensity to sell off assets every year.”
Roma’s injured players have missed a total of 52 games considering your first 16 fixtures. You often talk about your players’ injury records. Among these names is Chris Smalling, who’s missed 13 out of 16 matches this campaign. What’s the latest on his recovery? What do you make of what he’s been going through? He’s been suffering from inflammation and it’s unclear how he can overcome this issue. Do you expect more from him? Do you expect him to grin and bear it? Do you expect him to return to action this calendar year?
“You know of these stats and so do we. However, the number 52 is mainly made up of a handful of players, four at most.
“We’ve got players who’ve not missed any game time due to injury. Who am I talking about? Those with a clean injury record, those who’ve only suffered an injury from time to time, the kind that comes along over the course of a season. I’m referring to [Bryan] Cristante, [Gianluca] Mancini, Rui Patricio and [Edoardo] Bove. These guys don’t figure in the aforementioned 52 stat.
“Those that do are Smalling, Renato Sanches, sometimes Pellegrini, [Paulo] Dybala and [Leonardo] Spinazzola. We’re aware of this. They’re top professionals and do all they can to keep fit, both within and away from football.
“We coaches, fitness staff and medical staff work closely together. People might often wonder what we do at Trigoria for 15 hours when training sessions are only two to two and a half hours long, but we’re dealing with so many matters. We all think that we’re doing a great job to improve our situation.
“Regarding Smalling, the injury is very much there. There are also regular people like us, who aren’t high-performance athletes, who have a greater pain threshold. Maybe I can sleep fine with toothache, maybe you struggle. That’s how it is.
“Smalling isn’t capable of playing through pain. He holds something back. His specific issue is a real challenge. It’s really frustrating for me because his position – centre back – is where we’re most desperate for players. But that’s how it is. We’ve just got to be patient. I shouldn’t beat myself up or criticise him. We’ll just wait and see when he’s ready.
“He spent the whole of this week with the medical team. He’s not at a point where he’s splitting his time evenly between the doctors and the coaching staff, be it in the gym or on the pitch. He doesn’t even know what the weather is like because it’s been that long since he’s been outside. That’s holding him back. However, it’s been his first pain-free week.
“The aim is to get him on the pitch next week. But working with whom? Not with me – I’m talking about physios, medical staff. He’s behind on his recovery and I don’t expect to see him back in action in the next two to three weeks.”
Will he play again this year?
“Yes or no…Let’s hope so. We’ll see.”
I wanted to ask you about empathy, which is something you often talk about, including in your most recent interview. Based on your experience, do you think it's necessary to feel empathy with the owners? Do you have empathy with the Friedkins? Or do you only need to feel empathy with the team?
“It depends on how you see it. You work with the team every day. You're with them every minute. You travel with them. They're a bit like family and if there's no empathy in the family, what do you do? It can be hard if you spend a lot of time with your family.
“The players are the people closest to the coach and vice versa. That's what you might call functional empathy. You create empathy by working together, by setting the pace and putting quality in your work and in the relationship.
“It's a different situation between me and the owners because I'm here and the owners are here [indicating a level above].
“I always say that I'm paid to not create problems for the owners. That means the owners must trust in my work and have time to do other things. Because, as you know – and it's not just the Friedkin family and group – many club owners have other things in their professional lives.
“The other day I was asked a question, and I realised it was a bit of a trick question: I was asked when I last spoke to Mr Friedkin and Ryan. If you ask me today, the last time I spoke to them was yesterday. I told Aurelio Capaldi a few days ago. I tell you yesterday. We're working.”
And you didn't speak about your contract yesterday?
In your long interview with Rai, I was surprised by what you said about your personal relationship with the fans. Since the next two months will be important to give this season a meaning, do you think it's time for the team to respond to the 60,000 who always fill the Olimpico and travel to away games? As you always say, the fans give, give, give to the team. And I think the team have perhaps given back less than they could have.
“I don't know if they've given less than they could have but I agree that we need to give more. We need to give more and I think they understand that. I don't get tired of talking about this. With these fans and this club, you can't set any limits on how much you give them.
“You must always give more. We have had some bad results. We've had a few bad performances too. But we've never lacked professionalism and we've never lacked respect for our fans. However, what I've just said is one thing. Another thing is giving even more and we do have to give a bit more. So I agree with you. We must give more.
“We normally manage to do that at home, albeit sometimes in great difficulty, in the last minute, but we manage to do it. Away from home, we sometimes lack a bit of the mentality I've had throughout my career, which is to enjoy the hostility when playing away from home. With some of my teams, I preferred playing away from home. With my gang of bandits, I'd go to away games and enjoy the hostility of the occasion.
“I think as a team we don't really enjoy playing away. Some people prefer their home comforts. When they go out, they miss their mum, their dad, their nan and their nan's cakes. When you leave home, you miss it and you want to return home.
“That's a little bit like how we feel: when we go away we don't enjoy that same feeling. I've had teams in which players from inside the coach would provoke the people outside. Before arriving at the stadium, they'd provoke the home fans to fire themselves up more.
“I've had that sort of team with that sort of character. It's something we need to improve because we can play really well and get great results on the road but other times we can lose to Slavia, to Ludogorets, to Bodo, we can lose in Serie A too. That's the sort of mentality we need. We have over 60,000 fans at home. Away from home there are 1,500 fans who have gone to great lengths to be there for us. We need to give more.”
During the summer as the squad was coming together, I imagined we'd see Smalling with other defenders, Leo Paredes in midfield, Renato Sanches's turn of pace, Dybala up front – the spine of the team. I thought Roma had different ideas, keeping the ball more. Given that you've been missing a lot of those players, it's only natural that the quality of football should suffer as a result. Pellegrini is back now, I don't know how Renato is and hopefully Dybala will be able to play more. So will the quality of football improve? And I also wanted to ask if you see the same link between who can play and who can't.
“Of course. You always have a plan for the team and then it's hard when you don't have consistency. It's hard for me and it's hard for the players. It's hard for me to plan the direction for us to take. And it's hard for the players when they change position. When Cristante plays here, there and everywhere. When we need him not to play. When we don't have Smalling, there isn't another. We don't have Renato.
“You mentioned Paredes and Renato. If you take Paredes's organisational ability and you take Renato's ability to run with the ball... If you have Renato's high intensity and you have Paredes' lower intensity, together, they compensate each other. If they're together. If there's only one, you don't have the other to provide balance. We're better with Renato in transition, both defensively and offensively.
“With Paredes, we're better organised, we're better with the ball, we're better at controlling the game. Take Lazio, for example, our last match. Lazio are a team whose philosophy is to keep the ball and control the match. I think they had the same or less possession than us. But we didn't have that change of pace to get into the box, because we did get into dangerous areas.
“We got into Lazio's box more than Lazio got into ours. But we lacked that bit of explosive quality. And that's how we have to play. We realised from the start of the season that we wanted to go in a certain direction and we want to keep going that way. Albeit with the limitations we have.
“You asked me about Renato. He won't play tomorrow. If you ask me if Renato is injured, no, he's not. He's not injured. What happened was that in the last two weeks, when Pellegrini worked really hard to get into excellent condition by the end of the two weeks, Renato interrupted that process with a little problem he had last week.
“He only started training with the team again yesterday. He's a player who needs to work consistently and he hasn't been working consistently. When will he get that work done? Today, tomorrow, Monday, Tuesday... trying to be ready for Thursday or Sunday. That's the way we need to manage things. So Renato is not injured by he won't play tomorrow.”
Will he be on the bench?
“No, because if he's on the bench, you'll think I'm stupid if he doesn't play. Renato is a player with the potential to be very good and he would be a very important player for us.”
During your Rai interview, you said the team didn't have much protection, which is a point you made in Budapest too. Given that you've recently spoken to the owners, have you discussed bringing an intermediary figure into the club? Or is that not something you've discussed, meaning you'll have to put yourself on the line, as you'd said in the past?
“I have some qualities and a lot of flaws. I don't know if it's a quality or a flaw but usually people who are close to me know everything that I think.
“That's the way I am. I don't spare any words. I don't spare any criticism. I don't spare any praise. In my work, I'm an open book. Everyone knows what I think. Everyone knows when I'm happy and when I'm not happy. It's very simple.”