Charles Ducklsbury looks at that rarest of incidences – an Englishman abroad.
‘English players are in the comfort zone. It’s where we live and where most of us stay’. So says Ashley Cole on his unveiling as a Roma player, and whilst his comments may ring true, is it slightly hypocritical for a 33 year old in the twilight of his career to be making such statements?
The left-backs arrival in Italy was something of a surprise. After his departure from Chelsea, the man who was being paid a reported £200,000 a week was expected to either sign for Harry Redknapp’s QPR or make a move to MLS. Linked with a move abroad in the past to either Barcelona or Real Madrid, most thought Cole’s time had passed to try another European league. When Roma contacted him, he didn’t think twice, stating ‘When I heard a big club from Italy wanted me, it was something I wanted to do’. He added ‘I’ve never played outside of London and I wanted to try a new language, culture and away of living’. Those years spent at Arsenal and then Chelsea saw most to consider Cole the world’s best full-back and possibly the only one of England’s fabled ‘golden generation’ to emerge with any credit (on the pitch anyway). So why has he moved to Italy now?
Cole arrives in the Italian capital as only the 23rd Englishman to play in Serie A. The flops far outweigh any success stories, as for every (relative) positive experience such as Ray Wilkins, there are plenty of negatives, step forward the legendary Luther Blissett, Paul Gascoigne (despite his legendary status amongst Lazio fans) and Lee Sharpe. The most recent was David Beckham at Milan, who spent much of his time eating in the restaurants of Parma with coach Carlo Ancelotti (‘Please, one more course’ begged Becks according to Carletto). Cole’s comments are correct in that English players are happy to play domestically, but it’s hardly the ‘brave’ move he may be trying to fool people with, as he was a substitute under Mourinho and out of the England squad. Brave, or unwanted elsewhere?
Roma is one of Italy’s more unique clubs. As former boss Fabio Capello says, Rome is a city of extremes, with fans who react irrationally to both victory and defeat. After winning the title in 2001, Roma fans were protesting at the training ground five games into the following season for poor performances. Yet if the team are performing well there is hardly a better place on earth to play your football. Rome itself is dominated by Roma fans (whilst Lazio fans in general are from the region that bares their name) and treat their players like kings when the giallorossi (the yellow and reds) are winning. Last season saw the club run perennial champions Juventus close, racking up a massive 85 points under Rudi Garcia and hopes are that with the recent upheaval at Juventus, the capital club can close the gap and maybe win their fourth Scudetto.
So where does Cole fit into Garcia’s tactical system? Last season Garcia varied his tactics, from 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, depending on the opponents. But it is a very attacking 4-3-3 that is his preference should his players allow it, with both full backs playing almost as wingers. Last season it was Balzaretti and more often Dodo who played at left-back, but given the financial layout Cole should expect to play the majority of games, especially as Dodo has joined Inter. It will be interesting to see who starts in front of him, as the most obvious choices are Gervinho and new €24M signing from Verona, Juan Iturbe. Neither are particularly strong when defending, meaning Cole will maybe have to curb his attacking instincts, although with Gervinho cutting inside will leave him much room to attack when the situation arises.
Serie A is no longer the league it once was, though Cole will have to get used to some incredibly hostile atmospheres. Chelsea away to Crystal Palace or Sunderland is one thing, but going to Napoli or Verona is quite another. Because of the complex rivalries in Italy, many games are grudge matches, giving games a derby feel that normally they wouldn’t have given the distances between cities and regions. Some of Roma’s biggest rivals, such as Hellas Verona and Atalanta are based 500km to the north. Should Cole land the title he said he wants to whilst playing for Roma, his main rivals will be Juventus, now under the guidance of Max Allegri following Antonio Conte’s shock departure two days into pre-season training. Neither Milan nor Inter have the players nor coaches capable of making a sustained challenge just yet, although Milan will be intriguing under former striker Pippo Inzaghi in his first coaching job. If anyone can challenge Roma and Juve it will almost certainly be Rafa Benitez’s Napoli, who after a year of adapting to the Spaniard’s complex tactics, added to the fact they’ve retained Gonzalo Higuain and Marek Hamsik should perform with more consistency to give their rivals a closer run than they did last season.