The players were in the tunnel ready to emerge for the second half at the Mapei Stadium, but José Mourinho was headed in the opposite direction, returning from the dugout to the changing room. Roma were drawing 0-0 with Sassuolo but just for a moment that was not his priority, as he went to retrieve a team shirt to give to a young supporter in a wheelchair he had noticed beside the pitch.
This gesture could not surprise anyone who has followed Mourinho in his career. This is the man who gave a Manchester United supporter the jacket off his own back, and who had Inter staff send him the first person in the queue for Champions League final tickets so he could give them two free of charge. Such generosity with individuals has always been part of his nature. And so has a habit for singling out scapegoats when things go wrong.
By full-time, we had progressed to the latter. The game ended 1-1, Tammy Abraham putting Roma ahead in the 80th minute before Andrea Pinamonti equalised in the 84th. Despite briefly leading, Mourinho’s team deserved no more than a draw, showing commitment in the tackle but little inspiration on the ball. The better chances fell to their hosts.
More compelling than the game itself was the post-game press conference that followed. “Our efforts were betrayed by a player with an unprofessional attitude,” said Mourinho. “Mistakes are part of the game; footballers know they can mess up. But I don’t like unprofessional attitudes. I had 16 players on the pitch: I liked the attitude of 15. The other one, not so much.”
He declined to name names but said he had done so in the changing room, inviting the target of his ire to find a new club. “You have never seen me be critical of Rui Patricio who made a mistake here last year or [Lorenzo] Pellegrini who missed a penalty against Juve. You have never seen me be critical of any player. I make mistakes too and as a family we need to support each other.
“But attitude is a different story. When you’re a professional in something, not only in football, you need to respect who you represent, the people who work with you, giving your all like everyone else. That’s the only reason I’m unhappy, because I feel this sensation, and because I know the process behind that attitude.”
Corriere dello Sport reported that he had been talking about Rick Karsdorp. Other outlets soon followed suit, although there remains no confirmation that the Dutchman had been the subject of his wrath. Karsdorp, who replaced Zeki Çelik at right wing-back in the 65th minute, was at fault for the equaliser, tracking back lazily as Sassuolo broke down his flank. Giorgos Kyriakopoulos floated a pass down the line to Armand Laurienté, who cut it back for Pinamonti to flick home.
Mourinho had defended Karsdorp at the weekend, after the player responded to his substitution in the Rome derby by walking straight down the tunnel without acknowledging his manager or teammates. “He returned [a few minutes later] with some ice,” pointed out the Portuguese. “I don’t know if it was for his knee, his hamstring or his fever. He’s had a lot of problems this year.”
With hindsight those words might be framed in a different light. Was Mourinho trying to tell us even then that this is a player who always has an excuse not to train at 100%? Or was it all just another act of misdirection by a master of the art, whose team had dropped five points in four days? Gazzetta dello Sport defined Mourinho as “an exceptional snake charmer, quickly finding the way to shift everybody’s attention”.
The momentum that seemed to accompany his club in the summer, as they followed up their Europa Conference League celebrations by presenting Paulo Dybala to a crowd of thousands on the steps of the Colosseo Quadrato, has dissipated. Roma are not exactly having a bad season – they are a point better off than at the corresponding point last term – but nor have they shown any real signs of progress.
Mourinho had pointed to Dybala’s absence after defeat in the derby, naming him as the only forward on Roma’s books with the creativity to open up a low block. The next player he might turn to for inspiration, Pellegrini, was forced off with an injury of his own in the second half.
To lose such players would be a blow to any team. Dybala is the team’s top scorer, and Roma have also had to do without their other big-name summer signing, Georginio Wijnaldum, who fractured a tibia 10 minutes into his Serie A debut against Salernitana back in August.
Then again, were Lazio not also missing their two most influential players, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile? And ought the risk of injury not have been baked into any consideration of Dybala’s role? He missed 39 games for Juventus over the past two seasons, many of them due to muscle strains similar to the hamstring issue which has sidelined him since 9 October.
His absence cannot explain the poor form of others. Abraham scored 17 times last season, but has only three so far in this campaign. Mourinho dropped him to the bench against Sassuolo, and his well-taken goal, stealing in front of his marker to head home Gianluca Mancini’s cross, reflected a hungry performance.
A November World Cup has disrupted this season in too many ways to count, but the question of whether Abraham’s anxiousness to claim a spot in England’s squad for the tournament had impacted his play hung in the air. “Probably there was too much pressure,” he said post-match. “I really wanted to score a goal, that started a vicious cycle.”
Abraham had begun by apologising to fans, teammates and coaches for not being “the best I can be”, yet if one thing is clear with this Roma team it is that the supporters are sticking behind them. Derby defeats have produced mutinous reactions many times, but on Wednesday the away section was packed out, with a banner at its centre inviting critics to silence in crude terms, and backing “Mourinho to the bitter end”.
We are a long way from that yet. The chasing pack behind Napoli at the top of Serie A are so closely clustered that Roma could yet finish the year anywhere from third to eighth. It will be fascinating to see how they approach the January transfer window as they weigh their pursuit of a top four finish. Mourinho will agitate for reinforcements, as well as for Wednesday’s scapegoat to be sent on his way.