Monchi: Unmasking the man behind Roma's improbable European run
Without a doubt, AS Roma is this season's Champions League dark horses. The Italian side produced a stunning comeback against Barcelona. Defying all odds, the Gialorossi reached the last four of Europe's elite club competition for the first time in 34 years. Head coach Eusebio Di Francesco has deservedly drawn the plaudits, however, there's a bigger influencer behind the scenes. Monchi.
After yet another disappointing campaign in 2016-17, Roma wanted to forge a new course. For the perennial Serie A underachievers, continental nights were almost non-existent. The Scudetto hasn’t come near Rome's red half since 2001. While that’s pardonable, the Giallorossi have never brought home any European accolade of note.
To begin, old guards had to make way. Walter Sabatini stepped aside as Sporting Director. Luciano Spalleti, too, as coach. They were later reunited at Inter Milan. Roma icon Francesco Totti dropped the curtain on his distinguished playing career. In came Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, popularly known as Monchi, in the company of loyalist Di Francesco from Sassuolo.
As a player, Monchi was a middling shot-stopper for Sevilla. He kitted alongside Diego Madonna, even though he claims to have been the least important squad member: “the last monkey; a 23-year-old sub goalkeeper”. That changed before he left for Rome, however, as he rose to become the Andalusian’s most revered.
Indeed, Monchi's 16 years upstairs, without the spotlight, was far more spectacular than his playing career. As Sporting Director, he drastically transformed Blanquirrojos: from peripherals of Spanish football into a continental force. Nine trophies, including three Europa Leagues, was simply phenomenal.
Yet Monchi's biggest achievement was unearthing young talents. He created an intricate network of over 700 scouts around the globe, all designed to help Sevilla identify the world's brightest prospects. Later sold for huge sums. Dani Alves, Julio Baptista, Luis Fabiano, Ivan Rakitic and Carlos Bacca among others arrived at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Homegrown talents thrived too. Including Jose Antonio Reyes, Sergio Ramos and Jesus Navas.
Barely a year at the Stadium Olimpico, Monchi is producing the same effect. After losing Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, he began by luring relatively unknown youngsters to Rome. For a meagre fee too. Cengiz Under, Rick Karsdorp, Patrik Schick and Lorenzo Pellegrini have all proven astute buys. Under, in particular, has been a revelation, racking five goals and three assists thus far.
In Di Francesco, Monchi was guaranteed an unusual, hedonistic attacking brand of football. He knew that the dynamic 48-year-old would galvanize the squad in quick time. Despite losing touch on the home front, Roma are stronger outside the shores. They've hardly put a foot wrong in this year’s elite club competition, topping a group featuring Atlético Madrid and Chelsea. More impressive, the Giallorossi haven't conceded at home.
Operating freely under Monchi, Di Francesco has shown a knack for ensuring his team perform on Europe's big occasions. His switch to an untested 3-4-1-2 formation in the quarter-final second leg caught Barcelona off-guard. In turn, it allowed Roma to swamp the midfield, enabling the natural physicality of De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman to take centre stage.
Next up in the Champions League is Liverpool. Having previously outsmarted Jurgen Klopp's side with Sevilla in the Europa League, the Giallorossi faithful are banking on Monchi to deliver another off-camera coup.