In psychology exists a theory which seeks to explain a mental state in which the subject become completely immersed in an activity, with positive consequences for the end result. It's possible to get really nerdy with it, and equally possible to be superficial and ultimately unsatisfying in one's exploration of it. In the video above, the theory's creator Csikszentmihalyi (thank you, copy + paste) discusses being in a state of flow so transcendent that one becomes immersed in an activity, where you're perhaps only halfway aware of doing it. It hinges on the pillars of passion and complete dedication to the activity at hand. Further prerequisites:
(1) [It] usually happens when there are clear goals a person tried to reach, and when we get immediate and unambiguous feedback as to how well we are doing.
(2) Balance between the opportunities for action and one's skill to perform the action.
(3) Concentration, irrelevant stimuli disappear from consciousness.
(4) A characteristic for being in a state of flow is its tendency to make the person experiencing it forget both time and fatigue.
I'm not sure tonight's Roma was without question in this state of flow. But it was certainly a lot closer to it than Ranieri's Roma was (by which I do not mean, again, to demonize Ranieri as a man, but rather what his Roma had become during the past six weeks), if we imagine the labored Roma of 2011 as some sort of opposite of being in a state of flow. Let's look at the above three requirements for achieving flow, and how they were visible against Bologna.
(1) The goal for AS Roma tonight vs. Bologna were clear and resolute: to win the game to buy some time and serenity ahead of future challenges. To help achieve this, the players were given instant and unambiguous feedback from Montella: having put in hard work to recover the ball near Bologna's byline and set up DDR as he scored, Montella called Vucinic to the sideline, took him by the arm and shared with him his reflections. Later in the game, unhappy by Vucinic's handling of a counterattack, Montella again summoned him and provided feedback on how to act next time.
(2) Bologna away struck a good balance between the job and the team's ability to handle it. Bologna have lost very few games at home this season, and while not a terrific team is a formidable opponent at Dall'Ara. (3). Montella had been clear from the first minute, informing everyone of his choices and thus eliminating unnecessary stimuli the players had no need of, such as speculation of what goalkeeper would get Montella's trust. (4), finally: In the 95th minute, three Roma players were applying hard pressure on the Bologna defense trying to carry the ball, deep into the home side's half, seemingly unaware of the time and expected fatigue.
Just as clearly as tonight's Roma ticked the above four boxes, we could demonstrate how Ranieri's Roma eventually did not. (1), for example: The goals may not always have been unclear, but sometimes they were (the substitutions Simplicio for Ménez and later Borriello for Loria against Genoa betrays a rudderless approach where the goals change, in the case that they were there at all to begin with). The feedback was as confusing, evidence to which is the strange fluctuations in and out of favor. Greco was ignored from summer until late fall, was then alla moda for a couple of weeks in a row, before again vanishing almost completely. The same strange patterns, seemingly unrelated to actual performances and injuries, can be seen in the allotted playing time of Fabio Simplicio and Matteo Brighi. (1) was just one of numerous examples, and it's easy to see how Ranieri's Roma anno 2011 would have failed to live up to most of the previously mentioned prerequisites.
None of this is to suggest the awesome supremacy of Vincenzo Montella over Claudio Ranieri. In the two days since the change of leadership in the team, Montella can't have had time to make a real mark on the team. He does benefit from his own actions, such as being clear in his communication and attitude, but also from happening to represent change. Whether it is morally justifiable is a topic for itself, but just as the players needed a new voice communicating new stimuli when Ranieri took over from Spalletti, they need it yet again from Montella.
The total sum of the above is a Roma reborn. By going back to the Spallettian 4-2-3-1 it seemed like the team was reminded of the fact that they are a team that plays football. It wasn't as free-flowing or neat as under Spalletti, but on show was a palpable sense of enthusiasm, as if the players awoke from a nine month slumber and marveled at how much fun life could be. Everything felt instantly familiar, and oddly comforting. I hadn't realized just how comforting it was playing under the flag of 4-2-3-1 until tonight, but it made a big impression on me and made me think how disconcerting it must have been shifting from a three man midfield to a four man version, and back again in the space of just three games. For good or bad, 4-2-3-1 is ingrained in the spines of every players who have previously played in it (which makes up a large share of the current Roma squad). They know by heart the angles available to them, the runs they can expect from teammates, and at all times aware of how the overall formation looks and are able to adapt accordingly.
It is surely no coincidence that Montella when appointed paid respect to his predecessor—by all accounts an agreeable man privately and a hardworking professional—but chose to scratch more or less every decision and choice he had made during this season. He reverted back to Spalletti's training schedules, has an old Spalletti assistant as his vice, and looked to Spalletti for inspiration in how to play. Granted, it was made to look all the better with the return of Pizarro, who drifted through the midfield as if it was his alone, to occupy as he saw fit. At the same time, Pizarro was also helped by making his return in precisely the 4-2-3-1, a system he was lobbying for under Ranieri as well.
This is not a complete project. On the road to recovery, we will almost certainly have disappointment and new setbacks thrown in our faces. But as a first sign to the remaining three months of the season, it was encouraging and very, very appealing.