With just eight points games out from six games played in, Roma undoubtedly are one of the most disappointing Serie A sides so far. Although it is true that Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Giallorossi are actually facing a turbulent start of the season being in the second year of a rebuilding project started one year ago under new sporting director Monchi and new head coach Eusebio Di Francesco.
The last win – a needed one – against a Frosinone that have scored no goals so far, whilst allowing 16, doesn’t change Roma’s situation heading into a pivotal derby against Lazio scheduled for this weekend.
Roma’s performances have been abysmal: from an offensive point of view, Giallorossi enjoyed spells of ball possession but faced troubles when it came to finding the net with just 7 goals scored so far whilst, without the ball, they lacked compactness as testified by the nine goals they allowed that made Roma the fourth-worst defensive team in Serie A.
Pundits and fans are starting to ask themselves what happened to a side that reached Champions League semi-finals and that has been the second-best defence in Italy last campaign.
First and foremost, if you want to play the blame game, finger has to be pointed at a unholy transfer market campaign that led to the losses of goalkeeper Alisson to Liverpool and midfielders Radja Nainggolan (Inter) and Kevin Strootman (Marseille).
This last sale has been particularly unexplained as the club sold the Dutchman when the Italian market was closed. It means Roma wasn’t able to replace him. Strootman’s transfer has been even more painful if you consider that it happened when Di Francesco was thinking about re-shaping his team, switching from his usual 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation looked as more suitable for his player. Basically, with Strootman gone, Roma’s coach remained with just two holding midfielders at his disposal in team’s captain Daniele De Rossi and Steven N’Zonzi.
The whole transfer market policy has been marked by the goal to revamp this team, lowering the salary cap. So, Monchi sold the aforementioned veteran players and brought on a good midfielder as N’Zonzi, three rising youngsters in Bryan Cristante, Ante Coric and Nicolò Zaniolo and a player needing to resurrect his career such as Javier Pastore.
But problems immediately surfaced when Di Francesco tried to insert these players into his favoured 4-3-3 system.
Di Francesco’s tactical approach
From a tactical point of view, Di Francesco’s 4-3-3 is built in the way to create offensive triangles and passing lines all around the field. The coach likes the idea to build from the back through the centre-backs.
In the midfield, De Rossi is playing the role of defensive shield and playmaker at the same time as he’s highly involved in the first phases of possession. As the play goes on, Di Francesco’s brand of football becomes a mix of short and long passes that needed to build in sync. A key part of this offence is played by the full-backs who have to push forward to support wingers. The interior midfielders too have to support the offensive phase being ready to open their positions out from the centre-halves in order to occupy the flanks.
So, interior midfielders and wingers are instructed to change their positions with the flankers which have to move into the half-spaces. These movements are installed into a very vertical-oriented possession brand of football in which the main goal is to attack deep as soon as possible.
That said, after a not so good start of the season, Di Francesco made compromises last term by adopting a more ball-controlled style that looked more suited for the players at his disposal. Particularly, Roma’s coach faced some troubles and criticism when it came to the use of Radja Nainggolan. In fact, the Belgian produced one of his best seasons under team’s previous coach Luciano Spalletti by posting 11 goals and 5 assists. He reached this career high playing as attacking midfielder in a 3-4-1-2- system. But Di Francesco’s 4-3-3 system doesn’t foresee a no.10 as the ten space has to be free to be exploited by central midfielders, wingers or by centre-forward Edin Dzeko with his linking play.
So, lined up as no.8, the 30-years old footballer went to play farther from the penalty box. It resulted in having him producing more assists (9) but fewer goals (4) than the previous campaign. Furthermore, keeping Nainggolan away from the box weakened Roma’s ability to occupy the opponent’s penalty area when attacking the final third. This created an offensive problem for a side that looks to create chances from crosses, as Roma do under Di Francesco.
In fact, with the ball in the final third of the field, Di Francesco’s team likes to use the wings to create scoring chances through crosses. This is highlighted by the fact that Roma was the second team last season (25) and the third this one (24) in terms of average crosses per game.
That said, Di Francesco faced a tough task when he tried to insert this season newcomers into his 4-3-3. N’Zonzi seemed not suited to play as box-to-box central midfielder whilst neither Bryan Cristante nor Lorenzo Pellegrini flourished over there.
Some more problems
Moreover, there is the Pastore conundrum. Coming to Roma after a no bright experience with PSG, the Argentinian didn’t impress as an interior midfielder, not even as a left-winger. The 29-years old player is a natural no.10 and it – added to the problems Di Francesco faced when it comes to finding box-to-box midfielders – should be enough to convince his coach to make a faithful switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, although it would mean putting aside the favourite 4-3-3.
This troubled start of season involved Roma’s defensive phase too. Di Francesco wants his side high-pressing opponents out from a man-orientated pressing style. This is an aggressive defensive approach which features a high defensive line. But, on some circumstances, this high backline inflicted Roma some pain, especially through long balls, as it happened last Champions League campaign against Liverpool.
True to be told, this high defence also faced some troubles in other games last term but bad situations have often been solved by Alisson through his sweeper-keeper style of play. It wasn’t the case this 2018/19 season with Robin Olsen between the posts.
That’s because the Swedish isn’t a keeper suite to play out from the goal, so Di Francesco’s side is lacking a no.1 capable of making a spectacular but efficient exit from the posts in order to save the day as Alisson did.
In the end, Di Francesco enjoyed a good first season with Roma, although his side produced better results in Europe than in Italy. But his tactics seems to struggle now that Roma’s roster has been revamped. Di Francesco’s squad showed tactical problems and also looked crushed by the expectations surrounding Rome’s environment with fans and pundits expecting an improvement from last season. The future for a coach relies on results and Di Francesco too is linked to this concept. So, this weekend derby against Lazio could be pivotal to determine his future with Roma.