Rome Shrugged

30 goals conceded in 11 Champions League. That’s AS Roma for you…

Inter – 30; Napoli – 28; Fiorentina – 28; Roma – 27. After thirteen matchdays, Serie A table looks crystal-clear, with four aforementioned teams remaining five points ahead of the rest of the pack. The leaders in black and blue stripes are winning all their games 1-0, through patient defending and Stevan Jovetić new-found ability to create chances. Partenopei can count on a bunch of class players who perhaps even deserve a better team: Allan, Koulibaly, Insigne, Higuaín… Viola, under former playmaker Paulo Sousa, represent the possession-focused brand of football, controlling their opponent’s efforts right and left. And the fourth team with the ambition of winning Scudetto? Yeah, that is the question: because at the moment, Rudi García and his players are struggling to find their own way while getting exposed at the back at the same time.

In August, I praised Garcia for making good signings. Towering striker Edin Džeko and a journeyman winger Mohamed Salah looked like bargains considering their reputation. They’re just loanees, but the players have quickly gained a lot of reasons to ditch their former clubs and join Roma for good. After all, neither Chelsea nor Man City really see them in their long-term plans – and in Italy, they’re important parts of a top team. And it’s not just about that: in Rome, they can flourish because their new team prefers an attacking-style strategy that’s been rarely seen in Serie A these days. That is the good side of bringing in guys, who today, alongside Miralem Pjanić, remain the most important parts of Giallorossi’s starting XI. With a combined return of eleven goals and two assists so far, they’re worthy of sticking around for much longer – but that’s just one side of the coin.

As we speak, Salah is recovering from Senad Lulić’s challenge in the Roman derby; but even with him on the pitch, there were issues to solve for Roma. The main problem with him and Džeko is that they’re in need of a solid link of play from behind to be effective. They can’t press the opponents and win possession by themselves; someone else needs to do that. Since they’re not well-rounded footballers, the team that has them requires either a highly-skilled trequartista or an utterly decisive, counterattack-based style of play. As for Roma, their most gifted trequartista is 39 years old and approaches the last gasp of his career. Furthermore, the team lines-up 4-3-3, which seems like a decent setup to go for the second option and use the counters to create chances. However, in this system, the effectiveness of quick breaks depends on whether the wing-backs are good enough to double up the flanks and cooperate with the wingers.

So, the actual question boils down to: how good are ASR’s wing-backs and will they get any better? Both in Bologna and in Barcelona, those roles fell to Maicon and Lucas Digne. The Brazilian is somewhat of a legend, having won the Champions League with Inter and recorded countless textbook displays of what attacking full-back should be doing. However, that was all three or four years ago, when he used to be at the absolute top of his physical prowess. Last week, against one of the serious relegation candidates, he never really cut it. His strength and dedication were still there, but those aren’t the traits that let you make the difference going forward to support attacking moves. Subbed off after 63 minutes, Maicon wasn’t any worse or better than any of his teammates in a shambolic performance at Stadio Renato Dall’Ara – and, at the age of 34, not much more than that can be expected from him.

Digne’s story is entirely different. Aged 22, he ranked as one of the most talented French left-backs – at least until the day Layvin Kurzawa from Monaco surpassed him. This summer, Kurzawa joined PSG while Digne has been cast out. Sometimes, he really does look like a good purchase for Roma: he has pace, he can pass quite well certainly can do all the attacking things Maicon cannot find in his game anymore. Still, the problem with the lad is that needs protection at all times. At Camp Nou, with the result being very bad but still not yet hopeless, he’s been leaving oceans of space in that left-wing sector he was supposed to mark. Because of his irresponsibility, Luis Suárez has virtually turned into a right-winger in the second half, as he’s been craving to exploit that gigantic hole in visitors’ armour. This French lad has still a lot to learn; if his Brazilian counterpart is past it, then he’s certainly not there yet.

 

Few things have to be said about Roma’s centre-backs. Less than three years ago, the partnership of Mehdi Benatia and Leonardo Castán was easily on-par with Juventus’ Bonucci + Chiellini duo. Fast forward to this week, we’re having Kostas Manolas and Antonio Rüdiger trying to do the same job and failing way more often than they could afford to. On a rainy day in Bologna, all they had to do was clearing the long balls, as the waterlogged pitch was denying ground passes by itself. Yet, fourteen minutes into the game, they’ve allowed a pinball-like chaos in their own penalty area following a corner. It was a schoolboy-football stuff with players running from one Rossoblu player to another, chasing the ball instead of staying with their men. And if it wasn’t for Mattia Destro’s bad decisions, they would’ve conceded more than two goals that afternoon.

Then, they went to Barcelona. Now, obviously, Blaugrana are on a totally different level than Garcia’s boys; they’ve just walked around Real Madrid on Santiago Bernabeu like their arch-rivals weren’t even there. However, that is not an excuse for breaking the offside-trap discipline in case of 50-60 metre passes that should’ve been intercepted before reaching their recipient in the first place! Two initial goals have come from through-ball situations in which the defenders had to either be having Barcelona players in front of them, or to step up few metres and sweep the pass. At the pace of attacking play FCB shocked Roma with, this would’ve been a heroic task; but nothing else should really be expected from a side that wants to get something out of a game against the best football team in the entire world. Neither Rüdiger nor Manolas were heroes; they were merely the supporting actors.

Always behind Messi, always second-best; Antonio Rüdiger.

But I don’t even want to slam the defenders too much because, truth to be told, the midfield has left them exposed like Donald Trump in an argument over the social media. Without Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman in the middle of the park, it was an ex-Barcelona veteran, Seydou Keita, who had to cover for them. The 35-years old Malian lad has bottled it; there are no other words to describe what’s he been up to. Through 90 minutes, he’s put in exactly one tackle, won one aerial duel and made 0 (zero) interceptions. Yeah – zero. The visual side of his play pretty much reflected the stats: his former teammates walked around hi easily; they’ve escaped the pressur smoothly; and later in the game, they’ve never really had to deal with his challenges anymore, because he wasn’t making any! He and Nainggolan were like two soldiers who’ve waved the white flag before the game was even decided.

I suppose it’s okay to get outplayed by Barcelona. With Messi back to full fitness, they’re back to playing in their own league, in which Bayern might be the only team able to give them a run for their money. But what happened on Tuesday was a capitulation; a total and utter wash-out that was nothing but disgusting, as AS Roma never really tried to do something. No challenges, no teamwork, no ambition, nothing. If it wasn’t for a substitute Vainqueur, they wouldn’t have even got a single booking either! It got to the point when Miralem Pjanić, expected to actually create play, had to get into a physical fight with FCB players, who, maybe for the first time in years, encountered a guy athletically inferior to them. A total and utter mess out there – and it’s not a surprise that Florenzi and Iago Falque have made just 21 passes between them; three-times less than Neymar made alone!

A demolition of such epic proportions immediately sparked a reaction. According to the press, García and ASR’s director of football Walter Sabatini had a fierce argument just after the game, when they sat in one of the club minivans, waiting for the results of a post-match doping tests. Roughly at the same time, French manager has received a phonecall from the club’s owner James Pallotta, who has reportedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the result. After those two, lenghty conversations, the men in question finally settled for some kind of solution; solution that wasn’t disclosed to the press. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to know that Roma have to beat Atalanta this week and BATE in thirteen days to make sure their boss stays employed until Christmas. “Tonight, we needed a miracle to win” – he said during the press conference. Yeah – but why wouldn’t you even try to buy a ticket?

 

Anyway, the bright news are that at least Wojciech Szczęsny is in a fairly decent shape. The guy probably deserves an award of The Most Inconsistent Pro Goalkeeper in Europe – but for big games, he surely does show up quite frequently. The way he exposed Neymar’s feeble way of executing penalties was worth praise. It’s been a war of nerves and ‘Chesney’ knew exactly what to do to parry the danger; he waited until the last moment without making a move and the Brazilian’s trickery simply lost it’s venom. With five more saves made, he’s certainly earned decent ratings he’s been given by La Gazzetta dello Sport and fan-portals: RomaNews and ForzaRoma. In all three cases, the Pole got the best marks out of all ASR players; alas, it was still only 5.5 or 5 out of ten. Eccentric as usual, the goalie remarked after the game that Barcelona were “beautiful to watch”. Weirdo…

Having virtually secured a second-place finish in the group E, Roma can count themselves lucky. Their results have been certainly better than the play and now, they have two, mid-table teams to beat before the meeting with BATE Borisov. Against the Belarusians at home, they’ll just need the same results as the one Leverkusen will be able to pull off against Barcelona. In terms of Serie A, Atalanta and Torino shall be much less of a challenge than the Catalans – providing, of course, that García draws the right conclusions from the last two matches. Roma are fully capable to win seven or even nine points from those fixtures; thus, the actual test of their abilities will come on Sunday, December 13th. Napoli at San Paolo; this season, it doesn’t get much harder than that. Will Salah (2-3 more weeks out due to the ankle injury sustained against Lazio) and Gervinho (3 weeks out with a thigh strain) make it back in time to make a difference?

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