The internet is an endless repository for information, we all know this, but, as far the history of Italian football goes (at least in English), you might as well fire up your Encarata CD-ROM; it's that bleak.
Despite the paucity of reliable data, I feel safe in proclaiming this as the first ever meeting between Roma and Italy's newest contender, Sassuolo. Not only are the Neroverdi newly promoted, this is their first ever taste of Serie A. Like most first times, Sassuolo's excitement has been tempered by ample amounts of awkwardness and, let's face it, some disappointment and probably even some shame.
Sunday's showdown pits two clubs seemingly at the opposite end of the Serie A spectrum; one fertile, the other futile. But, if we look at the most recent results, Sassuolo is actually the hotter team after dusting off Sampdoria last week.
Say Hello to Sassuolo
Unione Sportiva Sassuolo has actually been around a bit longer than Roma (1922 to 1927, respectively); though most of that history was spent languishing in the lower reaches of the Italian game. Having reached Serie C1--Italy's third tier--in only 2006, the Black-and-Greens are in the throes of their own Gilded Age. After decades of obscurity, Sassuolo wouldn't spend much time toiling in Serie C1. Guidied by Massimiliano Alegri, Sassuolo would earn promotion to Serie B a mere two years later; another first.
In order to reach this, their greatest height, Sassuolo would need some help from the Roma family tree. Enter Eusebio Di Francesco. The former Roma midfielder would put the focus on the backend, guiding Sassuolo to the Serie A on the back of a resolute defense, one that guided the Neroverdi to a +38 goal differential, best in Serie B.
As you may have guessed, that goal differential hasn't exactly carried over to the top flight. Sassuolo currently sits in 18th place, due in large part to the disparity between their surprisingly solid offense and their admittedly porous defense. The Black-and-Greens clock in with a -15 goal differential, worst in the league. Their 11 first half goals allowed, worst. Their 16 second half goals allowed, also worst. In fact, when Sassuolo takes the field, goals are sure to follow, as every single one of their contests this season has yielded at least 2.5 goals. On the whole, a Sassuolo match generates an average of 3.55 goals per match.
Given their spot on the table, you'd be correct if you guessed that the majority of those goals were not their own. Sassuolo's defense is so pitiful that they only hold the lead for an average of 10 minutes per match, and I was being nice by rounding up there, too.
We've gotten this far into the Sassuolo discussion and we haven't even mentioned the impressive growth exhibited by former Roma youth product, Luca Antei. This is, naturally, where I issue the standard Discarded Born and Bred Roman Facing Roma Alert. I neglected to mention this last week with respect to Alessio Cerci. So, fair the warned.
But it's not all doom and gloom for Sassuolo, in spite of their dreadful defense, their offense is actually not that bad.
Lead by loanees Domenico Berardi and Antonio Floro Flores, (Juventus and Genoa, respectively) Sassuolo has managed to pass themselves off as a credible offensive threat. Sassuolo's 14.4 shots per match is good for sixth in the league, ditto for their 4.9 shots on target average. Also ditto for their 14.6 fouls drawn per match. Wow, that's weird, huh? And this is all despite holding the ball only 47% of the time.
That last per match stat is an interesting one as well. Thanks in part to those nearly 15 fouls per match, Sassuolo's four goals from the spot lead the league. So, either Sassuolo are walking around with a collective Kick Me sign on their backs, or they're all waiter/actors masquerading as athletes.
Naturally, the flip side to flopping is that you don't score a whole lot from the run of play. With a mere three goals from, you know, actual football, the Neroverdi doesn't cut a very creative cloth. Having said that, their three goals from the counter is second only to Roma.
What I'm getting at is this, Sassuolo is a strange, strange side and, like most newly promoted clubs, you never truly know what to expect. After all, we're talking about the same team that hung in there with Napoli and Lazio, yet got positively waxed by the likes of Livorno and Verona, while being utterly emasculated by Inter, 7-0.
So are Sassuolo the side to get Roma off the schneid?
Roma Renaissance: Redux
After ripping off ten straight wins, the sister kisser versus Torino felt like May 26th all over again. If we're being honest, travelling away from the Olimpico with several key injuries and suspensions, a draw was probably the fair result. But, were it not for Mehdi Benatia losing his footing and Alessio Cercio somehow getting on the end of Riccardo Meggiorini's cross, we'd be looking at 11 straight.
Given that they were oh so close to 10+1 in a row, the story of this week has been their collective psyches; how would Rudi Garcia's guys respond to their first taste of disappointment? Was this the drink that would knock them off the wagon? Was the draw with Torino the rain on their wedding day?
For his part, Garcia wasted no time in dispelling any notions of self-doubt:
I saw an angry team at the end of the Torino game. The guys are so keen to win that they were already thinking about Sassuolo after the match on Sunday...I was really pleased with how we did in the last few minutes at Torino. The players ran over to take throw-ins and played quickly without wasting time, to have a few extra minutes. This is a good sign for me as the Coach and for the squad - I really liked this attitude
Of course, shedding self-doubt is especially tough when you're facing life without Francesco Totti, but we knew that going in. The real shock has been the play of Gervinho, a point truly driven home in his absence. Rudi Garcia certainly knows how to get the best out of Gervinho, and that best has been an integral part of the Roma threat thus far. They don't call him the Gervinho Whisperer for nothing.
Part of what helps me--and I would assume our Canuck brothers--understand this game are the parallels between soccer/football and hockey. While scoring goals is the easiest and most apparent way to garner acclaim, it only tells part of the story. What makes a player complete, and thus more integral to an offense, is their blend of scoring and creating. In hockey, this is measured simply by points; i.e. credit for goals and assists. The football version of this can be called contribution rate; either through actual scoring or assisting, in what percentage of a club's goals has a player been involved? So it's essentially the same thing, albeit a bit more convoluted.
Well, as we can see, between Totti and Gervinho, Roma are missing 52% of their offensive output, though obviously in vastly different proportions. Given the sudden loss of a surprisingly important player, Garcia was forced to channel his inner Ranieri, and tinker he did. To paraphrase Chris' astute assessment of this change, Garcia, rather than leaving Miralem Pjanic in the midfield, changed the entire lighting fixture when all he really needed to do was swap out one bulb.
With Gervinho still listed as doubtful, this is really the thing to watch in the lead up to this match. Although by some measures Pjanic turned in man-of-the-match performance last week, his talents--or, more aptly, Roma's chemistry--were needlessly wasted against Torino because of Garcia's lineup maneuvers.
There was simply no need to make this subtle yet seismic shift in Roma's lineup, the 20 minutes or so in which Adem Ljajic featured showed that, in the absence of Totti and Gervinho, and with Florenzi running on fumes, Roma desperately needs someone who can present a direct scoring threat. This week, with or without The Fivehead, Garcia should feel comfortable running Ljajic back out there with Borriello and Florenzi, while pushing Pjanic back to the midfield.
Defensively speaking, it's a matter of adding insult to injury, as Mehdi Benatia will miss this match to both injury AND suspension. A rare feat if ever there was one. So, if he really is moving to Milan in January, Nicolas Burdisso better start improving his reel; a strong performance alongside Leandro Castan against Sassuolo would be a good start. While on the flanks its business as usual, though keep on an eye on the surging Vasilis Torosidis to make a case for more playing time.
One In A Row
There isn't really much more to say, in order to get Roma back on the right track, Garcia's biggest obstacle is his team's own state of mind. Did they truly brush off the Torino draw the minute the final whistle blew, or has a sudden shred of doubt taken seed?
As if his psychotherapeutic duties weren't enough, Garcia must still contend with injuries to his best player, his fastest player, and the league's best defender; tough tasks all three, no matter who you're facing.
The pervasive theme this week, and really all season as far as Garcia is concerned, is one of firsts. The tale this week features Sassuolo's first trip to the Olimpico and Rudi Garcia's first taste of distress as Roma's headman. While last week's setback is really only a story because of what preceded it, the manner in which he adapts his squad, tactically and psychologically, will go a long way in telling if he's truly fit for Roma long term.
The best part about your first time is the second time. You have a better idea how to avoid the pitfalls, the embarrassment, and the disappointment that plagued you the first time (I'm talking about learning long division, fyi), but when you falter the second time, that's when the mental block forms.
Ultimately, this is what crippled Roma last year; the simple lack of consistency and the absence of an identity begat self-doubt. This crisis of confidence then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, Roma were often dead in the water because they had no one to spur them on, no architect, and no support system.
With Garcia, that uncertainty vanished in an instant, consistency and a sense of purpose have been the order of the day. This week, we'll see if Garcia has got the resilience to survive in Roma.