Reviewing Roma's Defense

Tullio M. Puglia

While we await news on a new manager, we turn the clock back to August 2012 to examine our defensive preview--looking not only at the player's performance, but the accuracy of our predictions.

I pride myself on many things, from my ability to recall dialogue from Will Ferrell movies, to the skill and grace with which I can blacken a piece of salmon, and I think I can add making semi-accurate predictions about the Roman defense to that list.

So what we have here, in addition to a quick statistical run down of Roma's defensive performance this season, is a ‘Preview in Review'. Back in August, I was tasked with previewing Roma's defense and goalkeeping for the coming season, (jealous?) so let's go through my predictions, one-by-one and see how I, or more aptly, how they stacked up.

But first, a quick examination of Roma's defensive performance. Here is what I said about Roma's ability, or lack thereof, to keep the ball out of the net:

Fortunately, or unfortunately, nothing forms a consensus of opinion better than a shitty defense. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at just how porous the Roma defense has been in the past five seasons:

2011-2012: 54 goals allowed, 7th worst

2010-2011: 52 goals allowed, 4th worst

2009-2010: 41 goals allowed, 4th best

2008-2009: 61 goals allowed, 4th worst

2007-2008: 37 goals allowed, 3rd best

Well for 2012-2013, you can add 56 goals allowed, fifth worst. Though, thanks to the focus on offense, Roma escaped with a +15 differential, fifth best in Italy. That initial preview went on talk about the general pattern of the Roman defense, in terms of goals allowed; often falling in either the top five stingiest or most porous in the league, as it turned out, this season was no different.

Team Statistics & Rankings:

  • 13.3 shots conceded per game, 8th fewest in the league
  • 21.3 tackles per game, 18th in the league (though the difference between 1st and 20th was only 5 tackles per game)
  • 16.2 interceptions per game, 2nd best in the league
  • 13.7 fouls committed per game, 3rd fewest

These numbers were obviously influenced heavily by the offensive philosophy of the team, but when you take stock of them, they're not nearly as bad as you'd expect. Roma did manage to reign in opposing offenses fairly well, it was simply the timing of the goals, as we've discussed in prior posts, that really did them in. And while Roma didn't lead the league in total tackles, they did so quite successfully, winning 73% of their tackles, trailing only Milan's league leading 76% success rate.

So, despite the deluge of goals, one might say that Roma's defenders equipped themselves fairly well, particularly in terms of intercepting passes and blocking shots--but that's akin to putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.

So here we go, a player-by-player preview in review. Please note, only the players included back in August will be reviewed.

Goalkeepers

My opening salvo:

While not quite the revolving door that has been the fullback position, Roma have seen their fair share of goalkeepers the past few seasons, from Doni to Julio Sergio, Gianluca Curci to Bogdan Lobont, Portiere has not been the picture of stability.

Nailed it!...for no other reason than we saw three men in between the sticks this season, Maarten Stekelenburg, Mauro Goicoechea and Bogdan Lobont.

So let's go through them, one-by-one, starting with what I said back in August and a brief assessment of both my predictive powers and the player's performance.

Tomas Svedkauskas:

He does not figure to play a large role with Roma any time soon, but keep an eye on him in the years to come.

This one was fairly predictable, teenage goalkeepers tend not to play on topflight teams. So don't be surprised if the young Lithuanian is loaned out multiple times over the next five years or so. Nevertheless, continue to keep an eye on him and hope he doesn't come back to bite Roma in the ass, which appears to be happening with Gianluca Curci.

Maarten Stekelenburg:

However, if he hopes to win over the hearts and minds of the fanbase and build a legacy in Rome, he cannot afford any missteps; needless to say, this is a crucial year for Stekelenburg.

While this wasn't really a prediction in the strictest of terms, more of an ominous warning, you have to say Stek did not capitalize on what was most likely his final audition in Rome. All told, Stekelenburg made 19 appearances, kept three cleansheets, conceded 1.58 goals per match, while making 1.89 saves per match.

It goes without saying, but don't look for him in next season's preview.

Bogdan Lobont:

Figures to remain behind Maarten Stekelenburg in the pecking order, barring any unforeseen circumstances or transfers.

Once again, nailed it. Given all the summer rumors about Julio Cesar, it didn't take a genius to predict that Stekelenburg would eventually be usurped by someone. What we didn't see coming, however, was that someone else entirely would leapfrog Lobont in that pecking order. That someone being Goicoechea, who was brought in on loan after the original preview was published.

So, in this sense, a transfer definitely impacted Lobont's plans this season, while Zeman's immediate preference for Goicoechea over both Lobont and Stekelenburg could be classified as an unforeseen circumstance. So I'll give myself partial credit on this one.

But, as we're all aware, The Mancat made the most of his opportunities, keeping three cleansheets in his five appearances, conceding a goal every 202 minutes, making 3.5 saves for every goal allowed. Granted, sample size is an enormous factor here, but Lobont certainly made a case for more playing time.

As we didn't include Goicoechea in the original preview, we'll leave him out of this review.

Defenders

Central Defense

Nicolas Burdisso:

It goes without saying, but the health of Nicolas Burdisso will be a determining factor in any success Roma has this season. We all know Nico can play like a bat out of hell, but will his surgically repaired knees hold up over the full 38 weeks?

Admittedly, I was a bit dramatic here. Burdisso is an important player, but Roma's success didn't really depend too heavily upon his performance. Hindsight being what it is, no one in their right mind could have predicted that Marquinhos would essentially make Burdisso redundant. Nevertheless, let's take a look at what Nico did do this season.

Burdisso was indeed fit this season, making 25 appearances. Nico completed 90% of his passes (2nd on the team), while falling behind Leandro Castan and Marquinhos in most major defensive categories, both in gross and per match totals, with the exception of clearances, where his 7.4 per match led the team. Burdisso still retains a strong sense of positional awareness and anticipatory skills, witness his league leading 1.7 offsides won per game.

So, while you can't necessarily pencil him into the starting XI each week, there is still some life left in those legs. Whether he plays out the string with Roma or Boca Juniors remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, his passion for the club has never been in doubt; he will always be a welcome face in the City of Seven Hills.

Leandro Castan:

While not blessed with blinding speed or cat like reflexes, Castan is lauded for his positioning and strength on the ball and should pair well with Burdisso, providing extra muscle and intensity to the backline.

While I was obviously off on the Burdisso connection (see above), not knowing much about Castan at the time, my guess was intentionally measured, but ultimately not that far off. Castan had a fine debut season in Italy, as he led the club (among CBs) in tackles, while pacing the club in interceptions per match; his gross number in this category placed him 8th in the league. Castan also ranked 3rd in the league in offsides won per match, while his 91.6% passing was also third in the league.

Castan may never be proclaimed as the league's best center back, but his ability to read the game, his timing and his anticipation should all ensure that he'll at least be an above average defender for years to come. His passing and ability to move forward also make him an offensive asset (for a CB, at least), all while possessing exceptional size and spatial awareness.

He'll be around Rome for quite a while, no doubt.

We'll leave Alessio Romagnoli out of this discussion, as he only made two appearances, though he did score a goal. Instead, we'll shift our focus to Roma's true wunderkind.

Marquinhos:

What he lacks in age and experience, he makes up with potential, with some calling him the "Neymar of defense" or more generally as one of, if not the best, defensive prospects in Brazil....As far as speculative signings of teenaged Brazilian defenders go, this appears to be the cream of the crop. If Zeman's faith and admiration of him is true, how much he plays will simply be a matter of his effort in training and how quickly he can grasp the mental aspects of Serie A.

I don't like to toot my own horn, but, ‘Beep, Beep'. At this point, it might even be an insult to call him the "Neymar of defense", in fact, the inverse is probably more accurate; Neymar is the "Marquinhos of forwards".

I'll give you a quick rundown of his numbers, but keep in mind that these were achieved by an 18-year old playing in one of (if not the) most tactically complex leagues in the world. Marquinhos made 26 appearances, tallying 2 tackles per match (3rd among Roma defenders), 2.7 interceptions per match (2nd on the team, 13th in the league), one offsides drawn per match (3rd on the team, tied for 4th in the league), 7.3 clearances per match (2nd on the team, tied for 15th in the league), and blocked 0.8 shots per match (1st on the team, tied for 4th in the league).

If ever there were a centerback capable of global stardom, he's surely it, let's just hope it happens in Rome. But we'll have a more in-depth look at ‘Hos in the coming days.

Fullbacks

Again, for the scope of this piece, we'll leave out Torosidis, as he wasn't with Roma in August.

Federico Balzaretti:

What he brings is simple; experience and success at the highest levels of the Italian game. If he continues his fine form from this summer's Euro's, the left wing of the defense should be in fine shape

This one was sort of a mixed bag, given how young and relatively inexperienced the rest of Roma's defenders were, throwing a veteran into the mix was certainly beneficial. However, Balzaretti's performances this year suffered through many ebbs and flows; he was outstanding during the late-2012 run, putting in great performances against Fiorentina and Milan in December, while largely disappearing early in 2013. Though to his credit, he ended his league season on a high note, turning in solid runs against Siena and Fiorentina, though failing to appear in Roma's final three matches.

On the whole, Balzaretti contributed three assists this year, third on the club, while averaging two tackles per match (tied for 3rd on the club), 1.1 key passes per match (4th on the club), and completed 89% of his crosses. Passing undoubtedly remains Balzaretti's greatest strength, whether or not he presents the best option at fullback going forward remains to be seen, however.

Balzaretti wasn't brought to Rome to be a world beater, so no one should have expected miracles to begin with. Ultimately, Federico turned in a solid season, but lacked in week-to-week consistency. Under contract through 2015, Balzaretti must show a greater level of consistency to remain in the starting XI.

If nothing else, Balzaretti should continue to provide a solid, veteran presence on Roma's backline.

Ivan Piris

Again, a young man about whom we knew nothing back in August, thrown into the fray, Sabatini-style. I summoned all my predictive powers when I said this:

If he can acclimate quickly, look for him to be an active and attacking full back. At this point, there is no real competition for the starting RB spot, so Piris figures to be thrown into the fray early and often.

I'll take the hit on this one, I was way off. In an ironic twist, Piris actual excelled in the area in which I did not even initially credit him, defense, insofar as he compiled some impressive raw statistics. Piris led the club with 99 tackles, winding this down to a per game total, his 3.4 tied him for 12th in Serie A. Similarly, his 2.1 interceptions per match ranked fourth on the club and tied for 13th in the league. Piris was also among the club leaders in clearances and interceptions.

Offensively, Piris managed three assists but was not terribly impressive in the passing game. So while it remains to be seen if the club picks up his option for next year and beyond, Piris suffered some ups and downs this season but ultimately put together a decent enough season to give the team pause before turning down his option.

Dodô

When your biggest claim to fame is that you were almost signed by Manchester United, that's usually not a harbinger of good things yet to pass. That was pretty much the book on José Rodolfo Pires Ribeiro Dodô coming into this season, that and he was recovering from ACL sugery. So he came laced with what ifs, maybes, and buts.

So, whether it was the health issues, his age, or his inexperience that caused it, Dodo only made 11 appearances this season, none of which were particularly strong. Dodo did, however, show some surprising versatility in 2012-2013, making appearances as a left fullback, wing back, midfielder and even a forward.

At this point, beyond his pace, dribbling and fantastic head of hair, there's not much to hang our hats on-Dodo's Roman future will most likely hinge upon a few loan spells, but the athleticism is there in spades, so there is a foundation upon which to build.

So What Did We Learn?

I ended the initial preview by asking what reinforcements were necessary, and, sadly, we're right back where we started. Fortunately, thanks to Castan and Marquinhos, central defense is no longer an issue, at least in terms of starters.

However, if you're new to the club, you're probably not familiar with the cast of characters who've graced the stage as Roman fullbacks. And believe me, there's been a lot of them: Italians, Norwegians, Spaniards, Argentines, Brazilians, old, young, Willem Dafoe lookalikes and perhaps our future manager. While Balzaretti and Dodo remain under contract, one is aging and the other is not yet ready for primetime, so Baldini or Sabatini, or whoever is sick enough to join this front office, will probably bring in at least one nominal fullback.

Conceding 1.47 goals per match, third worst in Serie A, Roma's defense was a product of its offense, though victim is probably the more accurate term. Roma's defenders were under heavy pressure this season, often being over extended, outnumbered and subject to counter attacks. Having said that, Roma's defenders, particularly the duo of Castan and Marquinhos, availed themselves relatively well, showing the spacing, timing and anticipation necessary for success in any defensive framework.

But, as with all things Roman, we'll continue to expect the worst and hope for the best.

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