We touched upon it late Monday evening, but in case you weren't aware, Roma's 44 points through 19 matches is a club record for first half success. What those 44 points masked, however, was a rather decrepit conclusion to the first half of the season; 10 straight wins truncated by five draws in six matches. Fortunately for Roma, they were able to surround the humiliating loss to Juventus with victories over light weights Catania and Genoa.
However, if we're being honest, 44 points out of 57 was probably beyond even the wildest of estimations. Nevertheless, when Roma's rolling right, as the season's first few months proved, there may be no better exponent of the beautiful game's tenets; the synchronicity between Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic, the brute strength of Daniele De Rossi, and the suffocating defense of Mehdi Benatia were a sight to behold.
But it just wouldn't be Roma if there weren't those moments; brief passages of time where you threw your hands up in exasperation, absolutely incredulous at your chosen deity for having damned you with this fate.
So, while we attempt to parse our footballing souls, let's take a look at how Roma can improve in the second half. Yes, a team with 44 points still needs to improve. Napoli, she lurks, after all.
Let's start back-to-front.
Not much to report here, really. Beyond a few head slappers, Morgan De Sanctis has been pretty solid, albeit relatively untested. MDS' 12 clean sheets is tops in Serie A, as are his 10 goals conceded (for starting keepers), so there isn't much room for debate. So, when we look at the next 19 weeks, all we need from MDS is health and focus, because it's all on his shoulders. Furthermore, given that Roma's next Coppa Italia opponent is Juventus; don't count on Garcia using these particular midweek fixtures as grounds for goalkeeper experimentation.
De Sanctis' barely there numbers tell you all you need to know about the Roma defense through 19 matches; they've been a stonewall in front of De Sanctis' sometimes frightful hands. This is ostensibly a numbers piece, so let's have a look at how Benatia and the boys have fared thus far.
Well, as we just saw, De Sanctis, and, by extension, Roma have only conceded 10 goals, 50% of which game in two matches against A.C. Milan and Juventus. Beyond those two matches, Roma's defense has been practically unassailable, as those are the only two matches in which Roma even conceded more than one goal.
As we all know, before you score, you gotta shoot, and that, my friends, is where Roma has truly excelled. Roma's 10.4 shots conceded per match are second only to the Old Lady. As we'll see momentarily, Roma's possession percentage is among the best in the league, making their somewhat lackluster team statistics a natural consequence; if your offense keeps the lion share of he ball, there isn't much opportunity for, or quite frankly, a need for tackling. So, while Roma's 21.2 tackles per match ranks only 14th in the league, in light of their dominance in the passing game, it's somewhat understandable.
However, when we factor in their 17.2 interceptions per match--4th in the league and one of only two teams to rank top 10 on the table and in this particular stat--the true genius to the Roma defense shines through. Roma's defensive acumen is built not upon strength, but rather intuition; an ability to predict when and where the opponent will move the ball, to anticipate and to wipe it out before strength and tenacity even enter the equation. Leading this charge has been Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia, both of whom are tied for seventh in the league in interceptions.
Roma's defense, particular the center pairing, has been resolute through 19 matches.
Standout Performer: Duh
While Leandro Castan remains woefully underpraised, even around here, there can be no other. Roma's best defender, nay, the world's best, has been Mehdi Benatia. For the reasons I stated above, his individual stats won't wow you, but he is top 20 in the league in both interceptions and block shots, while completing 75% of his tackles, which is among the league leaders. So, although he may not have as many opportunities to make tackles, he is clinically efficient when given the chance.
Oh, and there's the simple matter of his club leading five goals. To put that in perspective, Benatia has as many goals as Miroslave Klose and Kaka, while proving more deadly than Francesco Totti, Antonio Di Natale, Marco Sau and Hernanes to name a few.
Benatia has been a revelation for Roma this season, there is simply no other way to describe it.
Room For Improvement
Well, as we just discussed, Castan and Benatia have been the bee's knees, so there is little more we could ask of them, except maybe a few more goals from Castan. Pick it up, Leandro, we're watching.
So that just leaves...fullback. Are you really surprised? While Dodo and Maicon have had some collective hits and misses, there simply has not been enough week-in-week-out reliability from Roma's rear guard. Federico Balzaretti hasn't played since the second week of November, so we won't even include him in the discussion.
I won't bore you with the statistics, but just know that consistency has not been the hallmark of Roma's fullbacks through 19 matches. With Dodo's inexperience, Maicon's conditioning and Balzaretti's simple fitness all up in the air, this is the glaring weakness on this club, one which could be ripe for the picking as we make our way to May.
First Half Analyses
Alessandro Florenzi figured prominently in Roma's first half success. In this piece, we took a look at how he fared under Roma's various managers, focusing on his role and pitch placement.
First Half Analyses
The key to Garcia's success rests in the midfield, and through 19 matches, the men between the boxes have been the best in Serie A. Roma currently paces Italy in passing percentage (86.7%), while trailing only Milan in possession, both team statistics, of course, but largely attributable to the midfield. Using the metrics provided by our friends at WhoScored, Roma joins Juventus and Inter Milan as the only clubs to place two or more midfielders among the league's top 20 players, Miralem Pjanic and Kevin Strootman, respectively.
If we want to pick and choose stats to make Roma look better (and we do), then Roma's midfielders standout even more, at least in terms of their offensive responsibilities. Strootman, Pjanic, and Daniele De Rossi are each among the league's top 20 in average passes per match. While that may not seem like a big deal, Roma is the only club with three midfielders among that particular data set. It's not even the sheer amount of passing that should impress you, it's the precision, as all three players are completing greater than 88% of those passes, with Pjanic and Strootman also ranking among the league's top 20 in key passes per match.
What this all amounts to is essentially this: Roma's midfield has dominated possession, while moving the ball efficiently and effectively. We should also credit Roma's defense for shutting down attacks and shifting the momentum to Pjanic and Co in the first place.
Bulk, precision and effectiveness, what more could you ask from your midfield?
Standout Performer: Kevin Strootman
This was an incredibly close call--Miralem Pjanic has been crucial to Roma's success this year, after all--but The Dutch Jesuus has been transcendent in his first year in Serie A. As we just mentioned, he is in the league's top 20 in total passes and key passes, while completing 89% on the whole. Strootman has four goals and six assists, the latter being tied for second league wide, while his 3.8 tackles per match is tied for seventh in Serie A.
Strootman has been so much more than advertised, he was and is everything this midfield has needed for years, simultaneously easing the defensive pressure off of De Rossi while his passing acumen and off the ball movement afford Pjanic the ability and space to create.
Room For Improvement
Whatever room there may have been was just eradicated by the signing of Radja Nainggolan. Is one new midfielder enough, though? With two weeks left before the close of the winter transfer window that remains to be seen, but it was patently obvious, Rudi Garcia, despite his kind words last week, had little use for Michael Bradley.
As with all positions, all players, and all clubs, consistency is key, and Roma has been quite fortunate in that regard, as many of their midfield charges, particularly DDR and TDJ, have been remarkably stable since week one. While he's arguably the most talented midfielder on the club, if not the league, Pjanic did suffer a few bouts of the blues, particularly in the early days of December. Therein lies the beauty of the Nainggolan signing; he may not be the vice-Pjanic, but he can handle the role in a pinch.
Honestly, that's all it really boils down to, consistency. Roma's midfield has been arguably the best in the league, so we can't really gripe about its performance too much, and the capture of Nainggolan from Cagliari was the perfect complement to an already successful recipe.
Look, Roma is in second place and they've scored a lot of goals, so things have been working quite well, to say the least. How well, you ask?
Roma's 39 goals forced are good for third in the league, though Inter is hot on their trail with 38. Those 39 goals have come on the heels of 15.9 shots per match, good for roughly a 13% conversion rate, which puts them in the same neighborhood as the league's other top scoring sides, Juve, Napoli and Inter. Perhaps because of both the high volume and relative efficiency of those shots, Roma has only been held scoreless on two occasions (one loss, one draw) and has scored two or more goals in 12 of the season's first 19 matches. What's more, the distribution of Roma's goals is pretty remarkable; Roma's leading scorer has only 5 goals, and he's a defender.
As we mentioned in the midfield run down, Roma's 86% passing is second in the league, they've averaged a shade under 12 chances created per match, and they rank top five in both shots-on-target and dribbles per match.
So, all in all, Roma's forward prongs have been accurate and about as efficient as their closest rivals.
Stand Out Performer: Check The URL
While Roma has gotten impressive, and some would say surprising, performances from Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi, while also witnessing the latent rise of Mattia Destro and several Johnny-on-the-spot moments of greatness from Adem Ljajic, the man of the first five months is none other than Francesco Totti.
Through 12 appearances, Totti has managed four goals and seven assists; the latter still leads the club and places him in a four-way tie for first in the league. Totti's 2.2 shots per game is second only to Pjanic on he club, his 3.2 key passes per match is tops for Roma and Serie A, while his 2.2 fouls drawn per match is 10th in the league. Keeping it moving, his 1.4 crosses per match leads the club and lands him seventh in Serie A, while his 0.4 accurate through balls per match also leads the league.
That guy, he's, uh, he's pretty good. Even at 37-years-old, Francesco Totti remains one of the game's greatest figures. He may never have won a Ballon d'Or, but we're witnessing one of the greatest players of this or any generation defy the laws of aging.
Room For Improvement
Listen, I didn't set out to reinvent the wheel here, when we're talking about points of improvement for Roma's offense in the next 19, the primary concern is consistency, especially from Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi.
If you've followed the first five months, you certainly bore witness to many moments when Roma's attack would stifle, spending too much time dancing on the periphery, lacking any direct threat. While it's hard to pinpoint the cause of these brief moments of futility, we can safely assume there is a Totti Correlation at play somewhere in there.
We could also harken back to that goal distribution as a cause for concern. While the spread of those 39 goals has been a surprising and welcomed development, if we want to get pedantic, the lack of a consistently reliable source of goals could be a cause of concern. There is no Edinson Cavani, or Toto on this team, no single player upon whom to rely for goals, someone needs to step up and take the lead.
But that's really a criticism in the smallest sense, so rather than focusing on such small points, let's focus instead on the manner in which Rudi Garcia manages the forward rotation in the season's second half; the minutes and roles given to Totti, Ljajic, Florenzi, Gervinho and Destro will be the true tipping point for the second half. Will Florenzi's golazo be the key to his resurgence? Do you realize that Gervinho has only scored once since September? Does Destro have what it takes to play at a top level each and every week? Can Ljajic continue to stomach a reserve role?
These are the pertinent questions to ask when we think about where Roma might go astray in the second half. The talent is there in spades and Garcia has proven himself to be an offensive minded manager, so, at least in terms of actual tactics, movements and techniques, there isn't much to fret over. It's all there; it's just a matter of shuffling the deck properly.
The Next Nineteen
While Garcia insists that the Scudetto race is still alive and well, let's be honest here, it's not. So, instead of berating Old Ladies for the next five months, Roma must be mindful of Napoli if they want to hang onto that last guaranteed Champions League spot. The Partenopei are heating up at just the right moment, too, winning four of their past six matches, led by Gonzalo Higuain and Dries Mertens. Since the start of December, this duo has accounted for nine goals and four assists. And while many a Hollywood film has cautioned us not to look back, Roma would be well served to keep one eye trained on Napoli between now and May.
Roma is fresh off a record 44 points in 19 matches, so whatever criticism we just drew should be taken with a grain of salt. If, by some miracle, Roma were to repeat their first half success, 88 points has been good enough to capture the Scudetto in each of the past six seasons, dating back to 2006-2007, the year of Inter's absurd 97 point, one loss campaign. While no one is likely to reach such heights this season, it's a safe bet this year's title winner will need at least 84 points, so, while the race isn't technically dead, it's on life support.
For Roma to regain their European stature, the next 19 weeks need to be marked by efficiency and consistency. The insertion of Radja Nainggolan and a healthy Mattia Destro should go a long way in assuring Garcia has enough healthy and happy legs to stave off Napoli once more.
So, stay tuned, I know you will. The next 19 weeks could be glorious.