If it feels like we spend an inordinate amount of time around here discussing and pulling apart the performances of Miralem Pjanic, you're correct. However, if you know anything about this team, there is a very good reason for the constant dissection; apart from Francesco Totti, there may be no player as important to Roma's movement, spacing and effectiveness as Pjanic.
Through the season's first two months, Pjanic has amassed nearly 800 minutes in all competitions, second only to Radja Nainggolan, but this isn't an analysis of what makes Pjanic so good and how teams can stop him. No, this is merely a question of how Roma can maximize Pjanic's performances this season and, quite simply, how they can help him survive.
Totti & Miralem: Making It Work
When Pjanic is at his best, he's given room to roam, not only serving as a deep lying play maker, but moving forward to both fill in the gaps and augment the positioning and movement of Totti; ducking and darting, probing for space to work with Totti to unlock defenses. Granted we're only eight weeks into the season, so we can't make any definitive claims about Garcia's tactial deployment of these two, but take a look at Pjanic's finest performance of the season, opening day against Fiorentina
First, as is Roman law, we'll take a look at how Totti operated this afternoon.
Notice how Totti totally avoided the middle channels in this match, instead choosing to make his mark on the extreme right flank. This wasn't a vintage Totti performance--he created only one scoring chance--but he threatened the goal twice and completed 78% of his passes, a touch higher than his season average.
Now, look what happens when we overlay Pjanic's heat map onto Totti's. Notice how Pjanic both filled in the gaps where Totti wasn't and worked in tandem with him, particulary on the right flank, where Pjanic pushed in closer to the edge of the area. The two linked up 10 times this evening, pushing and pulling the defense apart, finding seams to create for one another.
Pull Pjanic's map apart from Tottis and you'd see that he covered a large swath of the pitch, including hot areas deep in Roma's defensive third all the way up to Fiorentina's penalty area. Pjanic was a beast that afternoon, completing 92% of his passes, creating five scoring chances and pulling off five successful dribbles. Pretty simple stuff, Roma dominated the midfield and was able to pick and choose their chances and dictate the flow of the match largely because of Totti and Pjanic's complimentary and contrasting movement and touches.
Now, let's take a look at the flip side of the coin, when opponents keep Totti and Pjanic pinned close together. Rather than allowing them time and space to mirror and complement one another, slipping into channels and exploiting open areas in the attacking third, this particular team used that bond against them.
We're speaking, of course, about the Juventus match
As you can see, there was no real rhyme or reason to Totti's movements against the Old Lady; he simply wasn't able to establish a foothold anywhere on the pitch, creating only one chance and taking one shot on goal, though he did complete 83% of his passes.
Once again, we have Pjanic's heat map overlaid with Totti's. Unlike against the Viola, where Pjanic filled in the gaps left by Totti and provided an effective attacking partner, the results from this mashup are a bit less conclusive. Notice how Pjanic occupied nearly the same exact space as Totti, though with a heavier concentration of touches.
Instead of cutting the chain between them, Juve flipped the script, essentially corralling them like loose cattle. Pjanic simply couldn't create or find any effective space where he and Totti could work one-twos; by keeping them in the same confined space, Juventus rendered Roma's two most effective playmakers useless, limiting them to six passing combos; a tactic used to even greater effectiveness by Bayern Munich, so I'll spare you the replay of that one.
In a sense, Juve and Bayern placed Totti and Pjanic in a bubble, keeping them uncomfortably close to one another, allowing movement in the broader sense, but denying them any chance to spring off one another, deflating Roma's momentum and removing any sense of intuition from Garcia's offense. Both players are so important, yet neither of them can do it alone, so when you remove both of them from the equation, trouble ensues. Big trouble.
What Can Be Done?
We can (and have) picked out performances like this over the past few years, so it's really no secret what makes Roma tick; creative freedom afforded to Totti and Pjanic, the real pistons in Roma's engine. They need room to roam, the ability to follow and feed off one another and the time to find and exploit passing/shooting lanes. The trouble, as we just discussed, comes when defenses are able to hem the two in; giving them space to move, but not space to create, and particularly not with eachother; a problem made worse when Totti is dropping deeper on the pitch with the defense countering by setting up a deeper shell of its own, then their movement and passing is completely confined to neutral areas of the pitch, only to slam against that deeper coverage when they do manage to advance up the field.
Tactically speaking, there are a multitude of options, most of which revolve around inserting Mattia Destro into the lineup for a more direct threat, either through a total formation change or simply pushing Totti out wide. Neither is perfect, of course, as Totti is still the prime mover here, but might there be another, less controversial factor at play here?
How about simple fitness?
Pjanic has always been, with the exception of Zeman's tenure, one of Roma's most heavily utilized players, while Totti's 38-year-old knees are among the most monitored on the planet. Teams will always scheme against Pjanic, there's nothing anyone can do about that, while Totti is looking more like a 60 minute player as the weeks roll by, so rather than a complete tactical overhaul, can Roma mitigate the fluctuations of this pairing by giving them a breather?
So, the question we're left to ask is simply this: where is Salih Uçan? Roma's Turkish sensation is reputed to be a slightly taller, slightly more explosive version of Pjanic, so what gives? Outside of a spot appearance against Chievo, little has been seen from Uçan. Using Uçan in the Pjanic role and resting Totti, a Roma lineup with Uçan, Destro, Gervinho, Juan Iturbe and Alessandro Florenzi and/or Adem Ljajic is just as dangerous and, one could argue, more athletic than Roma's nominal starting lineup.
There is nothing Roma can do about teams keying on Pjanic, but giving him some rest and some time to reflect on his game should ease the pressure off Roma's second offensive pillar. A failure to do so could derail the entire season.
graphics via squawka.com