Believe it or not, calcio returns this weekend, and the team known as AS Roma has an actual competitive match. No foolin'. Whether it was due to Roma's inconsistent play leading up to the break or simply the diminishing hours of daylight (depending on your present hemispheric location), this international break seemed particularly long. The news was short and the boredom interminable, so win lose or draw, let's all rejoice that Roma is back.
Just in case you'd forgotten, Roma limped into the break alternating wins and losses with Sampdoria, Roma, BATE Borisov and Palermo, Roma's final opponent before the international break. While we may have oversold the significance of that victory, Roma's offense, led by Gervinho, was as productive as we'd seen in weeks.
However, as is often the case, breaks from club play tend to sap any and all fluidity from an offense, a point of constant concern for the Giallorossi this season. I'd say the schedule makers did Roma a favor by gifting them a home match against lowly Empoli to jumpstart their run through the fall, but you know how that goes.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at Italy's 14th place squad
Easing Back In With Empoli
Empoli's second season back in the top flight hasn't exactly been flush with success. Marco Giampolo's side has struggled mightily through the season's first seven weeks. With a -4 goal differential, the Azzurri (not that kind) have been spared the ignominy of being the league's worst side thanks to the trials and tribulations of first timers Frosinone and Carpi, who, in all likelihood, should help Empoli survive the drop for another year.
Despite their spot on the table, Empoli has fared pretty well in several offensive categories, landing among the top ten in shots per match, chances created and possession, while falling just shy in goals scored. However, peel back a couple of layers and Empoli's true weakness is revealed; they're woefully inefficient. Collectively speaking, Empoli puts only 37% of their shots on target (17th in the league) and converts about 10% of their shots into goals, which, though only two to three points behind the league leader, may be their true undoing.
It's an odd mix in many ways. Despite a lack of discernable/viable attacking talent, Empoli's offensive cohesion has, in some respects, made them one of the league's better attacking sides, but more often than not, that build up goes for naught as chance after chance is squandered—they are, for all intents and purposes, a proportionally disadvantaged version of Roma.
Speaking of which...
Is Roma Ready?
All things considered, Roma's international break was pretty productive. Alessandro Florenzi played the role of hero earlier this week, scoring a goal and setting up another in Italy's victory over Norway, clinching the top spot in the Euro 2016 qualifying group in the process, Seydou Keita, Gervinho and Mohamed Salah all garnered African Player of the Year nominations, while Edin Dzeko managed to nurse himself back to health and should at least be on the bench Saturday against Empoli.
Dzeko's return, even if he can't make it 90 minutes, is a welcomed development and should spare us the sight of a Salah-Gervinho-Iturbe/Falque frontline, though the 4-4-1-1 Rudi Garcia utilized against Palermo was intriguing for no other reason that it brought Alessandro Florenzi further up the pitch, supporting Salah. Florenzi, as we all know, is a remarkably effective offensive player, where his intuition and off-the-ball skills are brought to the fore, a point reinforced by Antonio Conte earlier this week, so there may be a silver lining to that formation.
However, with even a shred of doubt hovering over Dzeko's health, Roma would be wise to err on the side of caution. Combine those concerns with Garcia's aversion towards playing non-French youth, and we may very well see the Salah-Gervinho tandem up front once more.
And that's really the long and short of it from Roma's perspective; a two week absence hasn't really conjured any new tactical developments nor allayed our long standing concerns. Coming off a two-week break, now more than ever, Roma needs a consistent 90 minute effort, one in which they keep Empoli back on their heels from the word go—no relenting, no pointless possession and no passive movement. They simply need to seize the initiative and assert their dominance over Empoli.
Anything less and we're back at square one.