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Dzeko's Passing and Holdup Play Key to Roma's Success

While he hasn't been scoring at the rate we all assumed, that doesn't mean Edin Dzeko isn't helping Roma's attack. Through his hold play and passing, Dzeko is enabling Roma's other forwards to thrive.

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

When Roma finally managed to land Edin Dzeko from Manchester City this summer, our minds all naturally wandered towards the hordes of goals he'd collect for the Giallorossi this season. After all, that's how he made his name with Wolfsburg and City, for whom he'd scored a collective 157 goals, so you would have been forgiven if you'd guessed he'd have at least a half dozen by now.

But this piece isn't a dissection of how or why Dzeko isn't scoring, no, it's a look at how his lack of scoring--or more aptly, the other roles he assumes--are enabling Roma's other forwards to thrive and score at their leisure.

Normally you'd expect Dzeko to be the focal point of the attack, the man to whom all crosses and through balls went, shifting, sliding and bullying his way towards the six where he'd be free to feast upon shots. This was certainly the case against Juventus earlier this season, Dzeko's finest statistical day in a Roma shirt. In Roma's 2-1 victory, Dzeko took 43 touches, ripped off five shots and scored the eventual match winner. His presence alone seemed to transform Roma's once punchless attack.

If that was a harbinger of things to come, good god, the Bosnian Batistuta would have been on pace to crack 30 goals this season. However, thanks to his own injuries and the emergence of Mohamed Salah and Gervinho, Dzeko has been forced to make an impact in a more benign manner.

Using his massive frame and surprisingly deft touch, Dzeko has, at many points throughout this season, served as a remarkably effective shield for Roma's attack, buying precious time for Roma's wide players to advance up the pitch, and creating space on the fringes by drawing defensive attention inwards, be it at the edge of the area or deeper in midfield. Either way, this more passive role has been a boon to the performances (and statistics) of Salah, Gervinho and even Lucas Digne.

Never was this more apparent than on Sunday's 2-1 victory over Fiorentina, a match in which Dzeko took 53 touches yet had only one shot. Compare those figures to his other standout performance of the season, against Juventus, and you can see how, despite the lack of attempts on goal, Dzeko was actually more involved in Roma's run of play. And while I wouldn't say he necessarily left a greater imprint—he's paid to score goals, after all—one cannot discount the enormous impact he's been having in this, shall we say, decoy role.

To get a picture of just how far removed Dzeko was from the goal, take a look at his heat map from the Fiorentina match:

Dzeko HM

What jumps out at you immediately? The mass of touches on the wings, right? A full 26% of his touches came on the left flank alone, a significant portion of which came in the middle third of the pitch, far, far removed from the Viola goal.

I won't take up anymore of your precious screen space with the heatmap from the Juve match, but suffice it to say, they couldn't be any more different; Dzeko was firmly planted Old Lady's box that night (innuendo definitely intended), serving as the end point for Roma's build up play rather than the progenitor.

So what exactly was Dzeko doing in the midfield today?

Holding up play and passing, that's what. In fact, Dzeko was nearly Roma's busiest passer yesterday, shuffling the ball along 35 times, trailing only Wojciech Szczesny and Miralem Pjanic, respectively, but the value rested not simply in the fact that he was passing, but rather to whom he was passing.

Dzeko and Szczesny teamed up 10 times, the busiest Roma combo on the field. In each instance, Dzeko was taking a long ball directly from Woj, usually receiving the pass 35-45 yards away from Fiorentina's goal, indicating an explicit attempt to play the long ball, extend the Viola defense, and hold up play so Roma's wide players could advance and exploit the newfound space on the flank.

However, simply settling the ball and turning your back isn't enough to make this work, you have to make quick and incisive passes, otherwise all that new found time and space goes to waste. Fortunately, that's just what Dzeko did, teaming up with Gervinho, Salah, Digne and Alessandro Florenzi on 12 separate occasions.

His work with Gervinho was particularly effective:


As you can see, Dzeko connected with The Predator six times, two thirds of which were long, diagonal passes meant to spring Gervinho down the right flank. Again, none of these lead directly to goals, but Dzeko's ability to cradle a long pass, shield the defender and make quick and purposeful passes was on full display, and was complicit in Roma's success against Fiorentina. Dzeko's strength on the ball was also evident in this withdrawn role, as he actually had two successful dribbles in the middle of the park.

Is this what he's being paid €4.5 million a year for? Of course not, and it's far from the best use of his talents, but it is a rather unheralded part of his game that allows him to contribute when the ball isn't coming his way in the penalty area.

Much has been made of how Edin Dzeko could have and should have transformed the way Roma played, which may yet prove true, but to date, he's playing a similar role to any of the other strikers during the Garcia regime, but his intelligence, physical presence, poise and commitment to doing the dirty work has allowed him to thrive where others failed.

While that's all well and good, let's get back to scoring goals, Edin, shall we?

Heatmap via

Passing diagram via