[Editor's note: We've been fortunate enough to experience some decent growth here at CdT over the past year or so, and while I cannot be more thankful for all the help I receive from Jonas, Sam, Dhaw, Masonio and NANF, believe me, this labor of love can sometimes be just that; laborious. Over the coming weeks and months, we plan on expanding our team here; writers, graphic artists, in house hypnotherapists, you name it. First up in our new additions/auditions is loyal CdT reader/commenter, Zachbquick, who offers a look at Roma's contrasting performances in their first two meetings with The Viola. So give it a look and welcome Zachbquick, aka, ZBQ, to the CdT crew]
Last week our beloved Giallorossi played their first return leg against Vincenzo Montella's Fiorentina. Times have certainly changed since our first game of the season, where everything was sunshine and Gervinhos. The scoreline was only 2-0 in our favor but it felt like so much more. Roma dominated Fiorentina that day and made many of us believe that this was Roma's year.
We came out of the gates blazing, but since then haven't looked like half the team we were last year. Some say it was the Bayern game, others contend that we lost a crucial piece in Benatia, and still others remind us that we lost the crucial-est piece in one Rodrigo Taddei. (That last theory would actually explain why Roma played so well in their first game against La Viola and have been mediocre ever since.)
While it is tempting to chalk Roma's dip (nosedive?) in form up to Taddei's exit, I thought I'd try and dig a little deeper. I rewatched both the Roma-Fiorentina fixtures from this season; Roma's 2-0 victory from August and last month's 1-1 draw. I wanted to see why Roma looked like world beaters but a few months ago, and now depend on horrible referee decisions to keep Empoli at bay. Here's what stood out to me
Speed and Build-Up
In our first game against Fiorentina the build up was something out of Luis Enrique's wet dream. Everything started from the back. Morgan De Sanctis did not once, to my recollection, punt the ball in the entire first half. Also, Kostas Manolas and Davide Astori didn't have to lift a finger because one Daniele De Rossi ran the show all by himself in front of the back four.
How you ask? Because Fiorentina let him. Not only didn't they man-mark him, they came no where near him. Fiorentina were too busy keeping a deep line to press that high up the pitch.
At first I wondered how Vincenzo could make such a rookie mistake as to let DDR do as he pleased. Then I realized that Roma had Gervinho and Iturbe up front. A high line would have been cut to shreds if Francesco Totti or Miralem Pjanic was allowed to pass to either of those roadrunners in space. Fiorentina decided that the lesser of two evils was to defend deep and see what Roma could do...
And that turned out to be plenty. DDR bounced passes off Radja and Miralem or spread the play out to the fullbacks. This uncontested distribution allowed Roma very far up the pitch, to the point where their defensive line stationed themselves at the halfway line. From here Roma either worked one two's in the center or they tried to overload Fiorentina quickly on the flanks and release a winger, a fullback or even a Totti to the byline for a dangerous cut back. Fiorentina had nowhere to run.
Roma wasted a few chances but the goal eventually came when Radja Nainggolan played Vinho in on the left with a deft pass. Vinho's shot was saved but Radja followed up with a nice volley and you probably remember the rest. The game continued on much like this, with only 1 other goal to show for it but about 20 chances in total. Roma came, saw and conquered.
Montella's More Proactive Approach
Now compare that with our game from last week. Fiorentina pressed us like a panini. DDR was evicted from his property and thus nowhere to be found in our play.
I don't think Fiorentina played this way simply because Roma were without Gervinho; I think Montella's men were simply more confident this time around and wanted to take the game to the slumping Lupi. But, having no Gervinho certainly hurt Roma all the same. Several times Totti dropped deep and sent a through ball to either Iturbe or Holebas to try and punish Fiorentina's high line, but neither player could make use of Totti's efforts. The few times a Totti pass found a runner he was either dispossessed immediately or manipulated into running his way into a corner. Roma didn't create a single good chance the entire half and Fiorentina dominated, grabbing a goal through Gomez redirecting Pizarro's long-range effort.
The game's second half was especially telling in my mind. Roma switched to a 4-3-1-2 and Iturbe found himself in a more central position, as a second striker of sorts. Roma's only goal came when Totti found Iturbe running behind Fiorentina's defense. Juan did well to control the ball and cut back to Adem Ljajic, who made no mistake. See the pattern? As soon as Iturbe made himself a threat by making dangerous runs in behind, Roma capitalized.
Roma dominated Fiorentina in the home fixture because Fiorentina allowed them to do what they wanted with the ball. They did this because they were afraid of being exploited by one of Roma's speedy wingers. In the away fixture Fiorentina dominated by pressing until Iturbe finally made himself a threat in behind, just like Fiorentina were terrified of in the home fixture.
Whether or not you dig Rudi's preferred footballing paradigm, we can all agree that it centers on a short-passing game. We all get frustrated when the passing seems to go nowhere and then we lose the ball. But that's what makes the speedy french-speaking gentlemen, as Dhaw would put it, so important. They keep the other team's defense honest. They're like the three point shooters that space the floor for the Lebron James's of the NBA. If you press our midfield, then you have to play a high line. If you play a high line, then there is space for runners like Gervinho to sprint into and make a meal of. The only option then is to not press, and we see how that turned out for Fiorentina in the first game of the season. Roma's barcelona impression wreaked havoc. Those crucial runners (or lack there of) are the key to our decline.
Even before Gervinho went to AFCON we didn't look so hot. That's because he is still a tremendously flawed player. He has the pace and touch to get into dangerous positions but still often comes short when it comes to converting his runs into goals or assists. Iturbe is simply an even more exaggerated version of this kind of player. He runs, keeps the ball close to his body and makes simple layoffs. That's it.
I think Garcia may have been on to something when he moved Iturbe centrally in the second Fiorentina game because Juan's a better finisher than Gervinho and it allows Iturbe to make simple cut-backs to players in front of the net, rather than attempt 1-v-1's and get to the byline like Gervinho. Unfortunately with Juan's injury we might not know for a while.
Either way, the Doumbia signing makes a lot of sense when looked at through this paradigm. Not only does he have the pace to run past a high line, he's got the finishing to turn those runs into goals. The fact that we're also possibly going after Ibarbo, yet another speedy goalscorer, further reinforces my point.
Finally, I think there is a point to be made about confidence. It's obviously not all tactics when the team seems reinvigorated in the second half of every game. That is a mystery to me. I'll leave that one to Rudi, but I think management is doing well to address the hole in the team I described.