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EDF’s Roma: Masters of Attacking Space

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Roma wasn’t perfect on Sunday, put their work in the final third was damn near flawless.

ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

While Gerson earned the majority of the plaudits from Roma’s 4-2 victory over Fiorentina last weekend, he was merely the tip of a much larger and intelligent iceberg that sank the Viola. Eusebio Di Francesco’s attack was succinct and synchronous on Sunday, mastering and manipulating the space in the attacking third, providing several creative outlets on any given run of play, keeping the Fiorentina defense at sixes and sevens all evening.

If you peel back the numbers on this victory, something strange stands out: Roma’s overall passing was some six percentage points below its normal league rate (85%), yet they amassed an impressive 21 shots and 16 chances created, both of which exceeded their per match figures. With their passing precision waning, it was somewhat odd that they were able to create scoring chances seemingly at will. So what gives?

Well, quite simply, Roma focused on the transition game; harrying the Viola every time they touched the ball, particularly in and around the midfield, before unleashing a bevy of delicious give and gos and switches of play that enabled Roma to shift and move the Viola defense as they pleased, creating scoring/passing channels you could drive a bus through.

Our first illustrative example involves Gerson, Radja Nainggolan and Stephan El Shaarawy.

Not seen in the clip was the initial defensive work by Gerson, who, in part, forced the turnover that eventually found it’s way to Nainggolan. From there, Nainiggolan ripped off a quick diagonal pass to El Shaarawy at the point of the 18-yard-box, covering some 20 yards in the blink of an eye, instantly shifting the point of attack.

Now here is the subtle, yet oh so beautiful part of that play

Three defenders focused on SES

I’m not sure why I put the circles, I mean, you can see it, but that image sort of tells it all, doesn’t it? As El Shaarawy wrangles in Nainggolan’s pass, he absorbs the attention of five defenders, forcing two to abandon their position to close out the space, while keeping a third caught flat footed between he and Gerson.

The combination of Nainggolan’s quick pass, SES’s movement inwards, and Gerson tracking along on the right flank created a cavernous opening through which El Shaarawy was able to find Gerson for the goal. And it was all a product of quick passing and decision making that enabled Roma to manipulate Fiorentina’s defensive shape. Aaand, take yet another look and SES playing Dzeko through the middle becomes yet another option on this play.

But check this out, the perfection of this play doesn’t end there.

Dzeko was open, too!

Much like this play created two outlet options for El Shaarawy after he received the ball from Nainggolan—Dzeko through the middle and Gerson on the right—Gerson actually had the option to play it across the face of goal for Dzeko on the far post, and while it’s tough to tell from that angle just how easy the pass would have been, it’s further evidence to how crisp and succinct EDFs attack was on this run of play, and how, through their space and positioning, they were able to create multiple outlets/chances on one single play.

While goals are great and obviously the point of this thing we call football, there is beauty in build-ups that don’t ultimately pay off.

It’s a shame this sequence didn’t pay off because it was the stuff of wet dreams. Similar to the play above, this one started off with Nainggolan and El Shaarawy quickly transitioning from the neutral zone to the attacking third with quick, measured passes. The biggest difference with this one was the overlapping run made by Aleksandar Kolarov.

With El Shaarawy feigning to his right, forcing the Viola defender to hesitate ever so slightly, Kolarov had just enough time to advance into open space. Rather than making a run for the endline or stopping the ball to regroup, Kolarov played a virtual one-timer to the semicircle atop the 18-yard-box (what the hell is that thing called anyway?) where he found Lorenzo Pellegrini completely unmarked.

And that’s only the surface of this play. Watch as El Shaarawy and Kolarov work this overlap and you’ll see four Viola defenders tracking back, their attention firmly fixed to their left, giving Pellegrini a roughly 10 meter sphere of free space in the middle of the final third. While it didn’t ultimately result in a goal—though looking at that now, had he laid it off to Gerson on the right or even chipped it over the top to Dzeko, Sportiello wouldn’t have been in as great a position—it was another example of EDFs tactical approach yesterday; use your positioning, pace and passing to create advantages in space.

This next one shows the same philosophy—quick passing and synchronous movement designed to shift the focus of the defense—through the middle rather than on the wings.

This one actually started a bit deeper in Roma territory with an Alessandro Florenzi pass, but mamma mia, look at that give and go between Maxime Gonalons and El Shaarawy. After taking the ball from Florenzi deep in Roma territory, Gonalons dribbled towards midfield where he found El Shaarawy charging right at him to facilitate this quick bit of passing.

The speed with which Gonalons ran through the center channel after laying off the ball, and the perfect weight with which he laid it off to Gerson, are one among the many reasons people are clamoring for the Frenchman to get more playing time. But you’ll notice how he drives straight through the heart of the defense, keeping the left-back focused on him, to the point where he’s twisting, turning and even back peddling, trying to guess what Gonalons was going to do with the ball—had he laid it off too soon the defense would have closed down on Gerson, too long and all this excellent build up play would have gone for naught.

From start to finish this was a textbook give and go. It was quick, incisive and impeccably timed, giving the Fiorentina defense no time whatsoever to cut it off at it’s choke point, and drawing in the defense just enough to put the leftback in a precarious position, giving Gerson enough time and space on the right flank to place a pinpoint shot inside the near post.

Roma’s 4-2 victory over Fiorentina wasn’t quite the cakewalk it seemed—Fiorentina had 19 shots and 12 chances created of their own—but it was one for EDF’s CV. The ease with which Roma was able to create numbers in space was mind boggling. On each and everyone of these examples, Roma’s ball carrier had multiple outlets to create and exploit attacking space, in some instances literally twisting the Viola defense in the process.

If nothing else, this match was an indication that Di Francesco’s tactics are being internalized and deployed with greater efficiency and efficacy with each passing week. With more time and less ligament damage, his attack could be unstoppable.