A.S. Roma inched closer toward the ‘Pseudo Scudetto’ with a 4-1 dismantling of A.C. Milan this past Sunday. Roma’s attacking players have deservedly received much praise for their performances. However, Luciano Spalletti is entitled to just as much credit insofar as his nullification of Milan’s attack allowed Roma’s front four to shine.
Milan 4-3-3: Donnarumma//De Sciglio, Paletta, Zapata, Vangioni//Mati, Sosa, Pasalic//Suso, Lapadula, Deulofeu
Roma: 4-2-3-1: Szczesny//Emerson, Manolas, Fazio, J. Jesus//Paredes, De Rossi//Salah, Nainggolan, Perotti//Dzeko
Roma legend Vincenzo Montella has seldom varied his tactical approach during his first season in charge of A.C. Milan. L'Aeroplanino sets up his squad to build up from the back, transition to the wings, then play the ball centrally or shift play when faced with numerical equality or inferiority. Roma boss Luciano Spalletti anticipated Montella’s game plan; sending the giallorossi out in a high man-press from kick-off. While Edin Dzeko danced between Milan’s center-backs, Mohamed Salah and Diego Perotti supported him by closing down De Sciglio and Vangioni. Salah and Perotti were also responsible for cutting off passing lanes to Milan’s outside central midfielders. Thereby allowing Radja Nainggolan to man-mark Sosa as well as ensuring Leandro Paredes and Daniele De Rossi were able to protect the high defensive line. By implementing this scheme Spalletti disrupted Milan’s buildup play while achieving numerical superiority (4-v-3) in the defensive third:
Predictably, Milan often deployed a 4-1-4-1 mid-block when Roma initiated the transition phase. Roma counteracted the rossoneri’s approach by playing early balls to Dzeko and Salah, then counter-pressing to win second balls:
Counter-pressing their way to a goal in the 7th minute motivated Roma to become increasingly reliant upon a 4-3-3 mid-block. With time on the ball, Zapata frequently initiated transitions by finding Deulofeu in the space between Salah and Emerson. Deulofeu proceeded to carry the ball into central areas before spraying passes to the opposite flank:
Milan hoped to isolate Juan Jesus and drag Federico Fazio away from Lapadula. However, Perotti’s man-marking of De Sciglio in conjunction with De Rossi’s ability to recover quickly were integral in thwarting Montella’s plans.
After doubling their lead in the 27th minute Roma would shift from a 4-2-3-1 mid-block to a 4-5-1 low-block as Milan’s center-backs advanced with the ball. Negating the space behind Salah confined Deulofeu to narrow channels near the touchline. The mercurial Spaniard found switching the play more challenging as a result, hence concentrating his efforts on getting the better of Paredes and Emerson to no avail:
Milan 4-3-3: Donnarumma//De Sciglio, Paletta, Zapata, Vangioni (Ocampos 68)//Pasalic, Sosa, Bertolacci (46)//Deulofeu, Lapadula, Suso
Roma 4-2-3-1: Szczesny//Emerson, Manolas, Fazio, J. Jesus//Paredes, De Rossi//Perotti (El Shaarawy 59), Nainggolan (Grenier 70), Salah//Dzeko (Peres 83)
Going into the second-half up 2-0 prompted Spalletti to remain steadfast in his conservatism. Roma were content to defend in a 4-4-2 mid-block morphing into a 4-4-1-1 when Sosa moved into the Giallorossi’s half. Montella’s commitment to his philosophy was also evident straight from kick-off. Zapata began the attack by linking up with Suso, who now occupied Deulofeu’s position on the left-wing. While Suso was receiving the ball and bursting through Salah and Emerson, Deulofeu moved into the central area in front of De Rossi. Given that De Rossi was responsible for discouraging balls over the top to Lapadula, he could not fully commit to closing down Deulofeu after the latter received the ball. Since Paredes was a tad too late stepping out of defence to prevent Deulofeu’s ball to Bertolacci, Deulofeu received the ball back in Roma’s penalty area after moving into the space behind Emerson. But, Spalletti clearly prepared his players for this as well. De Rossi joined the back line by the time Deulofeu regained possession. Enabling Manolas and Emerson to double-team Deulofeu, snuffing out Milan’s attack:
During the first 15 minutes of the second-half Roma continued to launch attacks via Dzeko and Salah, however, a two-goal cushion also meant they recycled possession when clear opportunities to bring either into play did not arise. Roma’s attacking prowess was also diminished by Milan’s willingness to press and counter-press. It is fair to say Milan were on the front foot more often than not throughout this period. Nevertheless, their inability find the back of the net benefitted Roma in that the expenditure of energy necessitated by Montella’s instructions contributed to Milan’s susceptibility to counter-attacks latter in the half.
Montella implemented a 3-4-3 diamond prior to replacing Leonel Vangioni with Lucas Ocampos in the 68th minute. His partiality to generating attacks out wide gave way in favor of transitions in central areas through Suso who operated at the tip of the diamond. De Rossi and Paredes exerted pressure on the Spaniard while simultaneously covering the half-spaces behind them. Consequently, Milan were now forced to play near the touchline against their will:
Spalletti’s first and only misstep occurred as Milan employed a 3-5-2 (or 3-5-1-1). Roma defended higher up the pitch again, alternating between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 in order to pressure Milan’s center-backs. This allowed Milan to bypass the midfield, sending early balls to Deulofeu on the right. Fortunately, Paredes and El Shaarawy ultimately did their part for the team by supporting JJ. Preventing more 1-v-1 duels between Deulofeu and the Brazilian left-back.
Adherence to Montella’s principles paid off for the home side in 75th minute. At 2-1 the game became more open. Pressing, counter-pressing, and direct attacking play on behalf of each team culminated in enthralling end-to-end action until Stephan El Shaarawy broke Milan hearts in 77th minute. To their credit Montella’s men still pressed with intensity after Il Faraone restored Roma’s two-goal lead. Lapadula and the teammate closest to him would rush toward Roma’s center-backs as the majority of Milan’s midfielders pressed ball side in behind them. Switching to a three-man back line upon Bruno Peres’ inclusion in the 83rd minute added width and provided a spare man to Roma’s buildup play. Spalletti’s final adjustment helped his players avoid turnovers in their own half, and played a causal role in Roma’s fourth goal.
Key Moment: Edin Dzeko’s Goal in the 7th Minute
Even though Roma pressed effectively in the opening minutes of the match, opposing teams are usually able to adjust to this tactic as games progress. Dzeko’s early goal deprived A.C. Milan of such an opportunity. Roma were then able to secure three points by getting behind the ball, containing Deulofeu, and counterattacking effectively for the majority of the remaining 83 minutes.
Man of the Match: Edin Dzeko
Even if he had not directly contributed to three of Roma’s four goals, Dzeko would have been a strong candidate for Man of the Match. The Bosnian put in one of his most complete performances as a Roma player on Sunday. His hold-up play facilitated swift transitions, and he linked up very well with his fellow attackers. Dzeko deserves praise for his defensive contributions as well. He pressed, retreated, and covered for teammates who were out of position nearly every time he was required to.