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How Will Roma Play Under Di Francesco?

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We know it’ll be a 4-3-3, but what’s unique about EDF’s approach?

US Sassuolo v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

Throughout much of this past season, Eusebio Di Francesco has been touted as the most viable replacement for Luciano Spalletti. The 47-year old’s history with A.S. Roma suggests he will not be overawed by the immense pressure brought on by managing the capital’s most widely supported club, while his youth and exciting brand of football allow supporters to dream of bright future under his leadership.

Di Francesco’s attack-minded tactical approach can be traced back to his tenure as a Roma player. The Pescara native spent his first two seasons as a giallorosso absorbing Zdeněk Zeman’s idiosyncratic, ultra-offensive philosophy. Zeman’s tutelage has clearly left an indelible mark on the newly appointed Roma boss. Like his mentor, Di Francesco is a devoted practitioner of the fluid 4-3-3, even going so far as to claim he never works on alternatives to this system in training. Each manager’s implementation of this formation demands physicality, athleticism, stamina, and sharpness from players in order to produce cohesive play on both sides of the ball. Both insist upon direct, vertical attacking actions in which full-backs and central midfielders support a narrow front three to stretch the opposition and achieve numerical superiority in central attacking areas. Furthermore, teacher and pupil have also been known to counter-press using ball side overloads to reclaim possession and disrupt opponent’s buildup play.

Despite their similarities, EDF is far from Zeman 2.0. Although the Czech’s 2-2-6 attacking formation has generated some enthralling football over the years, I would hesitate to it use in a game of Pro Evolution, let alone an actual football match. Thankfully, Di Francesco shares my cynicism in this regard. For unlike Zeman, he consistently protects his center-backs by having his regista shield them and/or instructing one of his full-backs to join them in a back three. His side is also less likely to be exploited on the flanks via counters, since his full-backs typically do not merge with the forward line. Another crucial distinction between the two lies in their divergent views about pressing. Zeman-led teams seem to press in perpetuity, whereas Di Francesco has adopted a more practical approach. The former Sassuolo manager acknowledged this contrast during a 2015 interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, stating that; “For Zdenek, the opponents have to be attacked at all times, no matter what the circumstances… I believe that at certain times, a team shouldn’t try to dispossess the opposition. That’s the difference.”

EDF’s Philosophy in Focus:

Offensive Strategy:

When building from the back, Di Francesco’s teams maintain balance and reflect his understanding of the simple geometry of football. As illustrated below, his center-backs are usually protected by the regista and one of the full-backs during the buildup phase:

By instructing a full-back and a wing to hug the touchline, he establishes width as well as crucial links between defense, midfield, and attack. Notice how each player may triangulate in situations of numerical superiority against the oft-used 4-4-2 defensive block:

Positioning his players in this manner facilitates direct transitions into central areas, since wide players are able to move into gaps between the lines:

Players are expected to co-ordinate their movements as play progresses to the attacking third, triangulating in order support one another and create overloads:


When his wingers receive the ball in advanced positions, the manager wants them to take on their marker as the remaining attacking players head toward the first and second posts with the inside midfielders slotting in behind them, thus generating a 5-v-4 against the opponent’s backline. This provides the ball carrier with multiple options. He may shoot from distance after dribbling his man, play a through ball to 9 at the near post, send it over the top to 11 at the far post, or pass to one of the inside midfielders before embarking on goalward run of his own:

If his attacking trident includes an out-and-out striker, the number 9 can act as a target-man. With the left-wing forward (11) tucking in to make himself available for a layoff, 9 is able to quickly release the ball prior to rejoining 7 in the forward line:

Given that the ball side inside midfielder (10) also positions himself near the 18-yard box, numerical equality is achieved in and around the penalty area. Thus, 11 can help produce a goal-scoring opportunity by slipping the ball between 3 and 5 to 9, or chipping the ball to 10 or 7:

Naturally, it is much more difficult to thread passes through a horizontally compact midfield. Di Francesco has demonstrated the ability to prepare his players well in anticipation of such circumstances, readying them to initiate transitions in wide areas while still attaining the depth required to exert pressure on the back line. In the example below, the left-back plays a one-two with 11 shortly after receiving a pass form 6. Consequently, 3 extricates himself from the opposing right-back (1) while 7, 9, and 10 ought to be able to find space amongst an equal number of defenders (2):

Defensive Strategy:

Coaches often set up their defense to safeguard against attacks taking place in the same areas of the pitch their team tries to exploit when in possession. This is certainly true of Eusebio Di Francesco. In his view, offensive maneuvers emanating from central zones are more likely to result in goals than those originating from the flanks. Thus, discouraging the opposition from working the ball through the middle is his main priority in the defensive phase.

EDF usually wants his squad to press as the opposing team begins their buildup phase. Versus four-man defenses the ball side wing drops into midfield to exert pressure on the corresponding full-back whilst his fellow attackers hound the center-backs. Each player orients his body such that their chests face the near touchline. As a result, 5’s best bet is to pass to 3. However, 3’s value as an outlet is diminished due to the left-wing forward’s proximity to him in conjunction with his application of cover shadow on 10. Therefore, white may only make forward progress via the left flank:

As previously stated, Di Francesco will permit his players to drop off in certain situations (e.g. when protecting a lead). Generally speaking, the forward line is still responsible for exerting light-to-moderate pressure on the ball carrier, simultaneously cutting him off from the central midfielders. The midfield and defense form a vertically compact mid-block behind them, preventing constructive interplay between the lines (1), and narrowing wide channels by using the touchline as a 2nd/3rd defender (2):

Di Francesco’s Ideal Starting XI:


At this juncture it is unclear just how well Roma’s roster as a whole suits Di Francesco’s tactics. For starters, the midfield triumvirate of Strootman, De Rossi, and Nainggolan seems equipped to execute the manager’s game plan in its totality, however, the club must invest in two inside midfielders with enough quality to provide adequate cover for Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan when they are in need of rest or succumb to injury.

Mohamed Salah and Edin Džeko are guaranteed to make up two-thirds of the front three when fit. That said, they might struggle with their defensive responsibilities insofar as the former is not always inclined to defend, and the latter lacks the speed and stamina required to press effectively on a consistent basis. It will also be interesting to monitor the competition between Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy for the starting left-wing forward spot. Given the requirements of his system, Di Francesco will probably favor Perotti initially. From an attacking perspective the Argentine is simply a better dribbler, averaging 2.7 successful take-ons per 90 this past season compared to El Shaarawy’s 1.99. Perotti is also the more willing and determined defender of the two, making a total of 32 tackles to El Shaarawy’s 11, completing 1.61 tackles per 90 to the Italian’s 0.61.

Where to begin with the back line? Alessandro Florenzi and Emerson are arguably Roma’s most well-rounded full-backs, but may be unavailable at the start of next season due to their respective ligament injuries. Antonio Rudiger, Bruno Peres, Juan Jesus, and Mario Rui probably do not offer particularly inspiring alternatives from the boss’s perspective, given that none of them should be considered a legitimate two-way player. Additionally, Di Francesco’s reliance upon a high defensive line exposes Federico Fazio’s poor foot speed as well as his tendency to position himself incorrectly in the box after making recovery runs. In short, Kostas Manolas might be the only obvious starter to kick-off the upcoming campaign.

Which players do you guys think are most likely to start under Di Francesco next season? Be sure to let me know in the comments below.